Japan and competition: You gotta have ‘wa’?


Third-century Chinese visitors to Japan were struck by the easygoing equanimity of Japanese women. “All men of high rank,” they reported, “have four or five wives; others, two or three. The women are faithful and not jealous.”

Faithful and not jealous! And the Japanese family lived happily ever after — and lives happily ever after still, the winds of rivalry stilled by wa, the mysterious harmony lodged deep in the Japanese soul (in the Japanese genes, say some).

But is it true that the Japanese are less contentious than other people? Certainly many believe so. Wa is real enough — as an imagined quality if not an actual one; a quality both idealized and cultivated.

Though some scholars may quibble, wa was likely first articulated in the famous Constitution, or “splendid law,” promulgated in 604 by Prince Shotoku, Article 1 of which states: “Harmony is to be valued.” No doubt it is, but at what cost? Must our most natural and spontaneous feelings be suppressed for its sake? Absolutely, Japanese rulers have maintained down the ages, having as they did a vested interest in the inert — harmonious — obedience of the masses.

In the timeless war between giri (social obligation) and ninjo (human feeling), giri — at least in literature — wins every time. Dying for one’s lord was the ultimate virtue, the ultimate goal, the ultimate happiness.

If, as the Meiji revolutionary turned reactionary Saigo Takamori said before his seppuku in 1877, “Life and death are not two things,” then what room is there in life for rivalry? After all, if life and death are one, what isn’t one? And if all is one, let wa prevail, unto death and beyond. It doesn’t, of course, and the ancient Chinese chroniclers surely missed more than they saw with respect to the supposedly unjealous Japanese wives. (We hear even now of dutiful wives, outwardly calm, inwardly seething, laying out their husbands’ clothes and overseeing their preparations for a night on the town with a geisha or mistress.)

Be that as it may, the Chinese travelers themselves generated a heated Japanese debate which persists to this day. No one knows just where those first foreigners to record impressions of Japan alighted. Does it matter? It does, for on the location of the first Japanese polity — called Yamatai — hangs the question of how culturally indebted Japan is to Korea. Not at all, insist purists; considerably, argue those more willing to follow where the evidence leads — and if it leads to Kyushu, Japan might (just might) have been founded by the same Asian nomads who founded Korea.

Who cares? Certainly those with an emotional investment in the purity of the Japanese race and its Imperial line. And the rousing controversy over “the lost kingdom of Yamatai” may be a good part of the reason there are more than 4,000 archaeologists in Japan — 20 times the number in Britain.

Blood-soaked centuries

Most nations ascend the ladder of civilization from militarism to peace. Japan proceeded in reverse order, the effete pacifism of the Heian Period (794-1185) yielding at last to the armed camps of the blood-soaked centuries that followed. Military discipline was unremitting, loyalty and self-abnegation were elevated to supreme virtues, bravery was honed to such a pitch that today we scarcely know whether to be awed or horrified. Fighting was Japan’s pride, its glory, its raison d’e^tre.

What did people fight about? Answer: Nothing — or nothing much. There were always land squabbles to settle and real or imagined insults to avenge, but essentially they fought because it was man’s highest destiny to do so. A true fighter pitted himself against an enemy not out of hatred, or in defense of life, property or principle, but to live in the teeth of death. In Zen terms, “Those who cling to life, die. Those who defy death, live.” Strange life, strange death!

Perhaps in this peculiar sense, wa really was a guiding and prevailing force: Rival combatants were one in their dedication to combat, their contempt for peace. They battled each other to the death, united in their determination to “hold life lighter than a feather.” When the 16th-century despot Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-98), out of no more than passing pique, ordered the revered tea master Sen no Rikyu to cut his belly open, and Rikyu, without a syllable of protest, complied, perhaps it might actually be said that harmony united the two men, rather than any rivalry divided them.

Decadent it may have been, effete it certainly was, but all the same, Heian culture is refreshingly unlike the death-defying swagger and bluster of the centuries of inter-clan and intra-clan warfare that succeeded it. Different, too, from the high-minded (or no-minded, as the Zen men say) sophistry that sought to transmute slit bellies, gushing blood and severed heads displayed on poles into something ethereal and elevated.

Heian rivalry was not among warriors but among lovers, poets, perfume-blenders and gentlemen-statesmen. If their conduct struck later generations as spineless and unmanly, there is at least this to be said for it: It was civilized in our modern sense of the word. They are comprehensible to us. Rulers did not kill their rivals, they banished them — typically to a government post in the wilds of Kyushu. Betrayed lovers sighed, wept, and composed plaintive poetry, but reached for no sword beneath their voluminous robes. The only lovers’ combat in the whole long Tale of Genji is a hilarious mock one.

More to be feared were Heian women. The wandering spirit of Genji’s outraged lover, Lady Rokujo, was implicated in the mysterious deaths of three rivals for the Shining Prince’s affection. Interestingly enough, the spirit rampaged quite independently of the lady’s will. She had no idea, was mortified when she learned the truth, and blamed herself for a resentment beyond her control. One would like to invite the 3rd-century Chinese visitors back for their take on that.

