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Tracing the decline of a beautiful Japan

by

Special To The Japan Times

Two irreconcilable views of patriotism were given their classic expressions by two Englishmen: Lord Byron, the poet (1788-1824), and Dr. Johnson, the lexicographer and jack-of-all-literary-trades (1709-84). Byron said, “He who loves not his country can love nothing.” And Johnson: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s patriotism is unabashed and fervent. He is doing all in his very considerable power to transmit it, via education, to the nation at large. His first stint as prime minister produced a revision to the Fundamental Law of Education in 2006 that charges schools with cultivating in children “an attitude that respects tradition and culture, and loves the nation and homeland that have fostered them.” He vowed at the time to “push ahead with education rebuilding that will … nurture people with vision and hope and build a dignified and beautiful country.”

Japan’s beauty was beautifully sung by the country’s most ancient poets, those of the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries whose work was anthologized in the famous Manyoshu collection, dating to the latter half of the eighth century. Among the poets were emperors and subjects, courtiers and lowly soldiers, men and women. Their shared love for their country at times seems almost erotic. The very mountains love one another: “Mount Kagu strove with Mount Miminashi/ for the love of Mount Unebi.” And in any human love, the nation seems ever present, a silent but indispensable third party: “On the vast lake of Omi/ you boatmen that come rowing/ close by the shore,/ ply not too hard your oars …/ lest you should startle into flight/ the birds beloved of my dear husband!” So sang Empress Yamato-hime, consort of Emperor Tenji (reigned 661-71).

As the Manyoshu era faded, so did patriotism. Warriors supplanted aristocrats, military rule marginalized the Imperial house, and Japan itself, beginning in the late 12th century, crumbled into a chaos of warring feudal domains. Poetry persisted, but the self-sacrificing loyalty it celebrated was to one’s domain, one’s lord — not one’s country. There was no country.

Unification in 1600 under the Tokugawa Shogunate produced no upsurge of national pride. The official morality it enforced was Confucian — hardly a native plant. Modern Japanese patriotism is rooted in simmering opposition to Confucianism, tainted by its very foreignness, and to the shoguns, damnable as usurpers. (Buddhism, then in eclipse, scarcely counted.) Japan had an indigenous religion: Shinto, the “way of the gods.” And it had its rightful ruler: the sacred Emperor, descended from the Sun Goddess. Where were they? Shinto was nowhere, all but forgotten. The Emperor languished in dignified but impotent exile in Kyoto, the old capital.

Vanguard teacher of generations of patriots to come was Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801). Did he know what he would spawn, this most gentle and erudite of scholars? Among his intellectual progeny were the kamikaze pilots of World War II, who drew inspiration from his famous poem: “What is the spirit of Yamato’s (Japan’s) ancient land?/ It is like the wild cherry blossoms,/ radiant in the sun.” The kamikaze poet who wrote on the eve of his suicide mission, “If only we might fall/ like cherry blossoms in spring —/ so pure and radiant!” was surely thinking of him.

“Our august country,” wrote Norinaga, “is the august country of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu Omikami. It is the beautiful and magnificent august country superior to all other countries, so people’s hearts and actions, as well as the words they speak, are straightforward and elegant. In the past, the realm was governed peacefully and without incident, so that, unlike in other countries, there was not the least trace of anything bothersome or troubling. But then writing came over from China.”

Thus were the seeds of corruption sown. Japan ceased to be fully Japanese. It became quasi-Chinese. Following the way of the Chinese sages, it lost the way of the Japanese gods. Of them Norinaga wrote: “All things in this world, such as the changing of the seasons, the falling of the rain and the gusting of the wind, as well as the various good and bad things that happen to countries and people, all are entirely the august works of the gods. Among the gods there are good ones and bad ones. … They cannot be understood with ordinary reason. … The fact that many things go against ordinary reason, such as good people meeting misfortune and bad people prospering, is all because of the deeds of these gods. In foreign countries, though, there is no correct transmission of the age of the gods, so they do not understand this.”

In short: A “beautiful and magnificent august country” is one thing; the happiness of people is something else altogether and, in fact, quite beside the point. The gods are the gods — there is no holding them to account. The people’s lot — the people’s joy, if only they know it — is to know the gods as best they can be known, and to serve them as best they can be served. For Norinaga’s disciples of the first two generations after his death, that meant “revere the Emperor and expel the barbarians” — a truculent challenge to the tottering shogunate which, having usurped Imperial rule, now stood helpless against the ever more boldly intruding Western “barbarians.”

Norinaga with his writing brush, his disciples with their swords, would gladly have thrust Japan back to its Manyoshu past, if only they could. They couldn’t, of course. The Meiji Era (1868-1912) that began with an Imperial Restoration modernized, industrialized, capitalized and militarized Japan far more than it “restored” it, if restoration means return to a pristine state. Norinaga’s ideal was the misty “land of the gods.” Meiji’s was “rich country, strong army.”

And Abe’s? He, perhaps no less than his Meiji predecessors, is remaking Japan — into a “dignified and beautiful country,” he says, vague as always as to what he means; hopefully not a neo-“land of the gods.” “Land of the gods” makes for pretty mythology but — as history teaches at such cost — very ugly politics.

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”