Interview
with
Professor T.J. Pempel

University of California, Berkeley

July 20, 2005

Topics

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Introduction and Early Study of Japan

RCA: Today we are joined by Dr. T.J. Pempel, Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley, and Director of Berkeley’s Institute of East Asian Studies. Welcome to Japan Considered, T.J. Let’s begin by learning what brought you to the study of econo-political Japan.

PEMPEL: I went into the Marine Corps straight out of high school. I graduated in 1960, spent four years in the Marines, and the last fourteen months of that was spent in Japan. That was my first overseas experience, the first time outside the U.S.

Initially, I didn’t expect to get particularly involved with Japan, or particularly interested in Japan. But in the last seven or eight months of my time there I managed to break away from the areas around the military base, got to know a number of Japanese pretty well, interacted with various college students and professionals, and developed a much greater interest in Japan.

When I got out of the Marines in April of 1964, I started at Columbia, and at that time was convinced that my principal intellectual interests were going to be political science. I made one of those decisions that probably was the indication of the stupidity of youth. I assumed that since I needed a language requirement, it would be a lot easier for me to continue with the minimal Japanese I had picked up when I was in Japan than to go back and try to resurrect my four years of Spanish. So I started Japanese at Columbia. Then the combination of language study and majoring in political science came together when I entered graduate school, also at Columbia. I started to do more work on Japanese politics. That’s the essence of the story. [Return to Topics]

Study at Columbia

RCA: Who did you work with at Columbia.

PEMPEL: Jim Morley primarily. But you may know that … Well, I worked with Jim Morley; I worked with Herb Passin; I worked with Herschel Webb. Gerry Curtis had just finished his dissertation about the time that I came back from the field. So I did some seminar work with Gerry as well. Jim Morley was there and teaching for my first year of graduate school. He then went to the U.S. Embassy to do cultural attaché work for two years. Bill Steslicke was his replacement for that two-year period. I also worked with Bill. But Jim was chair of my thesis committee. Gerry was on it; Herschel was on it; Herb was on it. That was the basic core of people with whom I worked on Japan.

RCA: How did you find the Japanese language training at Columbia?

PEMPEL: Frustratingly focused on translation from Japanese to English. When I went to the field to begin my dissertation work, I’d had five years of Columbia language study. But I found myself in the curious position of going into shops and not having a clue about what people were saying. I had to ask them to write down what they were trying to convey to me. Then I would read the kanji and I’d have a much clearer sense that, for example, they were going to deliver the gas at 3:00 the next afternoon. But Japanese shopkeepers were absolutely stunned that I didn’t have the capacity to comprehend the spoken language in such simple ways, and had to ask them to put things into kanji.

RCA: Did you do any Japanese language training in Japan after that?

PEMPEL: I did. I worked with a tutor, Kamikawa-sensei, studying with him three or four days a week for two or three hours a day. That helped a lot. I also did work subsequently at the Franciscan Center at Roppongi, when I was living in Minato-ku. Typically, when I’ve been in Japan for any extended period of time I’ve done language work. But I never did go to the Inter-University Center. [Return to Topics]

How Japan Has Changed Since the Early 1960s

RCA: You must have first arrived in Japan about 1963. Do you have any general comments on how Japan has changed since the time you first saw it?

PEMPEL: With hindsight, I think I was in Japan just before some major breakthroughs in Japan’s economy and position in the world. Japan really made a big leap forward with the Tokyo Olympics in ’64. The build-up to that involved highway construction, development of the Shinkansen, and so forth. I was in an area called Iwakuni, which is down in Yamaguchi Prefecture. That’s much more of a rural area, to begin with.

I saw something of a Japan that was, if not pre-industrial, certainly very early in the industrial and manufacturing and big-Japan phase that we came to know by the ‘70s and ‘80s. Things began to change quite a bit in ‘64. I went back for my dissertation research in ’70 and ’71, and was in Tokyo. By then, Japan clearly was beginning to make major steps forward.

Japan in the early-to-mid ‘70s was still very divided politically at home. I did my dissertation work on various aspects of higher education. One of the things I was particularly interested in was the student movement. During the 1970s, 1970 and 1971, for example, Japan was still in the midst of massive protests over student rights, opposition to the war in Vietnam. There was still a strong residue of hostility to American bases.

