James Fallows
James Fallows
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More Like Us:  Making America Great Again
ISBN: 0395498570
More Like Us: Making America Great Again
In More Like Us: Making America Great Again, James Fallows examines the cultural differences between the U.S. and Japan. Mr. Fallows celebrates the uniqueness of American culture and believes its strength lies in its diversity and tolerance. Mr. Fallows also discusses the political and economic relationship between America and Japan and ways in which the U.S. can compete with the Japanese
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TRANSCRIPT
More Like Us: Making America Great Again
Program Air Date: May 14, 1989

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: James Fallows, author of the new book "More Like Us: Making America Great Again." You spent a lot of time in Japan.
JAMES FALLOWS, AUTHOR, "MORE LIKE US: MAKING AMERICA GREAT AGAIN": I've been out of the U.S. for about three years. Half that time in Japan and half in Southeast Asia with my family.
LAMB: What was the first thing that you saw in Japan that surprised you?
JAMES FALLOWS: I suppose the first day I was surprised by how similar it looked to the West to America. There are McDonalds and there a..in Tokyo itself there are a lot of signs in English so you can believe for awhile that it's just the same. That was my initial surprise. Other surprises came later. Quickly later.
LAMB: Name a couple.
JAMES FALLOWS: Well I think the surprise of the first week or so in Japan or if anybody who's in Japan not living in a luxury hotel is how you have a country that we all know is so rich and yet it's not very rich. The way the people live is more like America 30 years ago or so. Or like maybe Italy now where the houses are small. We have a house in Yokhama now that is a very nice house newly built. But there's basically no heat in it. So we spend the winter shuffling around the house in long underwear and with a you know six pairs of socks. And just the the modestness of people's standard of living there is a big surprise when you've heard of Japan's tremendous success.
LAMB: You get the impression from reading about it and listing to the reports from out of there that they are better off than we are.
JAMES FALLOWS: Well they're better off in some theoret..well they're better off in one very practical way there is not crime there. Virtually no crime. My wife about a month ago the cliche happened to us. She lost about $500 in cash on the street in a little purse. There's nothing in there except cash. A hour later we went to the Police Box and sure enough it was there. Somebody had found it and taken it to the Police and just a pile of cash. That is something that is much better for them and there is no drugs to speak of. But the economic better offness you..it's all theoretical. It's these big bank accounts that are being invested back here. Anything you want to buy in Japan that's made in Japan a Japanese car a Japanese camera you should buy here. All those things are cheaper and Americans have more of them that Japanese people do.
LAMB: If and this is something that I have never been able to figure out and read about..if I went to Japan and like you've done and started living on the economy and I got a job let's say a teacher what would..a teacher here makes somewhere between $25,000 and $40,000 what would a teacher in Japan make?
JAMES FALLOWS: A teacher in Japan would make a little more than that but not a lot more. Across the board Japanese salaries are about the same as American now as the Yen has gotten stronger. Teachers are a special case because they have a little higher status in Japan. I mean they have a lot higher social status in Japan than in the U.S. and a slightly higher income status than in Japan. I think the difference is that some people in America make a ton of money and some people make none and there are fewer of those extremes in Japan.
LAMB: What's the reason for that? JF: Well the reason I think is..it's complicated. Part of it goes to the basic nature of their society versus ours. Their society is essentially one big tribe. I think of it as one big tribe where everybody is Japanese. And you have..that creates some things that we find Americans find irritating. For example this idea that you can't have anybody who is racially non Japanese accepted there. But it also has some benefits. There is a kind of family feeling that everybody is in the same boat. It also makes it possible for for families to take kind of take care of their own. It's like one rural town in Wisconsin magnified to the dimension of a whole of a whole country. So there are very few truly down and out people. There are some. There's a class of what we would think of as winos and bums in the big city but not permanent class of people in poverty. On the other extreme there are some people in Japan who have a lot of money in the basis of land. A few billionaires in Japan mainly because of land and a few big chains. But the entrepreneurial type route to wealth the H. Ross Perot system of wealth is not so honored there. It's more big companies working together as a big group.
LAMB: I want to tell our audience that among other things we are going to be talking about this book but James Fallows doesn't well at least recently hasn't gotten here this often so we've got a lot to talk to him about including his stay in Japan and Korea and Malaysia and trips to China and all over the Far East. Why did you go in the first place?
JAMES FALLOWS: One answer may sound flip but was serious. I'd been living in Washington for awhile and I wanted to be someplace else.
LAMB: How long did you live here?
JAMES FALLOWS: I'd been here off and on for well I'd been here for about seven or eight of the preceding ten years. So I'd been here for awhile and for about six years at a stretch I'd been in Washington. And I'm interested in Washington. Most of my friends are here. I have a house here. But the essence of Washington politics I was finding less and less interesting. And I wanted to see the delivery end of what people were talking about. Of how people talked about competitiveness here but I wanted to see what it looked like in Japan. I'd never been to Japan at all. I'd only been in Asia for one week before in my life. What I enjoy most about my kind of work where I don't have a real job is that I can go someplace and just learn about it myself. So that was our motive.
LAMB: Now I've heard you many times on NPR in the morning. I've also heard or read you in the Atlantic and I'm not sure about this but it seems like I've seen an op-ed piece or two.
JAMES FALLOWS: Yes.
LAMB: What kind of reaction have you gotten when you came back here? Are people hearing what you're doing?
JAMES FALLOWS: Well it is very hard for me to judge because I've been back here in the last three years for a total of about two weeks on a couple of trips. And you have the sense main..I have the mainly exhilarating sense in Japan of being out there on the frontier just kind of sending back these letters through the Pony Express but having no idea of whatever happens to them. I've..I record these NPR broadcasts sitting in my bathtub in my house in Tokyo. The bathroom is the only place that's quiet enough to record them and the only place I can fit is in this big deep bathtub. I put the recorder on my lap and record them. But I've never heard any of them broadcast so I am startled that anybody's ever heard any of these things or read the articles. I..the main reaction I'm aware of is in Japan where the Japanese pays a lot of attention to what Americans are saying about it. So I have full and frank discussions with the Japanese government repeatedly about things I have said that they are concerned about. That's the main response.
LAMB: How do you hear from them?
JAMES FALLOWS: I get a call from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and they say well you were complaining about this or that and we'd like to discuss this further and then I have a meeting and they bring in charts this high. And so it is not in any kind of an intimidating way but I think they are very very alert to what Americans are saying about Japan.
LAMB: Do you guess that we as a country do this in other countries.
JAMES FALLOWS: I think that the U.S. is much less sensitive to this sort of thing. That's mainly good. I think the Japanese are hypersensitive to this. They..and inclined to take any comment as a slight on them so I've tried in my own way to break them into the idea of friendly criticism.
LAMB: Do you respond by changing you opinion when they come and make these presentations?
JAMES FALLOWS: Well if there's a matter of fact where I gotten some fact wrong then I I either if there's a..I don't know of a case where I just said something that was just plainly wrong. But I am always willing to hear about new things. There are basic value judgements where we just disagree. For example I think many Japanese officials are surprised to hear that it..that as a white foreigner of Japan you encounter racial discrimination against you. And so that is something they're..they obviously they haven't experienced. When I write about that they are alarmed but what can they do about it. It's something that's happened to me so maybe I've seen. On the economic front we go over the charts. We talk them over and I write something else you know just based on my evolving understanding of what's happening there.
LAMB: Speak any Japanese?
JAMES FALLOWS: To a degree. We've all been studying. Our children are in Japanese schools. So they've gotten pretty pretty good. My wife and I have been studying. There are certain things that are easier and certain things that are harder about learning as an adult. It's I think easier as an adult learning a language to learn the grammar of it than for a child surprisingly enough. And..but my children are mortified when I try to speak Japanese in their presence since they sound the way they're supposed to and I don't.
LAMB: Now how old are they?
JAMES FALLOWS: They are 12 and almost 9.
LAMB: Two boys?
JAMES FALLOWS: Yes.
LAMB: And they go to Japanese schools?
JAMES FALLOWS: Yes.
LAMB: And they speak no English in Japanese schools?
JAMES FALLOWS: Right. There..I think one of the children's teacher speaks a little English and they have..so..but basically they spend all their day in Japanese.
LAMB: How do they do it?
JAMES FALLOWS: Well I think the way..you know this is not so unusual a thing. When we were living in Washington each year my elementary school here there'd be kids showing up from France or from Ghana or from Mexico or someplace else not speaking English and in a few months they were speaking English. So this this happens it just doesn't to Americans that often. But it's good for Americans to do.
LAMB: Do you find that your kids think in Japanese?
