Grass-roots industry in the town of Sakaki: an alternative perspective of the Japanese post-war "miracle"

Copyright (C) 1992, 2004 by Christopher Romig Keener

Japan is widely considered a "miracle" for its rapid industrialization during the post-war era. It is held as an example to be emulated by the leaders of government and industry in many developing nations and has gone so far as to evoke jealousy among the leading Western industrial nations. Our understanding of this "miracle" is limited to explanations concerning the role of centralized government coordination and of large industrial networks (keiretsu). Can the Japanese "miracle" be explained simply in terms of these forms of overt organizational control?

In a quest for deeper understanding, this study details the industrialization of one small town in the mountains of central Japan. The town of Sakaki has become a mecca for government officials and business executives precisely because it does not easily fit into the model of bureaucratic control. The hundreds of small factories in the town are testimony to a grass-roots movement of industry.

To understand the influences and setting of this industrialization, this study assumes a cultural and holistic perspective. The interaction between history and geography beyond that of the post-war period have much to tell about the circumstances under which industry has flourished in Sakaki. Preceding traditions have influenced forms of modern business enterprise and motivations of participants in the industrialization process, and, in addition, industry must be contextualized in other aspects of present-day social organization and culture.

The older generation of Japanese has been motivated to participate in the industrialization process by cultural concepts of sacrifice and of freedom. Hegemonic control has reached so deeply into the ideational systems that it is having a profound effect on socialization and cultural reproduction, leading to the departure of the younger generation. The story of industry in Sakaki is a testimony to the role, not merely of overt bureaucratic control through the government and keiretsu, but of mechanisms of covert ideological cultural control in the industrialization process that effect the reproduction of the industrial system.

Grass-roots industry in Sakaki

The dominant Western social science and popular perspective of Japan is that of "Japan, Inc." with its focus on government-business cooperation, extensive industrial networks (keiretsu) led by the large trading companies, and principles of top-down hierarchy. But is this all there is to Japan? Does this describe the everyday lives of the majority of the Japanese people? It is such questions that have led me to explore an alternative perspective. My interest has not been driven so much by a conviction that the former perspective is fallacious, but rather that it only describes Japan in part and that much is to be learned by investigating other traditions and institutions.

The experience of Sakaki residents and Sakaki companies is in contrast to that of urban residents and the large corporations where many of them work. The majority of Sakaki companies have been founded at the grass-roots level by local individuals of lower status. Their companies center around their families, roughly following merchant traditions set down in the feudal period lasting to the end of the nineteenth century. Managers of large, urban corporations, on the other hand, like to think of themselves as the modern equivalent of samurai, favoring bureaucratic means of determining practices and generally rejecting direct family ties within a firm.[1]

If Sakaki companies are different from their large urban counterparts, they are at the same time part of the same larger functioning society and economy. Many Sakaki companies supply components used by members of the urban-centered keiretsu. They could be described as subcontractors and members of the keiretsu by virtue of their almost total dependence on the keiretsu for contracts, capital, labor and technology. Other companies in Sakaki are notably quite independent, marketing their own finished products in domestic and international markets by themselves and competing directly against the keiretsu.

Historical and geographical bases for industrialization

The interaction of history and geography have set the stage for the manner in which industrialization occurred in the town. Sakaki's terrain and climate made it unsuitable for large-scale rice agriculture in a country where rice has held great social and economic importance. Indeed, the history of Sakaki's development has followed a course somewhat different from mainstream agricultural and rural centers of population, one which has been deeply involved with the changes that have occurred through Japan's history.

Given the cultural importance of rice through Japan's history, its population has largely settled in those areas that were best suited for rice agriculture, the large, flat plains. Nagano Prefecture, in which Sakaki is located, is in the mountains at the center of the main island of Japan, and while it has profited by its proximity to the large plains of Kanto and Kansai on which modern-day Tokyo and Osaka are located, respectively, it has never been a rich area because of the relative unsuitability of its terrain to rice agriculture.

Sakaki is located in a narrow valley lined by steep mountains along the Chikuma river as it winds northward toward the Japanese Sea. Its first settlement seems to have been strategic. The river cut a natural path through the mountains which was used for transportation and commerce. Japan's early history is marked by many wars between neighboring clans; lying along such a strategic mountain pass, Sakaki played an important role in monitoring and controlling the passage of travelers and intruders.

