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 my book. In my job I covered much of Asia, spending a lot of time in India, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and Korea as well. As I came to know Japan better, I realized two things. The first was that the terms that most foreign journalists employed to describe the country bore little relation to what actually was going on in it. The Japanese often use the distinction between tatemae—the official presentation of something, and honne—the real processes or motives hidden behind this facade. In taking so much of the surface presented by Japanese political and economic institutions at face value, I found the international press distorting a great deal of the reality of Japan.

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 myself entirely to the book there. There was an element of fate in this, because had I stayed in Tokyo I would have written another book. But I was alone for seventeen months altogether, with one month’s break. I would go to Tokyo for a couple of days every five weeks or so, but the rest of the time I did nothing except work on the book. Everything I read was connected with it, except one hour in the morning when I read two-year-old copies of the New Republic and the Spectator, and one hour before I went to bed, when I read Charles Dickens. The book changed a great deal in the experience of writing it. I discovered connections between many aspects of Japanese life I had not considered before, and in following up leads I would interview people in Tokyo, and have an assistant do further research for me in the Diet library. Twice I did a complete overhaul, reworking the text from start to finish. Both times the idea came during a sleepless night, and I would get up at 2.30 or 3.00 in the morning and work until dark the next day. I can remember my exhilaration when I felt I had grasped my subject in its entirety, and could organize the book as it eventually appeared—even though there are many puzzles and questions that I still have today.

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.

Publication in Japan, however, experienced a hitch because of the blackmail of the Burakumin Liberation League. I had shown in my chapter on ‘Ritual and Intimidation’ how this political organization and Japan’s administrators share the common aim—though it’s unlikely that they ever got together and formulated it—of keeping the law out of issues of discrimination against untouchables, or anyone else. I described the way in which the bll intimidates editors, authors and publishers who print anything about the burakumin that is not cleared with it—and they then proceeded to do to me exactly what I’d described. Their threatening phone calls—every hour—to the publisher caused the suspension of the publicity campaign for the Japanese edition of the book, and killed it for the first month of its life in the bookshops. That was a setback from which it never completely recovered, although the rather expensive two-volume edition sold nearly 100,000 copies, which is not bad. I should also say that it was a great problem getting the Japanese translation that I wanted: I had to reject one translator and have a team vet the details before I was finally satisfied with a text that was both accurate and had a tone of voice that no one could claim was an anti-Japanese.

The bll was at a stage when it wanted recognition from the un as an organization representing a genuine Japanese minority. Because it was having difficulties in getting this, it did not want adverse international publicity. Three or four days after the book appeared in the shops, I learned they had started calling the publishers every hour—we imagine they were tipped off—saying that not just this publication, but all other publications by the same house, would encounter problems if it was not withdrawn immediately. I was travelling in Europe when I heard this, and immediately phoned colleagues on different newspapers around the world. Some of them wrote stories about this, which were not gratifying to the bll, even though they were not picked up by the Japanese press, as they are intimidated by the organization too. However specialists on the burakumin question were sympathetic, and a journalist on Asahi Shimbun helped to negotiate a solution—as did a woman lawyer for whom I had spoken at meetings organized against forced confessions and the death penalty in Japan. The issue was settled by my debating the secretary-general of the bll before an international audience, and a distillation of that debate appearing as a tiny insert in the second edition of the Japanese version of the book. One particle in my text was changed, changing a noun into an adjective, as a token concession so they could claim the book was altered as a result of their pressure. The episode was a major setback for the bll. But unfortunately the headway we made was not followed up by other Japanese publishers or editors. They continue to be intimidated, as you can see from a number of recent books. In Michael Creighton’s novel Rising Sun, the little passages on the burakumin were cut. Another friend of mine who’s written a study of Japanese society can’t find a publisher because he insists that discussion of the burakumin part remains in it. It’s obvious to every Japanese that I am the last person to have any discriminatory feelings towards the genuine burakumin. But the bll only claims to represent this community. How many burakumin actually want to be represented by it is a very big question—since you can’t tell this minority from other Japanese by colour or any other external marker.