I had the privilege of hearing Taggart Murphy speak a few weeks ago at our Rotary Club of Bangkok South luncheon meeting. Murphy is an engaging and genuinely interesting speaker, and I was very interested to hear his thoughts on Japanese politics, economics, and culture. His presentation inspired me to purchase his recent book “Japan and the Shackles of the Past”, which was published in December 2014 by Oxford University Press.
Murphy is a Professor of International Political Economy at the MBA Program in International Business at the Tokyo campus of the University of Tsukuba. He is also a former Investment Banker, and was a Non-Resident Senior Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“Japan and the Shackles of the Past” is very well researched and presented, and is organized into two parts. Part One is titled “The Forging of the Shackles” and presents a very thorough political, economic, and cultural history of Japan. Murphy diligently educates the reader in the historical and cultural foundations upon which Japanese society has been constructed.
Part Two is titled “The Shackles Trap Today’s Japan”, and is organized into chapters focused on “Economy and Finance”, “Business”, “Social and Cultural Change”, “Politics”, and “Japan and the World.”
Murphy has very thoroughly researched and presented both the rich historical background and the complex, opaque, and frequently contradictory nature of modern day Japanese culture and politics.
The final chapter of the book “Japan and the World” primarily deals with Japan’s current events and geopolitical challenges and strategy starting in mid 2010. With out a doubt, this is by far the most interesting and thought provoking chapter in the book. Murphy skillfully analyzes, interprets, and anticipates Japan’s current events and strategy by frequently referencing the foundational material presented in the previous 10 chapters.
It is clear in the final chapter that Murphy has shifted his author’s perspective from cultural and economic historian to geopolitical and economic analyst and strategist. He objectively explains current events, and then presents his subjective analysis of these events based on his extensive knowledge of Japanese history and culture.
Murphy does not evaluate Japan in a vacuum; he is always careful to diligently explain the broad geopolitical and economic external forces which are confronting and challenging Japan. He observes that “China is the greatest power in the region; it always has been and always will be.” He notes that though China has had periods of internal weakness, the latest and longest such period having began with the Opium Wars, “there is simply no plausible way in which China’s re-emergence as the preeminent power in Asia can be derailed.”
Of the USA, Murphy notes that “the United States does not fundamentally care about Japan. That does not mean to say that many Americans do not have some sort of personal tie with the country and thus regard it with affection.” He further explains that “American elites rarely see Japan as anything other than a military asset, as a tool to realize a dream … that the United States can somehow achieve … a world where it faces no potential threat, no potential challenge — ‘full spectrum dominance’ to use the language of America’s deluded military planners.” He describes this dream as a “tragic and foolhardy illusion.” Murphy discusses President Eisenhower’s warning of the emergence of a military – industrial complex “that would destroy American democracy unless brought to heel.” He anticipates that “the American Empire is doomed to failure because it is structurally and institutionally ignorant of the wider world. Only a demolition of the national security state can remedy this ignorance.”
Murphy explains that “China wants the United States out of Asia far more badly than the United States wants to stay in the region; Beijing has embarked on a long and high-stakes game to see it happen. The stakes may be equally high for Tokyo, but they are not for most Americans, and when that becomes clear, the US – Japan ‘alliance’ will crumble, leaving Japan alone and friendless.”
Murphy discusses Japan’s need to rejoin Asia. He notes that “Japan’s original sin lies in its attempts to separate itself from Asia. The sin is understandable but the repercussions have been horrendous.” Looking to the future, Murphy observes that it “seems safe to predict the coming close of the 500 – year ascendancy of the West and the return of the fulcrum of human history to East Asia. Japan has potentially a central role to play in this, but only as an Asian country accepted by its neighbors as such.”
I highly recommend reading Taggart Murphy’s “Japan and the Shackles of the Past”. It is a great compliment to my other two recent recommendations, “Asian Godfathers” and “How Asia Works”, both by Joe Studwell.