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Renewed national pride will shape Japan’s future

by Michael Hoffman

Spring dawns on a shattered Japan. “Not since World War II” is a recurring phrase, and no wonder. Mass destruction accompanied by radiation — what other analogy is big enough?

It isn’t perfect, but it does shed some light. Japan then — militarist, statist, imperialist — and Japan now — aging, floundering, depressed — are vastly different but have this in common: ashes from which to rise. Disaster, man-made or natural, is a kick in the teeth. It’s also, potentially, a stimulating kick in the butt.

So it proved postwar. So may it prove postquake.

Postwar Japan entered the new era by shedding most of its prewar identity. Yamato-damashii, the mystic, supposedly all-conquering “Japanese spirit,” was discarded. Naked, the defeated nation clothed itself in democracy, individualism, American-style mass culture. The apparent ease of the transformation seemed proof to Americans of a long-held belief — that America’s native attributes are not so much cultural as natural. All humans would adopt them, if only they were free to.

Japanese politics, unquestionably if imperfectly democratic, has seemed impotent and paralyzed for decades. Even so, there’s no resurgent militarism, no swirling coup rumors. Democracy is unchallenged. But yamato-damashii — could it be rearing its head again?

Not the yamato-damashii of samurai and militarists. Rather, that of a generation whose young males are routinely described as “herbivorous” for their perceived passivity and apathy. It’s a strange kind of yamato-damashii, admittedly. And yet, might Sapio magazine be indirectly referring to something of the kind (it doesn’t use the term) when it notices, with approval, a resurgent “love of country” among young people?

There’s an irony here. As recently as February, Sapio was despairing of the young generation. “Japanese youngsters are becoming stupid!” it moaned. And yet in March it found in those same young people something to celebrate. They love Japan. Increasingly. In 2008, an NHK poll found 98 percent of respondents aged 20-24 glad to be Japanese — versus 82 percent in 1973. They show it not by donning a uniform and seizing foreign territory for their divine Emperor but — for example — by choosing to travel around Japan rather than go abroad. In 1996, 4.63 million Japanese in their 20s traveled abroad. In 2009, only 2.54 million did. True, the youthful population had declined by then, but the larger point is, why go abroad when Japan has the temples and shrines of Kyoto, the ancient Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture, the Meiji Shrine in the heart of Tokyo? All report soaring numbers of young Japanese visitors.

Is this good or bad? It’s been criticized often enough — as insular, incurious, narrow-minded. On second thought, maybe there’s something to be said for it, if it shows a healthy appreciation of one’s own culture. Many young Japanese have already been abroad and are less impressed than they once were. Japan is, as much of the world is not, peaceful, orderly, safe. (That last, of course, must now be reconsidered.) Its pop culture is a hit worldwide. Its soccer and baseball stars are world-class. Why not stay home and get to know one’s own country better?

Inwardness has long been a recognized Japanese trait. In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries it was called sakoku (a closed country). Today’s buzzword is Galapagos-ka — literally, “Galapagos-ization.” The reference is more to Japan’s peculiarly evolving technology than to a peculiarly evolving mentality, but the former cannot help suggest the latter, and many observers deplore the implied psychological if not political neo-isolationism.

Media specialist Takamasa Sakurai, writing last January in Shukan Asahi, brushed the criticism aside, boldly redefining Galapagos-ka as originality and declaring it an asset. Japanese manga, Japanese anime, Japanese fashion — Japanese technology too, of course, though decreasingly — sweep the world. Last year, the Japan Expo in Paris drew 170,000 visitors. Comparable pop culture events in Barcelona and Rome were similarly thronged. When Japan stirs, the world takes notice. The spirit — dare we call it yamato-damashii? — that generated “Lolita fashion” and other cute little masterpieces of suspended-animation childhood could be the key, Sakurai feels, to hauling Japan out of its lingering, paralyzing recession.

At the time he was writing, that was the biggest problem.

Even prequake, though, attitudes toward the recession were changing. One of the landmark events of 2010 was Japan’s economic fall relative to the world’s new No.2 economy, China. But was this really the national disgrace some saw in it? An Asahi Shimbun opinion poll last year found 50 percent of respondents consider it a major blow — but 46 percent do not, which suggests the pain will pass as Japanese seek focuses of patriotic pride other than their country’s status as an economic superpower.

Those focuses include the pop culture triumphs Sakurai cited, but also, writes culture researcher Atsushi Miura in Sapio, the “peaceful, beautiful and prosperous life Japan makes possible.”

“This is not,” he explains, “hard-power nationalism” — prewar militarism, in short — “but nationalism supported by soft power.”

It’s a step up, surely, but when Miura wrote, neither he nor anyone else was thinking, “Not since World War II.” Now, we all are. Are soft-power nationalism and herbivorous patriotism the qualities to pull Japan through?