Of nationhood and identity

Author who unmasked Japan now turns to China

by Rob Gilhooly

Writer Ian Buruma was born in the Netherlands in 1951. He attended university in Japan and has spent a large part of his adult life in Asia. His nonfiction works include “The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan,” “Behind the Mask,” “A Japanese Mirror” and “Voltaire’s Coconuts.” Buruma is a contributor to newspapers and magazines in the United States and Britain, including The Guardian, The New York Times and Time.

Your latest book, “Bad Elements,” has just been published.

It’s about Chinese dissidents and begins with the exiles, mostly in America, the student leaders from the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989 and others. Then it goes closer to Peking via Taiwan and Singapore and Hong Kong.

What got you started on this theme?

I was particularly interested in China because there isn’t one China and there isn’t one definition of China. It can be a culture, a civilization, a language, a state. But if it is a state, for example, there are at least two Chinas — or, if we include Hong Kong, three, or Singapore, four. The Chinese fret about nationhood about as much as the Japanese do about defining Japan. Most ordinary people don’t care about these things one way or another — it’s a purely intellectual preoccupation.

The other reason I was interested in doing this book is because people in China and Singapore . . . have often said, “Democracy is not in our tradition, so you cannot expect us to have a Western or any other style of democracy. Democracy leads to disorder; we have our own traditions and different ways of doing things, and the Chinese need something closer to authoritarian government, which is closer to traditional civilization.”

Taiwan is interesting because it seems to be pointing the other way, and it seems to be working quite well. The Singaporeans have made propaganda that says you need the firm smack of authoritarianism by using the phrase “Asian values.” What they really mean is “Chinese values,” but because there are other peoples living there, they can’t very well call it that.

The Communist Party now is becoming very interested in this whole idea of Confucianism because they want to find a way of dressing up their authoritarian rule in a Chinese way.

So, I decided to look at the whole idea of China, including the politics, through the eyes of those people who resist this kind of authoritarianism. And that includes the Falun Gong members, Christians and others resisting the orthodoxies of “Chineseness.” So, it’s various images of China through the eyes of rebels.

It is in a way a variation on a theme that I have always been writing about — how people perceive nation.

Do you include Tibet in those “others” you mentioned?

I wasn’t thinking of ethnic minorities so much as dissenters among the Han Chinese. But of course I do include Tibetans among those who resist the orthodoxy of the Chinese empire.

It is, of course, impossible to meet out-and-out political activists [in Tibet]. They are either in jail, in exile or operate in secret. But it is possible to get a sense of people’s discontents. Obviously one has to be very careful not to identify any source by name or any recognizable characteristic. Also, the place is crawling with government spies.

You haven’t written on Japan for a few years. Do you have any plans to?

Well, I am also working on another book — a kind of short history that I might well call “The Rise and Fall and Rise of Modern Japan.” It explores some of the same issues — that Japan was never really one thing, and that inside Japan there were many debates about how the nation should go forward, how it went in certain ways in certain periods and why it changed.

Would you expand on that idea?

You can see in this short 100-year period how enormously Japan changed direction and how many different opinions there have been. The more you look at it, the more you realize what complete nonsense it is to speak in terms of “the Japanese” — “The Japanese think this or that.”

Take the Meiji Restoration, for example. There were many different kinds of thinking that went into that. There were very conservative nativists that believed in Shinto and that the emperor should be at the core of everything. But then you also had much more liberal thinkers like Sakamoto Ryoma, an extraordinary figure who . . . quickly grasped the need for a constitution and representative politics.

Even during the Occupation . . . when even the leftists were encouraged, it could have gone a number of different ways.

It seems Japan could do with another Sakamoto now.

The truth is, these kinds of people have always been around in Japan — but, until 1945, they had tended to lose out. Whether Koizumi, with all his reform talk, turns out to be another of them, I have my doubts. . . . There are too many vested interests working against the kind of reforms he proposes. After all, the huge pork barrel of the construction industry that he says he wants to dismantle is the very thing that keeps the LDP in power. I don’t think the other factions will allow him to be a Gorbachev and make the LDP commit suicide.

You mentioned earlier about the recurring theme of nationhood in your work. Was that a personal obsession or one born out of your interest in Japan?