JAMES FALLOWS: Well I've been away now for 10 days. My wife said that one of our boys has started having..he'd wake up in the middle of the night and start having you know kind of nightmares in Japanese you know saying something in Japanese when he woke up. Yotamatgamth..Now wait a minute he'd be saying but calling out in Japanese when he was in the middle of a dream.
LAMB: What impact has it had on them to be in a Japanese society?
JAMES FALLOWS: I guess it will be a long time to really know that. But I think the impact has to be good for them. There is a kind of diversity Americans get used to living here because there are all different kinds of people in America. And so Americans get more used to that than say Japanese do because they are all Japanese there. But as a foreigner living both in Japan and the rest of Asia you get used to a lot of things for example my my children they are a little short on some basic American culture. They don't know as much about it as they should. One of them was asking which president came before or after the other. Was is George Washington or Jimmy Carter. What the order was between those two presidents. So we need to repair them on that when we come back. But they know all about Islams from when we were living in Malaysia. And they know about you know various Shinto rites and about the Tokagowa era from living in Japan. And they also know what it's like to be an outsider. To be the minority in a society that is not that fond of minorities. And that is also difficult and yet morally good for them in the long run.
LAMB: You mentioned earlier that you you get a sense of discrimination.
JAMES FALLOWS: Well it's not it's not like the U.S. in the 1930's or anything like that. There aren't..there were..there was a time about a year and a half ago when there were signs saying no gye gee no foreigners in the bathhouse or the sort of red light district of Tokyo during the AIDSs scare. Where there's very little..there's almost no AIDs in Japan. They thought that foreigners wanted to bring this in. But you don't encounter that sort of thing very often. What you do encounter is a sense of constant astonishment at your presence at your differentness that Japanese society is is so attuned to this tribal purity that they are just amazed to see somebody there who is not like them. And this is sometimes amusing and sometimes wears you down. You just want people to..well to to make it very specific it's..there is a phrase "gaijin da" which means it's an outsider. Which I hear maybe 50 times a day just my my mere existence I attract this phrase in a way that no Japanese person in America hears it's a Jap. You know which is the counterpart phrase. He doesn't hear that 50 times a day. Because of a different society I do hear that 50 times a day.
LAMB: What's your day like? You say you do your NPR commentaries in the bathtub. What else do you do on a normal day?
JAMES FALLOWS: I live in Yokhama (?) which is essentially a suburb of Tokyo so it's about maybe a 45 minute commute on a packed train to get downtown.
LAMB: How packed is that train?
JAMES FALLOWS: Well it depends on the time of day. I do everything I can not to leave my house before 9 a.m. because between 7:00 and 9:00 it's like nothing in the U.S. where you stand up on the platform and you line up in front of the maw (?) of the train. You know the train pulls in and it's already full, the doors slide open. Everybody stands there and the packers pack you in till..
LAMB: Packers?
JAMES FALLOWS: Packer of the packers. Yeah that's where..I forget what the word is in Japanese but they're little attendants. They have uniforms on. They have white gloves and their job is to pack you into the train. The doors close somebody's arm if often out they'll shove the guys arm in. And this is how people get to work. I try therefore not to make early morning appointments in Tokyo. But three or four days a week I go into Tokyo and spend all day interviewing people. The other days of the week I stay at home and talk to people on the phone and write things from my house.
LAMB: Do you have to have an interpreter?
JAMES FALLOWS: For to do serious business yes. I I have as I say I've been trying my best to learn Japanese and I can do my my neighborhood live in Japanese but I can't do serious business in Japanese.
LAMB: What's it cost you for an interpreter?
JAMES FALLOWS: It costs a lot. I have some friends..well I guess the standard rate is probably anywhere between $100 and $200 a day you know depending on skill.
LAMB: How do you..under what auspices are you over there in Japan? Who's paying your bills?
JAMES FALLOWS: I'm working mainly for the Atlantic which I've worked for for 10 years and which makes me very happy to work for them. I'm trying to earn money however I can the real point. We saved a lot of money when we were living in Malaysia because that was very cheap. I do I write sometime for Japanese publications which..you know in English and they interpret and they pay in Yen which I am grateful to have. My wife does various jobs there. She teaches English. So we all try whenever possible to bring in money to support our little enterprise.
LAMB: How long are you going to do this?
JAMES FALLOWS: This fall I believe we'll come home about six months from now. Mainly because my children are getting older. They're getting to be the teenage stage. They've been away for since second and third grade. They want to be from someplace again.
LAMB: Why'd you pick Yokhama?
JAMES FALLOWS: Rent. The..there's..there are one or two districts of Tokyo where all of the well financed foreigners live. The bank executives and big corporate executives live in Osabu or Roponge and it is extremely expensive there say $10 or $12 thousand dollars a months for an apartment. And it also means that your neighbors are largely foreigners and we live in in something that is a more standard Japanese neighborhood. It's a relatively upscale Japanese neighborhood but it's not..it would be the equivalent of what in Washington it would be like some nice part of Montgomery county but not the nicest part. Or in Los Angeles it would be like West Covina or something like that. It's a nice nice suburban area that gives us a you know a normal Japanese life and it's much cheaper. It's still expensive but it's cheaper than in downtown Tokyo.
LAMB: Is it more expensive to live where you do than any place you would live here?
JAMES FALLOWS: Yes. Yes it is. We have a house in Washington that is in a very fancy part of town and is very large and we charge as much rent for it as we pay in Yokhama (?) for something that is not downtown and is much smaller.
LAMB: And how big a..what's the square footage on where you live?
JAMES FALLOWS: I think it's it's maybe maybe 1200 sq. ft. which is relatively big. We have three bedrooms. One for my children..
LAMB: Relatively big for..
JAMES FALLOWS: For Japan.
LAMB: For Japan.
JAMES FALLOWS: Yes, yes.
LAMB: The reason why I ask all this thing is you read more than anything else it seem like you read about the people pay a million dollars for a little tiny place.
JAMES FALLOWS: Yes.
LAMB: Well is that equivalent to our dollar? I mean..
JAMES FALLOWS: Yes. This is a million of our dollars. And there're some dis..we're paying less in rent than we should considering the price of where we live. I'm sure that the house that we live in would cost at least $2 million to buy. And this is a house that we would think of as kind of a normal suburban house in the U.S. The reason it costs so much is that that much is the land that in the U.S. when you buy a house the land is maybe a quarter of the cost. In Japan it's 90% of the cost. And there is such a distortion of the land market that now incredible and yet true the land value of metropolitan Tokyo is greater than the land value of the United States of America. Now how can this be? Let me explain how this can be. Partly this is a factious measure. There are a whole lot of reasons that land doesn't change hands very often in Japan. So say you had a thousand square miles of land and only one square mile traded hands each year the price of that one square mile might be bid up to astronomic levels because there is so little trading. If you multiply it by the whole 1,000 sq. miles then you get a phenomenal value for the metropolitan Tokyo. And that's how it worth more than the U.S. If it all went on the market it would be worth much less but it a the part that's traded is extremely expensive. And that in turn is because of the rice farmers. Japan has a both cultural belief in growing its own rice and a very strong farm lobby that wants to keep out rice imports. The results is about half of the flat land in Japan is devoted to growing rice at very high cost about six to eight time more than the cost of imported rice. Now six to eight times. Now this will eventually change. But in the short run it just artificially constricts how much land there is for Japan Japanese people to live on.
LAMB: Let me switch to something else. Have you read the book "Honda?:
JAMES FALLOWS: I have not unfortunately.
LAMB: Story about Marysville Ohio right in a Honda plant there.
JAMES FALLOWS: Right.
LAMB: They say..the book says that Americans working for Honda make as good a product in the United States as the Japanese do in Japan. I use that as a preface to do Americans do as good a work?
JAMES FALLOWS: Yes and no. Yes
LAMB: By the way if not why not?
JAMES FALLOWS: Yes. Yes. Most of the Japanese economic miracle most of their high quality most of the excellence of their products is not based on any kind of magic or cultural basis but it's based on their investment in productive machinery. That these very highly automated plants with very exotic and effective control systems etc. That is the main secret. And that can be applied any place on earth for the right amount of money. So that is something that is not unique to Japan. There are certain things in Japan though that I think make them on the whole better manufacturing workers than we or than other people are. And this may sound weird so I'll explain. One of them is this tremendous emphasis on being able to cooperate in a group. This is a cliche but it's a true cliche. In the schools you see students just being graded on how well they cooperate how well they can do thing together. And this has it's effects on the manufacturing system I think. Also there is I think more emphasis in Japan on the idea that every job is worth doing as well as you can possibly do it. Whether you're collecting the trash. Whether you're doing something we think of as a bad job. All jobs are done as well as people can possibly do for various cultural reasons. And that means that in a factory some jobs that we would consider deadening and not worth really concentrating on they try their best on. So some things we can imitate some things are hard to imitate.
