30 November 2010

A Japanophile Dutch Banker's Disillusionment, 1970s

From The Magatama Doodle: One Man's Affair with Japan, 1950–2004, by Hans Brinckmann (Global Oriental, 2005), pp. 210-211:
My 'Magatama Doodle' metaphor was inspired by the whimsical linking of an observed physical habit (the doodling of comma-shapes on tabletops and chair arms) of certain functionaries, when confronted with a problem or pressed for an answer, to their assumed preference for evasion and procrastination. Japan's leaders, I had always felt, were fully capable of taking decisions, and if they did not, that was because they chose not to.

I still believed this analysis to hold good for the corporate sector, but I no longer could credit the government and the bureaucracy with similar ability. After all, the cabinet members, from the prime minister on down, were beholden to their party colleagues waiting in the wings for their turn at government. And all politicians lived at the mercy of the business establishment, which financed their election campaigns. They were also constrained by the bureaucratic elite, which provided continuity and expertise for the government of the day. Some bureaucrats in turn were rumoured to be supplementing their income with donations from the major corporations, to whom they also looked for their eventual amakudari on their retirement from the civil service in their early fifties. Few senior civil servants could afford to retire at that age, so they were all interested in a second career as adviser or senior director at a major bank or corporation. The result of these cosy relationships was a woeful lack of discretionary power on the political level, and even a prime minister travelling overseas had to weigh every word and frequently backtrack on his public statements in the face of opposition at home.

I could now see that it was the stasis in Japan's body politic that had bedevilled its relations with other countries, most of all the US, for decades. Earlier on I had, like probably almost every Japanese, habitually blamed the periodic strains in Japan-US ties largely on American impatience or intransigence. American leaders and negotiators, I was convinced, did not understand Japan, and their patronizing attitude only managed to infuriate their Japanese counterparts and thus stall progress in the talks. But without exculpating pushy American negotiators altogether I had come to suspect that the cause of the recurring tensions, especially in matters of trade and investment, lay mostly with the Japanese.

Through my Investment Committee at the American Chamber of Commerce and other sources I had heard stories about the 'impossibility' of dealing with Japanese negotiators on issues such as regulating the flow of car exports and improving access to Japan's still heavily protected consumer market. The negotiators had no mandate and had to refer to Tokyo on every detail without in the end coming up with any kind of helpful response or compromise. The US side would be kept waiting interminably while their counterparts tried to placate them with pleas for understanding Japan's slow-moving consensus system and promises of an eventual satisfactory outcome. More often than not, no such outcome ensued, and the Americans either had to back off with gritted teeth or threaten unilateral action to force an agreement. On several occasions the US Congress stepped in with mandated sanctions when negotiations stalled, to the consternation of the Japanese, whose own parliament had no such power.

All this would not have been so bad if the Japanese had put their cards on the table. But they seldom did. To the home audience they usually played the victim card, blaming the heavy-handed Americans for bullying them into concessions, and asking the public to accept these 'sacrifices' in the interest of preserving good relations with the American ally. In this way they not only shifted the blame for any unwelcome outcome to the Americans, but they also obfuscated the system's structural inability to produce effective and timely decisions, actually turning this shortcoming into an advantage.

21 November 2010

A Japan-trained Dutch Banker's Impressions of Chicago, 1968

From The Magatama Doodle: One Man's Affair with Japan, 1950–2004, by Hans Brinckmann (Global Oriental, 2005), pp. 184-185:
Seven years earlier, our first US visit was no confrontation. We were wide-eyed tourists then, basking in America's sun and easy smiles without care or consequence. Even our brief stay in Illinois in 1965, a year after my bank's takeover by the Chicago bank, was little more than a courtesy call made out of our safe and trusted Japanese home base.

But this time it was different. This protracted stay was intended to be confrontational. There were wise men in the head office suspecting their 'man in Tokyo' of alien sympathies. They were right, twice over.

First, there was my typical European prejudice against the might and swagger of America, its superficial, money-based way of life, its waste and hyperbole, even that questionable concept – the 'pursuit of happiness'. This spoon-fed mindset was overlain by a less expressible, more internalized reserve about the United States, Japan-grown and stubborn. It was directed at the American mentality, the casual arrogance that is the birthright of the strong. It was a silent protest against the overweening, patronizing manners of so many Americans towards anyone and anything foreign, and especially Asian. Above all, it was a deep-seated resistance against the immodest American approach to life itself, its aggressive 'conflict model', its blatant emotionalism and lack of restraint, its materialism and physicality and holier-than-thou Christian orthodoxy.

