Why Is Japanese Baseball So Dull?

And why should Americans care?


In an office building colored violently blue so that everyone could see it, I entered the inner chamber of the Japanese industrial revolution. This was during the baking summer in Kumamoto prefecture, on the flatlands between the Kyushu coast and the mountains. I had seen two factories that day, one spanking new and one quite old, but both looking from the outside like corrugated-metal warehouses, promising little within but rolls of baling wire and stacks of crates. In fact, the interiors were full of big computerized claws and robots and other machines used for building machines that would later build other machines. This was Hirata Industrial Machineries Company, whose employees numbered 1,100 and whose sales ran to more than ¥20 billion a year. You will find many robots at Hirata Machine but no MBAs, and indeed not many college graduates. Hirata, like many Japanese companies, prefers to grow its own and hires something like 70 percent of its workers from high school or trade school. They build high-tech automated manufacturing systems, which in turn make high-tech electronics equipment for consumers.

They founded the company in 1946, right after the war, Yasunari Hirata told me. We spoke inside his office, somewhere within the disturbingly blue building. The Americans brought Jeeps with them after the war, he said, and his father saw them and believed that conveyances, transportation systems for industry, would be important. Father and son—the son was young Yasunari—originally started out by making pushcarts and baby carriages. The initial capital investment was ¥3,000. Since the banks were unimpressed, the Hiratas raised capital by saving money and wearing old clothes. They started with old equipment that they refurbished. The engineers, including the founders, may not have had much technical education, but they were willing to learn and they loved doing new things, and whenever a new machine arrived all the workers wanted to get their hands on it. They tinkered with everything. Later on the company graduated to making conveyor-belt systems. We learned as we went along, he said, by trial and error and from books and traveling; we decided what to make and then figured out how to make it. Now we make industrial robots.

I see the company as an infinitely growing child, he said. I will die, but it continues to live, and my responsibility is to see to that. And I want to continue to build better and better robots. A better machine every year, that is what I want. You know, you don't have to have something to start something. This he said with evident satisfaction.

Of course the story of Hirata Machine is the classic tale of Yankee ingenuity, transplanted to Kumamoto. It is a chapter from the book by Henry Ford and the others of that era. You remember that book. It is the one titled, "Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door."

Yet the world bangs on the door with as much anger as eagerness. From an economic point of view the Japanese economy must be counted among the miracles of our age and ought to be regarded as an international treasure. It is a fount of innovation and instruction such as appears only once or twice in a century. But from the point of view of international politics, this same economy has been little short of a disaster. I met a number of Japanese who would have you believe that this is because the world does not like Asians in general and Japanese in particular, so that whites' achievements are welcomed while the achievements of Japanese are resented. Perhaps that is a problem. Certainly it is a problem in some quarters. But it is not the problem, and those who look to racism for the source of Japan's international headaches, especially the headache with the United States, are kidding themselves.

The trouble has more to do with Japan's attempt to use the outside world as a kind of garbage can for what economists call adjustment costs: the costs of changing jobs, moving around, and breaking off relationships. A small country can protect its powerful stakeholders from troublesome adjustments without causing a great deal of fuss internationally. But the story is different for a large country, a country that is a great trading power. The combination of government protection and private clubs and cartels keeps many small farmers in business, but it also keeps foreign farmers out and so costs them money; and when the market at issue is very big and very rich instead of very small and very poor, the foreign farmers notice and they are resentful. Same with the securities industry; same with the small-shops protection; same with the whole web of cozy relationships.

Though I know people who would disagree, personally I do not think that the attempt to dump adjustment costs on the outside world is caused by any special aversion to foreigners. (Nor is it uniquely Japanese. Everybody tries to do it.) I believe it has simply to do with the fact that foreigners do not vote in Japanese elections and are not tied into Japanese relationships. They lack both political pull and bonds of loyalty, and so are not cut in on the deals. Moreover, I do not think that the Japanese City Hall tries especially to thwart foreigners. Rather it tries to thwart newcomers. Unfortunately for the good of international relations, in Japan most foreigners are newcomers, and most Japanese are not. Now, in Japan, once you have established your personal ties and gotten in on your cozy deal, you are inside practically for good, whether you are foreign or not. Outsiders who are persistent and ingenious, and who are willing to pay the high initiation costs, do indeed get in, as for instance IBM and Coca-Cola (and Sony, once an upstart) have done. Then they enjoy fat profits, cozy relationships, and all the other benefits of membership.

