When author Frank Gibney (Japan: The Fragile Superpower,) left Tokyo in 1950 after two years reporting on the country for TIME, he had no plans to return. “I was aware the country had a very strange gravitational pull,” he says, “which I’d do best to escape.” But Gibney, who had learned Japanese at the Navy language school during World War II, found himself drawn back in 1966—this time to launch a Japanese language version of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Now president of the Britannica’s Japanese subsidiary, 51-year-old Gibney commutes between Tokyo and a home he maintains in Santa Barbara. With the first visit by Japanese Emperor Hirohito to Washington scheduled for the fall, Gibney recently shared his observations on the Japanese with Clare Crawford of PEOPLE.
Why, as you say in your book, do so many Americans view the Japanese as “transistor salesmen wearing kamikaze scarves”?
Part of it is racial. Japan was somehow pigeonholed early on as a terribly exotic place—all those industrious silkworms and girls with parasols. Then World War II happened, and Pearl Harbor was an insult to America. “How could those little people—those little yellow people—do this to us?” we asked. If the surprise attack had been carried out by the Germans, no one would have been all that bothered because the Germans were supposed to be efficient.
And after the war?
In our minds the Japanese were fanatical banzai hordes suddenly transformed into smiling, bowing, apologetic people by the appearance of General Douglas MacArthur and the United States occupation troops. Presto change-o! Our attitude toward the Japanese has always been far too condescending.
Conversely, how do the Japanese view the U.S.?
The Japanese are astonishingly sympathetic to America, but they are looking at us through the small end of the telescope. That’s why they were so upset by things like Nixon’s economic diplomacy and Kissinger’s negotiating with China without their knowledge. The Japanese react with injured innocence. They feel they have a positive attitude toward the U.S., so why are the Americans doing this? They expect a lot of us.
Just how dependent on America are the Japanese?
Following World War II—and that’s the only war they ever lost in their history—the Japanese instinctively got into the attitude of depending on Americans. They depended on America’s nuclear umbrella. They depended on getting an awful string of Hollywood movies to show at their first-run houses. They depended on importing blue jeans from America. They depended on getting a newly designed water cooler from America. The war reinforced the idea that America was good technology, and they wanted to use that. But the dependency that grew up during the occupation is ending now, partly because they figure we aren’t all that strong a reed to lean on.
What are some of the misconceptions the Japanese have about the U.S.?
They tend to forget that Americans also have a complicated system of social and cultural codes. American women worry just as much about how many forks and spoons to put on a table as a Japanese housewife worries about placing bowls and chopsticks.
This surprises them?
They tend to think of us as too aggressive, that America is peopled by a race of extraordinary, rugged human beings like Abraham Lincoln, Henry Ford, Douglas MacArthur and John Wayne. Even at the height of the agitation among the Japanese over Vietnam, The Green Berets was packing them in at the Tokyo movie houses.
Do Americans living in Japan have much to do with this aggressive image?
There are not very many in Japan, probably less than 20,000. Originally, the American came over as an occupier and had a paternalistic attitude that matched the feeling of dependency among the Japanese. Over the last 20 years this has changed a lot. You don’t find an American businessman ostentatiously running into a Japanese room with his shoes on. Americans now in Japan have made a good effort to adapt.
How does the American businessman differ from his Japanese counterpart?
For one thing, the Japanese are much groupier than we are. The Japanese like to talk. They have interminable conferences. The worst American committeeman is a kind of Lone Ranger compared to his Japanese counterpart.
What can we learn from Japan?
They have the same technological problems, the same spiritual problems, the same crowd culture to grapple with, and they have good ways of dealing with some of these things. The Japanese approach to the cities, for example, is a pretty good way: setting up little autonomous neighborhoods, each fiercely proud of its own identity.
Why are American cities going broke, and not Tokyo?
When someone applies for welfare in Tokyo, his talents are first examined very courteously and then he is offered a job. If he doesn’t take the job, he doesn’t get welfare.
Do they have different solutions for their economic problems?
Japan has a recession just as America does. Before a Japanese company starts laying off people, however, the directors take cuts in their salaries. All the middle management takes a cut before anyone even thinks of cutting back the pay for the rank-and-file workers. As a result, everyone realizes that the sacrifice is being distributed. It’s a distributive society, and such sharing helps the Japanese weather economic storms that cause other countries a lot of trouble.
Is decision-making distributed, as well?
There is no such thing in Japan as a unilateral, completely independent decision by a multinational corporation affecting the lives of millions of people, as often happens in the U.S. In the typical American company, for example, the president says, “Okay, fellas, this is the way we go,” and everybody touches his cap and says, “Yes, sir,” except for the executive vice-president, who’s busy in the next room sending his résumé to another corporation. In Japanese companies, proposals and plans come from the lower decks. The department heads, not the president, run the company. Dwight Eisenhower would have done beautifully well in Japanese society. He was the greatest arbitrator that American society ever spawned.
Is there some aspect of the Japanese culture that you consider healthier than America’s?
The Japanese believe in compromise. They don’t think anyone deserves to be 100 percent right. It sounds odd, but justice isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be. The world of the future will be a world of scarcities, without that much elbowroom for competition. People are going to have to settle for less, in other words, to compromise.
And the Japanese settle for less?
We have always thought we could somehow build a perfect society. The Japanese never had this lofty goal. They were content to sit at the base of the mountain and plan their world accordingly. Japanese expectations are limited. They are content with security and they save as if they invented the word.
Do you suggest we change to their outlook?
I think we ought to study it. I don’t think it’s something we can swallow whole any more than they were able to swallow whole the American constitution MacArthur gave them. They’ve been having indigestion over that constitution for the last 25 years.
Do you think the Japanese and American mentalities will ever truly understand each other?
In America we say half a loaf is better than no loaf and the Asians say share the whole loaf. Their younger generation is getting more individualistic, ours more collectivistic. Somewhere we’ll meet and have a greater chance to communicate.
What has Japan taught you?
Patience. The Japanese have a word, Akirameru. It means that if something can’t be avoided, live with it. A very useful thing to learn.