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Punk of a nation in mosh pit of controversy and ‘silliness’

by Philip Brasor

In the middle of August, Polydor Records announced it would not release a recently finished album by veteran rock singer Kiyoshiro Imawano because it contained a punk version of “Kimigayo,” Japan’s newly certified national anthem. Imawano called the decision “silly,” an opinion that took on extra layers of meaning last week when TV Asahi’s “News Station” invited him on the show to sing the song.

Following the live performance a tape was run of various persons giving their own opinions of Imawano’s version. The new leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, Yukio Hatoyama, was shown listening to the song on headphones. As the song started with a burst of chords a surprised boyish grin broke out on his face. He gave it a thumbs up for what he said was its patriotic zeal, though it looked to me as if his appreciation was a bit less calculated.

Some people on the street said they preferred it to the “real” version, and even a member of a right-wing extremist organization said that it was good to have different interpretations because that way more people will know and appreciate its nationalistic meaning.

For most people, however, the song remains a conundrum. Except for the debate over whether “kimi” refers to the emperor or the Japanese people, I’ve never heard any explication of the song’s lyrics. Japanese over a certain age all seem to know them, at least phonetically, but I’ve never received an understandable explanation. “It’s poetry,” someone told me, as if all poetry were automatically impenetrable.

Imawano’s version is purposely ambiguous. For one thing, the punk arrangement renders the melody unrecognizable. Secondly, the way he phrases the line “kimi ga yo” gives you the impression that “kimi” refers not to the emperor or the people, but to a singular “you.” He’s essentially turned the national anthem into another rock ‘n’ roll love song.

Imawano’s agent said that there was no political intent behind the interpretation, but in subsequent interviews, the singer has said that he hoped his version would encourage listeners to think about the recent argument over whether or not the song should be made the national anthem. Such a remark certainly implies a political intent.

In any case, Polydor comes off looking silly. Dumb, in fact. Any controversy, no matter how minor, will boost sales. Consequently, it was easily picked up by an independent label. As the News Station segment demonstrated, no one is really offended, so Polydor’s business principles remain as unfathomable as the anthem’s purport.

In an interview in the Asahi Evening News, Imawano said that the “principle” demonstrated by Polydor’s stance is called “kotonakare,” which can mean “avoiding the issue.” That same principle seems to apply to the nuclear incident that took place last week in Ibaraki Prefecture — before, during and even after it happened.

A similar term is “heiwa boke,” which translates directly as “peace senility.” The term describes Japanese society’s blinkered sense of well-being, which can be blamed for everything from the unchecked rise of Aum Shinrikyo to the shocking lack of private and municipal preparedness for the Great Hanshin Earthquake.

The fact that the Ibaraki incident was caused by workers violating safety precautions in order to save time and effort indicates “senility” of a more insidious nature, but the government’s noncomprehension of the magnitude of the accident at its earliest stages is a perfect example of official “heiwa boke.”

The commercial media has explained the causes and effects of the incident and laid blame at the proper feet. Last Friday night, Fuji TV newsman-pundit Taro Kimura said that the incident was clearly caused by a shocking “lack of professionalism.”

In this particular case, however, blaming human error is equivalent to avoiding the real issue, which is not so much the absence of enforced safety guidelines in the nuclear power industry but the existence of the industry in the first place; in other words, according to the official line the problem isn’t nuclear power but the people who run it.

Such a line of thinking suggests that the problem can be fixed permanently with stronger guidelines. While most of the rest of the developed world is trying to phase out its nuclear power component, Japan is locked into plans it made several decades ago, a bizarre irony for the only country in the world that has experienced an atomic attack.

Kimura’s remark followed an interview with an independent expert who said that the nuclear industry believed an accident would never happen simply because it hadn’t happened yet, a quote which implies that now that it has happened it won’t happen again. It’s an optimistic reading of human nature, especially in connection to a perilous endeavor like nuclear power, which is unforgiving of even the slightest human error.

The media seems to be of two minds over the issue. On the one hand, though local news reports were intense, they played up the negligence aspect while playing down the seriousness of the accident itself. For instance, they showed almost none of the actual damage to the facility that featured prominently in overseas news reports.

On the other hand, some TV stations have, at least for the time being, decided to cancel broadcasts of MITI’s pronuclear energy spots, which were set to begin Oct. 1. It could simply be another example of the “principle of kotonakare,” or it might be a policy shift based on real principles.