Not long ago Pepsi began making rapid gains in the Japanese market thanks to an especially popular TV ad—which was promptly dropped by Tokyo's major TV stations, under pressure from Pepsi's giant entrenched competitor. Pepsi understandably screeched and might, I suppose, have tried to list the issue among Japan's unfair trading practices, except that the entrenched competitor was Coca-Cola. The difference between them was not one of nationality but of position and thus power. Coca-Cola, however, is an exception. Inevitably most foreigners are still outside, and many of those have war stories to tell.

And so the outsiders get mad. Especially if they are Americans, who tend to get worked up about justice. The outsiders say, "Twenty and 30 and 40 years ago, when you were flat on your backs, you were newcomers in America. Granted, life was not easy for you; but the easy-in, easy-out American system is paradise compared to what we encounter in Japan. Our economic hospitality put you on the map. And now how is our hospitality returned? With cozy clubs and Byzantine relationships and 'Members Only' signs and lectures about 'not trying hard enough.' Well, screw you. We'll get even."

Hearing this, the insiders are aghast. The plaintiffs have no case. Surely they misunderstand. The insiders say, "We worked our tails off to establish ourselves in America, whose markets were no pushover for small yellow foreigners. We learned your language and studied your consumers and built distribution networks. We made a vast investment over many years. We played by your rules in your country, and we made the customer happy. And how is our effort repaid? You now demand to play by your rules in our country. Your automobile companies complain of 'closed' markets but do not send us right-hand-drive cars. Is that our fault? Your executives don't learn our language; your companies come into a country where trust and personal ties are the coin of the realm and then pull out after losing money for a couple of years. How dare you blame us for that? No. You must not demand special treatment. You must pay the same dues that all newcomers pay in Japan, and if you do you will enjoy the same benefits, and if you do not you have no right to complain."

The argument belongs in an ethics textbook. Within its own context each side is wholly justified and has a strong claim to justice. And there exists no neutral ground from which to adjudicate. One must simply choose. A heartbreaker.

Worse, I fear: a bonebreaker. As the anger grows, the temptation becomes overwhelming for the nations of North America and Europe to say, "Two can play your game." Indeed, the Americans and Europeans, especially the Europeans, have been playing the game of protectionism for many years. All they need is an excuse to redouble their efforts. If they do so, then the result is either a trade war or recourse to a political solution in which governments meet to allocate markets. ("We'll buy this many Sonys if you'll buy that many Fords. You give us 20 percent of your computer-chip market in exchange for 15 percent of our telecommunications market.")

Either result is a disaster for Japan, first and foremost among all the world's nations. Trade wars hurt most the countries that are most dependent on trade (read: Japan). And allocation of markets according to political clout, by its nature, favors the most politically powerful and hobbles the most economically competitive (read: Japan). This is why the Japanese are stupid and irresponsible to be anything other than the world's leading advocate of free trade, not merely following or complying but leading.

Moreover, Japan's practice of winking at cartels and harassing newcomers, however convenient for politicians and stakeholders, hurts no one as much as the average Japanese. As, indeed, many average Japanese are becoming aware. Traveling abroad in increasing millions, they have begun to see that coziness has its price: that by comparison with the United States or France they have two-thirds as many miles of roadway for every car, that only about two-thirds of their roads were paved by the late 1980s (90 percent in the United States, 100 percent in France and the United Kingdom), that apartment rents are twice as high in Tokyo as in New York City, that consumer prices are at least 30 percent higher than in the United States, that Americans and Europeans take for granted a number of household amenities—central hot water, a toilet inside the apartment rather than down the hall—that quite a few Japanese have been getting along without.

