JAPAN UNBOUND: A Volatile Nation’s Quest for Pride and Purpose, by John Nathan. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004, 271 pp., $25 (cloth).

In this engaging book, largely based on extensive interviews, John Nathan probes the pathologies, contradictions and search for identity in contemporary Japan. He ranges from dysfunctional families and “classroom collapse” to young entrepreneurs and corporate restructuring. The heart of the book, and most interesting sections, focus on the anomie and deracination that have taken a toll on society and left many Japanese feeling adrift and uncertain of their collective identity. Nathan argues that there is a palpable unease among Japanese that has stimulated soul-searching about who they are and what Japan is. In his view, growing discontent with a lopsided relationship with the United States combined with a gathering nationalism generates an unsettling volatility.

Commenting on those who seek to promote an identity rooted in nostalgic nationalism, novelist Kenzaburo Oe says, “Now we have nothing but the reflection of ourselves we see in the eyes of the West. We are confused and lost. The response to that lostness is nationalism. People like [Shintaro] Ishihara (Tokyo’s current governor) gather around them those who have no basis for identity and entice them with the power of the state. They tell us we are all the emperor’s children. The state becomes a crutch for those who are no longer able to stand alone, like plastic implanted in a dysfunctional penis.”

Nathan’s survey of Japan’s contemporary quest for identity focuses on men of the right such as Ishihara and the “demagogic cartoonist” Yoshinori Kobayashi.

Kobayashi, author of several best sellers, explains that he embraced ultranationalism in his cartoons in reaction to Aum Shinrikyo and its terrorist attacks in 1995. He saw Aum as symptomatic of the problems stemming from Japan’s yawning discontinuity with the past; torn from their tradition and culture, ashamed of their history, Japanese youth sought refuge in doomsday cults. By supporting an exonerating and glorifying narrative of the Pacific War, Kobayashi hopes to instill pride among Japanese and reconnect them with their traditions. Of course, the question remains: Why vindicate the militarists who visited so much suffering on fellow Asians in the name of liberating them? And, why is it necessary to whitewash Japan’s history in order for Japanese to reconnect with their traditions and culture? Surely Japanese can both reconnect with their traditions and demonstrate contrition about excesses committed against Asian neighbors. Glorifying Japanese imperialism hardly seems a convincing or appealing basis for bridging Japan’s discontinuity with its past.

Readers unfamiliar with Kobayashi can learn much from his strategic advice: “If America has so much confidence in its culture, why not play its strongest culture card against the enemy? Why not install large screens in the mountains of Afghanistan and project hard-core pornography twenty-four hours a day? Why not fight terrorism with erotism?” He believes that Japanese must become more arrogant in order to recover their identity.

According to Nathan, Yasuo Tanaka, the maverick governor of Nagano prefecture, “has single-handedly made activism in general fashionable.” Tanaka’s sexcapades, reported endlessly by him in the media, are often the topic of reproach, but he replies, “I enjoy good food with friends and sex with women I respect and admire. My life is an open book. I wonder if the Nagano bureaucrats who destroyed the documents relating to spending at the Winter Olympics can say the same?”

Tanaka emerges from “Japan Unbound” as a quirky dandy who wants to serve. He campaigned against the “construction state” and for transparency in government, messages that have proved increasingly appealing to voters. In his view, “Fascism is designed to stop people from thinking. That’s what Hitler and Stalin were about. And that’s what Ishihara does, our Japanese version of Joerg Haider.”

Nathan is by no means being complimentary when he suggests that “Ishihara’s brand of nationalism is similar to Yoshinori Kobayashi’s and issues from the same source as the ‘politics’ evolved by Yukio Mishima.”

It appears that Ishihara’s call for an end to “eager subservience” to the U.S. among post-World War II Japanese has resonated in contemporary Japan.

The epilogue features Nathan’s view that a Sino-Japanese rapprochement is likely, and it will involve a distancing from the U.S. He argues that cultural affinities and economic common sense will trump the historical animosity that has divided East Asia. It is hard to square his views, however, about a rising tide of unrepentant nationalism in Japan and reconciliation with China where the scars of the past continue to fester. After all, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi recently sacrificed a potential $2 billion bullet train contract with China at the altar of Yasukuni Shrine.

He writes, “The textbook controversy, the polemical and often hysterical debate about Nanking, and the political explosiveness of official visits to Yasukuni are manifestations of an ongoing tension between contrition about the war and abject apology on one hand, and the urgent need to look to the past for a source of pride and self-certainty on the other.”

A convulsive change in values and behavior has driven many Japanese to seek refuge in a romantic nationalism. “This thinking amounts to investing the imperial tradition (and the person of the emperor) with a substantiveness that it never possessed. The emperor conceived and held in the nationalist imagination is a fantasy; the traditional past in which the Japanese spirit resides is in fact a phantom past, a comforting fiction.” Comforting for whom?

This is a provocative and timely survey of Japan today and is a good and brisk read. I disagree about just how ominous the clouds of nationalism are and the forecast about rapprochement with China, but he does highlight the sweeping social changes in Japan that have generally been overshadowed by an obsessive focus on Japan’s economic woes. Here we learn about many interesting aspects of this missing story.

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