LAMB: I don't know how to ask this. Should Americans be I guess this deals with a lot of myths that are developing should Americans be concerned that the Japanese are going to buy us out take over this country and we'll be working..all working for them?
JAMES FALLOWS: Let me give yet another yes and no answer. There are a lot of reasons why we shouldn't be concerned. Most of the Japanese investment is both good for America in the short term and part of normal capitalism. That when they build when they build a new factory here that's new wealth that didn't exist in America before. When they buy building here the money is going into some Americans hands. They can't take the building away etc. All those things I think are part of normal economic flow and we shouldn't get upset about them. There is a specific problem that we should be concerned about which is that compared to American companies or European companies Japanese companies are more narrowly nationalistic. That Shell Oil is in theory a Dutch British firm but it's not really. That Americans can rise to powerful positions within Shell Oil. My brother works for Citibank in Italy. Citibank is an American firm but there is an Italian manager in that office etc. Japanese companies by contrast are Japanese and that there are..there will be fewer opportunities for Americans in Japanese owned companies than if the company were owned by somebody else you know by the Dutch by the Americans. So that is the danger and is a reason to to not get so heavily in debt to to Japan. There's another answer here if I can just just go on a minute more. There's in America there is a popular theory that really really national borders are becoming obsolete and that the world is becoming one real market. To some extent that is true. Currency flows all around the world. Products flow all around the world etc. But nobody in Asia believes this. Nobody believes there that national boundaries are becoming less important. And particular they believe that America's own strength depends on whether it can pay its own bills. Whether it can pay itself for an effective school system. Or for a military presence or for anything else. That's..America can't tax Japan to do that America has to pay for it itself. And so if we have borrow to do those things that make America run then that's bad for us too.
LAMB: You were in Japan when the President came recently?
JAMES FALLOWS: Yes. Yes. And it was good that he came. I know it must have caused may have caused some hard feelings here but that was a wise wise move. The reason it was a wise move is that it's a very delicate..well it's the same kind of decision that Douglas MacArthur and Harry Truman faced at the end of World War II. Because by many standards of logic the U.S. could have said look Emperor Hirohito is as responsible for this war as anybody else. That that while he was not the dictator in the same since that Hitler was or that Stalin was he was the head of the government and that he to some extent knew what was going on. And there were war crimes trials for people who where his underlings. So how could you not try the Emperor as a war criminal too. That's what the Australians wanted. The Australians wanted to try and hang the Emperor. The U.S. properly said we're not going to dwell on whether the Emperor helped cause the war. We are going to look ahead and say that he is the hope for having some kind of not only rebuilt Japan but for some cooperative relationship with Japan in the future. And so they rehabilitated the Emperor made him America's partner. Sort of America's Viceroy or whatever. MacArthur was the Emperor was America's Viceroy there. That was wise. I think it was wise also for Bush to come and say I was fighting against the Emperor's soldiers 40 years ago but that's past and we are now partners. So it was a good thing for him to do.
LAMB: When you read about scandals Takesta (?) I believe is in..I'm not sure I'm not that up on the Japanese political system and involved in some scandal Tanaka (?) was involved in some scandals?
JAMES FALLOWS: Yes. Yes. Well there's..there are ways in which Japanese politics seems much cleaner than America's. For example the campaign time is very short. You can't run TV ads. So you don't need that kind of very expensive politicking. They don't have so many polls and things like that. There is another way in which it is a chronically very corrupt political system. Politicians need a tremendous amount of personal money in Japan. They just..they..they are supposed to go to funerals and weddings in their district and give people $100 or $200 each day at funerals and weddings and they have very low official allowances. They need money. The way they get money is from companies. And this is just the widely understood truth of Japanese politics. You have these kind of cartels of politicians and companies. What is so disturbing to the Japanese I think about the current scandal. The recruit cosmo scandal (?) is that if one company is going to be exposed for paying off people where is it going to stop. Because virtually all politicians have to take money from companies. So there is this sense of unease about where it's all going to lead. On the other hand, there is something very odd about this scandal which is that a number of cabinet ministers have had to resign because they took bribes from Recruit (?). Former Prime Minister Nakasoni (?) might be tried. He might no. Current Prime Minister Takesta (?) might have to resign. Nonetheless there is no chance that the ruling party is going to change or that the policies are going to change. And so there is essentially only one party there. It has a major scandal but it stays in. And what this scandal means then is that for the next year or two the Japanese government will be paralyzed. At the end of that they will be the same party and the same policies perhaps with different guy. But nothing is going to happen because of the scandal.
LAMB: Show our audience your book and we really haven't talked much about this book yet but we will. It's called "More Like Us: Making America Great Again," James Fallows. And as books go it's relatively thin. How come?
JAMES FALLOWS: I think that that my both my strategy and I think my skill is a my my competitive advantage if we are talking about if we are talking in competitiveness terms relative to other people is this trying to make the main point as concisely as I can. My motive here is to make the main point about what is unusual about America and how it can use that unusual trait in dealing with Japan. So I could have made it three times longer amplifying the main point. But I thought I would just make the main point and and let people get in and out quickly.
LAMB: You start on the on the book flap with a quote. We might as well start with that. "The purpose of this book is to remind Americans of how unusual our national cultural is and why it is important that we not become a normal society." What is a normal society?
JAMES FALLOWS: Well a normal society is a society that accepts most of the assumptions that the rest of the world holds. And I think it is very hard for Americans to America to recognize the gap between our taken for granted values and most of the rest of the world's. And I don't even mean freedom and liberty and things like that. I mean even more basic things. For example America is properly concerned about its racial problems and about the racial friction we have and the racial inequities. What is unusual about America however is that it thinks that it can have a multi-racial society. This is something that most countries don't believe. They don't think it's good. They don't think it's possible. And America is unusual in thinking that it's good and thinking that it's possible. I do think this is good. I think this is the best part of America that it that it tries to digest people from many different backgrounds. But it's it's very very odd assumption. For example I was living in Malaysia for awhile. Malaysia has three ethnic groups. There's the Malaise, there's the Chinese and the Indians. It one of the very rare multi-racial societies.
LAMB: Let me stop you to ask you where Malaysia is.
JAMES FALLOWS: Oh sorry. Malaysia if you think back to the days of Viet Nam where we recall Southeast Asia with Viet Nam on the corner and dripping down from Southeast Asia is long (?) Malay Peninsula going down toward Indonesia and eventually Australia. Malaysia is the bottom part of that peninsula. Thailand is to the north of it. Singapore and Indonesia are to the south. It's on the equator and it's if you just went straight south from the middle of China it's where you would get.
LAMB: And when did you live there?
JAMES FALLOWS: I lived there in between two spells in Japan. So I went back to Japan last summer and for the two years before that I was based in Malaysia.
LAMB: And what kind of a place is it?
JAMES FALLOWS: Oh it's it's a delightful place. It's I think the most comfortable place I have I have ever lived. It's..Malaysia was a British Colony in the old days and it was one of these places were people in the British Colonial Services schemed to be assigned because it's a jungle country, rain forest type country that is naturally very rich with tin deposits, with rubber trees, and with palm oil and with monkeys and with parrots and with all sorts of..it's your idea of tropical paradise. There are not many people there. They are they are easy going. It's relatively rich. You know as developing countries go it's rich. And so it a comfortable..it's a place where you can live at the standard of the Malaysians and feel content. And you don't have to live a separate foreigner..
LAMB: How many people live there?
JAMES FALLOWS: About 16 million people in the whole country. The whole country includes also the northern 1/3 of Bornio (?) which is a separate island off to the east Malay peninsula. And it's a nice country. However it's problem is that it has these different races. The Malays were living there originally. The Chinese well some of them were the Chinese were brought in during the Colonial Period and some Indians too. Each one of these races wishes that the other two did not exist. Because they have no enthusiasm for a multi-racial society. So so just to come back to my point this is what is odd about America is not that we have racial problems which we need to correct but that we think that we should correct them and can correct them. That is something that people don't notice. Similarly what is odd about America is the idea that people can to some degree do what they want with their lives. For example if you are a woman we assume in America that you should be able to do what you want with your life. Now probably you can't fully do that on an equal footing with a man because of various impediments. But we assume that you should. That's not the assumption in Japan. The assumption in Japan is that there is a role for women and that role is to work for three or four years and then not work anymore. To to raise your children from then on. This is efficient for Japan in some ways but it is different from our assumption. We assume that anybody in theory can grow up to be president. That people can at age 40 change their job if they want. Most other people don't believe these things. And they make this society very very different from the rest of the world.
LAMB: Is there any other society that you've studied in the world that's like ours?
