Are Japanese really ‘docile’?: challenging an enduring myth

by Don O'Keefe

Special To The Japan Times

A common perception abroad is that Japanese society is docile. This is partly thanks to Western writers who tried to create a single profile of the Japanese in the early to mid-20th century, such as Ruth Benedict in her 1946 book “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.” Today, this dangerous myth of consensus is still propagated by similar outside observers — and welcomed by Japan’s right.

Dissenting Japan, by William Andrews
360 pages
HURST, Nonfiction.

British-born translator William Andrews combats this myth in “Dissenting Japan,” his recent history of the postwar Japanese left. This much-needed book addresses a range of groups engaged in revolutionary politics, radical protests and counter-culture. In doing so, it provides a perspective on Japanese society that is rarely covered in English.

Andrews begins in the chaotic postwar period, when radical views were pervasive, and proceeds chronologically, singling out key figures and events as he weaves his way to the present. These individuals include Tsurumi Shusuke, a philosopher who advocated abandoning kanji for latin script, political scientist Maruyama Masao, who wanted to dethrone the Emperor, and a host of communists that worked to overturn capitalism. Andrews highlights how U.S. Occupation forces initially encouraged liberalization, but soon sided with the center right after the onset of the Cold War. As Japan regained its footing in the 1950s, the political establishment gradually promoted nationalism, reinstated the “Chrysanthemum Taboo” (the Imperial family) and strengthened capitalism.

Opposition to the new Japanese neoliberal order coalesced around the “Anpo” demonstrations against the renewal of the U.S.- Japan Security Treaty. Andrews describes how “Okinawa’s forced collusion in the Vietnam War brought the anti-war, anti-Anpo, anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist” movements together. Despite widespread criticism, the Japanese government renewed the treaty and arranged a conditional return of Okinawa in 1972.

“With Anpo passed and Okinawan restoration finalized,” Andrews writes, the movement “struggled to maintain its earlier momentum.”

In the aftermath of Anpo, many of the opposition groups that Andrews describes devolved into conflicting factions. Philosophical disputes often escalated to violence, as in the multiyear blood feud between two formerly allied Marxist organizations: Chukaku-ha (Middle Core Faction) and Kakumaru-ha (Revolutionary Marxist Faction). Law enforcement turned a blind eye to the violence. After all, Andrews says, “Why bother when the war was accomplishing what the authorities wanted anyway?”

Andrews, a self-described leftist, takes a grim view of the postwar socialist narrative: “As almost every left-wing movement around the world has testified,” he says, “internecine collapse is often a sad inevitability when ideology gets its hands on weapons.” This willingness to criticize groups he sympathizes with adds credibility to his arguments.

Even more than infighting, prosperity became a barrier to political reform. His account of the transition from the destitute postwar period to the affluent era of the bubble economy is convincing: “There was no need for mass movements when everyone was doing so well,” he explains, “wealth and new appliances kept the population busy.”

“Dissenting Japan” documents the crumbling of Japanese opposition movements with an extraordinary collection of dates, facts and figures. The book aggregates information from a wide range of sources, many of which have never appeared in English. Andrews modestly insists that he is “not a scholar,” but he supports his claims as if he were. His colloquial tone makes the book more readable than some academic counterparts, though it can distract from the material.

Andrews interprets the term “dissent” broadly, reaching beyond political activists to profile other socially marginal groups. Long passages are devoted to avant-garde artists, motorcycle gangs, hippie communes and even Aum Shinrikyo, the group responsible for the 1995 sarin gas attack in Tokyo. Including these countercultural movements helps disprove the claim of Japanese intellectual homogeneity that Andrews rightly scrutinizes, but it also widens an already broad topic.

“Dissenting Japan” concludes with the Fukushima crisis and subsequent protests. Andrews charges that the government’s disregard for popular consensus against nuclear power shows its “perpetual contempt for its citizens.” The narrative is ongoing, of course, so Andrews allows the book to end abruptly as it approaches the present.

When asked about the likelihood of political change in Japan, he seems optimistic despite the structural challenges discussed in his book. There has been “a political rebalancing since the lost generation” of the 1990s, he says, citing as evidence an increase in volunteerism since 3/11, the popularity of contemporary movements like Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs) and the sustained anti-base demonstrations in Okinawa.

If political engagement is growing in Japan, it will present foreign commentators with the same choice already faced by historians: acknowledge the country’s political and intellectual diversity or peddle tropes of its homogeneity. By presenting the critical voices of the Japanese left to an English-speaking audience, Andrews registers his own form of protest. “Dissenting Japan” is a necessary text, and a compelling intellectual call to arms.