The feudal period, which began in the early seventeenth century and ended in the middle of the nineteenth century, brought about significant changes in the constitution of the town. The strict order stipulated by the Tokugawa shogunate imposed nationwide peace, removing the need for strategic outposts like Sakaki, but other edicts served to define a new role. Most importantly, the requirement that district feudal lords spend half the year in Edo (present-day Tokyo) meant a great deal of travel along roads like the one cutting through Sakaki. A thriving lodging and commercial trade grew up in towns like Sakaki to serve the needs of traveling lords and their substantial parties. The shogunate also enacted a ranked class system of military bureaucrats (samurai), farmers, merchants and artisans and stipulated that the samurai were to only reside in the castle towns of their feudal lords. Farmers were given an elevated status because of their importance in growing the rice crop which was both the currency of the day and the form of payment of samurai by feudal lords.

The strict order imposed by the Tokugawa clan eroded over time. Samurai became more bureaucrats than militarists since their were no longer any wars to fight, and fine culture and the arts flourished among the highest class in the big cities. Substantial luxury markets also boomed in the cities, brought about by the leisure and wealth of the samurai. These markets played into the hands of merchants and the other lower classes. Rural farmers began to supplement their rice farming with other crops. The most dominant crop grown was mulberry for sericulture. In Sakaki, sericulture vastly outstripped the importance of rice agriculture. It could be argued that the end of the feudal order in the nineteenth century was in part brought on by the ingenuity of lower class people like those of Sakaki who, by finding means to better their position despite harsh control, ended up undermining and subverting the feudal ranked class system, for as the lower classes gained wealth, the samurai lost it.

The end of the feudal period caused many deep changes all over the country, but one of the most significant changes for Sakaki was the end of the mandatory travel by feudal lords and, consequently, the commercial trade along the road cutting through town. A railroad was constructed, which further displaced any commerce along the old road. Travelers from the cities now came to Nagano to visit their ancestral homes and to relax in the many hot springs resorts that began to thrive along the railway. Many of Sakaki's inn keepers and other merchants moved to the neighboring resort of Kamiyamada.

For a time the silk trade flourished. Restrictions on lower-class use of silk were lifted as were restrictions against foreign trade. In fact the nation developed such a dependence on foreign trade, not only in silk but in other commodities, that it was hard hit during the world depression in the 1930s. Sakaki was no exception. The price of silk plummeted and sericulture dwindled in importance all over the country. Sakaki was especially hard hit because it could not fall back on staple consumable crops like rice. A large number of Sakaki sons, particularly of lower status and destitute farmers, were forced to leave to find work in the cities.

In the pre-war years industry grew in the cities so much that it had generated a shortage of labor. As the war dragged on, the risk of firebombing posed a great risk to factories in the cities. Several factories relocated to Sakaki because of its cheap labor, proximity to Tokyo, favorable climate and relative safety. A generation of sons trained in pre-war factories in the cities also returned after the war and seeing the success of factories established there decided that they too would start industrial enterprises in their home town. These early enterprises provided the seed for a flourishing of industry in the town through the post-war period, buffeted by ups and downs in the economy, but rebounding with strength and resiliency.

Sakaki industry today is a credit to the heritage of the interaction of geographical and historical circumstances which created the hunger for ingenious ways of making a livelihood beyond mainstream forms of most regional and urban areas. While the extent of urgency which led to Sakaki's development might be unusual, it was not altogether different from that of other rural towns which took advantage of the silk trade during the feudal period and then progressed to industry during the post-war period. These developments in Sakaki, while not necessarily representative, are at least indicative of some of the trends affecting rural towns.

Sakaki today: the mecca vs. the reality

Sakaki has received much attention for its rapid industrialization in the post-war era. It has become a mecca of industry for scholars and government officials from Tokyo. Outsiders have been attracted by the high degree of independence of Sakaki firms and have focused almost exclusively on these firms ignoring other types of firms and other aspects of Sakaki beyond the town industrial economy.

The handful of independent companies that sell their finished products in domestic and overseas markets are perhaps the most visible and impressive of Sakaki companies. The majority of Sakaki companies are in reality quite small and very much dependent on their relationships either with the larger, independent Sakaki companies or with the urban keiretsu with whom they have become associated. A number of Sakaki's larger companies have also gone the path of subcontracting for keiretsu. The experience of the independents is an important one, but it is only one side of the industry of the town.

Another important aspect of Sakaki is that it is not simply an industrial town. Agriculture and industry co-exist within the town's borders. Perhaps the monetary value of industry is much greater than that of farming, but the majority of Sakaki families have some part of their land that they farm. Many of these derive a principal income from their farming activities. Apples, grapes, and flowers are the main cash crops shipped to urban markets. Still others supplement their income from factory jobs with income from the production of cash crops and by growing their own staples, thereby relieving the need to purchase them at the store.

Furthermore, the boundaries which define the town are arbitrary. Sakaki itself is a recent amalgamation of different hamlets that existed within the valley which were subsumed by the largest settlement during the post-war period. Perhaps if the economy of these communities centered more heavily on agriculture, there would be fewer connections with the outside, but Sakaki has held very important ties with the outside throughout its history. A symbol of its connection with the outside is represented by the old road to Edo which cuts through the town and has been supplanted by Route 18 which runs along almost the same path. For centuries Sakaki has been along a major thoroughfare through the region which has tied it not only to the distant metropolis but to the surrounding towns and cities.

