Japan has lost something. That's a stark but uncontroversial statement. Few whose memory goes back a generation or more will disagree. Controversy arises when the talk turns to what was lost; when, how and why it was lost; whether the nation is the better or worse for having lost it; and, if the former, what to do about recovering or replacing it.

The sense of loss takes one of two forms: nostalgia or ultraconservatism. They overlap. The difference between them is of degree rather than kind. For our purposes, let's characterize nostalgia as focusing on the 1980s, and ultraconservatism on the first 40 years of the 20th century. Yamatodamashii (Japanese spirit) is the unifying thread. The "corporate warriors" of the '80s and the military warriors of the earlier period were said to embody it. The term is suggestive enough to be comprehensible and vague enough to stand for, without precisely defining, the quality that Japan today seems bereft of and searching for.

Symbolic of the ultraconservatism of the government led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is its interest in reviving, for purposes of "moral education," the Imperial Rescript on Education, a moral guide promulgated in 1890 and, enjoining, among other things, the spirit of self-sacrifice for the sake of the Emperor and nation. Addressed to school children, its most contentious passage is an injunction, "should emergency arise," to "offer yourselves courageously to the state; and thus guard and maintain the prosperity of Our Imperial Throne coeval with heaven and Earth." It's an ethic that survives most conspicuously today in North Korea: "Let us safeguard with our lives the central committee of the party headed by the great comrade Kim Jong Un."