Thus I arrived in Chicago heavily burdened with opinion but also willing to change my views 'in the light of new experience'. Well, experience is what we got. From the first day I had to place my mental constructs on the back-burner. Actual, visceral life, took precedence. The accommodation the bank had arranged for us, a small, furnished apartment in Old Town, turned out to be an address of ill repute, teeming with prostitutes. Within our stingy rent allowance we found a better place, near the Ambassador East Hotel, with mostly decent tenants. But we had to decide how to deal with the neighbours across the hall, a friendly well-groomed woman with an attractive grown-up daughter for whom – Toyoko had to conclude to her astonishment – she was acting as a 'discreet' pimp.

The confrontation with American reality brought home to me the vast cultural gap that separated that society from the Japanese – and the Dutch. But the comparison was not necessarily negative. The office, for instance, far from being a nasty environment steeped in power-crazy adrenaline, was more like a large living-room filled with people exchanging easy banter while glancing at a document or two, or discussing golf scores with a customer on the phone. The informality was deceptive. While telling jokes or kidding around these well-educated bankers kept a beady eye on the boss's door, to see who would go in next or to wait for an opportunity to slip in with a 'hot deal'. I was amazed to see that in spite of their relaxed style of communication they did get their job done.

The looser structure was an immense relief from the tensions and social rules of Japan. What is more I soon discovered that the much-maligned 'shallowness' of American social relations was actually more like an open, unprejudiced kind of hospitality which we tight-arsed Europeans and fastidious Japanese would do well to try and emulate, to our benefit. Americans, I found, opened their doors first and then sorted out what they had let in. Europeans and Japanese, distrusting spontaneity, were forever trying to determine the suitability of others before deciding whether they wanted to get acquainted.

My lifelong latent resistance against America's ways had collapsed inside a week. Not on fundamentals, but – let us say – on the attractions of their lifestyle. These Americans lived their lives instead of fretting about them. They had no time for wrenching soul searching or weighing up the relative merits of their civilization. They were victors, and victors are free of doubt.

Vietnam was supposed to have changed all this. But not here, not yet, in this heartland of assured capitalism, where seating a single black graduate from Northwestern University on my bank's carpeted 'platform' for all to see, was deemed to constitute an adequate gesture to the irksome demands of the Civil Rights movement. The headlines of the Chicago Tribune copies scattered about the desks might be screaming indignantly about the seizure of the US Navy ship Pueblo by the North Koreans or about the Communist Tet offensive just launched by the Viet Cong, but loan requests had to be processed and the 17.37 back home to the comforts of Winnetka had to be caught.

The self-assuredness was astounding. Laced as it was with magnanimity and the decency of family concerns it was a far cry from the imperial hauteur of the British and French or the self-conscious pride of the Japanese. But it was daunting nonetheless. Paraded around Chicago as 'our man in Japan' I had to make frequent appearances at meetings, both inside the bank and on calls to important corporate customers, to shed light on the mystery that was Japan. I was expected to explain the peculiarities of the market and dispense hot tips on how to breach its protectionist shell.

My audience was eloquent, courteous and sceptical.

15 November 2010

Wordcatcher Tales: Yakinokori-zei, Yoyū-jūtaku-zei

From The Magatama Doodle: One Man's Affair with Japan, 1950–2004, by Hans Brinckmann (Global Oriental, 2005), pp. 99-100:
She had contracted tuberculosis towards the end of the war, and had spent her teenage years in hospital and at home to fight the disease and recuperate. American-made streptomycin, not available in Japan at the time, saved her. Bought at great expense on the black-market, it consumed a good part of what remained of the family's fortune after MacArthur's confiscatory property taxes, including the infamous yakinokori-zei, 'having-survived-the-bombings tax' [焼き残り税 'burn-remainder tax'], levied on houses that were left standing, followed by the yoyū-jūtaku-zei, the 'excess living space tax' [余裕住宅税 'surplus residence tax']. As she had been unfit to attend class, she had been tutored at home to prepare her for higher education.

04 November 2010

Legacies of Danish Estonia

From The Baltic: A New History of the Region and Its People, by Alan Palmer (Overlook, 2006), p. 45:
The Swedes backed missions to secure Christian footholds in Estonia and in southern Finland, where in 1222 one Swedish king, John Sverkersson, was killed in a skirmish. Valdemar II, King of Denmark 1202-42, demonstrated the effectiveness of sea power by sending a fleet of deep-draught warships to seize the Estonian offshore island of Saaremaa in 1206, establishing a base from which he mounted an invasion of northern Estonia thirteen years later. On that occasion Valdemar came as a crusader and was accompanied by the Archbishop of Lund, two other bishops and their chaplains.