Sakaki has developed a distinct relationship and identity in relation to the surrounding towns and cities in the region. There are lively industrial, commercial, and agricultural ties to surrounding areas. The industrial supply networks are no more bound by regional accessibility than governmental borders are. Many small Sakaki companies primarily supply out-of-town companies within the prefecture. Likewise, many larger Sakaki companies are supplied by companies in neighboring towns and cities. As more people have been able to afford the automobile it has become easier to commute out of town to work. A large number of Sakaki residents commute to surrounding towns for work, and many jobs within the town are held by out-of-towners from neighboring areas.

The automobile has also contributed to greater commercial interdependence within the area. Local shops have been hard hit because residents are now able to drive to nearby cities and areas with large chain and department stores. Whereas Sakaki has built for itself a reputation of a town dedicated to serious factory and field work, other towns have cultivated images which drive their economies differently. The neighboring hot spring resort in Togura and Kamiyamada is a popular destination for industrialists and others for various entertainment functions. The cities of Ueda and Koshoku are popular among young people because of the modern image of their companies, apartment complexes and recreational opportunities.

Sakaki is not just independent companies. They represent one very discernible aspect of the town, but much is to be contributed about an understanding of how Sakaki developed such a high degree of industrialization from a fuller portrait of the town today, other aspects of its economy, as well as its relationship with other towns and cities in the region.

The town social structure and the struggle between industry and agriculture

The social relations within the town are also important to an understanding of the past, present, and future of industry. If Sakaki had only been settled a short time before the introduction of industry, its social structure might follow the stereotypical notion of bourgeoisie and proletariat, but Sakaki has centuries of history before the introduction of industry. One of the most important aspects of its social structure is the concept of extended agricultural families which permeates its population. Nearly all of Sakaki residents are members of these hierarchical extended families whereby they pay at least symbolic homage not only to their own ancestors but to those of the family from which they originally branched. Residence patterns are still largely determined by these extended families (the stem families living in large houses around which are the smaller houses of their branch families). While these relationships have largely ceased to play an economic role of inter-dependence, they continue to inform social status within the town and can be employed as instrumental controls on the behavior of individuals.

Originally these families were economic units. The stem families owned the land and the branch families (deriving from second sons) farmed it. But the landlord-tenant system of farming was obliterated by an edict of the post-war American government which transferred ownership of land to the family actually farming it. Large land holding families, the elite of members of their hamlets, were stripped of their land and the right to the agricultural product derived from it. With the same stroke, the occupational government also created new local governing organizations to replace familial, hamlet, and religious-based systems of governing which had existed until then. Stripped of their land, members of elite farming families still possessed their status. Many of them sought jobs in local government where they continue to this day to have a strong hold on local politics.

The leading industrialists of Sakaki form another group of elite within the town, but whereas the status of the elite farming families was ascribed by heredity, their status has been achieved. Many of the early founders of local industry came from local farming families which were particularly hard hit by the end of sericulture in the 1930s. A large number of individuals were forced to migrate to the cities during the pre-war era. There they learned skills in factory jobs, returning during and after the war due to the risk and effect of firebombing and the disintegration of the economy after the war. As the early factories weathered the harsh conditions of the post-war years, other farmers joined them, transforming their fields into factories.

The "middle class" in the town is largely comprised of the branch families that acquired land after the war. Most of these families continue to produce a large part of their income from cash crops that they grow. The male members of these families often hold jobs in Sakaki factories providing a second source of income. Landless families form a status group beneath them. In these families both male and female members usually engage in employment associated with local factories.

The social structure of the town is informed by two principles: the ascribed status of farming elite who have taken roles in town government, and the achieved status of local industrialists who have elevated themselves. The ownership of land (symbolic for farming elite) plays an important role in defining ascribed status. Local industrialists have acquired their status through skill, hard work, and ingenuity.

Sakaki's merchant-based companies

The practices of Sakaki companies follow more closely the mercantile traditions of enterprise rather than the traditions of the military bureaucrats that have been adopted by large member corporations of the keiretsu. The dominant aspect of this tradition is the centering of the enterprise around the family of the founder. There are many ways that family members play a special role in the operation of the town's firms. Family labor is important from the inception of a firm. Small companies are often staffed only by the founder, who produces the products, and his wife, who looks over the financial matters of the firm. Other family members (brothers, fathers, sisters, etc.) may be called upon to expand the capacity of a small firm while keeping labor costs low. Family labor not only plays an important role in the early years of formation, but also during more difficult times of hardship. Family members sometimes forgo salaries; family connections are often used to secure land and capital for physical improvements, expansion, and new machinery.