That, I think, is no longer the case. I think that pretty much disappeared by the mid- to late-70s. Going back in the ‘80s and the ‘90s, and going back today, I see a Japan that’s much less internally polarized, with a much weaker political Left. There are no serious student protests, no serious residues of Marxism. So in that sense too it’s become a very different Japan. [Return to Topics]

Experiences at Cornell, Wisconsin, and Washington

RCA: You’ve had an usually diverse academic career. No other Japan specialist I know has been a senior faculty member at four major institutions in the United States. How did these institutions differ in their approach to researching and teaching about Japan?

PEMPEL: Cornell was an exceptionally valuable experience for me intellectually. I went to Cornell from Columbia. In some respects, I think, I tried to look at Japan and Japanese studies through a somewhat different lens at Cornell than had been used at Columbia. I think Columbia was very much driven by the typical area studies approach, with a lot of focus on questions relating to U.S. policies toward Japan, recent socio-political-economic developments in Japan, squished somewhat together.

At Cornell I was in what was called the Government Department, and did a lot of team-teaching with folks who were particularly interested in industrial democracies in both North America and Western Europe. It was very valuable training experience for me. I team-taught with Peter Katzenstein and Doug Ashford a couple of years in a row a seminar on comparative public policy of advanced democracies.

One of the things I recall from that experience was their unwillingness to allow me to talk about Japan in many of the ways that were commonly accepted within area studies. Stress, for example, on ways in which Japan’s social welfare policies were an outgrowth of Japanese culture and a belief in the Japanese family structure, etc., etc.

It wasn’t that they didn’t think these thinks were important. But they continually forced me to ask question about why Japan does it one way, when, say, Britain or Germany, does it in a completely different way.They urged me to focus on political and economic, rather than cultural explanations, as to why Japan's patterns were so different. That got me thinking much more deeply about the links among politics, economics, and policy within the country.

The outgrowth of this, I think, was to sharpen my thinking about Japan and its politics in ways that were relevant to comparative political scientists. As you may know, a book that I did called Policy and Politics in Contemporary Japan: Creative Conservatism, was part of a series that Doug, Peter, and I did on the politics of advanced industrial democracies.

I think that the Cornell experience got me thinking about Japan in terms that tried to make the country accessible to and understandable by people who worked on other industrial democracies but were interested in common questions about economic development, or about the power of labor, or about social welfare policy.

In some respects, my Cornell experience helped me, and probably helped shift the field a little bit, toward a greater appreciation of the way in which you could learn about Japan by thinking comparatively about it, and ways in which you could analyze Japan as something that would be relevant, not just to Japan specialists, but to people who were interested in some common analytic questions.

Going to Wisconsin was a little trickier because that was a very short experience for me. The Center for Japanese Studies, or the East Asia Program there, had lost a couple of very important people. John Dower had left a year or two or three before I got there. Susan Pharr had the place in political science, and had left. Sol Levine in the Business School had left as well. I originally had been hired to help build the program at Wisconsin. But Donna Shalala, who was then Chancellor, wound up moving to President Clinton’s Cabinet about the time I arrived. So many of the promises for development there were in Washington rather than in Madison. So I didn’t stick around for very long.

But the Madison approach, and the Madison Political Science Department, tended to be much more quantitative, and much more close to the ground. I don’t think it had as big an effect on my own thinking as, for example, the Cornell experience.

At Washington, there also was a very strong residue of the area studies program. I was in the Jackson School. In essence, I was hired for a position in international studies rather than in Japanese studies. So my involvement with Japan always was somewhat marginal. I didn’t teach any Japan-specific courses while I was at Washington. Well, one or two seminars for advanced undergraduates.

The Japan program within the Jackson School at Washington was a masters and undergraduate levels only. Although departments like Political Science and East Asian Languages and Literature were able to offer PhDs. So I did work with a couple of PhD students there, and did, I think, have some capacity to influence their research.

But one of the great things about the program at Washington was that they were the headquarters for the Journal of Japanese Studies. They had a very strong commitment to looking at Japan from multiple disciplines simultaneously. Ken Pyle had a very powerful effect on the development of the program there, as did Kozo Yamamura, Sue Hanley, and Don Hellmann. But there really was much more of the area studies approach, similar perhaps to Columbia’s than had been my experience at Cornell. [Return to Topics]

New Responsibilities at Berkeley

And to round it off with Berkeley, now I am directing the Institute of East Asian Studies, which has three separate centers, one each for Korea, Japan, and China. Each of those centers is somewhat a mix of area studies and disciplinary studies. The different scholars involved in it represent their disciplines and the broader area questions. I sit somewhat on top of all three of these.