JAMES FALLOWS: There are..I think that the two that are that have some some some similarity are Australia and Canada. But they both also have significant differences. They are more traditional societies than ours our in each case. But they do have some immigrant nature some multi-racial nature. There is also one similarity between Japan and the U.S. which is that I think these are the two countries with the most kind of faith in the future. The..both have a sense that they can deal with what the future is going to be. In Europe there is some apprehension about the future I thing. But Japan and the U.S. have this link of thinking that modernism is on their side.
LAMB: I want to come back to your book of course but tell us a little bit more about yourself. You wrote speeches for Jimmy Carter?
JAMES FALLOWS: Yes. Yes. My my story in life is that I grew up in southern California. My parents migrated out there from Philadelphia which I have a chapter about in my book describing this trying to say why I think this turmoil in American life represented by my parents moving across the country what that shows about the country's nature. I went back East to college. I went to college at Harvard in the late 1960's. I went to graduate school in England. I worked as a magazine writer worked for Jimmy Carter for a couple of years then started working for the Atlantic about 10 years ago.
LAMB: What's you father do?
JAMES FALLOWS: He's a a medical doctor. And he..but in an interesting way he grew up in a very modest family in suburban Philadelphia and became a doctor because of World War II. He was a part of the Navy's manpower program was to send send people off to medical school. So he was a Navy doctor for awhile and then used that freedom to start a new life in California.
LAMB: Where'd you meet your wife?
JAMES FALLOWS: At college. She was a Radcliff student when I was at Harvard. She was from Ohio.
LAMB: What did you get out of writing speeches for Jimmy Carter?
JAMES FALLOWS: I got several things. I had..one of my beliefs in life was that it's good journalist to spend some time working in the government. Not to commute back and forth but to have seen it at least once because it does give you a different and more realistic of how it works. For example I cannot believe in conspiracy theory of things because I saw that what usually looked from the outside like a conspiracy was just a result of bumbling if you saw the inside. People thought there was a master plan but usually there wasn't. Maybe that was just the Carter administration but I don't think so. I think that's the way government usually works. I also you know it was a honor to see how this process worked. To see how a President performed. I learned personally that this was not the job for me in the long run. What you..the satisfaction you have as a White House employee is having a small bit of influence over something important. You get to have a little bit of control over what a President does. I prefer having a lot of influence over something less important. Namely what I write. I like to be able to control my own minor production rather than having a small role in something bigger.
LAMB: What is it about the Atlantic Monthly or Mortimer Zuckerman that they feel it's worth it to pay your fee to go to Japan?
JAMES FALLOWS: Well I think the Atlantic's..to brag on the Atlantic for a minute. I think it's distinctive role is that it can combine reporting with thinking. There are a lot of of you know straight forward new organizations where you get people reporting. Time or Newsweek they have people all around the world U.S. News, newspapers. And then you have a lot of purely intellectual type operations where it's pure hot air type thinking. Of saying yeah well here's the meaning of democracy in Europe in 1992. What the Atlantic tries to do is to combine the two. To have people who can go out and see things. Whether it's the Japanese economy or the American under class and combine that and be able to say I've seen this but I've also tried to read about it and think about it and here's here's the way I would like to put it in perspective for you. That is the Atlantic's goal. It's what I've been trying to do in Asia. So I think that that's why it's worth their paying my money. Now they don't pay all the costs. They pay me the same amount I was earning in Washington so it's partly drawing on savings for me to live in Japan. But I think that's I think why they were happy for me to move there. To apply this reporting and thinking perspective to that part of the world.
LAMB: How often do they want you to have an article?
JAMES FALLOWS: I guess as often as I can crank them out. In the course of a year I try..I end up having 9 or 10 articles out of the 12 issues or so of the Atlantic.
LAMB: In your book you refer to the fact that the Japan Society had something to do with getting you over there.
JAMES FALLOWS: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: What is the Japan Society?
JAMES FALLOWS: The Japan Society in New York was set up I don't know how long ago. I guess maybe after the war by what you would think of as the eastern establishment in the U.S. The Rockefeller family and others to promote cooperation and cultural exchange and the things between Japan and the U.S. They have recently been using Japanese foundation money to have an exchange program. Of having Americans in their 30's and 40's go to Japan for a month or two up to six months. And so a grant from the Japan Society was what had me go there in the first place. I was planning to go directly to Southeast Asia and start there but I heard about this program and they made it possible financially and in terms of contacts for my family to spend about four months at the start. And I will always be grateful to them for having sent me there. I'm not sure they will always be grateful to me for having gone there because I have ended up being more critical of Japanese trading practices than I think the Japan Society itself is. But it was part of what got me there.
LAMB: They expect you to write a certain way when they underwrite your trip?
JAMES FALLOWS: No. They they said go there. All we care about is that you go there and look around and what you do after that is entirely up to you. And as far as I can tell that's how they've behaved too. I've never..they've never said anything about anything I've written in the Atlantic or said any place else.
LAMB: Have you ever found yourself and I lack of a better example at a dinner party in a Japanese home were you the only..you and your wife be the only caucasian or Americans in the group?
JAMES FALLOWS: Yes. Yes. That..we have our social life is in three strata. I'm three strata in Japan. First we have foreign friends. Americans and Europeans and Australians. And it is useful to have those friends both because we can deal with them easily in English and because every foreigner in Japan is obsessed with Japan. So you spend all your time talking about why Japan is the way it is. And it's very stimulating thing to do. It's as if all of you are spending your time observing Japan then you talk about it with each other. That's one stratum of friends. The second stratum is with internationalized Japanese people. Japanese people who can speak English and who are familiar with the U.S. And we have a large number of these friends and see them often. Often we are the only non-Japanese there. That's that's entirely comfortable. A third level is with normal Japanese people. The people we know in our neighborhood and the friends..the parents from our children's school. Here the level of discourse is somewhat lower because it's limited by our Japanese skill which is not advanced. You know we can make polite chat but it's hard for me to discuss the trade balance in Japanese with these people. So there we have..we do things more like getting together for a family dinner or going bowling or something of that sort.
LAMB: When you..what I..the reason I asked you is do you ever get in a group where they are brutally frank with what they think of Americans and you get a real strong feeling about whether they like us or don't like us.
JAMES FALLOWS: Yes. And it's more with the second level of people. Of people with whom I can have a full conversation in English. And I think..well I should back up. I can I can understand overheard Japanese conversation to the degree that I can hear you know cafe talk and subway talk by people who assume I don't know anything about what they're saying. And you hear them talking about you know American defects and this or that way. How America Americans can't keep up. And how the Americans are always complaining about Japan and things like that. So I overhear a good deal of that and can understand it enough to get the point. With my internationalized Japanese friends yes we do have these talks at great length. And they seem on the whole unconstrained. I guess because we have been friends for a long time and saying here's what we think is wrong with America. So I think on the whole they have gotten pretty frank.
LAMB: When you are in Japan in your own mind what would happen to you if you learned that you were going to have to live in Japan for the rest of your life?
JAMES FALLOWS: I would I would start studying Japanese more intently than I am doing now. I would..if..month by month it is a very interesting and stimulating place to live so month by month I happy to be there. If you told me right now I would never leave I would feel very depressed because I'm not from there obviously and there are many things that are difficult about living there. For example I like going sports. I like playing tennis. I like to swim. I like to run. It is almost impossible to do those things there because there are so few facilities for it. So you have a much narrower life in terms of recreation and pursuits of that sort. I would feel depressed by that. But month by month I find it tremendously stimulating.
LAMB: Do you drive a car there?
JAMES FALLOWS: Yes. We have a car. We have a 10 year old Nissan. Interestingly used cars are one thing in Japan that are relatively cheap. Because people don't like used things. That there's a kind of impurity to used cars, used houses, used goods. There's not a big second hand market for anything. So as a foreigner if you're willing to over come your squeamishness and buy a used car it's relatively cheap.
LAMB: What's the price of gasoline?
JAMES FALLOWS: The price of gasoline is extremely high. It's what would it be? I think it's about $4.00 a gallon. The interesting thing here is that it's rational for Japan to have a high price of gas because Japan has to import all of its gasoline. And so they would want to discourage waste of gasoline. What is curious is that the price of imported oil in Japan has is only about 20% of what it was five years ago. Because the price of oil in dollars has gone down and the price of dollars in yen has also gone down. So Japan is spending only 1/5 as much for imported oil as it was five years ago but at the pump it's still about the same as it was before.
LAMB: On a day to day basis do you listen to their radio or watch their television?