Moreover, ascendancy in the firm is limited to family members. Normally the first son of the president and founder assumes the presidency of the firm after his father retires. In cases where there is no son, a loyal employee may be adopted into the family as the husband of a daughter. While a son usually spends several years working as a regular employee in his father's firm, often this is preceded by a number of years of apprenticeship or employment in the factory of a large client company. Apprenticed sons bring back new technological capabilities and contracts from the client, breathing new life into the company.

A strict division is made between family members and regular employees of the company. Employees wages are determined according to length of service and skill, whereas family members salaries may vary greatly according to the profitability of the firm at different times. The highest management positions are strictly reserved for family members. Families of a company founder take the risk involved in the enterprise and for this they are offered special privileges; they are supposed to act benevolently, looking after the interests of their employees who sacrifice privilege for security. There is an unwritten social contract between the family and employees guaranteeing employment security. Should a firm fail to live up to these social obligations (the worst case resulting in bankruptcy and lay offs), the family will be ostracized by the community at large.

These traditions are based on the practices of merchant houses during the feudal period. Large urban corporations more closely follow the military bureaucratic traditions formulated during the same era. These traditions shun discrimination according to family membership and determine advancement to higher managerial positions according to logical processes. Larger Sakaki companies (with several hundred employees) attempt to cast off their mercantile origins centered around the founding family for practices more suited to firms of their size. Often times these practices are mandated because of alliances made with urban keiretsu. In these cases, companies often surrender some amount of managerial control to the keiretsu.

Arising from the same kinds of circumstances and basis of family, Sakaki companies have evolved as two types (as mentioned above): as independents and as subcontractors. Independents sell their products in direct competition with the urban-based keiretsu. There are only a few large firms in the town which are independent. The challenges they face competing against their larger rivals concern maintaining equivalent levels of technology, but they are increasingly pinched by shortages of skilled engineers. Many of these firms used to hire students out of junior high school and train them as engineers themselves, but as levels of sophistication increase (and with them levels of matriculation), these companies are pressed harder and harder.

While much of the attention on Sakaki companies has been devoted to the independents, the vast majority are in reality subcontracting firms. The majority of these firms primarily supply a single client company, often one of the large urban keiretsu. Others offer technology which is used by several competing companies. Whereas most subcontractors produce long runs of a product on their lines, a new breed of subcontractors produces very small runs of highly specialized parts.

Sakaki companies have withstood the great boom and bust cycles of the post-war era. The number of firms has grown substantially in the boom periods of the early 70s and the early 80s. During the bust periods characterized by the oil shocks of the mid-70s and the valuation of the yen during the mid-80s, growth dwindled as Sakaki companies strengthened their positions by abandoning out-moded operations and re-allocating their resources to more focused and specialized sub-sets of their original business.

Change in the contemporary setting

Several indicators suggest possible paths for the future of the town based on strategies and behaviors of the present. Responding to present challenges and difficulties, Sakaki companies are forging ahead with strategies to assure their continued livelihood. Key in any discussion of the future is the behavior and motivation of the younger generations of Sakaki residents. Lastly, the prefectural plans for hosting the 1998 Olympics offer a governmental view of how to face the future.

With the valuation of the yen in the late 1980s, Sakaki companies have been forced to reduce costs of operation by automating wherever economically feasible. At the same time they have found it more and more difficult to attract new employees. Automation levels are already at the highest possible level given economic considerations and the rapid pace in change of manufacturing process demanded by ever discriminating clients. Moreover, it is not simply the menial line laborers which companies are having problems attracting, but more importantly, high-level engineers and mid-level managers.

The strategies of Sakaki firms facing these common challenges break into two patterns: one for independents and another for subcontractors. The dominant pattern among independents is emerging as a relocation of firms out of Sakaki into neighboring areas. Caught between problems on both the local level of their factories and the world level of their markets, several companies have chosen to alleviate their local problems by removing themselves from the town. The image of Sakaki in the region, especially among young people, is as a factory town in an age when factory work is being avoided in favor of office work. Town government officials are reluctant to help large companies put together tracts of land to build new factory facilities in order to modernize their equipment and generate the impression of a better working environment. Several companies have already removed themselves from the town, moving to neighboring areas where they were able to make land deals (much to the chagrin of town government).

On the other hand, the strategy of local subcontractors has been to become more dependent, not only on local government, but on the distant keiretsu which they supply. Despite sharp cuts in revenue generated by the valuation of the Yen, large corporate groups have been keen to maintain and even increase market share, even if at times it means taking a loss in the short-term. While they have required their subcontractors in places like Sakaki to lower the price of the parts that they supply, order levels have maintained constant and, in fact, grown during the late 80s. The need for labor has actually grown during the period, but supply has not matched demand. Young Japanese are increasingly scornful of dirty factory work and are eager to acquire skills to allow themselves to avoid menial labor. Subcontracting firms have begun to increasingly turn to their clients to help them bankroll high-cost foreign labor by Brazilians and other groups.

