This year there were two Olympics. One was for the world generally. The other was for Japan, with audiences glued to events where hysterical announcers could declare a Japanese victory.
The Olympics coincided with the glad news that yet another Japanese child sent to the United States for an organ transplant had returned safely. As ever, no one seemed to notice that yet another U.S. child had probably been denied a transplant so that Japan could continue to indulge in its gut-conservative reluctance to promote such operations.
Fortunately, there were no serious plane crashes. Otherwise we would have been treated to the usual media fuss over Japanese casualties while ignoring what happened to everyone else.
Some would see all this as further proof of ugly, “Japan first” attitudes. But previous Olympics saw the very non-Japanese runner Carl Lewis turned into something of a national idol here. The Taiwan-origin baseball star and coach Sadaharu Oh, who refuses to accept Japanese nationality, was nonetheless chosen as the first recipient of Japan’s National Hero award. None of this would seem to be the mark of vicious nationalism.
If Japan is nationalistic, why does it allow its culture, its language especially, to be invaded with “foreignisms”?
To explain Japan, we need go no further than the fact that it was an isolated society that, through several accidents of fate and geography, was able to borrow from and absorb other civilizations without being occupied, colonized or seriously threatened by outside forces for almost its entire history.
It was therefore able to retain its original isolationist island values while creating first an advanced feudal society and then the modern industrialized society we see today. It is the tribe that became a nation, and in many ways a very sophisticated nation at that, since directly or indirectly it was able to borrow from virtually all the world’s major civilizations, both East and West.
Relative isolation also allowed the peoples of northern Europe, Britain especially, to make a similar kind of progress. But these peoples have since moved somewhat to embrace the more rationalist values of the civilizations they too had to import for their progress.
Japan did not have to make that move. Hence the continued emphasis on “tribal” values — gut feelings, direct human relations, instinctive groupism, familial styles of management, taboos, rules rather than principles, traditions and animistic legends rather than firm ideologies, and so on.
Hence, too, the strange mixture of instinctive self-centeredness and instinctive curiosity about the outside world, not entirely dissimilar to the Papua New Guinea tribes who speak pidgin English and who embrace a Cargo Cult that has them waiting for weeks on hilltops looking for a mythical silver plane that will bring in outside novelties, yet who would also be very reluctant to allow outsiders to become members.
Sadly, the current political correctness in the West says that even to suggest major differences between Japan and other societies is racism. Even discussion of physical differences between races is forbidden. The recent Olympics made it even clearer than before that black people are superior in short-distance running. Yet to date, mention of this and other black-white differences has been banned, even though it could tell the rest of us a lot about our physical and emotional makeup.
In the mid-1980s, a Japanese researcher, Tsunoda Tadanobu, was laughed out of court when he said he had found a difference between the Japanese and non-Japanese brain structure. People have yet to realize that his conclusion — that the difference was due to environment rather than heredity — has, if accurate, enormous implications for U.S. research that shows the same difference between male and female brain structures.
When a former Japanese agriculture minister, Tsutomu Hata, once tried to say that Japanese were more suited to eating grains than meat because their intestines were longer than those of Westerners, the derision among most Western observers here was unconfined.
Well, next time you get your endoscopy here, ask the doctor if there is a difference. You may be surprised by the answer.
But to come back to cultural differences. The current fashion is to insist that in everything from company restructuring to U.N. peacekeeping operations, Japan should become a “normal” country. All this assumes that our Western way of doing things is normal and the Japanese way is abnormal.
But a little more than a decade ago, many in the West saw the way the Japanese ran their companies as a model for the rest of us. As for active foreign involvement, once again there is the assumption that recent Western policies, over everything from Indochina and Afghanistan to Somalia and former Yugoslavia, are somehow the norm.
But the argument against Japanese involvement goes deeper than this. For as typified by the rightwing love affair with the military, the hysteria of the ultranationalists, the one-eyed approach to territorial disputes with neighbors, the instinctive, ingrained conservatism of officials, not to mention the national self-centeredness, the idea that Japan can and should be an active player in the complex game of international diplomacy seems rather unrealistic.
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