JAMES FALLOWS: Yes. Yes I do both and find I get great satisfaction out of both. Television is easier because you have these visual aids to understanding. You can see the picture and also have the sound and so most of the time I can follow along and know what they're talking about although the nuance. The difference is that and I find when coming back here is that here I can listen to the TV and listen to the Radio or TV and do a lot of other stuff at the same time. I can kind of read the newspaper and watch TV at the same time. And in Japan I can watch TV and do nothing else. You know I just have to concentrate on it.
LAMB: How many channels do they have?
JAMES FALLOWS: They have an a cable system in its infancy. It's not for example where we live in Yokhama (?) it doesn't exist. On the normal commercial channels it's about like here where there are probably six or seven channels. Three big what's called NHK. That's where the national broadcast networks and three or four private networks.
LAMB: Now people that watch the network that we're talking on right now see public affairs 24 hours a day seven days a week two channels as a matter of fact.
JAMES FALLOWS: Nothing like that.
LAMB: Anything like that exist in Japan?
JAMES FALLOWS: No. No. There..I'm talking theoretically when I talk about their cable networks because I don't see them. But I'm pretty sure C-SPAN is not covered into Japan. I know they don't have a Japanese C-SPAN type equivalent. There's no all sports type equivalent. I think they may have American M-TV there but as I say I'm making this up because I haven't seen it.
LAMB: What about the impact of the print press in Japan?
JAMES FALLOWS: Well it's it's voluminous. The per capita sales of newspapers and books are higher in Japan than in the U.S. but they're different they're of a different nature. For example there are truly national newspapers in Japan. As if U.S.A. Today were really the major newspaper in the country. The major paper like the Ahsawhe Shimboo (?) and Mahabe Shimboo (?) They have six or eight million a day across the whole country. Which is many times more than the New York Times. They are..they're different. The papers are different for example the closest counterpart to the New York Times would be the Ahawhe Shimboo (?) but it's probably 1/4 as big each day and there's more of not controlled but middle of the road nature to the press. They all talk more or less about the same things. And there's not that much investigation until they all sort of go at it at once. Like the current scandal. The press is really uncovering with a vengeance. But I think there are a lot of other scandals that they don't go into.
LAMB: World War II. Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Is is that kind of a personality that led to that activity anywhere to be seen in Japan today?
JAMES FALLOWS: Yes and no let me say again. No in the most dramatic sense. I don't think there's much danger of Japan becoming a military power again. The Japanese look on militarism as having been a disaster for them. They don't care that much about what it did in China but they know that for them it was just a catastrophe. And so I think people are not eager to remilitarize Japan. There is tremendous astonishment in Asia in general including Japan at why the U.S. always wants Japan to have a bigger defense budget. Because everyone in Asia wants this not to occur. But on the other hand there's a kind of mentality that lead to Pearl Harbor that still exist. Mentality in this sense. A feeling that Japan is a vulnerable nation that has to look out for its own interests strictly. It has to to..I think the memory of Pearl Harbor in Japan is that first that Japan got into the race for colonies too late. That England and France had got into this race early so did the U.S. with the Philippians. Japan's mistake was starting in the 1930's with Korea and China and Southeast Asia. So they feel that they're not really so much worse than the other countries. Pearl Harbor I think their theory is that war with the U.S. was inevitable by that point. Because the U.S. had an oil boycott against Japan. And so they felt it was going to happen they might as well get in the first lick. Now the part of Pearl Harbor that we find particularly offensive namely that negotiations were going on in Washington even as the bombers were were dropping the bombs. I think there is embarrassment in Japan about how that looked. But not deeper embarrassment. I think they feel it's something that in their view it was going to happen so they might as well strike while they could.
LAMB: Trillion..Three trillion dollars right gross national product here..no it's bigger than that.
JAMES FALLOWS: I think maybe here it's four and there it's 2 point something. It's about half as big there.
LAMB: We have 240 million people. They have how many?
JAMES FALLOWS: Half as many. You know 125 or something.
LAMB: Of the 125 million how many caucasians do you see on a day to day basis.
JAMES FALLOWS: It varies tremendously. Of the 125 million there are about 1 million foreigners total in Japan. But about 9/10 of those foreigners are not foreigners as we would think of them. They are Koreans who's grandparents came from Korea. And they've lived.. as my grandparents came from Germany. But they still are not Japanese. They still carry Korean passports. And it would be as if I had a German passport right now. That's most of the technical foreigners in Japan. In Tokyo itself in downtown Tokyo you see a fair number of foreigners especially in the commercial districts. In the hotel district you see foreigners all the time. Outside downtown Tokyo you see them not so often. It's become very rare to see tourists because the cost is so high. What you do you do see encouragingly young people seem to be there to make their fortune. You know to learn Japanese to teach English in commercial schools and to learn about this new world. But there is a very..there is a thin sprinkling of foreigners. And when you see them you wonder about their life story and what they're doing there.
LAMB: How does..how did Japanese people living there get their information about the United States? Is there much of American television that ends up there?
JAMES FALLOWS: There is some American television. For example the Dan Rather new show is now broadcast at 5:30 in the morning. We tape it each day. It's broadcast bilingually in English and Japanese. There is Japanese networks. And newspapers cover the U.S. much more than the U.S. covers Japan. Everyday there's.. the lead item is how big the U.S. trade deficit is that week and how the dollar is doing. And there is a lot of coverage about the U.S. on the whole on the whole it tells the Japanese people more about the U.S. than we know about them. But there are predictable biases built into it. For example New York as far as Japanese coverage is concerned is about 9/10 of America. That that is where most Japanese businesses have their headquarters and most networks do. So most news is based in New York or in Los Angeles and much less in Washington surprisingly. And also there is a bias toward spectacular news. Gun..you know gang warfare, aids, etc. so this dominates the news of the U.S.
LAMB: Back in the United States this time how long will the stay be?
JAMES FALLOWS: A total of a little less that two weeks.
LAMB: Where will you go during that two weeks?
JAMES FALLOWS: I will I will have been by the time I leave in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Boston and Washington.
LAMB: As you go about what are some of the the things you keep hearing from Americans that are wrong about Japan?
JAMES FALLOWS: Well I have..my ideas about this have changed in the last hour or two in fact. Because I've over the last week I've done a fair number of radio call in shows and I've talked with people about Japan. And on the whole people seem to you know respect what Japan has achieved and be concerned about fairness. Whether whether there's a fair trading relationship between Japan and the U.S. And I think that's a legitimate concern. That we should respect Japan. We should think of Japan as a partner in the long run but we should be concerned about certain kinds of unfairness. In the last hour or so I talked with a group of American politicians where it seemed to be a much more raw dislike of Japan that I think reflects the whole American view of Japan. I hadn't heard that from people in these call in shows but I heard it from politicians and that disturbs me. I think we shouldn't we shouldn't dislike Japan. Japan itself should be our partner. We should be concerned about Japanese trading imbalances.
LAMB: What didn't they like?
JAMES FALLOWS: They seemed to dislike they didn't like the Japanese. You know they're..
LAMB: Personal..do they have personal experiences?
JAMES FALLOWS: Well I guess..you know there are..the details you know I could agree on with some of these Congressmen. For example any detailed complaint about the FSX fighter plane or the construction industry it's true that Japan is not behaving the way it should there. The question is what conclusion you draw from that. Which is you know they are out to just cheat us every way they can. Or that is there are certain biases in their system. We go to we got to make them fix. And I think it is not a conspiracy. I guess that's the difference. I don't think it's a conspiracy. Just as I don't think America's trade problems are some kind of moral corruption as the Japanese might think. It's not a conspiracy but it is bias in their system that we need to help them fix just as they need to help us fix the bias in our system towards huge federal deficits. We need to fix that bias too.
LAMB: What do the Japanese most fear that the American government will do over time?
JAMES FALLOWS: I guess..that's a hard question because the businessmen fear not being able to sell things here. They feel a loss of the American market which is very important to them. I think the sort of highbrows of Japan they fear that Japan will feel cornered. That America will say OK Japan we've had enough. We can't stand this anymore. You're cheating us and we're protecting you. Now take care of yourself for awhile. Because what that would bring out is the Pearl Harbor spirit and they Sammy Rice (?) spirit once again in Japan. And that would be bad for everybody. That's what would make Japan rearm and make Japan become a big menace once again.
LAMB: What is in their personality that would create that?
