Gullible’s Travels: Adventures in Risingsunland

 …being the worldwide travels of R. Duane Gullible, a wide-eyed seeker of scientific truth and technology prowess

My first business trips abroad were to Risingsunland, a distant place with a sinister past. My dad had fought them in the Philippines, when they were trying to establish the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, which involved killing a whole lot of their neighbors, and Americans at places like Bataan.  He got called up again for the Korean War, and tarried awhile in their land.  He went on some home visits organized by the USO to meet their people and was puzzled by the contradiction between their hospitality and their cruelty during the last war.

All cultures draw a distinction between appearance and reality, but here tatamae and honne seem more entrenched.  I myself went to their land eight times and was always treated with the greatest hospitality, but it wasn’t until I went to nearby Korea that I found friendship.  Despite their famed import of the best of foreign cultures, the natives of Risingsunland can’t get over their feeling of superiority to foreigners themselves.  And if you put yourself in their shoes, you can understand why they have such a low opinion of us.

Imagine yourself to be one of their stereotypical visitors to the US, with the latest camera dangling from your neck and a billfold full of bills.  Your first impression of the US would be that it is ankle-deep in trash, many of the people live in slums, and it is dangerous to step outside your hotel. The streets are filled with morbidly obese people in shorts, who don’t work hard enough to make their country great again.  I’m sorry to be so blunt, but all this is a shock for these visitors from abroad, who have never seen a gum wrapper on their streets.

But to get to the point of this narrative, I started going to Risingsunland in the 1980s to find out how they were coming to manufacture some of the world’s best high-tech products.  These were originally based on US inventions like the VCR, but they were starting to develop their own, challenging US leadership of S&T.  This had all proved to be so profitable that they had quickly gone from the rags of WWII to the riches of the information age.

This is supposed to be funny, so let me relate my first experience with the then exotic delicacy I tried on my first day there–raw fish.  I was gingerly trying the morsels artistically arranged on my plate when I came to a green substance, about the size of a ping pong ball.  I popped it into my mouth and swallowed it, and was launched off my stool like a rocket.  Foods from Risingsunland like sushi and wasabi are now as common as BigMacs in the US, mostly purveyed by Korean restauranters, a phenomenon that natives of Risingsunland find hilarious.

Our delegations toured the giant companies that were already household names in the US.  I remember vividly going by elevator to the second floor headquarters of a famous keiretsu.  When I got off, just in front of me in the vacant hallway was a famous painting by Renoir, apparently unguarded, but I’ll bet it was, by that high-technology they were so proud of.

We soon noticed that they were in their offices before we arose, and were still there when we collapsed into our beds, so working hard certainly had a lot to do with their success.  We also noticed that they knew what was going on in S&T all over the world, not just in their country.  Everything worked like a Swiss watch, although they were now mostly made in Risingsunland.  Of course, their economic success relied on more people than just engineers, scientists, and factory workers.  Government officials also worked overtime to make sure the economic climate nurtured the export sector.  In this strange land, top corporate executives were patriotic and also lived modestly, compensated at a mere 100 times their lowest paid worker. (You wouldn’t believe the ratio in our country.)  One profession was notable by its absence: they did not allow more than a handful of lawyers to be created, since they thought that litigation was wasteful.  There were no torts to be reformed, because arbitration (or their Mafia) settled disputes quietly.

One of our delegations wanted to find out how they were able to fund five times as much construction R&D as in the US.  Their embassy was immediately concerned about this study, and bought us a fancy dinner even before we left the US.   They decided that we were harmless, and indeed our final report praised their bidding practices that allowed their construction companies to make enough profits to fund that R&D.  We should be more like them, was the recommendation.  Soon afterward in 1993 an investigative reporter exposed a giant network of corrupt relations between the construction industry and the ruling party.  The companies took turns winning government construction contracts at prices that guaranteed a handsome profit, much of which was kicked back to the party.  This expose brought the government down, for the first time in 40 years.  Why didn’t we see this poison in the construction sector?  Our delegations are staffed with geeks like me who look at things through S&T blinders; some broader issues like payola are beyond our ken.

There was just one hitch with the S&T model that had quickly made Risingsunland rich; they didn’t have a patent on it.  Their neighbors were envious and quickly copied these methods.  Some neighbors worked even harder, some worked even smarter, and some were just so numerous that a little country with no natural resources and high prices could not compete with them.

And I guess that it’s timely to mention that the bursting of a gigantic financial bubble, based on overpriced real estate, has crippled their economy since the early 1990s.

R. D. Shelton