Besides the changing strategies for survival by Sakaki companies, the attitudes, preferences and behavior of young people today are indicative of a major transformation within just one generation. The older generation of Japanese endured great hardship in rebuilding their country after the war and have never given up the mentality of deferring gratification. Their hope has been in their children; they have done everything they can to ensure that their children will not have to endure the same hardships they did by pushing them to achieve in school and acquire jobs in large corporations in the cities. At the same time, the children have become disenchanted with the lifestyle of their parents, especially their parents in Sakaki who, toiling long hours in the factory and field, have seen little reward for their labors.

The result of the massive split between older and younger generations has been an increasing out-migration by youth. The trend starts with education. Matriculation levels have increased substantially during the post-war period. Nearly all young people today graduate from high school whereas a large number of the local industrial entrepreneurs only graduated from junior high school, the norm thirty years ago. Even a high school diploma is not enough for most youth today. A host of small private colleges have grown up in the cities to accommodate the great numbers of young people seeking college. There is a thriving business in cram schools that specialize in preparing students who have failed to get into the university of their choice for successive years of entrance examinations. Once youth go away to college they rarely come back. There are exceptions. First sons are often chided to return to assume their duties as heir to the family. When young people do return to the area, they often choose to live and work in neighboring towns rather than to immerse themselves fully in close town human relations.

The final element of strategies toward the future is that of the regional government, which is rallying behind the invitation of the 1998 winter Olympics to rush through a considerable amount of infrastructural improvement designed to try to "upgrade" the image of the prefecture among companies and young people. Places like Sakaki will be little affected by the actual activities of the Olympics, most of which will occur further north in the prefecture, but they will be affected by the large number of infrastructure changes, including a bullet train route from Tokyo that will cut travel time from two and a half hours to one hour, an expressway, and quite possibly a local sewer system.

Sakaki and the "miracle": a cultural analysis

A broader notion of culture

Western social scientists who have detailed the institutional and instrumental organizational aspects of the post-war "miracle" have largely ignored arguments of culture. Their reluctance to place worth in cultural perspectives has been brought on by too narrow a view of the meaning of the term "culture." This is indicated even in the introduction to Chalmers Johnson's research on MITI, where he dismisses cultural arguments. "The most important contribution of the culture to economic life is said to be Japan's famous 'consensus'... My reservations about the value of this explanation are basically that it is too over generalized and tends to cut off rather than advance serious research" (1982:8). Johnson, a political scientist, as well as other social scientists who have detailed government leadership in the modern era, close government-business relations, and industrial networks (keiretsu) have largely put a deaf ear to cultural arguments because they were responding to only one particular wing of anthropological research.

The views of culture by Johnson and others are largely derived from the influential anthropological treatment of Japan by Ruth Benedict, The chrysanthemum and the sword, originally published in 1946. This book is an academic treatment of research that Benedict conducted for the American armed forces during the war. She was given a pragmatic mission to try to untangle some of the key elements of the culture of the war-time enemy so as to improve war strategies; among the key decisions in which she and other anthropologists participated was the treatment of the Japanese emperor after the war. Had the US military proceeded as it did in Germany, the emperor might have been hung by a war tribunal, but Benedict and others argued for the importance of respecting the imperial institution as a symbol that could be employed to marshal Japanese effort toward a peaceful reconstruction.

Benedict's work must also be understood in the context of the theoretical discussions of her day and the school of "national character studies" of which she was a part. National character studies research has been recognized to have some major flaws, among them that it treats whole nations as being composed of individuals with a single personality type, that it explains a whole culture on the basis of early childhood socialization, that much of the research has been conducted from a distance without long periods of in-depth research in the field, and that it has ignored the dynamic nature of culture. However, anthropology and the understanding of culture is not limited to this one school. The view of culture taken by non-anthropologists like Johnson in response to such work is one of unchanging elements, of a direct correspondence between a culture and a modern state and of homogeneity within that state culture. Among many American anthropologists today, however, culture is understood to also possess dynamic qualities that may uncover aspects of the Japanese "miracle" that have been untouched by social scientists who have quickly dismissed culture as irrelevant.