JAMES FALLOWS: What's what's in their per..two things. That's an interesting question. One is this this inbred sense of Japan against the world. There is a word in Japanese a phrase Wa da Wa da nehongene (?) which means "We Japanese." And you hear this so often. It makes you realize people don't say "We Americans" with anything like that frequency. You say Americans do this or that or..I bet you don't say we Americans more than five time a year. Whereas I hear Wa da wa da nehongene five times an hour when I'm talking to people. That's a very powerful sense of of Japan's own own welfare against the world that would make them..And the other is a sense of of vulnerability. Japan is acutely aware that it need things from the outside world. It needs oil. If it doesn't have an army of its own it needs somebody to be an army for it. And if..and the U.S. has essentially guaranteed both of those things. Guaranteed and army and guaranteed by implication it'll keep the ships flowing into Japan and keep having market. Also Japan has a natural and extreme sense of hierarchy that..this is a cliche but also true. That there are very few parts of Japanese life whether its linguistic details or organization or whatever when people deal with each other as equals. You know as we're dealing here more or less as equals. If we doing in Japan the two of us would be calculating which of us was superior to the other and it would affect the way..the language we used to each other because there are different phrases of respect that you have to use. And that applies to international relations where countries are in a number one position or they are in a number two position. And there is this sense in Japan that if they..if they are not inferior to the U.S. anymore then maybe they are superior to the U.S. because it's hard to be on a equal footing with the U.S. And so these factors together a sense of vulnerability the sense of Japaneseness and the sense that if they're below they must be above together might propel Japan into a very dangerous role in the world.
LAMB: What are you likely to do when you come back home?
JAMES FALLOWS: Ah this is the hardest question of all. The reason we are planning to come back home is that our children are getting old and they feel they need a normal life. I find myself still very interested by this subject of Asia so I plan in the year or so after I come back to try to write you know another book about how to deal particularly with Asia and what we should bear in mind about dealing with the Japanese and Koreans beyond whatever I have written here. So then I think I'll go on to not to cover Washington politics but to try to look at some of these longer term and deeper trends in America that determine where we're going. For example whether there is hope for bringing an inner city under class back into society or not. And what happens if there isn't any hope. And what drugs mean to us and things like that.
LAMB: Let me hold off on that for just a second. I want to ask you about Korea. How much time have you spent in Korea?
JAMES FALLOWS: A total of about maybe seven weeks now.
LAMB: What's the difference between a Korean and a Japanese?
JAMES FALLOWS:They're..in many ways they're the most identical people you could find. Ethnically they're practically identical. Many ways they're culturally identical. But in terms of temperament they can be extremely different. Koreans are much more passionate and outspoken people. Japanese are notorious for muffling their complaints and for saying things indirectly. The Koreans will walk right up to you and shout in your face and say well you've gotta do this differently you gotta do that differently. Most Americans find that refreshing when they are in Korea. I think that Korea will be..have a less xenophobic view of the world than the Japanese not because they are less ethnically conscious they are very conscious of being Koreans but because they're smaller. They know they are a small country on a peninsula between two major countries. Between China and Japan. And they got to deal with the rest of the world more than Japan does. So I think the Korean's on the whole will be less difficult in world trade because they're smaller.
LAMB: I get my clothes cleaned at a Korean owned business here. I get my car worked on at a Korean owned gas station. And the shop here in this building we're in is very successful and owned by a Korean family. Is this a trend that we're going to see more and more of around Washington and in this country?
JAMES FALLOWS: Well if we're lucky.
LAMB: Why do you say that?
JAMES FALLOWS: I say that because I think that..I was talking before about things America takes for granted in its role in the world. People in America don't have any idea how odd it is that we have Korean groceries and we have Taiwanese people working the computer industry and we have Cuban bankers in Florida because this is one of the few countries in the world that makes itself open to ambitious foreigners. I say ambitious foreigners because one the one constant theme you see in studies of migrants whether they're migrants to the U.S. from Europe you know 100 years ago or from Pennsylvania to California or from Korea to Washington is that migrants as a group are always more successful economically than other people. It may be because of some Darwinian process that just means the Korean who's come here from Soal is not going to fail once he gets here. He's going..he's determined to make things work. And they add a entrepreneurial strength to an economy that you can't get other ways. So I think this is a strength the U.S. has that Japan can never have that we should embrace.
LAMB: In your book you often write about this under class situation here in the United States and a lot about race. And at one point I remember reading that the Caribbean black and the African black are more successful in the United States than the native American black. Why?
JAMES FALLOWS: Well this..because they are more like immigrants than anything else. And my point here is that of course racism and slavery are the ultimate sources of the under class problem that we have now. And of course there is continuing friction and discrimination in the U.S. However something more than that must be involved for this reason. That black skinned immigrants from the Caribbean and West Africa have come in the 1970's and the 1980's are economically like other immigrants. That is on the whole they're successful. They're successful academically and economically. It is a statistical matter the children of black immigrants from the Caribbean are likely to earn more money than the children of native born American people because of this immigrant emphasis. So to me the difference is that these people encounter similar prejudice but as immigrants but don't know that they are supposed to fail. They think they are supposed to succeed. Whereas people in the inner city lower class know that they are supposed to fail and know that they are doomed know that they have no chance and so they do fail. And they do have this..the only area where..well let me give you the most vivid illustration that I can think of. I spent some time in Miami at a high school that was about on half Haitian immigrant and one half native American lower class black people. And there was no racial difference between these people. You could not tell people apart by how they looked. But in the main hall of the high school they had pictures on the wall on each side. Pictures on one wall were the student honor court. People who had done the best in school. People on the other wall were the basketball team. The people on the student honor court wall had names like Jean Luc Rolan (?) they were these Haitian kids who'd come in and the people on the basketball team wall were the Americans. What this said to me was that people of similar background had different areas where they thought it was worth trying. That people..that many of the native American lower class people felt that it was worth trying in basketball but there wasn't a point in trying in school or other things because they thought they were doomed to fail. And the Haitians didn't think that. They thought they could succeed and they did succeed. And I'm not trying to give some Dale Carnegie (?) pep talk. I'm saying that peoples expectations make a difference. If you have some child who grows up seeing that the only examples of success around him are either crime or sports that's what he's going to think he can do.
LAMB: What's your guess at this point I know you're going to study more of it. Is there a permanent under class?
JAMES FALLOWS: Well there certainly is at the moment. And..
LAMB: Any way out?
JAMES FALLOWS: I think that that this is America's great problem I think. And if I had one clear answer I'd come back here and be King. To me the crucial thing that has to be changed is what children learn to expect in the first say five years of their life. Because by the time as you know as a parent or anybody knows as a parent by the time a child is five or six its values are in place many of its values are in place. A sense of its own worth is in place. And if a child grows up with a mother who herself may be 15 or 16 and not have finished school and not really knowing its father by the time that child is five or six you know the dice are rolled. And so I think something has to be done to dramatically that child's expectations when its very young. Whether its a radical Head Start program something to get people out of that environment. I don't know what it is but I think that's the thing that you have to do.
LAMB: Our audience that we're talking with James Fallows and the book is called "More Like Us: Making America Great Again." And we've spent an hour talking about Japan and Korea and Malaysia and not a whole lot about the United States. Have you found that to be the case when you go about promoting your book?
JAMES FALLOWS: Well sometimes. People are understandably interested in Japan and that's fine. And there's..part of what I'm talking about in this book is Japan. But I'm using it mainly as a foil to set up what is unusual about America and the points that I want to make about America. But I've found a healthy balance of interest. People are interested in Japan but in constructive ways. And also interested in the..some of the things about America that I try to discuss here. Which I will be happy to tell you about too.
LAMB: The..in this book you devoted..you dedicated it to your parents. The obvious why?
JAMES FALLOWS: Well partly on general principle. My my previous book was about the..it was called "National Defense." It was about the U.S. military system. I dedicated that one to my sons just because of the fact I thought I was talking about the future of of America etc. This is to my parents both on general principle but also on a specific specific reason. I have on chapter in there about my parents and about the story of their life. And I'm not saying that they are they are the perfectly representative Americans. But there is something typical about their story. Their story is that of people who decided to change their life. They had grown up as I was saying before in modest circumstances in Pennsylvania. My mother's family was very hard hit by the depression. My father lived in a suburb of Pennsylvania and got into the professional class as a doctor only because of the war where the Navy sent him through college in two years and on to medical school and made him a doctor. And from that point on my father especially decided that he just wanted something different in life than he was going to get if he stayed where he was from. And that he..so they they moved just on their own to southern California much as we have gone to Japan in my generation and decided to make a new life where they had no roots. And what I'm trying to describe here is the good and the bad of that situation. Of the making of California of the making of the American West because I think that is typical of the American story. That through history the good and the bad of the society have been very constant. The good of the society is the sense of individual chance. Individual freedom that people have. That you can move someplace if you want. You can decide to go to night school if you want. You can do something different from your parents if you want. As most other people in the world cannot do. The bad side of that is the lack of tradition and lack of respect and lack of delicacy that we have here. That America has always been much like Orlando, Florida or Pamona, California is today. Of places that you don't think have a lot of high culture but a lot of people find an opportunity there. And that's the story of America.