As is reflected in a lot of my research, I’ve become more interested in issues of Asian regional development and intra-regional interactions. So now I’m in a position where I’m moving a bit away from some of the comparative questions that had interested me, and getting much more interested in the security and economic regional linkages. So, the fact that we have three very strong centers here, dealing with each of the three major powers in East Asia, gives me a high-level vantage point from which to look at a number of these issues and concerns.

Unlike any of the other programs that I’ve been involved with, the Berkeley program also is very interested in interaction with the business and political communities here in the Bay Area. Cornell was always described as “centrally isolated.” I don’t think anybody on the Cornell faculty had any idea of being involved in policy discussions or debates, except at the very margins. The same was somewhat true in Seattle, though Ken Pyle was very involved in the development of the National Bureau of Asian Research.

Here in the Bay Area, I’ve gotten much more involved with the policy community. And I think that’s been a tradition that goes back to the founder of the Institute, who is very well known to anyone working on Japan: Bob Scalapino. So I’ve got Bob’s old job. In many respects, I’m falling heir to the efforts to keep the program positioned in the policy community here, while keeping it respectable academically.

RCA: That sounds like a challenge.

TJ I’d like to think that years in the field gives you the opportunity to step further back and see connections among things, to see things from a higher vantage point, to look more at the forest than at the trees. But I’ll leave it to my critics and to those who follow me to decide if I’m doing that, to determine the tradeoff between broad overview and superficiality. [Return to Topics]

Contributions to the Study of Econo-Political Japan

RCA: Well, you’ve had the experience to do it. Can we now turn to your own research on econo-political Japan? What do you consider your most important contribution to English language scholarship on econo-political Japan?

PEMPEL: If I have to choose one thing, I think I helped to integrate Japan into the mainstream of comparative politics. Certainly that wasn’t a single-handed achievement. Lots of other people helped to make that move. But when I first began writing about Japan, there were chapters on Japanese politics, for example, in books on comparative politics or Western Europe. Almost invariably there’d be six Europeans writing and cross-referencing common literatures and so forth. Then chapter eight would be “Japan: The Exception.” Some guy would be dragged in from Japan to write an article that described how Japan’s social welfare policy could be traced back to the Tokugawa heritage, or something like that. There was always the sense of Japan being the outlier that nobody quite understood.

Just to cite a couple of things, I had a chapter very early in my career in a book by Peter Katzenstein called Between Power and Plenty, which tried to look at the whole question of Japan’s economic growth in ways that made sense to people working on France, working on Britain, working on Germany, etc. That book still is in print and I think the chapter I wrote still has some credibility.

I also wrote a chapter in a book by Philippe Schmitter called "Corporatism Without Labor." I did it with Keiichi Tsunekawa who was then a graduate student at Cornell and now is a professor at Tokyo University. "Corporatism Without Labor" also, I think, helped people working on comparative politics to think about Japan in ways that at a broad structural level made many of its behaviors understandable. Particularly, the relatively low political power of organized labor in Japan, compared with industrial democracies in Western Europe. [Return to Topics]

The Advantages of Studying Japan Comparatively

I’ve tried to continue that approach with a number of the things that I’ve written. And I always try when looking at Japan to keep in mind what’s going on in other industrial democracies. So I’d like to think that I helped pave the way for other people to pick up that kind an agenda, to ask broadly comparative questions about Japan, and to try to be sensitive to the writings done on other industrial democracies, and use them to think about Japan. And conversely, to think about Japan in ways that would be comprehensible to people who didn’t have ten years of Japanese language and the capacity to read about Japan in great depth in fifteen magazines a month.

RCA: That’s a real contribution. When in Washington I was surprised to learn how little American Japan specialists knew about American government.

PEMPEL: I think that’s probably true. One last item on this. So often early studies of Japan, if they made any comparisons, made them to the United States. In many ways that left a strange feeling about Japan because Japan was seen as odd since it wasn’t like Washington. When, in fact, the U.S. really is the oddity among the industrial democracies. The whole system of checks and balances, the bureaucratic system here; the absence of major social welfare programs. A whole host of things. The United States really is very much a political outlier. Japan looks a little less crazy or weird when you know something about France, or Italy, or Germany, than if you only know about the United States. [Return to Topics]

Significance of the End of the Cold War for Japan

RCA: You are one of the early ones to point this out and urge better general understanding. To shift to Japan more specifically, what do you believe the significance of the end of the Cold War is for Japan’s political economy?