The story of Sakaki has such dynamic properties which have much to add to an understanding of the development of industry in Japan during the post-war era. A proper portrait of the industrialization within Sakaki is not complete without a long-term and holistic view of some of the internal trends and external influences. One cannot limit the analysis to the post-war era; much is important in what preceded that. In the case of Sakaki, historical and geographical situations of the site have laid the ground for what has happened during the last 40 years. One must go back to the basic geographical properties of the site, it's low rainfall and mountainous terrain. Also important is the course of Japanese history up to the feudal era. In a nation where rice has played such a great importance as a crop, Sakaki was ill favored to become a regional center of agricultural and administrative activity. However, it was settled because of its strategic importance.

Many changes were brought about by the imposition of feudal control over the nation. Sakaki lost its strategic importance, but gained a viable economy serving travelers along the road to Edo. Being so unsuited to rice, its farmers were all the more keen to develop other forms of income. Sericulture is an early example of the ingenuity of Sakaki residents to adapt to circumstances imposed upon them. They successfully weathered the substantial changes of the transition from feudal to modern state in the late 1800s, but were nonetheless altogether too dependent on the sale to domestic and international markets of a single crop. They therefore were unprepared for the depression and subsequent fall in demand and market prices for raw silk and silk products. This historical account is the underpinning for the industrialization that followed.

Built on top of the centuries of local history which preceded it are the particulars of how industry got started in the town. Sons of families hard hit by the depression circumstances migrated to Tokyo to find jobs in a time of much pre-war industrial development in the cities. During and after the war they returned to Sakaki, bringing back with them training in engineering which they applied in local enterprises they founded. Industry became a means for many aspiring individuals to achieve status within a rigid town social hierarchy in which ascribed status has been awarded according to heredity to the old landlord families.

Issues of freedom and covert control

Industry in Sakaki has become a focal point among enterprising industrialists to free themselves from the control of local agricultural elite families that have maintained positions of power over the past centuries. In their obsession to become free of local power these industrialists have unknowingly bound themselves and those dependent on them for employment by other, less obvious processes of external control. It is the same sort of process about which the anthropologist Dorothy Lee (1959) writes. Viewing American's preoccupation with concepts like freedom and equality from the perspective of her own upbringing in Greece, Lee questions whether the culture does not in fact encourage conformity and docility necessary to train the mass of workers for our industrial and corporate society. If we draw this analogy in Japan, we might question whether the ideology of individualism and personal freedom among entrepreneurs is really an operative for promoting hegemonic control of individual behavior. In the search for personal freedom, Sakaki entrepreneurs have become bound by ideological components of urban hegemony, for by seeking the lure of freedom through industry, they have become the foot soldiers for a massive campaign to build the industrial output of the country.

The work of Johnson (1982) and other social scientists has focused on the instrumental power exercised by central government and business organizations. Johnson's work treats the importance of government regulation and policy in shaping industrial development. Others, such as Karel van Wolferen (1989), have written about the collusion of industry and government relationships and documented the economic power of large industrial networks, but there is also a covert or latent side of the centralized power of Tokyo that is not expressed in this work.

Systems of ideological control have manipulated the aspirations of Sakaki's entrepreneurs, and in doing so, have also affected the perceptions of Western social scientists. These ideological mechanisms of control are very similar to the properties of "harmony ideology" which Laura Nader outlines in her study of social and cultural control among the mountain Zapotec of Mexico (1990). Ideologies of hegemonic control cross national boundaries and interlink themselves with grass-roots, emic notions of behavioral control on the community level; moreover they affect the models which social scientists use to describe these societies. As Nader (1990:291) puts it "we must distinguish between the use of the concept of culture as an instrumental strategy of institutions or organizations from its use as an analytical tool." It can be argued that Benedict's work was a reaction more to this kind of top-down ideological use of cultural symbols and the instrumental use of the concept of culture. Unable to do work in Japan due to war-time circumstances, Benedict relied on discussions with informants, propaganda, films, and books, but these may well have been more a reflection of the construction of hegemonic culture by right-wing groups during the pre-war period than a reflection of actual behavior and beliefs. Post-war studies have similarly fallen victim to the instrumental use of culture by Japanese elite. The difficulty of mastering the language, together with the predisposition of scholars toward topics of urban and large-scale organization has resulted in studies of culture that are simple reflections of the elite ideology for rebuilding the country after the war. If the dominant hegemonic pattern of pre-war Japan was devotion to the emperor encouraged by right-wing groups with expansionist interests, in the post-war it has become the slogan of "rebuilding the country" promoted by the urban industrial networks who are the ultimate beneficiaries of the export-oriented economy. George DeVos (1973:36-37) and others have noted the importance of the concept of vicarious satisfaction. The classic account is that of the education mother (kyoiku mama) who will make countless sacrifices in order to provide her children the best environment possible for achievement through education. It is these ideologies that have become a form of what Nader calls a "controlling process," or controlling ideas, a form of cultural control that originates beyond local culture, "from diffused power that travels across structures in the minds of participants" (1987:2).

