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Is disgust with the status quo now feeding nostalgia for the past?

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

Bulgarian scholar Ivan Krastev, in an interview with the Asahi Shimbun published in March, compared the restless discontent of the 1960s with that of today. Fifty years ago, he said, disgust with the status quo fed hope for the future. Today it feeds nostalgia for the past.

Fifty years ago, “the past” meant World War II. No one wanted to go back to that. Forward, then — damn the reactionaries — into the future: a kingdom of freedom, justice, peace, prosperity and love.

Today, the globalized, technologized future is more apt to appear menacing than beckoning. The 1970s, the ’80s — how could we have let them slip away? Their stability, comparatively speaking, contrasts with our flux, their security with our fears. The Cold War wasn’t all roses; there was anxiety enough to go around, but in the neighborhood and the workplace, at least, if not in the world at large, the ground felt firm beneath our feet. It would still if not for the globalization that diminishes nations and the technologies that, with scarcely a backward glance, render so many once useful and proud workers redundant. So it seems, at least, to the “populists” whose mood Krastev is analyzing.

Populism is a theme much on the minds of commentators lately. Worldwide, it’s gaining ground. Its anti-elitist, anti-intellectual ethos naturally horrifies elitists and intellectuals. Toyo Keizai magazine columnist Akiko Osaki, in an issue spanning April and May, identifies populism’s defining components as fake news, shameless lies, relentless repetition and the dehumanization and criminalization of “enemies” — immigrants, for instance — who cheat you and rob you of your just deserts. The tactics, if not necessarily the aims, are Hitlerian, she says.

World War II seems distant today. War itself does. Maybe it wasn’t so bad after all. That was the subtext — unwitting, no doubt — of remarks made by an inebriated young lawmaker while escorting Japanese visitors to a Russian-occupied, Japan-claimed island northeast of Hokkaido.

After asking members of the group if they were in favor of “going to war to take back this island,” the lawmaker, Hodoka Maruyama, made remarks implying he himself favored that course.

Psychiatrist Rika Kayama, writing in Spa magazine in May, considers some of the implications of the episode. Maruyama, 35, belongs, Kayama observes, to a generation too young not only to have personally experienced war but even to have grown up hearing parents speak of war. War is remote from them, the stuff of computer games if anything at all. Computer games can be starkly, horrifyingly graphic. Designed for shock, they deliver that, but the impact is surprisingly superficial, Kayama says. It’s shocking but not traumatic. You absorb the shock and move on — to the next game, the more wrenching shock, the more thrilling thrill. Why not? Nobody dies, nobody is wounded; you switch the game off and the pain and gore vanish. They may as well not have happened. They didn’t happen.

The trauma of war, Kayama explains, citing recent American research, is experienced under two conditions: on the battlefield, fighting; or at home, vicariously. A generation growing up in neither condition is the reward and the glory of peace — but it dulls us, Kayama fears, in a way Maruyama’s outburst typifies. Might that emotional and imaginative dullness, she wonders, lead Japan into war?

She doesn’t mention in this context, as well she might, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s avowed intention to excise pacifism from Japan’s Constitution. She does, however, identify a major problem: “How can we learn to feel as real situations we have never personally experienced?” She doesn’t answer the question — it has no answer yet — but says it’s “something we need to think more seriously about.”

That seems the truer given the fine line — getting finer — between real and unreal.

Noriyuki Katsumata, a doctor specializing in cancer, incidentally makes the point in conversation with the Asahi Shimbun in April. Cancer makes popular TV talk show fare. Invited to share his expertise, Katsumata tries to impress on program directors the importance of the many nuances between “cured” and “not cured.” To which more than one director has replied, Katsumata says, “That doesn’t get ratings.”

On which side of the fine line, one wonders, should we situate the obnoxious, unreasonable customers portrayed by Shukan Gendai magazine in May? Their numbers are rising, surveys among store personnel who must deal with them suggest. “Ratings” are not just for TV. Social networking has turned everyone into an actor-director seeking ratings. In one of Shukan Gendai’s instances, a belligerent customer bullied two clothing store clerks into a humble, kneeling, humiliating apology — and promptly posted it online, salt in the wound. We’re not told how many “likes” the post received.

Nor are we told what real or imagined error or slight on the clerks’ part roused the customer’s ire. We’re given instead a handful of other examples, more amply detailed. One must suffice here — that of the man who, every Saturday night, strides into his local convenience store and bellows: “Louder! I didn’t hear you!” It’s not enough for him that the clerks deliver the standard greeting “Irasshaimase!” (“Welcome!”) — they must shout it. The staff is then treated to a stern and rambling lecture on his interpretation of the Japanese saying, “The customer is god,” which evidently he takes literally. If attention flags, he gets apoplectic: “I’m telling you this for your own good!” Is he acting? Or does he mean it? Maybe his performance is also posted on some corner of the internet, though the magazine doesn’t say so.

“There are two types of people in the world,” says Krastev in his Asahi Shimbun interview. Each type represents a characteristic anxiety. The first type of person looks far ahead into the future and sees the world ending, choked by climate change or some other global evil. The second type reels from shorter-term threats closer to home: encroaching poverty, increasing marginalization, a steady deterioration of the quality of life — the price you pay for failure or refusal to adapt to globalization and technology. You’re either a beneficiary or a victim.

Victims lash out. Impotence fuels fantasies of personal empowerment. Critical mass attained, fantasy becomes reality, of a sort — a fantastic reality whose worst-case scenario is us blundering, or being led, boldly and blindly, into real-life, real-death war. That’s what Kayama, the psychiatrist, fears. She falls, perhaps, into Krastev’s first category.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is an essay collection titled “Fuji, Sinai, Olympos.”