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Conditions are ripe for the volcano of Japan’s betrayed to erupt again

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

Second of two parts

Postwar Japan was rife with polemics. Thick magazines such as Chuo Koron, Sekai and many others that carried in-depth analysis and cutting comment were read and discussed by people of all classes and shades of opinion, left, right and center. Antiwar films of the 1950s by directors such as Kon Ichikawa, Tadashi Imai and Masaki Kobayashi kept Japanese guilt, in its many guises, in the foreground of national debate.

By the 1960s, with the appearance of Nagisa Oshima’s films about disaffected and alienated youth, the popularity of the new angura engeki (underground theater) movement and the rise of the New Left, the level of Japanese consciousness of social inequity was very high indeed.

The result was a protest movement focused on the American war in Vietnam (and Japan’s collusion with it) that galvanized a nation. What was the prime mover of this phenomenon?

The spur above all others was a generational polemic born of a sense of betrayal. The men and women who came of age in the 1950s and ’60s had been inculcated in a fascist, chauvinist mentality. When, after the war, it was all too clear to people in Japan that the motivation of their warmongering leaders had been grounded in greed and extreme racial bias, they reacted as all who feel betrayed do: with a pointed anger.

Thanks, however, to the handshake between the United States and the “new” postwar leadership of Japan (numbering many who had served the fascist cause or wished they could have), the country’s old elites kept a grip on its political life — a grip that was tight, unrelenting and, at its core, reactionary. Sadly, that grip has not loosened much to this day.

The young people of Japan created a new culture, through which they expressed their frustrations with Japanese reactionary politics. Those frustrations spilled from pages, stages, screens and the walls of art galleries onto the streets; and millions of ordinary citizens recognized them in their own lives and responded sympathetically.

But that Japan is gone. Succeeding generations of young people, from the 1980s onward, chose individual contentment, in small personal doses, over social activism.

They now tend to stay at home, do their own thing (mainly punching keys on a mobile phone or game device) and keep a low public profile. They are a generation that is meek, mild and manageable. No one coming to Japan in the past two decades could be blamed for thinking that this is the immutable and indelible portrait of the Japanese youth.

Well, the Japan of grand polemics and a social-conscious culture may be gone, but it is not lost. There are a number of reasons why I believe young Japanese people may be on the verge of creating a second wave of just such a culture.

First, the tragic events of March 11 and the concomitant radiation contamination have catalyzed many young people. I sense it in the students at Tokyo Institute of Technology, where I teach, and at other tertiary institutions. Call it a renewed awareness in themselves and a belief that they should be doing something to redress the pain and ills their country is experiencing.

Second, I believe that many people in Japan today, by no means only young ones, feel sick of the lies fed to them by the captains of industry and their servants in the upper echelons of the government bureaucracy.

Among these is the myth of the safety of nuclear power in a country so vulnerable to colossal natural disasters such as the megaquake and tsunami six months ago; the myth of the middle-class consciousness, propagating the notion that Japan is not a highly class-ridden society with serious poverty issues; and the myth of Japanese spiritual preparedness — as if all you need to recreate and reinvent your country is a belief that the stoic will inherit the Earth.

The fallacy of such myths has been exposed by the utter failure of industry, government and the media to keep Japan strong, its business scrupulous and the citizenry informed.

Third, social change in Japan has often resembled a volcano. Everything looks smooth, peaceful, uneventful and unchanging on the surface, while underneath growls the rough heat of anger.

I pointed out in this column last week that two buzzwords of the 1960s were jōnen (passions) and onnen (grudges). The Japanese people may be placid and obsessed with decorum on the surface, but the cycle of generational change and the build up of national anger — especially in those sections of society that feel betrayed — is never something to be taken lightly.

Recent mass anti-nuclear demonstrations, culminating in one in Tokyo on Sept. 19 that drew a reported 60,000 people, are indications of significant rumbling under the volcano.

Fourth, young people have new social-networking tools to effect a difference, just as the young creators of the new waves of the 1960s did through their social platforms of performance and presentation.

As of now, social networking in Japan has not taken an activist turn, but this may well change. I wouldn’t be surprised if new media magnates didn’t spring up, people who start online magazines and sites that offer those two things that Japan’s popular media provide so poorly: perspectives and insights into what is really happening in Japan and around the world.

My wife and children have recently started up their own e-book publishing house. It is not a terribly difficult or costly thing to do. Established Japanese publishers have been extremely slow to enter this market, but enterprising young Japanese could easily set up a publishing house offering the public alternative perspectives and insights. This would certainly be a lucrative undertaking.

The dōjin zasshi (coterie magazine) created by like-minded people getting together to publish their own work has been a major phenomenon that’s contributed to Japan’s cultural and social history since the Meiji Era (1868-1912). E-publishing would be an extension of that.

Today’s educated young people come chiefly from the middle classes and, for this reason, it is said they are not natural dissenters or activists. But the protesters of the 1960s also hailed primarily from middle-class backgrounds. It is often the well-off who make the most effective dissidents, long before the disadvantaged — who are kept deliberately in the dark by the mass media they crave — see the light.

Change in Japan originates in the subculture and manifests itself in an explosion of culture. This was the case in Meiji Japan and in postwar Japan, the country’s two great periods of social and economic progress. The young people of today have the tools to bring their passions and grudges to the surface. When it does happen, it will appear like a sudden burst of energy.

Young people cannot attack the powers-that-be front on. Those powers have their hands on virtually all the instruments of control in government, industry and the media. In fact, the three are tightly linked through sweet deals and corrupt practices that go back generations.

Instead, the medium and means of attack will have to be created and controlled by a new generation of creators and entrepreneurs.

Japan is ripe for an era of polemics. I believe it is only a matter of time before they burst on the scene and make us all stand up and take notice.