It is such a ideational control system that has affected cultural treatments of Japan in the post-war era. As Ross Mouer and Yoshio Sugimoto have pointed out, post-war social science has been colored by Japanese notions of their own uniqueness, the so-called nihonjinron or "Japan thesis" (1986). In order for scholars like Johnson to have new respect for the relevance of cultural arguments we must dissect culture, "organic" culture, from instrumental culture, ideational levels of controlling processes. Part of the problem is that through the influences of different schools on American anthropology vital parts of our understanding of culture have been neglected. The British structural-functional orientation which has had such a profound effect on American anthropology in the post-war era has emphasized societies as integrated wholes whereby institutions, beliefs, and practices function together in a system. Such treatment may result in a portrayal of culture as timeless, as did the earlier work by Benedict and others to which Johnson has so vehemently responded. But culture has a much richer meaning for others. Kroeber and Parsons once defined culture as "[1] transmitted and [2] created content of patterns of values, ideas, and other symbolic-meaningful systems of factors in shaping behavior and the artifacts produced through behavior" (1958:583). More recently, writing about the culture of resistance of Bolivian tin miners, June Nash wrote, "culture is not something transmitted from past to present and future generations... it is a generative base for adapting to conditions as well as transforming those conditions" (1979:311). Many recent ethnographies have focused on the nexus of local cultural, external economic and political power, and controlling ideational systems (Comaroff 1985, Nader 1990, Nash 1979, Rosaldo 1980, Simmons 1980).

Culture and controlling processes in Sakaki

In the local setting of Sakaki, the interaction between these complex factors suggests that local culture may be subsumed by national and international hegemonic culture and ideology in the near future. One arena in which this is taking place is in the behavior of local independent companies and the growing rift between their managers and local government. Drawn by the aspirations of freedom from the exercise of power by town government and economic arguments about increasing competition potential vis-a-vis the large keiretsu with whom they directly compete, industrialists are coming into increasing conflict with government elite that represent agricultural old-guard elite interests. The symbol of this conflict is the departure of some of Sakaki's largest and most profitable companies, a trend which threatens to leave Sakaki again with a questionable base of support for its residents.

Should the independents all depart, there might still be many small companies left, but the majority of these have followed a very different strategy from the independents. Theirs has been a gradual increase of dependence on urban keiretsu for orders, new technologies and even labor supply. At the same time they have become increasingly dependent on hospitable relations with the town elite. A symbol of their subordination to external urban culture is the lower status of the merchant-based tradition around which they model their enterprise versus the higher status practices of urban corporations based on the tradition of the bureaucratic-militarists.

Meanwhile, Sakaki is being robbed of its capability of reproducing itself because it can no longer attract young people to work in its companies, to work in its fields, and to return to its families. The older generation's preoccupation with their own sacrifice in order to ensure a more comfortable existence for their offspring has produced an aversion to local culture by younger generations. Just as Sakaki's entrepreneurs sought freedom from perceived inhibitions on their behavior, younger generations, in part responding to what they perceive as the failure of the entrepreneurs' generation to achieve actual freedom, have chosen to transcend the local scene altogether, opting for life in the city. The life that they choose for themselves in the cities is really an apathetic response to the amount of top-down control throughout Japanese society today. Unable to see any opportunity to achieve real autonomy, young people are content to live in anonymous urban communities (where they can escape the controls of local community and family), work in relatively relaxed, if unstimulating, urban work environments (more attractive and less taxing work than that of factories in Sakaki), and enjoy some of the recreational, entertainment and shopping opportunities of the big city. In short, it is not that they have perceived a way out of these fields of power, but have sought a position by which they can fulfill their obligations as expected with minimal effort and attention brought to them.

The consequences are multiple. Local enterprise in Sakaki is plagued by increasing inaccessibility of technologies. This trend is not only brought about by lack of access to younger generations with training in new technologies. It is also a reflection of an increasing pace of complexity of technology. In the 1950s and 60s much of the technology needed to produce salable commodities was accessible to the engineer who had spent several years in the city or who trained with a local company and then started his own. Large urban organizations have spear-headed a trend of increasing speed which puts the technology to compete out of the direct hands of small companies. It is only through obligatory relations with large urban firms that they can gain access to less sensitive parts of this technology. In addition, in an era when so much is said about the wealth and capital reserves of Japanese companies, one must remember that this is a reference to the urban corporations that are part of the keiretsu. Small, regional companies have almost nothing to speak of in total capital reserves and are highly dependent for loans from larger companies, banks and government.

