Ileft Holland for adventure at the age of eighteen, to hitch-hike through Asia, with a hundred dollars in my pocket—working my way from Turkey to India, then to South-East Asia, and finally to the Philippines. There I did some photography and writing that enabled me to go to Japan—at that time just another country for me. In Tokyo, I found I could earn my living teaching English rather easily, and I soon realized this was in many ways a more complex and interesting Asian society than others I’d seen. In 1970 I wrote a study on the student revolutionaries of the sixties in Europe and the usa. Then I published a couple of essays on Japan in a Dutch monthly, and I was asked by the daily newspaper nrc
Handelsblad to become their Tokyo correspondent—which I remained for some sixteen years, till the publication of
The second thing that struck me, increasingly, as I tried to make sense of the political system was that it did not seem to have any centre of accountability. I remember becoming acutely aware of this for the first time when Ohira visited the United States under the Carter administration, after some economic friction had already emerged between the two countries. The American side fully expected Ohira, as Prime Minister, to discuss with Carter how a better modus vivendi could be achieved. Amidst all the journalistic comment about the prospects for such an understanding, it occurred to me that Ohira was in absolutely no position to take any decision in his meeting with Carter, and could not have implemented an agreement if he had reached one. The central fact of Japanese political life was that Ohira possessed no mandate for decision-making of this kind, and nor did anyone else. It also struck me how little this reality was recognized abroad, and from then on I tried to understand it more fully, by exploring the political and economic system as a whole.
I’d been wanting to write a book on Japan for some time, and started one, which I’m very glad I didn’t continue, in Cambridge in the early seventies. I did write a long essay on the nature of the Japanese state for Survey, which was quite well received. That gave me more confidence, but I did not have the funds to stop my job as a correspondent until spring 1986, when I got a commission from the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs to do a study on the relationship between the private and public sectors in Japan, which gave me the opportunity to take a year off, as I thought, to write the book. In the same week I learnt of this funding, I also discovered that the lady who lived in a little wooden Japanese-style house across the road from me was going to have her house torn down and a couple of large ‘mansions’ built there—and since I’m a noise neurotic, this changed my life. Panicky and unable to sleep at night, I came upon an ad for a mountain hide-away two hours drive from Tokyo. I went to see it the next day. I thought I could never live by myself in total isolation at the end of a valley with hardly anyone around, but asked if I could try it for a couple of weeks, and in that time wrote an article called ‘The Japan Problem’ which ended up in Foreign Affairs. I then decided to devote
The book is written on three levels. The first of these is historical, because I illustrate my theme with examples from successive periods of the past, from earliest recorded history to the most recent. There is a chronological thread running through the work. At a second level, of course, the book tries to present a large amount of empirical information about present-day Japan. Then there is a third level, which is in its way a contribution to comparative political theory, where I attempt to show how it is possible for a political and economic system that is not ultimately regulated by law, or guided by leaders who are held accountable for what they do, to nevertheless have the cohesion and dedication to purpose that Japan appears to have.
Its major impact was in the United States, Japan and France. My first publisher was in Britain, where the proposal was accepted on the calculation that a small run of 3,000 copies could be sold. In America, the Japanological establishment ignored the book, but it sold very well: the New York edition went through eight or nine reprints in fourteen months, and would have had many more readers with a continuous run. This was a pleasant surprise, since it is not an easy book. Meanwhile in Japan the English edition sold 10,000 copies in hardback alone, a record for a foreign-language volume in its first year. This was partly due to the notoriety it was given by a campaign co-organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Keidanren against it in Washington—a publicity which got back to Japan and inadvertently helped to ensure high sales there. In Japan I had a bad press up to the moment the Japanese translation appeared, and then with one exception the reviews were either fairly or very positive.