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Discerning Japan’s future journey through the prisms of its past

by Roger Pulvers

LAST IN A THREE-PART SERIES — T he French revolution in 1789 revolutionized more things than one. It changed the very definition of the word “revolution,” which until then — as can be guessed from the literal meaning of its root words, “to turn back again” — meant to revert to something that existed before.

A true revolution, to my mind, combines both the modern and the ancient meanings of the word: the creation of a new order incorporating the best qualities of the past.

What does the future hold for Japan? At a time when the country and its people are at sea, a few well-placed suggestions might serve to calm the waters and set the ship of state on its way.

It must have been the aimlessness of present-day Japan that the editors of Bungei Shunju, a popular monthly magazine, had in mind when they decided to feature 50 predictions from 50 famous people in this month’s issue. Nothing helps a people gain their bearings quite like looking back to see where they have come from.

Novelist Yukio Mishima, who took his own life 40 years ago this year, despaired of the direction his country was taking due to its defeat in World War II. “The real Japan will disappear and what will be left will be a spiritless, empty, neutral and cautiously shrewd economic superpower,” he wrote in the evening edition of the Sankei Shimbun newspaper on July 7, 1970.

Mishima equally deplored the leftwing pacifism embraced by his country’s intellectuals and the cynical money-grubbing pursued by its rightwing industrialists. He harked back to a time when a pure, manly spirit guided Japanese behavior — though the nostalgic ideal of such purity existed more in his mind than in his nation’s history.

Mishima was speaking, unwittingly, more about Japan’s present at the time than about its future. The Japan of 1970 was, indeed, a nation bent on a single thing: economic growth. The country equated the size of its gross domestic product (GDP) with the renewal of the pride it had totally lost in 1945. But Mishima naturally hadn’t reckoned on the bursting of Japan’s economic bubble some 20 years after his death.

The soul-searching that has now brought this country to a virtual economic standstill is, I believe, going to prove precursory to a reformation of the social system. And although that system may not expand GDP as in the past, it is bound to be more equitable and just for those who were abandoned by the old system: children, women, the aged, the disabled and a variety of social and ethnic minorities. Mishima’s idealized spirituality never truly existed, so how could it ever be returned to?

“The statement that ‘the Japanese overwork themselves’ is a declaration of jealousy by indolent Europeans and Americans. It even smells of a stratagem on their part.” So said bestselling crime-fiction author Seicho Matsumoto in 1992. “Even if a very small number of Japanese die of overwork,” he added, “that doesn’t represent the whole. The Japanese are diligent by nature. Japanese diligence looks to Europeans and Americans like overwork.”

Matsumoto died that year, aged 82, and did not live to see the Japanese economy take a serious dive. Yet there is a ring of truth to what he said. The Japanese do maintain a work ethic far more stringent than that of the West, even now when it presents more as ethic than work.

Playwright and essayist Tsuneari Fukuda took the ribs out of America’s nuclear umbrella over Japan when he said, “There is no guarantee whatsoever that the United States will come to save Japan.”

To ascertain the accuracy of this prediction would involve strategically sneaking a crystal ball into the war rooms of the Pentagon. But no one can deny that this statement, dating from 1977, properly focuses attention on a question that strikes at the very core of Japan’s diplomatic and strategic dilemma today.

“The state is a thing that you cannot ultimately trust.” Author Saburo Shiroyama, who passed away in 2007 at the age of 79, spent his entire life attacking organizations that oppressed individuals, beginning with the state itself, which uses people’s patriotic sentiments as a weapon to bludgeon them with. “The Constitution,” he also said, “is the only thing Japan got out of World War II.”

Shiroyama’s mistrust of the state is shared by many Japanese. Yet most lack his dogged faith in the individual. His daughter, Noriko Inoue, has written of her father’s convictions and belief in a Japan in which “each and every citizen thinks for themselves, feels things in their own heart, makes their own decisions and takes responsibility for their own actions.”

If I could pick a prophetic statement about Japan that I would wish to come true, that would be it. Collective responsibility and its concomitant suppression of individual merit and blame has been a cornerstone in the edifice of Japanese social harmony. I would suggest that retaining that harmony while augmenting the role of the individual is the primary task facing the Japanese people today.

Popular science-fiction writer Shin’ichi Hoshi, said, “What we have inherited from our past is pathos; what we should aim for in our future is humor.” This, too, pinpoints something for Japanese people to strive for: a bit of chilling out in a humorous vein while retaining the pathos that makes this country, at least in private, the warm and compassionate one it is.

So, what is in store for Japan in the coming decades?

The concerns of the people making prophetic statements in the Bungei Shunju feature cover the gamut from history to politics, social organization to food, life to death. The Japanese are a pessimistic lot, and you will look hard among the quotations to find the uplifting. While I do not shut my eyes to the brutal injustices of the past and present, I can see a model for Japan that both suits the national temperament and the complex demands that geopolitics are making and will continue to make on the nation.

First, Japan is ideally poised between East and West, due to its brilliantly amalgamate culture, to play a mediatory role between the U.S. and China. The Japanese have deep cultural affinities with both nations. No one else understands America and China as well and so instinctively.

Second, the Japanese are deeply areligious yet spiritually inclined. This gives them a foot both inside and outside the vehicles of faith that propel followers of the three Middle Eastern religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Again, they are, in their theological neutrality combined with their respect for faith, the perfect go-betweens in any so-called clash of civilizations.

Finally, with their culture based on an austere beauty that in principle reveres nature and all that is natural, the Japanese are born conservationists. You don’t have to tell them to save, conserve, pare down and simplify. The essence of their culture is inspired by these very reductive processes. I would like to think that Japan can produce the first genuinely ecofriendly society that works as a model of economic progress.

This would be revolution at its best: a movement that marches stridently forward with an eye to those things behind that are worth occasionally going back for, retrieving and dusting off.

Is such a journey possible? I’d like to think it is not only possible, but that it has already begun.