Therefore it is pretty clear in which direction the Japanese should move: toward liberalization, voluntarily and fast. Not because this is good for foreigners (although it is), but because it is vital for Japan.

There is not a great deal that the Americans can do directly to reform the Japanese system, nor does international diplomatic etiquette permit them to try. However, at the very least Americans should avoid making blunders. The biggest blunder, and one that most Americans actually commit, is to see the goal as reducing the U.S. trade deficit. The U.S. balance of trade has not much to do with Japanese economic practices and a great deal to do with macroeconomic forces in America—nor does it matter much anyway. Even people who try very hard have trouble finding any objective damage that trade deficits have caused to the American economy as a whole, and economic theory gives little reason to expect such damage. South Korea ran trade deficits chronically until 1986, and its industrial base was hardly falling apart. For the most part America's industrial base also is not falling apart; and if it were falling apart, getting rid of the trade deficit would of itself no more solve the problem than shooting out the alarm would extinguish a fire.

The tempting and dangerous trap is to seek commitments from the Japanese bureaucracy to manage away the trade deficit by playing macroeconomic games or, worse yet, by regulating imports and exports ("managed trade"). That kind of action would just re-empower the administrative state that blocks political and economic competition—precisely the wrong thing to do. Already the Japanese bureaucracy, like bureaucracies everywhere but less effectively opposed than most, tends to regulate everything that moves and keep secret everything that doesn't. (One day I read in the paper that the Construction Ministry had increased the permissible size of log cabins. Good news for Abe Lincoln.)

At a time when market forces are slowly eroding Japanese bureaucratic power, the ministries would like nothing better than a mandate from the American government to regulate Japanese trade. The United States must avoid doing favors for Japanese bureaucracies and cartels. At every turn it must encourage measures that open the system to newcomers, and so to selection by competitive trial and error. Getting rid of the laws that protect small stores, or exposing the Nokyo agripolitical machine to foreign competition, is just the right sort of idea; demanding that the Construction Ministry dispense untold trillions of yen on public-works projects to jigger down the trade deficit, or demanding percentage shares of Japanese semiconductor markets, is the wrong sort of idea. The way to keep this straight is to set the important goal first: not reducing the trade deficit to some arbitrary number, but unwinding the coils of Japanese technofeudalism.

The northern city of Sapporo erected a monument to the American educator William Smith Clark, inscribed with the advice that he shouted from his horse as he departed from the city in 1877: "Boys, be ambitious!" For many years Americans have been in the business of offering advice to the Japanese, not all of it as good as Clark's. I am self-conscious about having entered the advice business, because lately there has been an oversupply, and Americans have been talking when they would do better to listen. Where I have advised and criticized, it has been in the chin-stroking and, I fear, pretentious role of the benevolent American international citizen. ("Take two antimonopoly laws and call me in the morning.") In what follows, I venture into the kind of social system that is closest to my heart; and here where I advise and criticize, I do so on the comfortable and unassailable grounds of prejudice and greed.

My prejudice consists of the feeling that the most valuable and beautiful of all human products is not material but intellectual: the stock of tested statements that constitute our knowledge. Of course I am talking about science, but not just science: also the social sciences, history, even criticism and journalism—all the fields in which people search for truth about the world. My prejudice is that making knowledge is humanity's most important endeavor, and that to divert resources needlessly from this endeavor or to misuse them is a shameful waste. Similarly, my greed lies in my single-minded insistence that we never know enough or learn quickly enough. More, more, always more. When I see someone who could do more or better, I want him to get on with it.

For example, people sometimes (not often enough) take passing notice of the enormous amount of economic potential thrown away in the screwed-up markets of the Third World and the communist (or formerly communist) countries. Yes. But more upsetting still is to know that there are minds of extraordinary brilliance all over the world, thousands of them born every day, that are underdeveloped or underused. Only if they have the good fortune to gain access to the intellectual and educational institutions of the developed free countries are they likely ever to be nurtured and heard from. One could say much the same of America's inner cities. With human beings the trick is not to produce brilliance but to use it.