I have always been interested in the the whole idea of nationhood because I come from a mixed family. My mother is British, my father Dutch. I grew up in England, and I write in English. So I have always been interested in how people perceive themselves.

The way Japanese define themselves . . . is very interesting because it’s a topic that obsesses them so much. It is one of the last great cultures that still holds delusions of homogeneity, which flies in the face of Western “enlightenment” ideas.

It’s sort of fascinating but extremely disturbing at the same time. . . . It’s something we have purged from our system, but here it’s still very much mainstream. There is no single blood homogeneity here — that is just garbage. When Japanese talk about “uniqueness” . . . what they are in fact doing is picking up on a particular 19th-century idea of nationhood, mostly originating in Germany, which is based on a sort of mythology of blood and soil, of one religion and so on, instead of adopting a more democratic and liberal view of equal rights.

Since the late 19th century, there has been a struggle. . . . Some Japanese were liberals, socialists and so on, who had a much more political idea of what it is to be Japanese. Others took the blood-and-soil school as their model. And the latter, unfortunately, prevailed, and it is what ultimately led Japan into war, because it is always the sort of thing that dictators used to impose a sort of unity on a nation behind a great leader, or in the case of Japan, the emperor.

After all, what Japan began building at the end of the 19th century was a state based on the national religion, Shinto, and worship of the emperor and so on, which is not so very different from extreme forms of Islam because their idea of community is also based on worship, self-sacrifice for a common good, death and so forth.

That seems an extreme comparison.

It’s true. The forms, of course, are very different — the form of the extremes of emperor cult as they existed in the 1930s and early ’40s are not the same as the extremes of Islam. But the thinking behind it is very similar, i.e., those who are the rulers do so in the name of some higher religious cause. That can be Islam, or it can be nationalist socialism . . . or it can be the emperor cult. Fundamentally, there are great similarities.

Japanese often say they don’t have any religion, but of course that’s not really true. What they mean when they say that is that they have no church which the majority of people attend. We don’t have that in most parts of Western Europe anymore. Nonetheless, when they use religion in the sense of not having one, they are saying “we have nothing like Christianity.”

But State Shinto was deliberately set up in the late 19th century as a Japanese version of the Christian church. They were always looking for reasons to explain why the West was so powerful and Japanese thinkers in the mid-19th century came to the conclusion that it was all down to Christianity: It was the church that tied people together and made them obedient to their leaders. So they concluded that what they needed was a national church, and that became State Shinto.

That of course came to an end at the end of World War II when church and politics were separated by the Occupation forces. And I don’t think it was particularly mourned by the Japanese. But they were back to square one and, hence, didn’t think they had any religion anymore. Of course, that’s not quite true because there is boundless religion here — endless numbers of new religions and cults. But religion has been privatized, as it is, in effect, in the West, too.

Do you think Japan’s view of nationhood has changed since you lived here in the ’70s?

A big change, especially in Tokyo, is a far greater number of non-Japanese who are to a greater extent a part of the society, even if they do not enjoy citizens’ rights. When I was here, you didn’t find Chinese, Iranian, Filipinos, Koreans in the entertainment industry, for example.

And it’s something the Japanese will have to come to terms with. With the population aging as it is and being overqualified in many ways, they will need various kinds of cheap labor and the only way they will be able to do it is by importing lots of foreigners. And if they don’t do that properly — i.e., give them equal rights and so on and just let them drift around like temporarily useful but ultimately expendable people — I think they will end up with a huge social problem.

If Japan becomes more cosmopolitan, physically and mentally, which I think most ordinary Japanese are capable of doing, as many have been for some years . . . I don’t think there will be a big problem. But control-freak bureaucrats might make it difficult by refusing to grant equal rights and so on.

But if Tokyo became an Asian rather than a Japanese-only metropolis, it would become a vastly enriched place, I think.

Finally, how do you feel about the Emperor’s recent citation of an eighth-century document showing an imperial blood tie to Korea?

I’ve little to say other than, good on the Emp. He’s stating the obvious, of course. Anyway, I think the story of the Japanese denying their links to Korea has been exaggerated. Crusty reactionaries, some in the Imperial Household Agency, may wish to deny this, but not sensible Japanese, of whom the Emperor is clearly one.