Japan from the inside out

National maturity in Northeast Asia

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, May 26, 2009

JOBU UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR Ikeda Nobuo has a blog in Japanese that I regularly read. The recent suicide of former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun prompted him to write a post titled The Country Incapable of Maturity and the Country That Is Too Mature.

One of my objectives for this website is to present information and viewpoints to a wider audience that are originally in Japanese and otherwise unavailable in English. For that reason, I’ve taken it upon myself to quickly translate and offer that post here in English. Prof. Ikeda is capable of doing this in English himself, but as far as I know, he hasn’t. The original Japanese language post is here, so if anyone wants to offer alternatives to this English, feel free to do so.

* It is not unusual for South Korean presidents to be prosecuted after they leave office, but this is the first time one has committed suicide. I don’t wish to speak ill of the dead, but this incident strengthens my feeling that South Korea is incapable of maturity.

* Japan and South Korea are like twin states in a controlled experiment. Despite having nearly identical genetic characteristics, they are opposites in their national traits. Japanese don’t show their emotions on the surface, nor are they self-assertive. South Koreans have abrupt emotional swings, however, and they unremittingly attack their enemies. Beginning with the Meiji period (in 1868), Japan was one of the few countries outside the West that modernized on its own. But the Yi Dynasty in Joseon was invaded by neighboring countries and eventually became a Japanese colony.

* That is ascribed to the fact that its governing mechanism, which should be termed Confucian Fundamentalism, lasted for more than 500 years. Confucianism envisions a class order that places the emperor and the bureaucracy at the top. China is too large to be capable of such a strictly defined class mechanism. In contrast, the Yi Dynasty was based on the extreme centralization of authority. The privileged class known as the yangban controlled politics and the economy. The factional feuds among the yangban meant that state revenue at the end of the Yi Dynasty totaled about seven million yen (1/40th that of Japan). There were few schools or roads. The population declined 7% in 100 years. It resembled the North Korea of today.

* That can be explained from the perspective of “ecological history” (the study of history based on geographical and climatic factors). Japan and Western Europe are on opposite sides of an arid Asian land mass, and neither was threatened by conquest from nomadic peoples. Therefore, the transitional changes of their civilizations were uninterrupted and unconstrained. This led to the development of farming villages, cities, and other communities. That development allowed decentralized governance by intermediate groups, which in turn enabled democracy and the market economy to become established. In contrast, Joseon was under direct Chinese domination, so it was always exposed to that threat and unable to mature as a state. The tragic North-South divide occurred after the war, and rule by military leaders ended after 1992.

* Roh Moo-hyun symbolized this immaturity. He was a creation of e-politics, but his political methods were old-school left wing populism. When his policy of settling the issues of the past (military rule) reached a dead end, he turned to demagoguery, made Japan an imaginary enemy, and rehashed such issues as the comfort women. He, like the military rulers, politically exploited anti-foreign chauvinism. He, like the military rulers, ran a crooked political operation behind the scenes. In the end, the Internet is just a tool. Bringing immature politics into the information age and putting it online does not change the content.

* Meanwhile, the postwar regime in Japan matured in the 1980s, and there has been nothing left to do for more than 20 years. The intermediate groups here have too much autonomy, so politicians can only harmonize competing interests. The Japanese political system continues on life support despite having long outlived its usefulness. That is in contrast to South Korea, where both political and economic conditions are in a constant state of flux. The Japanese system easily allows the false negative of suppressing required reforms to arise, but the South Korean system easily allows the false positive of excessive inconstancy and undependability to arise. I wonder—is there not a golden mean?

In the comments to his post, Prof. Ikeda also cites approvingly this blog post (somewhat long) at the Bronte Capital site called A Tale of Two Banking Crises: Japan and Korea, by John Hempton. Here’s how Mr. Hempton describes the content:

What I want to do here is give a stylised version of Japanese and Korean economic history and how it pertains to the banking crisis both countries had.

I think it is also worth taking the time to read.

