A question of dignity or cause for embarrassment

by Andrew Rankin

THE DIGNITY OF THE NATION by Masahiko Fujiwara, translated by Giles Murray. IBC Publishing 2007, 278 pp., 1,400 yen (paper)

The title of this little book deliberately echoes that of a notorious pamphlet issued by the Japanese government in 1937, at the peak of nationalist hysteria, in an attempt to define the essence and superiority of Japanese culture. According to Masahiko Fujiwara, a mathematics professor known for his work on Diophantine equations, Western countries are on the road to ruin. Logic and reason are not enough. What we need now is a strong shot of samurai spirit: “It may take time, but I believe it is the Japanese, and no one else, who are now capable of saving the world.”

The first half of this book constitutes a hostile but persuasive critique of Western ideals: democracy, freedom, logic, equality, globalization. Fujiwara is fed up with all of them. Now that slavery has been abolished, “freedom” has lost its meaning, and is merely the promotion of egotism: “Getting rid of freedom would be better for human happiness.”

The industrial revolution enabled the West to dominate the world, he writes, but globalization is nothing more than worldwide homogenization. Communism and imperialism were products of “magnificent logic,” hence their spectacular failure. Meritocracy has created societies where the individual is surrounded by enemies. Fujiwara wants lifetime employment and promotion through seniority in the aim of achieving social stability, which he sees as the fundamental strength of any nation. Companies should not belong to shareholders, who offer no special loyalty, but to the employees who sustain them.

He is good at exposing the hypocrisies of Western morality. Freedom and equality, he rightly points out, are contradictory, and cannot coexist; that is why “35 million Americans are too poor to afford medical care.” His attacks on media-based populism and the dangers of free-market economics — such as the use of derivatives for speculative purposes — are spot on, though these are easy targets. The disintegration of family values he diagnoses as the failure of Western logic and the rational spirit.

In the second half, Fujiwara offers his solution: “I believe that the samurai spirit will save the world.” Money-based social structures must be replaced with ethics based on Bushido, the way of the warrior. So, topknots not laptops? Unsurprisingly his definition of “samurai spirit” is wishy-washy, and seems to denote anything he finds noble in Japanese tradition. As you might expect from a mathematician writing about aesthetics, his grasp of literary history is weak and the same examples tend to be repeated over and over.

It is ridiculous to credit Japan’s warrior class with the artistic refinement of the Heian court, “The Tale of Genji,” or the poetry of Matsuo Basho. Many of the “uniquely Japanese” emotions he extols — empathy for the weak, filial piety, awareness of the fragility of the human condition — are not Japanese at all, but originate in the teachings of Zen, Buddhism and Confucianism. It is depressing to hear an intellectual who has spent several years in Europe and America regurgitate the old myth about Japan being the “only country to have four distinct seasons.” And a book about samurai values that makes no mention either of the sword or the emperor is ultimately empty at its core.

But the principle criticism of this book has to be its complete lack of originality. The concept of an ethical system rooted in the aesthetic sensibilities of Japan’s classical literature is exactly 100 years old, and it did not work the first time round. You can listen to most of Fujiwara’s other ideas for free at any noodle stand in Japan.

Rather worrisomely, “The Dignity of a Nation” was one of Japan’s top sellers in 2006, second only to the latest Harry Potter adventure. There are close similarities between the two. Having failed to forge a convincing post-empire identity, the British still hark back to a lost era of public schoolboys with tortoise-shell spectacles, who save the day thanks to good old British values. Likewise, Japanese thinkers sometimes yearn for the feudal values of the samurai era, celebrated today mainly in TV swashbucklers. Both are examples of nostalgic romanticism, grounded in fiction.

Andrew Rankin’s “Harakiri: Japanese Ritual Suicide” will be published by Keibunsha in the fall.