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The Blowback World of Chalmers Johnson

Remembering the man and his work.

| Mon Apr. 11, 2011 2:29 PM PDT

It was an uncomfortable time to be the chairman of Berkeley's Center for Chinese Studies and a consultant for the CIA's Board of National Estimates. Chal had accepted CIA Director Richard Helms's invitation to become a consultant because he believed the Agency was then producing some of the most accurate reporting on China (and also, as would later be revealed, on Vietnam). At the same time, Chal also managed to write and publish another book about Japan, Conspiracy at Matsukawa—a complicated tale set during the post-World War II American occupation of that country that revealed a great deal about Japanese police methods and American interference in the country's politics.

The summer it came out, Chal spent a month by himself in Japan, decompressing from five turbulent years in Berkeley. During this time he wrote me a series of charming letters about his sudden realization that he was tired of following the ups and downs of Maoist China at a distance and wanted to return to doing concrete research about Japan. An old Japanese friend suggested that he should take up the study of an important branch of Japan's bureaucracy, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, or MITI, a subject that would come to preoccupy him for a decade.

In 1974, he was the first person to explain in English the Japanese system of amakudari, whereby retired bureaucrats were hired by big businesses to smooth their future relations with the government that regulated them—not unlike the revolving door in Washington that regularly spins retiring politicians and retired military officers into the arms of large American firms eager to lobby the government.

In 1975, he published an important article, "Japan: Who Governs? An Essay on Official Bureaucracy," but with a sabbatical from teaching looming, he also wondered whether he needed to write yet another book. Hadn't he already written enough about MITI? "Well," I said, "you have all of this historical material. It would be a pity just to throw it away."

And so, in the fall of 1980, Chal began work on MITI and the Japanese Miracle: The Growth of Industrial Policy, 1925-1975. He started, as he always did, by first reading through all his files and indexing whatever he wanted to use. Knowing the story he wanted to tell, he then wrote with intensity and speed, producing two chapters a month. He was working this fast, he told me, because the material was so complex that he could hold it in his head only a short time. With eight chapters in hand, he was exhausted. When he told me, "I was going to write a concluding chapter, but I've said it all, haven't I?" I agreed.

We sent off the manuscript to Jess Bell, a friend and the publisher of Chal's other books at Stanford University Press. He wrote back that he would, of course, publish the book, but it did need a concluding chapter, a "take-home" message. We laughed, because we realized he was right.

Chal was then well aware that one of the unusual and controversial aspects of his description of MITI and its World War II-era predecessor, the Ministry of Munitions, was the continuity between them in both practices and personnel. Unlike most books about modern Japan that drew a sharp dividing line at the Japanese defeat in 1945, Chal's did not. He knew that his implicit message, if made explicit, might just as well have been labeled the jocular title adman Jerry Della Femina once proposed for a Panasonic ad: From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor. Still, he wrote a concluding chapter in record time, and when the book was published in early 1982, both he and Jess were amused that reviewers singled it out for special praise.

In the fall of 1982, our home phone rang and it was Henry Rosovsky, then dean of the Harvard faculty as well as a friend who had taught at Berkeley and been a member of Chal's Ph.D. orals committee. I knew at once what this call was about: like a summons from the Vatican, Harvard had at last decided to offer Chal a job.

Of course, we would go for a "look-over" and give it serious thought. We knew a number of people at Harvard, even if we worried about the winter climate because of Chal's rheumatoid arthritis. As it turned out, we liked Boston and Cambridge a great deal, but Harvard struck us both as too patrician and too full of itself. Chal asked one of his Harvard friends what he would be asked to teach, and the reply was: "Oh, Chalmers, at the level you're being hired, you don't have to teach anything you don't want to. The only thing you must never refuse is a request to speak to the Harvard alumni."

As we flew back to California, Chal commented glumly, "They want me as a moose-head professor—to hang my head on the wall and say they've bagged me." We chose to stay at Berkeley for another six years.

Back to Economics

Even before the MITI book was published, the Japanese had expressed an interest in translating it, and the first reactions there were great pride in Chal's description of their postwar economic growth and how it had been achieved. But as Japan's trade deficits with the US grew along with calls for US tariffs on Japanese automobiles and other products, Chal came to be characterized as a "Japan-basher."

It's true that writing MITI and the Japanese Miracle had reawakened his interest in economic theory, and he did, in the end, come to agree with critics who accused Japan of not providing a level playing field. He was, however, also interested in seeing the US adopt some of Japan's state-guided development methods or "industrial policy." This was anathema to most American economists and politicians, and so Chal came under attack from Americans as well. When Japan's economy became stagnant, while China's (also heavily state-guided) economy began to grow rapidly, MITI's methods were simply dismissed in the United States.

In the winter of 1985, Chal had his first major "episode" of rheumatoid arthritis, a disease he had been diagnosed with in his early twenties. In fact, a Navy doctor even suggested he could use it to avoid serving in the military, a suggestion that Chal declined. For the next 30 years, he survived on large doses of aspirin or stronger painkillers. Then, in the space of a few hours, he suddenly was running a high fever, while his body, painful even to the touch of a sheet, became as rigid as an I-beam. A week in the hospital on heavy doses of cortisone sent him back to the university with a cane and the need to lecture sitting down. Like a midlife heart attack, that incident acted as a wake-up call, and we began to think about moving to a warmer, drier climate.

In 1987, the San Diego campus of the University of California was creating a new School of International Relations and Pacific Studies that would offer an MA combining business courses with Asian area studies and languages. It seemed like an interesting experiment and a good fit for Chal's interests and abilities. When he began working there in 1988, Chal was 57 years old and we assumed that he would teach for at least eight more years. Then as now, however, the state of California was experiencing big budget deficits and the university was anxious to retire highly paid senior professors and replace them with cheaper, often temporary, staff.

So in 1992, Chal took early retirement. His departure was acrimonious because by then it was clear that much of the faculty at his school was determined to study Asia through the lens of "rational choice theory." Much like other theories that sweep through academic disciplines—structural-functionalism, behaviorism, Marxism—rational choice theory provided a template (with its own specialized, jargonistic vocabulary) to explain how nations function, whereas Chal's approach was always to proceed inductively, beginning with the data on the ground.

He wrote several stinging, acerbic articles about trends in academic political science, and then—quite by accident—he was offered a chance to form a small "think-tank" in which to showcase what he considered good research on Asian societies. It was called the Japan Policy Research Institute (JPRI), and for almost 12 years it would publish monthly papers on north and southeast Asia, hold conferences open to the public, promote books, and focus attention on much neglected policy issues, including the heavily US-garrisoned Japanese island of Okinawa, which Chal came to call "the American Raj."

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