LAMB: Have you changed your political views?
JAMES FALLOWS: Everything in life is subject to constant evolution. I I worked for a Democratic President and I guess always voted for a Democratic presidential candidates. I have..I am perhaps more suspicious of what the government can do to improve the America..well my ideas of how the government can make America work better are more selective than perhaps the Democratic Party's platform is right now. For example I think that some of the most important things the government can do..well I think the government can actively do things like try to rescue kids in the under class. I think that their not going to get rescued on their own and that only a governmental effort can do that or improve the schools. And also I think the government needs to negotiate with Japan about trade relations because that can't be done privately. However what I'm talking about mainly in this book is a kind of openness in the society which the government can mainly help by getting out of the way. For example the government gets in the way of mobility through what I talk about..of credentialism. What I mean here is the growth in the last 50 years of needless educational requirements for certain jobs. I assume that you did not have to get a PhD in talk show hosting to be able to get this job. What matters is that you can do the job. And that if when you stop being able to do the job you aren't going to have the job anymore. It depends on how you can do it. And to me that is..that should be the norm for jobs in America. You shouldn't have to pay that much attention to how people have prepared for them what degrees that they gotten. But whether they can do them. And they should be able to stay in the job only as long as they can actually do it. Let me give some examples of what what this would mean. I think school teaching is an example. I assume that you also could not teach television broadcast as I could not teach English in a college because I don't have any advanced degree from a teachers college. I couldn't I could not teach in a public schools about writing although I think I could..I know how to write but I couldn't teach writing because I don't have a degree and you couldn't teach broadcasting. And this is crazy that a Frenchman is not allowed to teach French if he doesn't have doesn't have an education degree even though someone who has an education degree is allowed to teach French even if he or she doesn't necessarily know French. That is one example. Another example is this captain of the Exxon ship. Now I don't want to prejudge his case maybe he's gotten bad publicity. But this is somebody who who had the credential to run the ship but obviously people didn't care whether he was capable of really running the ship anymore and the consequences were disastrous. So I think the model for American occupations should be you know if not talk shows then maybe it should be aircraft pilots. Because to be an aircraft pilot you basically have to pass a test every six months or so showing that you can still do the job. They don't care that much what kind of degree they have. They care whether you can actually do it. And to the extent that we can make that the model we'll be a more open and a more efficient society.
LAMB: There is a chart in your book that I want the audience to see. And I want to ask you about this. It was a group of people..we're going to have to get a good close up on this. I don't know whether..
JAMES FALLOWS: I can read it for you if you want.
LAMB: Yeah well we..well here comes a close up so everybody can see it. Family incomes over here on this side and the average SAT scores on the other. And..get the..give the audience a chance to study it but it looks like that if you made under $6,000 in this chart you started with an SAT score of 771 and it goes right up the list over here that you just..the more money a family income has the more..the higher you score on the test. What does this say to you?
JAMES FALLOWS: Well there..
LAMB: What is this anyway?
JAMES FALLOWS: There are several things that contribute here. One explanation for this of course could be that all the smart people have already succeeded and so they are naturally earning more money and so society is now fair. And to some extent that is probably a factor here. That people who have shown more aptitude for for making a buck with more intelligence have risen. I think that that's probably some factor. But there's another factor involved here which is that for as long as these tests have been given which is about a thous..which is about 100 year now. There were the the original Army Aptitude Test which were connected to the IQ tests and the SAT tests. And they are all essentially the same. For as long as they've existed they've shown this connected..this connection. That always the people with the most income and the best racial background if we can use these terms have always done best on the test which suggest that in a way they are a measure of social privilege rather that a measure of some underlying merit. The reason that I'm using this chart is to say that as these kinds of tests of IQ and SAT become more important as it matter more what kind of college degree you have so it matters how you score on these tests and how you do on IQ as that becomes more important society becomes more rigid. Because if you are a child from the poor family you are probably not going to do as well on these tests. So you're probably not going to be able to get into college as well not get the degree. So it will be harder for you to get into jobs in which you might ultimately prove to be competent. Because you have this early disadvantage. So it makes the society more rigid than it needs to be. Let let me just just give one other example of this. There is a fascinating study of I think boys I believe from Kalamazoo, Michigan as they went from childhood into into mid adulthood. And they connected the jobs people eventually ended up with with their IQ scores as children. And they found that the greatest variety of IQ scores and SAT scores was among managers and professionals. That is a lot of people there are a number of people who had been very smart as children who seem smart who ended up as managers but also a number of people who seemed very stupid as children ended up as managers and seemed to be successful on the job. And so if those children had been screened out early on because of these scores they wouldn't have a chance for something they proved able to do later on.
LAMB: Interesting chapter headings. And I got this out of a chapter that's headed "What Morons Could Do."
JAMES FALLOWS: Well that's that's I was talking about the study. There's and even more dramatic study of what morons can do. Because some of those Kalamazoo managers have been classified I think 1/6 of them have been classified as morons as children. Because for various..
LAMB: IQ score?
JAMES FALLOWS: Yes on the basis of IQ score. They had an IQ score I think below 85 which made them morons. Even though when the different skills that were involved in being a manager seemed to make them..they seem perfectly competent. Here's a more dramatic example. The GI Bill. The GI Bill after World War II. Before World War II college attendance was more or less upper class type of thing to do like F. Scott Fitzgerald or the white tennis pants or something. And the GI Bill in 1946 I guess to send massive numbers of GI's to..Veteran's to college was a radical step at the time. Because many of these are people who would not have gone to college otherwise. And the educational establishment at the time thought this was a terrible idea. James Konnet (?) the President of Harvard and Robert Hutchins (?) the President of the University of Chicago two great men both said this would be a disaster for the college. I think Hutchins said that it would make the colleges into hobo jungles when these people came in. Because they seemed to have lower aptitude than others. But in fact of course the GI Bill students were the best students that have ever been in American Universities because their motivation was so strong. This suggests to me that talent is fairly widespread in America and what really counts in motivation. And so it is foolish to concentrate so much on this supposed talent difference on the test scores.
LAMB: Compare again the Japanese society and the American society. How many people in Japan go to college compared to how many go in the United States?
JAMES FALLOWS: Many fewer go to Japan. I think in the U.S. about half of all people go to college in some form. In Japan I don't know exactly it's very few women who go to college and for men maybe it's 25% or 30%. I'm not sure exactly but it's less is the main point.
LAMB: Why is this?
JAMES FALLOWS: Because there..there is an earlier separation of Japan of people in these various tracks. People who are going to be non-managerial workers. They get separated out relatively early and go into the factory and trained very well for factory type jobs. That approach works alright for Japan. There is a much more ruthless emphasis on these college credentials in Japan than here. For example in the senior levels of the American government that is political appointees and say the first couple of tiers of the Civil Service something like 12% of the people have a connection to Harvard in some sort. Law School graduate school or whatever. In Tokyo about 85% of the senior officials are from the University of..I mean in Japan 85% are from the University of Tokyo which is an equivalent of Harvard and the whole Ivy League and Stanford and Berkeley all rolled into one for Japan. And that is that is where you have to go if you want to succeed in Japanese society. That does work in Japan. I think it's bad for us because of our different social system.
LAMB: You keep reading that the number of days that kids are in high school grade school is significantly larger in Japan than it is here. Is that true? What's the difference?
JAMES FALLOWS: Yes.
LAMB: And what impact does that have?
JAMES FALLOWS: I think there are about 240 days per year that Japanese students go to school. Versus about 180 or 190 here so it is a difference. They go six days a week and have a shorter summer vacation. About one month for summer vacation. This is partly good. You have the feeling that the sheer investment of time must help the average level in Japan become so much higher than the average level in the U.S. It's bad too I think. I think the six day a week school plan is is foolish for us to imitate. The reason is that it makes the students tired all the time. At least for our children. They're basically always dragging. Always feeling like the only thing they can do on Sunday is sleep and recover.
LAMB: Let me stop and ask you about your two kids. Some folks may have tuned in this late and you've got two boys 12 and 6?
JAMES FALLOWS: 12 and almost 9.
LAMB: 12 and almost 9. Names?
JAMES FALLOWS: Tommy and Thad.
LAMB: What kind of kids are they?
JAMES FALLOWS: They're wonderful children of course. They have different personalities which have had different effects on how they've fit in there. Without going into this too much which I don't want to do let me just say rule for anybody else thinking of the same thing that the more gregarious and out going a child is and the more kind of fearless he is the better time he'll have in this kind of situation. The more independent minded and sort of stubborn and and determined to do things his own way a child is the worse time he will have in this kind of situation. So I'll just present that as a general rule.
LAMB: I assume your two boys are different.
JAMES FALLOWS: Well yeah. I'll just..they have different personalities and I'll just leave it at that.
