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Extreme nationalism may emerge from the rubble of the quake

by Michael Hoffman

Destruction, when massive but not total, engenders rebirth, or reinvention, or both. Japan after World War II is a prime example, a model from which Japan in the wake of March’s earthquake-tsunami-meltdown is sure to draw inspiration.

What form will this rebirth or reinvention take? “I never think of the future; it comes soon enough,” said Einstein. Few in 1945 foresaw Japan’s course in the ensuing decades. Few see what lies ahead now.

Two things are certain. One: Japan will change. Its demographic and economic plight was crying out for change long before March 11. Drifting was dangerous then; it’s impossible now, though how firmly the government grasps this is not clear.

The second certainty is the country’s altered standing in the world. Pre-March 11, Japan was deplored or pitied for its economic woes and admired for its anime and manga. Now it’s pitied for the tragedy it is living through and admired for the quiet strength with which its people cope. Even China seems to have shed its sullen resentment toward its wartime oppressor, ordinary folk and official media alike sloughing off reflexive hostility to openly marvel at Japan’s extraordinary fortitude under extreme stress.

Japan will change — how? Nobody knows, but could this be a clue? Shukan Post earlier this month carried a remarkable dialogue between two deeply conservative thinkers, journalist Yoshiko Sakurai and Ochanomizu Women’s University professor emeritus Masahiko Fujiwara. Their conversation is striking for its frank, almost rapturous espousal of what mainstream postwar thinking tends to dismiss, or fear, as extreme nationalism. Flush with pride in what the disaster and its aftermath have revealed of the Japanese character, Sakurai and Fujiwara pull out all the stops, declaring, in effect, “Let the nay-sayers rant.”

Sakurai begins, fairly enough, with a tribute to victims who have lost everything themselves and yet spare no pains to help others. Yes, rejoins Fujiwara, “kindness to those in pain, tears for the weak, are written into Japanese genes.” He cites the example of a firefighter emailing his wife: “I’m going to the [stricken Fukushima No. 1] reactor.” To which his wife, stifling her natural anxiety, thinking only of the common good, replies, “Be Japan’s savior.” Fujiwara’s approving comment: “A true samurai wife.”

Sakurai raises fresh examples of military, medical and other rescue personnel displaying marvels of courage, dedication and self-sacrifice for the safety and comfort of the stricken masses. All of this is plausible (except perhaps the implication that it only happens in Japan). Then suddenly she invokes the emperor: “The current disaster has made people much more aware of the emperor’s existence.”

She cites Emperor Akihito’s postdisaster poem in praise of the stoutness of the Japanese character, and notes that disasters in the past, World War II prominent among them, have inspired similarly consoling imperial poems. True, says Fujiwara: “Whenever Japan is at a low ebb, His Imperial Majesty is sure to make his presence felt.”

“When the political process is paralyzed,” says Sakurai, “as it was at the end of World War II and as it is now, the Imperial Palace, its existence preserved not by power but by moral authority and popular respect, fills the vacuum and deigns to rule. In all the world,” she adds, “only Japan, I think, has this national trait.”

The notion of a unique morality, “written into Japanese genes” and setting this “land of the gods” apart from all other nations, is an ancient one. Was it buried in the rubble of World War II only to be exhumed by the seismic events of March 2011? Is the appearance of Sakurai’s and Fujiwara’s dialogue in Shukan Post, not usually considered a rightwing publication, a hint that fringe thinking is becoming mainstream?

Unique or not, of divine origin or not, Japan’s native character and traditional virtues are on global display as, prequake, its manga and anime characters were. The world is surprised, impressed, even awed. Sometimes this sentiment comes from quite unexpected quarters. The example of China, hardly predisposed in Japan’s favor, has already been mentioned. Another, reported by the Asahi Shimbun earlier this month, is an ongoing “Japan boom” in, of all places, Saudi Arabia.

It began two years ago and therefore is not rooted in the catastrophe, but it celebrates the same virtues with which the world has lately become familiar. They were exposed to a Saudi audience, writes the Asahi’s Middle East and Africa bureau chief Tsutomu Ishiai, by a TV reporter for a popular variety-news program. Among its surprising eye-openers: Japanese children clean their own classrooms, the sort of chore which in Saudi Arabia is contemptuously fobbed off on foreign menials. Further, the Japanese are honest. To prove it the Saudi reporter left a wallet full of money in a Tokyo park. Sure enough, a couple with a child in tow found the wallet and promptly brought it to a police box. That would not likely have happened in Saudi Arabia, apparently.

Ishiai quotes the Saudi reporter as being led by this to a surprising conclusion: “In [Saudi Arabia], Islam is considered the loftiest religion, and yet it seems that the country that best embodies the holy Quran’s core values of sincerity and cleanliness is one with no connection at all to Islam — Japan.”

What would Fujiwara and Sakurai think of that?