Questioning the miraculousness of the "miracle"

Most scholars faced with the topic of the post-war industrialization of Japan have simply sought out explanations for why the "miracle" occurred; but another question looms ominously behind the topic, is it really a "miracle"? And beyond that, for whom is it a "miracle"? A long-term perspective of the industrialization that has occurred in Sakaki suggests that a viable local culture is being subsumed by a controlling process centered in the power elite of Tokyo government and keiretsu. The enterprising industrialists of the town have opened it up to outside domination and a hollowing out of local society. The aspirations to free themselves from local control and the systems of ideation that locals used to pursue their industry have been taken over by large-scale ideological control. The very diligence that older generations pursued their lives of sacrifice and hardship has alienated them from their offspring so that it is questionable whether the town will be able to reproduce itself.

The growth of a powerful, centralized industrial complex has become a common process among many nations during the post-war period. My study is not the first attempt to question a "miracle" like that which has occurred in Japan. The anthropologist Shelton Davis has written of the social and environmental costs of development in Brazil. He has observed the same sort of blind euphoria and enthusiasm for an economic "miracle" in Brazil that has prevented a serious examination of the not-so miraculous side (1977:15). "'Development' is one of those terms that is taken for granted as a necessary good by most governments, planners, and publics today" (xii). He should have also added scholars to his list. He goes on to state, "Most contemporary accounts of conditions in the Brazilian Amazon have failed to trace the specific linkages that exist between the development policies of the Brazilian government and the threats posed to Indian peoples and the environment" (xiii). It is precisely the linkage between local culture and external forms of domination about which Davis is referring, the same sort of issues that exist between Sakaki and the national industrial complex of Japan.

The parallels between the industrial-government autocracy of Japan and that of the US are quite startling. In both cases technology has been used as a vehicle for promoting ideological forms of control beyond simple institutional, economic and political force. The case of Sakaki is particularly startling however, because it demonstrates how individuals, in this case small, local industrialists, can become involved in something they perceive as promoting their freedom while at the same time they are coming under control of even larger forces than those from they were attempting to escape. In a sense it is a kind of confusion between what Lewis Mumford has called democratic and authoritarian technics (1972), because the very technologies that they thought were democratic ultimately become tools of a grand authoritarian scheme. Langdon Winner, analyzing nuclear technologies in the United States, has commented that "the interesting puzzle of our times is that we so willingly sleepwalk through the process of reconstituting the conditions of human existence," a state that he terms "technological somnambulism" (1986:10); are the Japanese victims of the same kind of process which we are undergoing in the United States? Winner proposes that the key concept to the mindset that prevents an "awakening" is that of progress: "In the twentieth century it is usually taken for granted that the only reliable sources for improving the human condition stem from new machines, techniques, and chemicals" (5).

Others have reported the strength of mindsets in preventing the deep analysis of the meaning of technology in contemporary societies. Nader's 1981 article, Barriers to thinking new about energy, examines the aversion that energy scientists have had to considering "low-tech" solar alternatives to nuclear power. What she discovered was that certain taboos and thought constructs prevented these scientists from considering anything but larger, more complex energy supply systems, and caused them to ignore the fact that inherent in those systems were the same sort of political ideas to which Mumford referred. Herman Daly has uncovered a similar mindset among economists (1980). He proposes what he calls "steady-state economics" to counter the dominating growth principles among economists. In another study, Shrader-Frechette examines the systems of risk assessment based on probabilities that have been employed to alter the discourse about the risks involved with new technologies (1991). The mindsets of risk assessors, economists, and scientists in the United States prevent serious examination of the beneficiaries as well as the victims of these central dogmas.

Japan's development in the post-war has its own set of symbols and mindsets that have driven it, but in structure they are very much like those of the United States. The government-industry machine that Johnson and others have detailed is a real force driving the nation, but there are covert ideological components beyond the expressive institutions of power of government and industry. More than a notion of "progress," the notion of "rebuilding the country" has been central in the minds of Japanese during the post-war era, so that standing in the way of the country's rebuilding in Japan is synonymous to standing in the way of progress in the US. Few individuals question the intense export-oriented machine that government industry cooperation has built, nor for that matter do they examine the beneficiaries and victims of its course. The people of Sakaki have become the foot soldiers for this grand export machine, but they are now in danger of being run over by it and obliterated. The strategy of young people in Japan today demonstrates the hopelessness with which people face the power of this centralized system. Seeing no hope to change it themselves, young people are content to simply position themselves in a path of least resistance, which in itself is contradictory to notions of continuous revitalization.


[1] See Nitobe 1969 and Musashi 1974 for a description of the modern principles of bushido or the way of the warrior as contemporary principles informing the behavior of the employees of the large urban corporations.

Grass-roots industry in the town of Sakaki: an alternative perspective of the Japanese post-war "miracle"

Copyright (C) 1992, 2004 by Christopher Romig Keener.

         CHAPTER 1
         CHAPTER 2
         CHAPTER 3
         CHAPTER 4