8 Responses to “National maturity in Northeast Asia”

  1. jamblichus said

    I hope to God this doesn’t make its way into the Korean language is all I can say. He has a point about the stultifying effects of the Chosun dynasty, but to posit a “very grown-up Japan” and “very childish Korea” strikes me as pretty stupid. Japanese politicians are, of course, when it suits them, equally as populist and prone to demagoguery. Are they so “mature” that they are beyond “politically exploiting anti-foreign chauvinism”?.. Methinks not. Anyway… thanks for the excellent translation. Good read.

  2. ampontan said

    Thanks, J.

    I had another thought: While Europe may not have been threatened by nomadic invaders, they most definitely were threated by Muslim armies that occupied large parts of Europe for many years and sacked Rome. That threat didn’t end until 1683 at Vienna, just two years before Bach was born.

    Some historians think those invasions contributed to the formation of a European consciousness.

  3. TokyoJoe said

    I believe Europe was threatened by Attila the Hun, also, but who’s counting when one is wallowing in Nihonjinron.

  4. tomojiro said


    The intention of his post is not to brag about how mature Japanese politicians are compared to their Korean counter partners, but rather to compare the different politico-economic system of this both nation. Immature but dynamically changing Korea (with the negative side effect of producing politicians like Roh), and the over-matured and more stable Japan but impossible to change quickly.

    I don’t think that Ikeda is “pro-Korean”, but actually in the comments session he suggests that Japanese should probably emulate the immature but more dynamic changing Korean way, to some degree.

    If you read his blog then you will know that he is very frustrated with the current Japanese system which seems to be impossible to change. I think his arguments here are a bit stereotypic and old-fashioned, having some interesting points about the current status of Japan and Korea. But I think his historical explanation about Japan is wrong (can’t say about Korea).

  5. LB said

    @TokyoJoe – I was thinking basically the same thing, except the example that came to mind was the Mongol invasions of the 13th Century, not Attila. Both were nomads, though, and both had a strong influence on European history. Not sure how Ikeda explains China, which was not just threatened by, but conquered by, nomadic groups on a couple of occasions. They had “farming villages, cities, and other communities… decentralized governance by intermediate groups… and the market economy”. They did not develop democracy, but then again, neither did Japan. The democracy Japan enjoys now owes absolutely nothing to any theory of “ecological history”. It owes everything to Western European and American influence and intervention. Unfortunately in many ways Japan just installed/had installed the mechanisms and trappings of democracy, they did not go through the centuries of development regarding the concept that Europe did and thus are still behind the power curve in may ways regarding the underlying concepts of “the people” vs. “the state”, rights and responsibilities arising from that relationship, etc.

    Ikeda’s claims of the Korean peninsula being under “Chinese domination” show how little he understands Chinese and Korean history and/or the tribute-state relationship.

    However since Ikeda does not, at least to my eyes, claim Japan to be “unique” or “superior”, I don’t think his writing qualifies as “nihonjinron”. Overly superficial and based upon false premises, yes. Wrong in some glaringly fundamental ways, yes. But it is not “nihonjinron” as such.

  6. Martin F said

    If you look at prefectural governance, Japan is way ahead of many European countries, with local assemblies doing a great job to run basic public services.

    Thanks Ampontan for finding this interesting essay and translating it. Only point I strongly disagree with the professor is that “there has been nothing left to do for more than 20 years.” Ha. Japan is involved in a lot of soul searching to become a more ecologically sustainable society, and to export its “eco” technology to the rest of the world.

    I’ve actually heard Roh speak at a conference in Seoul in 2005. He said “economic growth without considering sustainable development will cause adverse effects to the environment.” He also said that his country is turning from fast economic growth to green growth. One example is that from July 2005, all governmental organizations would be required to purchase environment-friendly products. At that point, in 2005, it seemed as if president Roh really wanted Korea to be a leader for the region!

  7. Bender said

    I agree with Tokyojoe. Crude comparison indeed.

  8. melmo said

    Whereas some of his arguments are intelligent and valid, it’s meaningless to measure the polarizing differences between the two nations on a scale of “maturity.”

    It reminds me of Marks Toshiko, though in her case the contents of her books are also nonsense.

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