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 Americans they needed to be more like the Japanese. Now Howard French wonders why they can't be more like us.

Is there any chance that the Japanese will see the light? No, says Jean-Pierre Lehmann, the "longtime Japan specialist" with whose words the article closes: "I don't see this happening because Japan just doesn't want foreigners. Meanwhile, you can't rebel in Japan, so the most talented young people are leaving the country or are simply resigned."

Will French's pessimistic forecast be confirmed in due course, or will it prove as unreliable as the prescriptions of the boomtime prophets? Certainly the problems he identifies are daunting. Still, history suggests that the diagnosis of fatal insularity may be simplistic.

Consider, for example, The Iwakura Embassy 1871-73: A True Account of the Ambassador Extraordinary & Plenipotentiary's Journey of Observation Through the United States of America and Europe, compiled by Kunitake Kume (The Japan Documents/Princeton University Press), now available for the first time in English translation. In 1871, a number of leading figures from the recently formed Meiji government set out on an ambitious journey to collect firsthand information that would guide Japan on the road to modernization. Originally planned to take 10 months, in itself an amazingly bold conception (imagine a large chunk of the Senate and the House of Representatives embarked on a similar fact-finding tour for nearly a year), the journey ended up requiring 22 months. The report, prepared by Kume, the private secretary of senior minister Tomomi Iwakura, was published in Japan in 1878.

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The first of the five volumes of Kume's report is devoted to the United States, the second volume to Britain, the third and fourth and part of the fifth to Continental Europe, and the remainder of the final volume to stops on the voyage home. Simply as a work of travel literature the volumes are fascinating (and beautifully produced), but they are particularly interesting as an account of the West from the perspective of a highly educated Japanese observer on the eve of Japan's metamorphosis. (A good companion volume is Masao Miyoshi's As We Saw Them: The First Japanese Embassy to the United States, which describes the 1860 visit of Japanese officials to America.)

In an introduction to The Iwakura Embassy, the Japanese historian Akira Tanaka observes that

The Embassy … presented models for Japan's modernisation from among the great powers and the lesser nations of the West. What Japan chose as its model in the end was not a leading power nor a smaller country but a potential power, Prussia. Thus, modern Japan adopted the Prussian model of growing from a smaller country into a powerful one and applied this in Asia, where it responded to international problems with military might.

If we set this observation alongside French's article, we might conclude that the course which Japan disastrously chose in the period leading up to World War II can't be usefully explained by "insularity." And perhaps it would be equally misleading to trace Japan's current woes to this disposition.

Westerners have a way of seeing Japan as the quintessence of something, never mind what. In an April 2001 essay in The Observer, the influential science-fiction writer William Gibson described Japan as "the global imagination's default setting for the future. The Japanese," Gibson explained,

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seem to the rest of us to live several measurable clicks down the time line. The Japanese are the ultimate Early Adaptors, and the sort of fiction I write behooves me to pay serious attention to that. If you believe, as I do, that all cultural change is essentially technologically driven, you pay attention to the Japanese. They've been doing it for more than a century now, and they really do have a head start on the rest of us, if only in terms of what we used to call "future shock" (but which is now simply the one constant in all our lives.)

Can this be the same country French describes in the Times: in-turned, fearful, stifling? And Gibson's Japan, so much like Gibson's fiction? Reader, beware.

John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and editor-at-large for Christianity Today.

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Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:

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The Great Inflatable Shark Hunt | A report from the Christian Booksellers Association convention in Anaheim. (July 22, 2002)
Why Evangelicals Can't Opt Out of Political Engagement | Remembering Jeremiah Evarts and Samuel Worcester. (July 19, 2002)
The Pledge Controversy | Asking the wrong questions? (July 8, 2002)
Reading Danny Pearl | How would the murdered journalist want to be remembered? (July 1, 2002)
A Cry for Help | Sudanese Christians gather in Houston and ask for U.S. support. (June 17, 2002)
Agrarians of the World, Unite! | Wendell Berry's vision, and how Christians should respond to it. (June 10, 2002)
Stop, Drop, and Cover … | Then hack your lungs out and die. (June 3, 2002)
Death of an Evolutionist | RIP Stephen Jay Gould. (May 31, 2002)
Closing The X-Files … | … with the sign of the Cross. (May 20, 2002)
And the Next Thing Is … | Marxism (or not). (May 13, 2002)
God Bless the Eliminator | Mother Jones magazine makes known a shocking discovery: evangelicals are sending missionaries to Muslim countries! (May 6, 2002)
'A Peculiar People' | The uniqueness of the Jews. (April 29, 2002)
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'In the Beginning Was the Holocaust'? | Blasphemy, rage, memory, and meaning of the Shoah. (April 8, 2002)
The Gospel According to Biff | A conversation with novelist Christopher Moore. (April 1, 2002)
Baseball 2002 Preview | Part 2: Saving the game? (March 25, 2002)
The State of the Game | After one of the best World Series ever, baseball faces a crisis. (March 18, 2002)
America's Homegrown Islam—and Its Prophet | The strange story of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam and onetime mentor of Malcolm X. (Mar. 11, 2002)
'Must Be Superstition' | Rediscovering spiritual reality. (Mar. 4, 2002)