Summertime in Japan is tinged with sadness, not just because we have to drag ourselves through this kirokutekina mōsho (記録的な猛暑, record-breaking heat), but because we must deal with the annual arrival of the “shūsenkinenbi (終戦記念日, the anniversary of the end of the Pacific War),” which comes around in mid-August.
On that day, we are reminded of how the Japanese screwed up so badly the rest of the world deemed the nation broken and irreparable. Whole cities were wiped out, orphans died from malnutrition. The Japanese have lived with haisen no kioku (敗戦の記憶, memory of defeat) for the past 70 years, and while the country rose from the ashes to become an economic superpower and all that, every summer, some pundit or another appears on TV to tell us that, in the process, the Japanese have trashed their spiritual identity.
Mukashi wa konna ningen-wa inakatta (昔はこんな人間はいなかった, in the old days, these people didn’t exist) was my grandfather’s favorite refrain, as he grimaced in disgust at school kids squatting in front of conbini (コンビニ, convenience stores); at the sight of otaku (おたく, obsessive) fans gleefully lining up to buy bishōjo guzzu (美少女グッズ, girlie merchandise) in Akihabara; at children who had no idea how to amuse themselves unless presented with a Nintendo product or tickets to Tokyo Disneyland.
Nihonjin wa nasakenakunatta (日本人は情けなくなった, the Japanese have gone to the dogs) was another of his favorite observations. My grandfather was a teenager during World War II and was yanked out of school for kinrō hōshi (勤労奉仕, volunteer labor service or more plainly, slave labor) in an arms factory.
One day the factory was bombed and three of his friends died, blown into fragments of limbs and bones. He used to say that the Japanese owed it to the dead to isshōkenmei hataraite chisei wo migaku (一生懸命働いて知性を磨く, work hard and polish one’s intelligence). Until a week before his death, the man could be found swinging his kendo sword 100 times, every morning before breakfast. Known as suburi hyakkai, （すぶり100回） the 100 swings were a fairly common practice among men of his generation. It was how they dealt with personal emotions.
But even my grandfather suspected that the whole Nihonjin-ron (日本人論, the what-it-means-to-be-Japanese debate) thing was a farce because whichever way you sliced it, we wound up looking bad. When the war ended, the surviving Japanese had to confront the fact that they had participated in a phony seisen (聖戦, sacred war) that destroyed the nation and inflicted unspeakable atrocities on neighboring Asian countries. When Japan managed to pull itself together, the rest of the world scoffed at us for being hataraki ari (働きアリ, worker ants). When the baburu keizai (バブル経済, bubble economy) went bust, we realized what a bunch of yokubarina haikinshugisha (欲張りな拝金主義者, greedy money-worshippers) we had become. The Fukushima nuclear disaster showed how the leaders of this nation are so ready to trade a sustainable future for keizan hatten (経済発展, economic progress).
And now, it seems, Japan has hit an all-time low in terms of self-image. Five years ago director and comedian “Beat” Takeshi Kitano went on the TV and warned that Nihonjin no rekka wa tomaranai (日本人の劣化は止まらない, the Japanese will continue on the march to inferiority) and a lot of current evidence seems to support that. The antics of our current prime minister are a good example; the fushōji (不祥事, deplorable scandals) being exposed in all tiers of the bureaucracy and police force, are another.
Okina koe de iitakunai keredo (大きな声で言いたくないけれど, one doesn’t like to speak aloud about such things) but the list goes on and on. Like the STAP cell fiasco; the Okayama shōjo yūkai kankin jiken (岡山少女誘拐監禁事件, kidnapping and confinement of a little girl in Okayama prefecture); Japan’s crushing defeat in the World Cup games (ワールドカップの日本惨敗, World Cup no Nihon zanpai); and finally, the fact that Japanese sumo wrestlers consistently lose out to gaijin rikishi (外人力士, foreign wrestlers) in what is supposedly a kokugi (国技, national sport).
On a mundane level, it’s widely acknowledged that over the past 30 years the Japanese have been on a steady decline in terms of politeness, consideration, endurance and other factors that once made up the national character, or so we assumed.
They’re certainly more addicted to sumaho (スマホ, smartphones) and social media. According to a survey taken by Zenkoku Daigaku Seikyōren (全国大学生協連, League of University Co-ops), 40 percent of university students spend exactly zero minutes a day on dokusho (読書, book reading) and more than five hours in front of computer screens of varying sizes.
Watakushi goto de kyōshuku desu ga (私事で恐縮ですが, I’m overwhelmingly sorry that I’m taking the discussion to a personal level), at least my grandfather isn’t around to witness this stuff.
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