In 1979, Ezra Vogel published a book called Japan as Number One: Lessons for Americans. Vogel's title epitomized a veritable industry of Japanology. Best-sellers, specialized tomes, and countless popular magazine articles proclaimed the same message over and over again. Whether the subject was management theory or education, artificial intelligence or the culture of business, Americans needed to learn from Japan—or else fall further behind in the new global marketplace. Variants on this theme continued to appear almost right up to the collapse of Japan's bubble economy in 1990. Now there's a new genre—not so productive of bestsellers, to be sure, but thriving nevertheless—in which experts explain how Japan's collapse was inevitable all along.
Case in point: "Japan Anxiously Looks Ahead" proclaimed an article in yesterday's New York Times. "Setting Sun?" The article, by Howard W. French, offered a grim assessment of the problems that have been mounting in Japan since 1990. The economy continues to flounder, China's ever-growing power "presents Japan with its greatest challenge since the Second World War," an aging population with a sub-replacement birth rate seems headed for demographic disaster …
At the root of this mess, French suggests, is Japan's "insularity," deeply ingrained in its history and culture. He notes that "even [the] coming population crunch has failed to open the country to immigrants." He mocks the "bureaucrats" who "cook up one costly high tech plan after another in hopes of putting Japan back into the driver's seat." They just don't get it, he says: "money alone doesn't build Silicon Valleys. No, that is a task for open societies that draw on the world's best brains." Not long ago, experts were telling ...1