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Beneath the chaos, an old new order


Special To The Japan Times

We are all going to die. Most of us will die miserably — it’s in the nature of things. Hopefully none of us, infirm in body and mind, will die falling from an upper story of a nursing care home, pushed to our deaths by a disgruntled care worker. That three people did die in that fashion at one particular facility within a five-week span in 2014 highlights, among other things, the fantastic stress to which overworked, underpaid, inadequately trained caregivers are subject.

“The world order is crumbling!!” proclaims Weekly Playboy magazine — shocking nobody, one suspects. Who can have failed to notice? Random terrorism, random murder, war, refugees, suffering, more suffering — such is the news fare of late, a steady diet of which can numb you to the point where even double exclamation points lose their impact. The cynical response, by no means indefensible as the historical record stands, is: “World order? What world order?” Nothing can crumble that never existed.

Playboy’s article is interesting all the same, because it looks beyond the present crumbling to a future “order” (let’s agree to use the word for want of a better one) germinating beneath the chaos — and here, maybe, there really is something shocking, for the “new” order turns out to be a very old one, ancient even. It makes a very strange impression on a 21st-century reader steeped in limitless technological empowerment, borderless globalization — a careening, unstoppable rush into an unknown but irresistible future.

Or maybe it’s not so strange after all. The 21st century, for all its headlong speed, is elderly rather than young. Japan is at the vanguard of the world’s aging, but it’s a global phenomenon, with implications that are only beginning to surface. The awful deaths in November and December at the S Amiyu Kawasaki Saiwai-cho nursing care home in Kawasaki point to the grimmest of them. Others are nicer. The weekly Spa!, for instance, finds young women increasingly drawn to older men. You’d think a man of 50 to a woman of 20 would be a relic, a fossil. Not so. Some men age like fine wines, while young men nowadays strike women as hopelessly callow — or worse: utterly indifferent to love, romance, even sex. That’s what informal interviews with random young women in Shibuya, Tokyo’s youth mecca, reveal to Spa!.

No doubt part of an older man’s appeal is that he’s more likely to have money, but there’s more to it than that. Experience counts for something too — but not everything. One woman in her early 20s basks in older men’s willingness to listen. She and her friends are budding career women — a new breed, ambitious and capable. Young men, she says, couldn’t care less. It’s men old enough to be her father — bastions, you’d think, of dyed-in-the-wool Japanese conservatism — who offer attention, sympathy, encouragement; not fatherly, exactly, but — what’s the word? Romantic, maybe. Sympathetic listening is sex by another name. There’s a late bloomer latent in all of us.

Or maybe it’s a resurgence in us of something that had seemed lost, dead. Must aging be synonymous with decay? Maybe what seems like decay is in fact resurgence. As the world ages we’ll learn more about that.

Weekly Playboy’s theme is resurgence of a different kind. If the 21st century seems to be blowing the past into dusty oblivion, think again. As Playboy sees things, postmodern is premodern, and vice versa.

Five thousand and 4,000 years ago, respectively, two civilizations were born. They endured and flourished. Their peaks were very high indeed; their declines were precipitous but, their pride dimmed but not extinguished, they tottered on. Persia, known today as Iran, is the older of the two. China is the other. The 19th and 20th centuries, the age of Western colonization, were not kind to them. Their day seemed over. But look who’s stirring, says Playboy, emerging from a hibernation that looked like death but wasn’t.

Not only emerging — joining forces. China is already Iran’s largest trading partner, and the Silk Road Economic Belt initiative, launched in 2013, is more than merely commercial — it’s symbolic, emotional, a revival of the ancient Silk Road trade network that linked China to central Asia and the Mediterranean for 2,000 years before falling into disuse in the 15th century. Last month a train loaded with Chinese merchandise traveled 9,500 kilometers in 14 days, from Zhejiang Province in eastern China to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. The message it carried was unspoken but clear: The new Silk Road is now open, a living bond between two ancient civilizations seeking, separately and together, rebirth in a new world that is itself being reborn.

Ancient and modern, old and new, aged and young. Ancient China is flexing new muscles in seas very close to Japan; ancient Persia, after four decades of reviling the United States as “the great satan,” and being reviled in turn, is now, thanks to an agreement that constrains Iran’s nuclear adventurism, reconciling with its former worst enemy and with the West in general — the better to catch them napping and win back its old place in the sun, say critics of the deal.

There’s an analogy here to the situation Japan faced in the mid-1800s. Helpless and technologically backward after 200 years of isolation, it confronted increasingly threatening Western encroachments with a resolve to stage its own resurgence. Absorbing Western technology and joining it to “Japanese spirit,” it would beat back the West and rise again, resurrecting its ancient glory, real and imagined. Ancient glory turned out to have no place in the modern world, and the project foundered, Japan becoming in the course of time the model modern “Westernized” nation we know today. It was a long and painful process, the pain culminating in the Pacific War.

What lies ahead for the resurging ancient Persian and Chinese empires, and the world Playboy foresees them dominating as the West declines? The magazine’s writers are wise to leave the question unanswered. Merely posing it is a chilling enough exercise.

Michael Hoffman’s new book, “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan,” is out now.