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Reviewed by:
  • Arbitraging Japan: Dreams of Capitalism at the End of Finance by Hirokazu Miyazaki
  • Steven Bryan (bio)

Arbitraging Japan: Dreams of Capitalism at the End of Finance. By Hirokazu Miyazaki. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2013. xii, 199 pages. $65.00, cloth; $29.95, paper; $29.95, E-book.

Hirokazu Miyazaki’s Arbitraging Japan is an intriguing but incomplete and ultimately frustrating book. In many ways, it reads not like a finished book but rather as a collection of separate essays covering similar ground or as a very sketchy outline of primarily methodological thoughts for a book still to be written. The material is interesting, the observations occasionally astute (though limited), yet the book is ultimately more about Miyazaki’s still incomplete thoughts than it is about the traders it ostensibly profiles. In substance, it is also far less about arbitrage than Miyazaki clearly wants it to be.

In his introduction, Miyazaki describes how the book will address broad questions about the end of the era of finance and the futures of capitalism, the financial industry and its professionals, and critics of capitalism. He tries to answer these questions by “turn[ing] to the dreams that have manifested themselves in the careers and intellectual trajectories of members of a small derivatives trading team” (p. 2).

The fault for the unfinished nature of his work may well lie less with Miyazaki than with a publisher or editor who attempted to force a set amount of fieldwork—which found his arbitrage derivative traders fairly quickly [End Page 358] abandoning the field—into a frame that does not fit. The presentation in relation to the book’s broad claims of the end of finance does not work. As a more limited work on a micro level, or as a sketch of work to come, it is interesting, but really only for the life stories of its subjects when these intermittently come to the fore. The attempts at theoretical meaning are obvious and clumsy, and the presentation is highly schizophrenic—with Miyazaki offering a standard caveat that the book is only about the scant handful of individuals he mentions while simultaneously trumpeting nonexistent answers to far broader questions.

In short, the book does not at all “answer” the substantial questions that the publisher’s book blurb claims that it addresses and that Miyazaki repeats in passing but never attempts to answer beyond offering a generic sentence or two at the end. Even to claim that the “era of finance” is over would take considerable—and counterfactual—effort. There is little indication that finance has lost much, if any, influence. It certainly has not vanished. To toss this out as a given, with no further discussion or thought, bears the markings of an editor hoping to catch momentary buzz with little concern for the value of the work itself.

Miyazaki mentions in passing the importance of historically informed work and implies that is what he is doing. However, as with most of its entirely reasonable comments about process, the book fails to act on these comments. To preface a book on a claim of a broad, undifferentiated “end of finance” keyed to the 2007–8 financial crisis is not only inaccurate but dismissive of historical knowledge and knowledge of current events and misstates the book’s ethnographic center, which is fieldwork done in 1998 and then followed up with interviews at intervals thereafter. Although Miyazaki says that “approximately forty” subjects participated in the project, he only really discusses three. Most of the firsthand accounts concern events prior to 2008 or have nothing to do with finance or arbitrage even under the most stretched of definitions.

Miyazaki certainly has no need to address the continued prominence of finance—or the historical bases of financial crises and financial policy over at least the last 40 years if not back into the nineteenth century, a time during which similar patterns appeared repeatedly. If the author were to rely solely on what his fieldwork seems to have produced, however, it seems that Miyazaki would not address a post-Lehman “end of finance” at all since his fieldwork examples never go beyond a single statement from one ex-trader...