James Fallows on China vs. Japan

James Fallows, one of my favorite journalists, who is currently at The Atlantic, was interviewed on Bob Edwards’ radio show. Fallows’ opinions and insights are really valuable to me because he lived in Japan in the 1980s for a number of years, and recently moved back from China where he had been for a number of years in this decade. So he’s had significant personal experience living in both Japan and China- something which most pundits or journalists don’t have.

You can download the audio here:

The Japan vs. China portion starts at 11:30 on the podcast.

Bob Edwards: So what about this rivalry between Japan and China?

James Fallows: The… you and I have over the years discussed Japan and China from time to time. Probably the two most different seeming places I have ever lived have been Japan and China in the sense that, yes they have a similar-based diets, similar belief systems, similar writing systems- all the rest. But Japan has been a rich country now for a century and a half and prides itself on order, discipline, precision. China is still on average a very poor country, and it’s the most disorderly place you’re ever going to see. In Japan people stop at the stoplights even at 2 AM and there is no body else there. In China, they don’t stop [at the stoplights] even if it’s 3 PM and there’s a million people running them down. And so there is an interesting rivalry in that as a sign of how much richer Japan is, China only this year is passing Japan as an economy, even though China has ten times as many people. So Japan is ten times richer per person. But there is no love lost between them at all. On Chinese public TV almost every night you see a documentary about the rape of Nanking, or the Japanese occupation. This is hammered home non-stop – the Japanese offenses. The Japanese are not as sensitive to this as they might be and their politicians have kept going to the war shrines which really infuriates the Chinese. And so I think it is a source of instability in that part of the world and it may be a reason that Japan stays allied with the US longer than they might otherwise just because their [Japan’s] relationship with the US, while complex, is more friendly than their relationship with China overall- despite the cultural connections.

Bob Edwards: Does that mean China is more open to innovation?

James Fallows: Yes, in this sense. I think that it [China] is certainly more open to foreigners and foreignness in every way and I’d explain it like this way: it’s kind of a cliche but true nonetheless that China is sort of like the US culturally. They [China and the US] are both big continental nations with different ethnic groups. The Chinese officially have fifty-six ethnic minorities, or fifty-five after their main ethnic group. And with the idea that there are a lot of people glued together by a common government, a common language, etc. Whereas Japan it’s homogeneity, it’s tightness, it’s closed-ness. And this has made China, over the years, more open to foreign scholars, foreign marriages, foreign companies. China has been wide open to foreign investment over the last 30 years which Japan has been more of a fraught place. So China is very, very open to innovation on the personal, ad-hoc scale. Japan has been much more successful as a source of high-end invention and advancements because their universities are basically good and China’s [universities] are basically terrible. But as an ‘open’ place, Americans find China more open, despite it’s Communist government, and Japan much more tight and hard to penetrate.

Bob Edwards: Even though it’s a democracy.

James Fallows: Even though it’s a democracy, and one of the few democracies that makes us [Americans] feel better about our own.

Bob Edwards: *laughing*

James Fallows: They [Japan] have had a sequence of failed prime ministerships and one party in power for most of the post-war period until now.

One comment on “James Fallows on China vs. Japan
  1. Lee Love says:

    Japan dealt with invaders by keeping them out. The seas were a natural barrier, similar to Ireland, but more effective. China has always absorbed invaders into their great mass. Not being colonized is why Japan could jump into the “First World” so quickly. One of the negative aspects of America dropping the bomb on Japan, is that the Japanese seem to think it cleansed them of their war time atrocities. About all you hear about in Japan about WWII, is the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. If they’d be more aware of their responsibilities in Asia from the last centuries, they would have much better relations. Like Germany does.