Your RDA of Irony

I Sink; Therefore I Was

According to the best-sellers list from 20 years ago, the Japanese were expected to be running the universe by now. The Yen was almighty, and the rest of the world was simply Japan’s outer islands. Any aspiring entrepreneur was told to think like a samurai–except for the hara-kiri. Corporations restructured themselves on the basis of two viewings of “Yojimbo.”

Of course, we now know that the Chinese will dominate the world. (No, it was not a case of mistaken identity. There is a physical difference between the Chinese and Japanese; the Japanese dress better.) The Japanese may actually have overworked. While putting in 80 hours a week at the job, they forgot to reproduce. Perhaps a 15 minute “coppy” break in the work day could have replenished the demographics; unfortunately, the Japanese sense of hygiene must have been a detriment. Japan now has a dwindling population.

No, the Japanese “invincibility” of the Eighties was simply that they were methodical. They knew a good idea when they stole one. Think of all the Japanese inventions. That didn’t take long. But consider how they successfully developed and marketed those products. If you would like an American television set, go to the Smithsonian. In fact, Japan was the first to use cheap Chinese labor for manufacturing. (The Chinese also know a good idea when they steal it.)

The Japanese are thoroughly methodical but they have no talent for improvision. How many Japanese comedians do you know? At an open-mike night in a Tokyo club, people would reenact their favorite scenes from Kabuki. This lack of spontaneity would explain why Kirosawa made so few comedies and why the Japanese lost the battle of Midway.

On this day in 1942, a Japanese fleet found itself totally disoriented (sorry but I couldn’t resist) by the presence of a smaller American force at Midway. The Japanese were surprised to find three evidently hostile aircraft carriers confronting them. No doubt, the Japanese would have liked a few days to contemplate the petals of a chrysanthemum and develop a brilliant strategy in a haiku. But we Americans are always in a rush–fighting a two-front war can be hectic–so we rather brusquely sank four Japanese carriers. Apparently, Zen is not a good defense.

If the Japanese were a more spontaneous people, they would not been so stupified by the surprises of war. Did they think that they had a monopoly on surprise attacks? Admiral Yamamoto did graduate work at Harvard but apparently none at the Lampoon. Just imagine if the Japanese fleet at Midway had been commanded instead by a Groucho Marx. The Japanese could have quickly reacted and reduced the American fleet to the equivalent of Margaret Dumont.

But the Japanese mind lacked that flexibility. You can’t fly by the seat of your pants when wearing a kimono.

  1. Peggles says:

    Yamamoto might not have had a good sense of humor, but he was dead right about awakening “a sleeping giant and filling him with a terrible resolve.”

  2. December 8th, 1941: Admiral Isokuru Yamamoto expressed his embarrassment that there had been an American naval base at Pearl Harbor. “Really?” exclaimed the recipient of a master’s degree from Harvard. “I just thought it was just one of our video games…and not a very good one at that. I’m so sorry; we’ll be more careful in the future.”

    Franklin Roosevelt accepted the apology. “A Harvard man wouldn’t lie.”

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