My own impression of Japan is this: The intellectual raw material is top-notch, as good as any in the world. Again and again I met people with remarkable minds. Yet here is a country with the world's most vibrant economy, with a well-educated citizenry singularly devoted to making the country better, with a population fully half the size of America's and more than half again the size of Germany's, yet with only five Nobel Prizes in science to its name—one thirtieth America's share, one twelfth Germany's, and exactly as many as Belgium's. Yes, Nobel Prizes are an inexact measure of nothing in particular; but my own experience in Japan confirmed the story that the Nobels seem to tell—a story of wasted intellectual resources. Japan has all that is necessary to make a magnificent contribution to the world's stock of knowledge, but it is failing to do so.

Science, like Japan, has been wildly overmystified. When you cut through to fundamentals, the whole liberal intellectual system, from the hard sciences to history and even to journalism, is really little more than an endless self-organizing hunt for error. We develop ideas and then, like stage mothers, shove them out into public view, knowing that if we are found right we can get famous and that if we are found wrong we can try again; then countless others look for holes, shortcomings, weaknesses, poking and prodding, knowing that whoever finds a big mistake can become famous; in reaction the ideas are refined, reformulated, resubjected to public criticism; and what is left standing on any given day is our knowledge. In this way, knowledge moves forward.

Why is it a "liberal" system, as democracy and capitalism are? Because it is a public competitive-selection system that fixes rules rather than outcomes or special authorities. Everyone is entitled to check anyone, and no one is immune from being checked just because of who he or she happens to be. We rely on no one in particular to sort the true from the false and the fruitful from the frivolous.

"Particularly at school," a prominent Japanese journalist told me one day, explaining why Japanese baseball is so dull, "we are trained not to make a mistake, even if this means we achieve nothing spectacular." At retirement, he said, Japanese tend to express satisfaction not by speaking of their accomplishments but by saying that they made no big mistakes. One often hears variations on this theme—the Japanese hate to make mistakes—and on the whole I found it to be true. The exception is where everybody makes the same mistake together, in which case it is not a mistake. Now, aversion to error makes people careful, and there is nothing wrong with that. Especially not in industrial manufacturing, where the idea is to make large numbers of things perfectly, and where the Japanese genius for quality control has given the rest of us a humbling reminder of the importance of getting it right the first time. But aversion to error can also suffocate knowledge, if the conditions are not just so.

Conditions? Is something wrong? Missing? I met many Japanese who thought so. The writer and critic Shuichi Kato told me that in Japan disagreement is regarded as an unfortunate accident, an embarrassment to be papered over. Book reviewers told me that, in general, if they don't like a book they simply do not review it, or return it to the editor to be reviewed by someone who does like it. "An open debate," a Tokyo University economist remarked to me one night over dinner, "is nearly impossible in this country."

I often heard comments of that sort. Yet nowhere in Japan is there even a hint of the kind of centralized intellectual authoritarianism that Plato advocated and that since his time has become so familiar in the West, thanks to the big churches and the totalitarian states. There is no propaganda, no state manifesto in Japan. The Japanese are nature's own empiricists, and it would no more occur to them to kill for a theory than to die for one. As a matter of fact, where institutional regulations are concerned, Japanese academics are more free than their American counterparts. They receive tenure from the moment they are hired, and thenceforward are free to say or write anything they want.

Moreover, although some people have said that Japan is a place where nosy neighbors and high-handed bosses and government ministries effectively stamp out dissent, I found this to be unsupportable. In Japan dissenters and minorities are not crushed, they are ignored or marginalized. If you feel like saying something different, and quite a few people do, you can say it with every expectation of personal safety and financial security, although also with little expectation of changing anything. On the whole, people speak out vocally and critically all the time, despite the society's conformist reputation. But something is amiss.