LAMB: And why do you think that's the case?
JAMES FALLOWS: Well I think because of what's demanded in Japanese school..what's demanded in any foreign situation is plunging yourself into a whole new world. And trying to learn a new language from scratch is hard. It's easier for children in certain ways but it's hard. And so you have to be willing to to just make a leap and to suspend embarrassment and be willing to learn new things. But a particular obstacle in Japanese schools is that an emphasis of the schools is on children doing things "the" way. "The" Japanese way. Not their way but "the" way. Like boot camp I guess where the goal is not a million different way to do things but "the" way to do things. And if a child..that's something that is not so natural to American students as it is to Japanese students. So that is a particular difficulty for stubborn minded Americans.
LAMB: In a Japanese school is achievement and scholastics more important than it is in American?
JAMES FALLOWS: Yes but in a different way. Test score type achievement is very closely monitored in Japan and the the admissions test that get you from from elementary school to junior high school junior high school to high school are very important. Very much more important than in the U.S. But it is not..it's a different kind of intellectualism. It is like the stereotype much more concentrated on memorized knowledge. On rote knowledge on multiple choice tests. Those are much more important in Japanese education. What we think of analytical skills writing essays things like that having debate clubs that is much less important. So it's a particular kind of education and achievement.
LAMB: Does your 12 year old or your 9 year old hear anything history of the..of World War II.
JAMES FALLOWS: In the 6th grade class that my older son has been in they have been doing a World History unit. There is a relatively quick leap from 1940 to 1945. And there's..which is part of a broader point. When the Emperor died a few month ago they had around the clock newsreels about his reign. And they did skip very quickly across the actual war. The Japanese memory is not very filled with guilt about the war. I think they feel that that..the Prime Minister said a month or two ago it will be open to history whether or no what Japan did in China was actually aggression. Now that's something not most non..most Japanese..most non-Japanese people would disagree with that strongly. But that's a I think a prevailing view in Japan. But again they mem..the way they remember it as is the worst thing that ever happened to Japan. You know something that happened. Like a very bad disaster of some kind. An earthquake. But as a tremendous disaster and therefore they don't want to get involved with the same kind of thing again. C-SPAN How do they do about American history?
JAMES FALLOWS: Hum. Interesting question. I don't know. I don't know.
LAMB: Kids never come home and say they got George Washington on a
JAMES FALLOWS: Hum. I've never thought of that.
LAMB: not such a great man.
JAMES FALLOWS: Yeah. I think probably the central figure in American history from their point of view would be Douglas MacArthur. Who was god in Japan. Essentially ran Japan for five years or so. But I don't know. I'll have to find that out.
JAMES FALLOWS: What do you think will happen when you come back here in six months to those two kids when they get back into an American school. They come back to Washington?
LAMB: Yes. They come back to Washington.
JAMES FALLOWS: They come back to a private school?
LAMB: Well I think my older son will come back to a private school. The younger one will go to a public school where they all went before. Public school in D.C.
JAMES FALLOWS: Will they be ahead or behind the other students?
LAMB: I think behind. They'll be behind in measurable ways because they've done no writing or spelling in English for the last..well we've not had the heart to insist on this for them while I've been doing other things. The ways that their ahead are intangible. They're ahead in Japanese language skills. They're ahead in a sense of the world. But those are not so easily measured. I'm sure they'll be..they'll feel out of it for a ways and not knowing who the players are on the Washington Redskins or not knowing who the popular actors are or the popular music videos. So I'm sure for awhile they will feel out of it and kind of lost in the defensive. But I think they'll also feel happy to be back where they're from.
LAMB: There's no doubt that somebody in the audience that's loving every minute of listening to you talk about Japan your experience and they are saying to themselves I want to do that. The pitfalls?
JAMES FALLOWS: The pitfalls..the main pitfall is the cost. It is extremely expensive to live there. Maybe twice as much across the board as a general rule as Washington or New York. So it would be three times as much as a small city in the U.S.
LAMB: We talked about gas earlier being 4 cents..$4.00 a gallon.
JAMES FALLOWS: Yeah. And that's an extreme because you don't drive that much. But food is probably three times as much across the board. Housing is two to three times as much across the board. And everything is basically twice as much. So whatever you spend now if you just double it that's that's what it would be as a rough gauge.
LAMB: But I got the impression earlier that the Japanese don't make two to three times more than we do here.
JAMES FALLOWS: Correct.
LAMB: How do they do it then?
JAMES FALLOWS: They just live more modest lives. They live in worse houses. They buy fewer things. They go fewer places in their car. So they just live more restricted lives.
LAMB: But we also keep reading that they save more than we do.
JAMES FALLOWS: Yes. Yes. And so partly I think that's because there's not that much..there's not that much that's worth buying really there at the high price. Because for example if a Japanese made VCR cost you let's say $900 as the one I just bought there cost $900 you really only..you buy one of those and you keep it for a long time and you are content with that one for many years and it's very well made and you don't buy a second one for another part of your house. And you save the money. You save the money instead of spending it because it's not worth buying these things. So paradoxically the cost of consumption is very high but you also save because it's not worth it.
LAMB: What else about going..what are the pitfalls?
JAMES FALLOWS: Well that's really the only pitfall I think. And so it's a pitfall especially for somebody with a family with children. And it's hard. But if..I'll speak now to our viewing audience. If there's someone there who is especially..an unmarried person or a childless couple especially in your 20's or 30's that has some freedom go to Japan because you can get a job in a short term teaching English. And while you are making money teaching English you can learn Japanese. And then when you've done that there are a million things you can do there. And you will have a sense of knowing what the future is like because America will be dealing with Japan. So go.
LAMB: How long can you stay?
JAMES FALLOWS: You can stay for quite awhile. You can't get a permanent visa but you can string it out for a year or so at a time.
LAMB: If you wanted to become a permanent Japanese citizen could you do that?
JAMES FALLOWS: You could. It's difficult. You need to make a long term commitment. All the examinations are in Japanese so you need to make a long term commitment. And you can do that. Not many people do but you can.
LAMB: You live in Yokhama 45 minutes outside of Tokyo?
JAMES FALLOWS: Yes. Right. 45 minutes by..from..it's about 30 minutes on the train and 10 minutes from the station.
LAMB: Are there parts of Japan that you would recommend living in?
JAMES FALLOWS: Well I think that if..that for..if you wanted to show up there and try and make a living teaching English it's best to be in a big city. Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Sapado, Tagoshima (?) you know some other relatively large city. If you..the other thing is to be an exchange student. If you are a high school student and wanted to do an exchange program then you can go any place. And probably you'd do better go someplace besides Tokyo. The discomforts of life are worst in Tokyo like they are in Manhattan that everything is much more crammed together there. So it's much more pleasant to live in Keoto (?) or some small town someplace.
LAMB: By the way have you ever talked to anybody who has come to America from Japan. Lived here for awhile gone back and what do they complain about our society.
JAMES FALLOWS: There are very large numbers. And their complaints will be very familiar. They complain about the crime they complain about the lack of politeness. They complain about the dirtiness. They complain about the single thing I have notice most in coming back here is the number of beggars and homeless people around which is dramatically higher than I remember three years ago. They complain about all those things. They complain that American doesn't work well enough. However Japanese women especially often spoiled by having lived here for a couple of years and feeling that they have many things you know many more chances in life than they are supposed to have in Japan. So Japanese women and Japanese children who have been here for awhile sometimes find it very very hard to fit back in.
LAMB: We're just about of time and again I want to show our audience what we're talking about here among other things some of what's in this book. We didn't even scratch the surface. "More Like Us: Making America Great Again." James Fallows who has been in Japan for the last three years. Toughest thing about writing a book?
JAMES FALLOWS: The actual writing. I mean most people I know who write for a living don't like to write and that includes me.
LAMB: You said you did you NPR commentaries in the bathtub. Where did you write?
JAMES FALLOWS: I have a little..I have a portable computer that I've been dragging around with me for three years and I use it in one of the bedrooms of our house.
LAMB: And how long did it take you to write the book?
JAMES FALLOWS: I..the actual writing took about a year. The mulling over has taken a number of years.
LAMB: And why did you pick Hougton Mifflin?
JAMES FALLOWS: There was an editor there who I like very much so I dealt with him.
LAMB: Name?
JAMES FALLOWS: Michael Janewitgh (?) friend of mine. Good editor. And Houghton Mifflin has been a wonderful publishing house.
LAMB: Originally from Philadelphia. Grew up in southern California. Has a permanent residence in Washington D. C. and a temporary residence in Yokhama, Japan James Fallows. Thank you for your time.
JAMES FALLOWS: Thank you. It's been a great pleasure.


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