PEMPEL: I’m not sure that the domestic political economy has been profoundly affected by this. But certainly there is tremendous chronological overlap between the bursting of the Japanese bubble in 1991 and the end of the Cold War, in 1989 and 1990. So, certainly things look very correlated. That is to say, Japan was growing very well during the Cold War, in close alliance with the United States, until the Cold War ended. Then, lo and behold, in the subsequent almost fifteen years, Japan’s economy has had more problems.

I don’t think there’s really a causal connection there. But I do think that we are starting now to see the United States far less willing to base its East Asian policies on Japan and consider the U.S.-Japan alliance as the starting-point for U.S. foreign policy. Particularly since 9/11, but I think going all of the way back to the end of the Cold War, we’ve seen some phenomena linked to “Japan passing,” closer ties between the United States and China, more U.S. willingness to balance in East Asia than had been true before.

And I think we’ve seen in the last couple of years a Japanese political establishment, pushed by Koizumi in particular, trying to re-forge and re-link Japan’s foreign policy and strategy to that of the United States. So in that sense, I think it’s made a big difference. But I don’t think that the end of the Cold War per se has had much effect on things like Japanese finance or Japanese monetary policy, trade policies, or the like. I think those are driven by rather independent forces.

RCA: How about the political structure? The end of the 1955 System, and things like that? Do you see relationships there?

PEMPEL: As I tried to argue in my book, Regime Shift, I think in many respects that the end of the 1955 System was something of a product of Japan’s tremendous economic success. In many ways the 1955 System worked so well that it created the dynamic for its own ending.

In effect, the 1955 System rested very heavily on a lot of agricultural votes, a lot of small business votes, a lot of perceptions of anti-Communism, a lot of willingness of people to support the LDP because of their economic positions, because of their Cold War thinking, because of anti-Communism, etc. In many ways, the 1955 System created a dynamic middle class, it shrunk the agricultural population, it brought, in effect, department stores to the boondocks. The end result was that by the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, Japan’s voters no longer were willing to say, “Gee whiz, we really like paying eight times the world price for rice; it’s critical in order to maintain food security, and we’ve got to keep foreign goods out.”

Japanese who had money were able to fly to Paris, fly to New York. They realized you didn’t have to pay $35 for a cantaloupe. So, I think in many ways the success of the 1955 System was to achieve the high levels of economic growth, the levels of industrialization, the levels of global integration, the levels of personal wealth and middle class status that challenged the original premises of the LDP.

Those have been the forces that the current LDP is finding it so difficult to deal with. Some elements in the LDP are very anxious to embrace a more internationalized Japan, on the one hand, while others are opposing it, trying to keep the LDP rooted in a more narrow nationalism and a more protectionist economy. I think that is the dynamic that Japan is having to confront now. But it’s one in which the 1955 System has essentially, as far as I am concerned, shifted, and ended rather dramatically. [Return to Topics]

Current Research Interests

RCA: What research projects are you working on these days?

PEMPEL: Candor requires that I acknowledge the fact that a lot of the things I’ve written have been project-driven, driven by opportunities to participate in this, that, or the other conference, frequently part of collective agendas with other scholars. I have worked with Muramatsu Michio. More recently, I did a book with Ellis Krauss. We did an edited book called Beyond Bilateralism which examined, with some excellent scholars, the changing nature of U.S.-Japan relations. I also just finished a different edited book
called Remapping East Asia that examines developments that are leading to a
closer set of ties within the Asian region. Now I'm at the point where having finished a couple of major studies in the last three or four years, I’m sitting back and asking myself what I want to write when I grow up.

I’m tempted, on the one hand, to write a rather general book on Japan’s political economy which tries to capture at a level accessible to a reasonably informed Japan studies audience, and political science audience, what I think are the key drivers of Japan’s political economy. This would be sort of a short book that I would hope would have a reasonably wider audience than the usual academic book.

But I’m simultaneously very interested in the processes of Asian regionalism and regionalization. I’ve been involved in a number of Track Two dialogues – CSCAP, the Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue, and so forth -- that involve meetings dealing with questions of East Asian security. And I’m certainly going to be writing in that area as well.

So I think I’ve got two very different directions to my agenda. One, trying to write something much more synthetic, and, if you will, a more comprehensive look at Japan’s political economy over the entire postwar period. And secondarily, looking in a new way at what’s going on in the Asian region? How are Japan and the other major countries dealing with the competing pulls of regional integration, on the one hand, versus pulls away toward nationalism and xenophobia, on the other hand. I am hoping I can pursue both of these simultaneously.