Science in particular and liberal inquiry in general consist of an infinite variety of activities, but one rule is necessary as a minimum. We say it is one thing to attack someone's theory, quite another to attack his person. "Of course I respect Professor Nosebinder, but his theory is absurd for the following six reasons." Actually, the distinction between proposition and proponent is an artifice, since propositions do not exist by themselves; science is littered with theoretical debates that broke down into personality contests and even feuds. But the important thing is that it is not respectable for this to happen, and if you take criticism of your ideas as a personal insult people are likely to say, "Oh, grow up." This is the principle, the social convention, that allows us to conduct public debate without severing personal ties. We kill our hypotheses, not each other.

In Japan, this convention exists but stands like a plant stuck upright in thin topsoil and only barely rooted. Masao Maruyama, the great intellectual historian, pointed out to me one day that the very concept of "opposition," as distinct from "enmity" or "antagonism," did not exist in Japan until the last century. When the great scholar and educator Yukichi Fukuzawa returned from the West in the mid-1800s, he had to invent a word (hantai) for "opposition" in this nonpersonal sense. Nor was there a word for "speech" in the sense of an address to one's peers, as distinct from preaching or issuing decrees or other forms of address from a higher-up to lower-downs. Fukuzawa also had to invent words for "support" or "agree" and for "debate" or "discussion" in the sense of open exchange and confrontation of ideas—so unfamiliar was the notion of social intercourse between ideas, as it were, rather than between particular persons. Even today, criticism tends to be taken personally and even viewed as an act of antagonism. This attitude is common enough everywhere, but in Japan the weight of social convention is not against it.

I watched one night as one of Japan's most prominent political scientists, a dignified man in his 60s, turned as ebullient as a schoolboy. He was explaining how much he enjoyed academic meetings abroad, and to show what he meant he waved his hand eagerly and exclaimed like a boy in class, "I disagree, I disagree!" In academic meetings in Japan, he said, you're supposed to listen expressionlessly; to raise a hand and object would be seen as odd, impolite, inappropriate. The best policy toward ideas you disagree with, he said, is one of benign neglect. "The best policy here is to be mute," he said. "Year after year you get accustomed—you get trained."

I said, But surely, sensei, a man of your eminence is at liberty to criticize when he pleases? No, he replied, on the contrary; the eminent have a special responsibility to restrain themselves if they cannot agree. The saying goes that when the wind blows, the tallest stalk of wheat must bow with the others. He no longer bothers going to academic meetings in Japan. To test ideas he relies instead on more frank private exchanges with other scholars and thinkers—people who know and trust each other. I said, An intellectual black market, so to speak? More like a gray market, he replied.

I cannot say it too often: This is not political repression or fundamentalist brainwashing. It is not the Soviet Union before glasnost, nor is it Iran under the rule of the totalitarian priesthood. It is not remotely like that. The essence of totalitarianism, from the Inquisition to the present, is the network of informers, the midnight arrest, the secret trial in which the accused is charged with believing incorrectly. You will not find any of that in Japan. Indeed, scarcely a day passes in Tokyo when you are not annoyed by political activists blaring high-decibel foolishness from soundtrucks.

Why, then, do I harp on criticism this way? Because people have missed the point about knowledge making in Japan. Especially the Japanese have missed it. We aren't innovative, they complain, not creative. Typical was an editorial headlined, "Wanted: Secrets of Creativity." No, no, no. The root of the problem is not creativity. In Japan, as any visitor to the high-tech wonderland of the electronics stores will testify, there is plenty of creativity. It is practically running in the streets, if the creativity is salable and hence there are incentives not to waste it.

No, the crucial shortage is of curiosity and checking. Curiosity because to be curious is to look for mistakes, your own and other people's. Where curiosity is lacking, creativity turns imitative. And checking is more important still, because without it all the creativity in the world is like so much water trickling away between the fingers. Having new ideas is easy. You can do it three times a day before breakfast. But most of your new ideas will be bad. The hard part is to sort the grains of gold from the mountains of sand.

