Communication without truth rings hollow. Social, political and commercial life without trust seems impossible. Human life without sex has been idealized in the past; some people idealize it now. Maybe it’s the wave of the future.
Post-truth, post-trust, post-sex. Older people who grew up in a different world will find this disconcerting. Young people may wonder why. They breathe the “post”-air of a “post”-world.
2016 was a turning point — Oxford English Dictionary named “post-truth” its word of the year. “Post-truth,” it said, “has gone from being a peripheral term to being a mainstay in political commentary.”
The defining events that year were the Brexit referendum and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump. Here was “post-truth” in bold relief — “circumstances,” as the Oxford Languages website tactfully put it, “in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
We’ve always spoken of post-this or that. Postwar means after the war; post-match means after the match; post-meridian means afternoon. Post-truth originally, the site explains, was similarly neutral. It meant, “‘after the truth was known,’ and not with the new implication that truth itself has become irrelevant.”
Post-truth kills trust — hence post-trust. Last month marked the 75th year of the postwar era. Commemoration revived memories. The Asahi Shimbun and the Mainichi Shimbun both, in mid-August editorials, recalled an earlier generation’s plunge into post-truth. A militarist government bound by no democratic accountability lied shamelessly. As the Mainichi Shimbun put it, “The people were placed in a situation where their eyes and ears were covered.”
Postwar, the lying continued. From August 1945 on, said the Asahi Shimbun, national and local governments destroyed documents en masse. It cited a 2015 Yomiuri Shimbun interview with a man who in 1945 was a junior Interior Ministry bureaucrat. “Orders were,” he said, “to burn any documents that could get us convicted of war crimes.”
Something similar occurred, the Asahi Shimbun says, when freedom of information legislation went into effect in 2001. Scandals fresher in the collective memory (Moritomo Gakuen, Kake Gakuen, a controversial troop deployment to South Sudan, a cherry blossom party scandal) hinge not on whether document shredding, tampering or concealment occurred but on who was responsible. Government leaders blame bureaucrats who blame government leaders. The public looks on, bemused and distrustful. Who trusts outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe? Among respondents to a nationwide Jiji Press survey in May, 9.8 percent said they do.
A distrusted government leads a nation facing, along with the rest of the world, what has authoritatively been called the greatest crisis since World War II. “Who do you trust?” Shukan Gendai magazine last month asked 100 doctors struggling to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s chaos,” said one. “Nobody knows what to believe.”
Post-truth here merges with pre-truth. The truth is, nobody knows the truth. Post-truth allows people to sound off anyway. Shukan Gendai reserves its sharpest barbs for “experts” whose poise and eloquence make them popular guests on TV talk shows. Conspicuous among them is Harue Okada, well-known to viewers of TV Asahi’s “Shinichi Hatori Morning Show.” Her nickname is “Corona Queen.”
Eighty-two of the 100 doctors say they distrust her. (Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike fares rather better, though hardly well — trusted by 42, distrusted by 58). Okada is a qualified medical researcher. Her expertise is in influenza — which does not, say the overwhelming majority of the doctors, entitle her to make pronouncements on coronavirus. She makes them anyway — going so far, Shukan Gendai says, as to recommend medicines yet unproven.
It’s not, in the magazine’s view, her knowledge that wins her so eager a following among the viewing public, but rather her semblance of knowledge, her ability to project an aura of knowing. She has, in short, star quality — the asset of assets in the post-truth era.
COVID-19’s most visible symbol is the mask. It is ubiquitous. It has reconfigured the human face and restructured social contact. The unmasked face in public arouses emotions ranging from fear to silent malevolence to malevolence that is anything but silent. Verbal abuse is not uncommon. And yet, say 85 of Shukan Gendai’s 100 doctors, masks are unnecessary in open outdoor spaces.
Some go further. “Wearing a mask against the coronavirus,” says Juntendo University medical professor Yasushi Okumura, “is like wearing a hood against an aerial bombardment.”
Only among crowds, he says, “where people are talking loudly,” is a mask necessary. Otherwise, “washing hands and gargling are more effective.” But nobody sees you doing that; there’s no credit to be gained and no opprobrium to be avoided. The mask therefore is the defense mechanism of choice.
“In a word,” Okumura says, “the mask is a public relations tool,” protection less against the virus than against what Shukan Gendai sardonically dubs the “mask police” — public-spirited citizens online and off who, secure in their own masked righteousness, tar and feather the unmasked.
Post-truth and post-trust may be passing phases, or they may be here to stay, becoming so embedded in the culture that our descendents will wonder how we managed under such archaic encumbrances as truth and trust. Likewise sex, for all we know. Why did we ever bother with it? Life is so much easier without it.
A growing number of young people feel that way, Spa magazine observed last month. “Social distancing” in this sense precedes the coronavirus.
“Yuki Yamamoto” (a pseudonym) is 29. He calls himself “nonsexual.” How, he asks, did sex ever get fused with love, or marriage? When he loves a woman, he says, “I want to be with her, talk to her — but not have sex with her.” He’s no virgin. On the contrary, he’s experienced enough to wonder what all the fuss is about.
He wants to get married. His ideal is what he calls a “friendship marriage,” and he registered with a match-making service with that goal in mind. He met someone. They’re dating. It’s going well. Conversation flows. They like each other. Is that enough? Why not?
There will always be enough “sexuals” to perpetuate the species — wherever it’s bound.
Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book, now on sale, is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”
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