The campaign is steeped in legend. The formidable army that landed at Reval was thrown into confusion by an Estonian attack from the hill of Toompea. When the fighting became desperate the archbishop is said to have knelt in prayer, with hands raised in supplication: a red flag with a white cross upon it floated down from heaven, in token of God's blessing on the Danish cause; and beneath the banner, Valdemar's army went on to gain a historic victory. The emblem of Denmark today is still this Dannebrog, the oldest national flag in the world. And Estonia is the only republic with a capital named after the foreign invaders who made it a city; for the word Tallinn derives from the Estonian for 'Danish Town' (Tanni linn).

Soon Reval/Tallinn did indeed become in every sense a Danish town, founded little more than forty years after Copenhagen itself. A cathedral, eight churches, a nunnery and a Dominican abbey, all planted from Denmark, were grouped around the castle and royal treasury on Toompea hill, where the king's lieutenant resided. Between Toompea and the quay-side everything essential to administer a distant dependency was concentrated – an arsenal, commercial warehouses, stables with horses kept ready for any expeditionary force from the homeland. It was, however, a curious form of 'colonization'. After Valdemar completed a land settlement in 1242 the Danish kings never intervened in Estonian affairs. There was virtually no centralized control; nominal vassals enjoyed a rare independence on their territorial fiefs. The treasury remained in Danish hands but there were many months when the Sword Brothers were virtual masters of the growing city. Yet, despite these obstacles, during a 120-year period thirteen successive rulers of a country 1,300 kilometres west of Estonia could count on steady revenue from the tolls, tithes and taxes of their overseas colony.

Danish Hedeby's Heyday

From The Baltic: A New History of the Region and Its People, by Alan Palmer (Overlook, 2006), pp. 28-29:
Greatest of all merchant communities – and in 950 the largest town in the Baltic world – was Danish Hedeby (now Haithabu in Germany, east of the E45 autobahn, a few kilometres south of the town of Schleswig). There was a settlement at Hedeby many years before the Viking raids began, for it stood at a key geographical position, astride the main artery from the south in north-western Europe and at the centre of the narrowest isthmus between the Baltic and the North Sea. Hedeby faced north-east, down the winding Schlei fjord and about 38 kilometres from the open sea, a port far enough inland to receive warning of approach by pirates or enemies. West of Hedeby a mere 16 kilometres of moorland provided easy portage to the Eider, a short river that flows into the North Sea at Tonning, with an upstream quay at Hollingstedt. A ditch-and-embankment rampart, known as the 'Danewirke' and built in the eighth century, afforded Hedeby protection from Frankish incursions. The Danish King Godfred extended the rampart and encouraged merchants to settle in Hedeby in 808, after the raid in which his warriors sacked the Abotrite port of Reric, some 190 kilometres along the Mecklenburg coast. Yet, though ninth century Hedeby had the makings of a commercial port, it also served as a hideout for raiders who returned home with booty and slaves from Frisia, the Netherlands and England. The growing trade with the East transformed the town: Hedeby's greatest prosperity came at the middle of the tenth century, the years of Varangian commercial ascendancy at Constantinople.

A Moorish merchant from Cordoba, visiting Hedeby about 975, was far from impressed. The town was too big, he thought; it was not, by his reckoning, rich; a high birth rate prompted families to throw unwanted babies into the Schlei; the main food was fish, because there was so much of it; and Viking singing was dreadful. It was a growling from the throat, 'worse even than the barking of dogs', he grumbled. There must have been a touch of the Wild North about Viking Hedeby. Yet archaeological evidence, from three major digs in the last seventy years, suggests that life in the port at its prime anticipated the commercial bustle of Thames-side London nine centuries later: ship repairing workshops; craftsmen tapping away at silver, bone or amber jewellery; potters, weavers, carpenters and leather-workers; and all the banter of barter in markets where bargains were struck for furs from the Lapps, soapstone from the Swedes, and wax, silk, spices and honey from the East.

Ironically Hedeby, the port that prospered most from the luxury trade with Novgorod and Kiev, was razed to the ground by the one Viking warrior known to have amassed a fortune in the East. For, in his attempt to add Denmark to his Norwegian kingdom, Harald Hardrada led a fleet up Schlei fjord in the summer of 1049 to destroy his enemy's commercial capital. Nine hundred years later underwater exploration by divers and frogmen revealed that he had employed a tactic favoured by the Byzantines. Harald might not possess the secret of 'Greek fire', but he knew the panic a floating inferno would cause among the Danish defenders. At least one fireship – probably more – bore down on a wooden barrier outside Hedeby's harbour. Soon the whole town was ablaze. The stock of goods in the warehouses must have fed the flames.