So who sorts the winners from the losers? Who else? Foreigners. Gaiatsu—"foreign pressure." The outside competitive-selection system sets the research agenda, and the Japanese go to work on it.

A prominent statistician says that the academic and government bureaucrats who underwrite research usually wait until an idea has become fashionable abroad before they consider it "certified" as worthy of pursuit in Japan—even if the idea originated in Japan. He recites a list of Japanese mathematicians and statisticians whose path-breaking work was ignored until foreigners discovered it or independently rediscovered it. Junichi Nishizawa, renowned for his work in electrical engineering, recites similar cases with evident disgust. In the case of a recent invention of his own, he says, the "sad fact" is that he must arrange to have the device used in the United States before he can convince his own countrymen of its value. "Japanese have low evaluation for Japanese results," he says, "but they have a very high evaluation of foreign work." A famous political scientist refers to Japanese as "importers and distributors" of foreign ideas—franchisees, as it were. Whole debates are picked up and imported to Japan, but not the critical mechanism that generates the next debate.

Intellectual gaiatsu has few untoward international side effects. It causes no trade friction and incites no diplomatic incidents. It merely—"merely"—keeps the Japanese intellectual establishment one step or two steps behind, always inside the frontiers of knowledge rather than extending them.

Much is being lost. In their single-minded determination to catch up with the West technologically and economically, the Japanese have built their society to feed and support industrial manufacturing. That is to be expected in a developing country (to a degree it happened in the United States during the last century), but in Japan it has gone too far for too long. The best minds are lured by prestige into manufacturing companies and into the bureaucracy that serves manufacturing companies; once there, the fine minds lose their fizz and go flat. The universities ought to be bubbling today but are not; they were founded as organs of the national developmental effort 100 years ago and have not outgrown their original stunted mission. The first article of the Imperial University Ordinance of 1886 reads: "The purpose of the imperial university shall be to provide instruction in the arts and sciences and to inquire into the mysteries of learning in accordance with the needs of the state." As for think tanks, Japan is full of them, but they by and large focus on economics and economic development ("in accordance with the needs of the state"). The work they do is solid and professional, but their agenda is narrowed by the narrow interests of the corporations and government bureaucracies that provide the bulk of their commissions and research fees. Economics is important, yes, but there is more to life than capital allocation and regional growth forecasting. What about the cycles of the earth, the theory of political struggle, the history of man, the stars?

I was just a sociological tourist in Japan. I took notes and drew maps, looking about me as only the outsider can do. I did not find The System, a capitalized entity weaving its web around the hapless common man. I found, in the end, just systems. There is no dark secret here. The Japanese are precisely as mysterious and unique as my aunt in Hackensack. I came to Japan wanting to know how I ought to feel about the place. I left knowing only how not to feel. Frightened. That is how not to feel.

Worried, yes, to the extent that Japan is a great power whose social institutions are consistently, perhaps fundamentally, hobbled by the trouble they have setting an agenda. A powerful nation that is too big to push around but that often cannot push itself: That is Japan. "I am very much ashamed to say this," Masao Maruyama said to me one night. "Japan can change only under outside pressure—ever since Perry." I am not very worried, however. These things tend to work themselves out, as long as nobody panics. One day, in exasperation at the latest article about the U.S.-Japan crisis and the threat to the world order and all of that, I thought, "I wish people would stop hyperventilating about Japan."

For a century and a half, the Japanese have run their country on the working assumption that everything in the West is better or more advanced. The dark side of the legacy is a clinging sense of insecurity that diminishes but does not go away. One of Japan's most famous journalists told me how struck she is during economic summit meetings by the inevitable group photos of presidents and prime ministers: Always they show one unblinkably different face in the midst of the tall white men. You need to know names to tell the French leader from the German, but the prime minister of Japan you can always spot at a glance. Yes, I realized, try to imagine how you would feel seeing that one of the people in the pictures is always obviously different and that this one is always you. You feel that perhaps you can never fully belong. But there is the other side, too. I had never before met so many people who examined their country so mercilessly for any comparative weaknesses and who were so driven to fix them. The Japanese absolutely cannot abide the thought of being second-rate. Neither, indeed, can the Americans, who are fleeing from that very thought today. Yet in Japan I saw precious little of the smugness and complacency that are so common among Americans, especially the patriots.