Westerners familiar with their own history of religious wars, hatred and persecution are often surprised at how companionably Japan’s two principal religions, Shinto and Buddhism, got along together, despite seemingly irreconcilable differences in outlook. Actually one war did have to be fought on Buddhism’s behalf, the only religious conflict in Japan’s long, battle-choked history. The champion of Buddhism and, in 587, router of the reactionary forces defending the native gods was Prince Shotoku’s grand-uncle, Soga no Umako. Possibly the prince’s high regard for harmony reflects a horrified reaction to the bloodshed he witnessed.

By Heian times, two centuries later, the harmony had turned somewhat torpid, broken ironically by monks and priests in battle array swarming down Mount Hiei to the capital in Kyoto, armed with swords and dread-inspiring divine images to press rival claims for land, office and tax-free privileges. But their violence was not motivated by religious doctrine. Even when the Buddhist establishment was decisively crushed in the military upheavals of the 16th century, the issue was not religion but feudal supremacy.

The Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1867) brought a torpor of its own — welcome respite, no doubt, to a people savaged by centuries of anarchy — different from that of the Heian Era in its professed reverence, despite an enforced peace, for martial virtues. The clear contradiction here inspired some intellectual juggling and precipitated perhaps the only genuinely philosophical rivalry in Japanese history. This had to do not with where Japan was going, but with where it came from. Scholars who debated the issue — the key figures in the 17th century were the Confucian-rationalist Arai Hakuseki and the nationalist Motoori Norinaga — went back beyond Yamatai to the creation myths recorded in Japan’s most ancient literature. In questioning these, Arai simultaneously questioned the nation’s divine origin. Motoori accepted the myths implicitly. True, they defy reason, he said, but human reason is too limited to probe the cosmos. It was by no means a stupid argument, but it had disastrous long-term consequences, engendering Japan’s next great rivalry, that between yamato-damashii (Japanese spirit) and Western materialism, the tragic unfolding of which is well known.

Yamato-damashii lost, which should have been a great victory for the spirit of constructive rivalry. It wasn’t. Destructive rivalry had been etched too deeply into the national psyche (or spirit) for anything but rivalry’s rival, wa, to appeal. A final spasm of anarchy — clan armed against clan, faction conspiring against faction, reactionaries and modernizers cutting each other down — culminated in the Meiji Restoration of 1868, one of history’s least bloody revolutions and a model, in its way, of wa. Once-rival clans united against the declining Tokugawa Shogunate; the shogun himself abdicated gracefully. Negotiating the surrender of Edo Castle on behalf of the revolutionaries was none other than Saigo Takamori, he who had meditated on the oneness of life and death. Ten years later he died in an abortive coup against the Restoration he had done so much to bring about.

Contemporary politics

Rivalr is inescapable, it is human nature, but the Japanese experience with it has been bitter. And so wa prevails, an ideal if not a fact. Rivalry, traditionally feared as disorder, is driven underground, its creative potential sapped.

In today’s Japan we look in vain for rivalry where we most expect it. The rivalry at the heart of every modern democratic state — that between rulers and ruled — is missing here. Whether that absence is a legacy of wa, or of the premodern culture of obedience, or of the fact that Japan’s democracy was imposed from outside rather than fought for and won by a freedom-loving people — or of all these things and others besides — it explains much about contemporary politics. Not least, it helps explain the seemingly unchallengeable monopoly of government by the Liberal Democratic Party. Though it fails and fails, disappoints and disappoints, betrays and betrays, the LDP’s disastrous performance is never (with one brief and insignificant exception in 1993) quite disastrous enough to incur the ultimate symbol of popular wrath — the boot.

So, banished from the center, rivalry seethes debased on the margins, trivially, grotesquely or tragically as the case may be. Rival TV networks woo primetime viewers with gluttony contests, headhunting each others’ celebrity gluttons with prize money that mocks the depressed state of the economy. The homeless, in rising numbers, scuffle over space in parks and under awnings. In politics, ministry vies with ministry, bureaucracy with bureaucracy, while national policy stagnates.

Meanwhile men and women, once unequal partners in the game of life, are now equally matched rivals in the serious business of snatching personal fulfillment from a finite and shrinking stock — the sagging birth rate and proliferating sex industry suggest where that’s taking us. The 1999 murder of a 2-year-old Tokyo girl by a sometime friend of her mother’s was shocking in itself. It was no less horrifying as a symbol of the rivalries poisoning the lives of mothers living vicariously through small children drafted already, though too young to know it, into the hothouse academic rivalries whose narrow focus has formed the minds of a generation of leaders whose only perceptible response to a fast-changing world has been bewilderment.

Are they to blame? Yes, of course — and yet not entirely. No country in the developed world is more cut off from its past than Japan, its modern life not only different from its traditional life — that much is true everywhere — but diametrically opposed to it. Everything Japan once stood for — isolation, social hierarchy, loyalty, ceremony, poetry, evanescence, love of nature, self-sacrifice, contempt for personal happiness, the embrace of death, the elevation of spirit over matter — is irrelevant or inimical to the modern way of life. The virtues Japan once strove to attain are now vices, if not crimes. And ancient vices — acquisitiveness, self-assertion — are today’s virtues. That is present-day Japan’s ultimate rivalry: Future versus past.

The crazy thing is that the future, with everything going for it — not least inevitability — looks like it’s losing.