RCA: What will you do in your spare time?

PEMPEL: As you know, I run. I’ve been a competitive road racer for the past 30 years. I run pretty much daily. I’m also a scuba diver, and have had the good fortune to do 350-400 dives in ten or fifteen of the best diving sites in the world. So, I manage to get in a little R&R in the face of it all. [Return to Topics]

The Future of Japan Studies in the United States

What are your thoughts on the future of the study of Japan’s political economy?

PEMPEL: Well, I’m positively struck by the fact that many younger scholars are clearly interested in Japan and bring to the study of Japan much greater language capability than many of us from an older vintage had. Lots of younger folks who either grew up in Japan, or had the opportunity to be in Japan as high school students, studied Japanese language while they were in high school, or as undergraduates in college. Many of them now have the opportunity to go to Japan for a year or two years at the Inter-University Center.

And I think many of them are much more deeply grounded in political science than some of us who came earlier to the field. So there are a lot of smart, very interesting younger people who are asking comparatively interesting questions, and who are bringing to their study of Japan tremendous research skills, both in the language, and in quantitative studies, or an understanding of finance, or a deeper understanding of alliance politics than, I think, many folks had before. So, I’m quite encouraged by this.

Of course, students tend to allow their interests to follow the headlines. Japan now is losing a lot of attention as folks become much more excited about China, and the possibility they are going to sell 1.2 billion toothbrushes, make their fortune and retire by learning Chinese and studying China rather than Japan, where the slowdown in the Japanese economy has turned a lot of people off.

RCA: You suggest by your comments that the improvement in language capabilities of the younger people was due to their pursuit of economic opportunities, or the perception of opportunities. Maybe the economic decline will allow the linguistic stone to roll back down the hill.

PEMPEL: That may be the case. But I get the sense as well that the popular culture of Japan has become broadly interesting to a huge number of Americans. I find that there are a lot of 16- and 17-year-olds who have been studying katakana so they can read manga, and are doing a lot of Japanese gaming, and are becoming much more familiar with Japanese popular culture – anime, manga, etc.

So we may go through a period when Japanese studies moves from the political and economic side to a much greater concentration in anthropology, popular culture, and film studies for a while. That’s probably not at all bad. I think it’s probably going to reflect some of the reasons that Japan is broadly interesting to different groups of folks, depending on what’s going on in the country as a whole. And right now, if Japan has a message for the rest of the world, it’s probably a positive message coming out of popular culture rather than its economy. A lot of folks have been losing a lot of money betting on the turn-around of the Japanese economy in the next quarter for the last 60 quarters.

RCA: Even here at South Carolina my students know far more about anime and manga than I ever knew. But it doesn’t seem to drive them to study Japanese language in any depth. That seems to be a problem.

PEMPEL: That may be true. But Japanese popular culture certainly has become very big in the rest of Asia. It’s almost impossible to visit places like Singapore or Malaysia without being followed by things like karaoke, for example. Japanese manga show up in Southeast Asia on a regular basis. "Hello Kitty," and all the rest of those things in popular culture that I know too little about are very well absorbed down there. So, it’s an interesting time to watch it.

I guess one thing worth noting, at least in California, is that here in the Bay Area we simply have a much larger number of Asian Americans as a proportion of the population than most other states. The Berkeley student enrolment, believe it or not, is over fifty percent Asian or Asian-American. In a lot of cases this means second or third-generation Cambodian-Americans who grew up in the Valley and have Asian faces, but have absolutely no interest in Asia, and zero linguistic ability, and who sound like the typical Valley Girls or Valley Boys who come out of Caucasian backgrounds. But there still is a huge pool.

We recently put in a proposal for integrating Chinese language study between the K-12 level and Berkeley's 13-16, to work with local high school students of Chinese language. California is home to something like one-third of the American high school students studying Chinese for the entire country. I don’t know the numbers for Japan, but I’d be surprised if it isn’t in the same rough order of magnitude. So, we find here that there are a lot of third-generation, fourth-generation Japanese-Americans and Chinese-Americans who now want to go back and find their roots, and do want to study the language. In many cases they are starting from scratch. Now, there’s nothing odd about being interested in Asia.

RCA: A promising trend. Thank you for joining us today. [Return to Topics]