From Japan the Americans look more and more like a bunch of lazy whiners, no longer willing to try their hardest and sacrifice to be the best. Within the mantle of exaggeration is, I now think, a molten core of truth. Americans on average still try hard and care about their country. Yet too many people are more interested in scavenging for carrion or gaming the system than in building a better country the old-fashioned way, with sweat. Books with titles like Wealth Without Risk are selling rather too well. People believe that they have government benefits coming to them and that the bill for the goodies belongs to someone else, which is why the federal budget deficit fails to go away. Saving is low, investment is low. High school students do in a week about as much homework as their Japanese counterparts do in a day—they do less studying, even, than Japanese elementary-school students—yet no one seems to expect much better of them. Racially and ethnically organized political groups are busy listing all the perks and positions they are entitled to by dint of being oppressed. Managers pay themselves fat bonuses and seven-figure salaries while their companies underperform. Labor unions call for protection from foreigners who work too hard for too little. Fathers walk away and families fall apart.

I do not mean to exaggerate. The old days were not so different and in many ways, of course, were worse. Moreover, the United States is blessed with what are probably the most adaptable and responsive social institutions in the world. Yet I worry, because America's problems today are moral rather than institutional, and moral problems are the hardest kind to fix. Japan's problems are the other way around. I believe I can tell you ways to make the Japanese political system work better; but if you ask me how to make American teenagers care more about studying and less about showing off their Corvettes, I can only shake my head dumbly. I wish you could take the Japanese public, with its willingness to work hard to improve whatever can be improved, and combine it with American social and political institutions, with their flexibility and openness and decency. Then what a country you'd have!

I do wish for that, but it cannot be. We will all have to make do with a poor second-best: We will have to continue to rely on the two countries, by nagging westward across the Pacific and competing eastward, to drag each other bumpily in the right direction. True, the Japanese, like everybody else, hate to be criticized. In fact, they hate it more than most, because they tend to view criticism as a sign of enmity. But the truth is that, for all their protests about Japan "bashing," criticism from abroad is of tremendous benefit to them. Foreign criticism is a useful corrective and an invaluable spur to improvement. It is an intellectual market opener, and a far less dangerous kind of market opener than foreign threats. Now that Japan is too powerful to rely on having foreigners twist her arm, she must learn to rely instead on having them flail her ideas, an altogether healthier kind of gaiatsu. Sooner or later, the Japanese must learn to greet outside criticism with welcome rather than with panic—which is one reason why the criticism ought to continue. Eventually they will learn, and we will remember, that criticism is not the same as violence. Then the pernicious talk that equates criticism with "bashing" will simmer down.

And as for the Americans, what is our own best hope? Is there hope that our self-dealing executives and anachronistic unions will rush to reform themselves because it is the smart thing to do? Little or none, as far as I can see. Is there hope that our multitude of special-interest groups—the farm lobby, the business lobby, the affirmative-action lobby, the this lobby and the that lobby—will spontaneously renounce the government pork barrel and shift their energies to self-improvement? Not much. That parents will rise up to demand more homework or longer school years for their children? We Americans may tell ourselves again and again that the slippage in our standards and in our habits must be reversed, that our hands belong on the plow rather than in our neighbors' pockets; the Japanese tell us, too.

But America is too big to be pushed around militarily or, for the most part, diplomatically. The only gaiatsu that works on so stubborn and strong a people is steadfast economic competition. We will have it from Japan, and it is our best hope. To Americans, Japan has at last become what America has always been to the Japanese: the unavoidable other, the reality that must be faced, the outnation, the gaikoku.

Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor to National Journal. This article is adapted from his new book, The Outnation: A Search for the Soul of Japan, published by Harvard Business School Press.