Among the intellectuals it is not hard to detect the New Pessimism; among the citizenry, the Same Old Apathy. Today I wish to focus on the former.

The old left is all but defunct and sadly ineffectual. In past times intellectuals were taken most seriously in Japan, their ideas and suggestions regarding social organization spreading from small studies across the country on the pages of the national dailies and the much-read thick magazines. Now the perceptible dumbing down of the dailies’ content to fit a national mood of soft-core information deemed accessible to the One Big Happy Family of Japan has rendered their causes, once rigorously pursued, unpursued.

As for the thick magazines that carried essays, full of real and imagined profundities, on art and society, some have folded, such as “Kaien,” “Yasei Jidai” and “Umi,” while others suffer from paltry circulation syndrome, cherished mainly by the writers who contribute, issue by issue, and their followers. Television programs about books have been banished to the Siberia of the cold, unwatched hours; the genre of the radio play is a static memory; and smoky coffee shops under railway bridges where once academics sat, discoursing on existentialism and the latest derivative Japanese novel, have been replaced by high-stool chains. Coffee shops are no longer the chat rooms of ideas that they once were, though the amount of smoke has hardly diminished.

In short, the topics on the minds of the nation today tend to concentrate on the ultra-personal — keeping one’s head above water at the office, in the school, or around the neighborhood — and the ultra-practical — “network or perish.”

Is there a new left in Japan? Will the young intellectuals step up, when the stage is again set for social activism, as it is bound to be, to engagement?

If the Meiji era — 1868-1912 — did one thing in dragging Japan out of the misery of feudalism and onto the path of the modern state, it was the mobilization of the country’s intellectuals to the calling of an ideal. That ideal was none other than a free flow of knowledge.

The task was made easier thanks to the high rate of Japanese literacy. Meiji intellectuals Ogai Mori, a stoic, scientific mind, Kafu Nagai, raconteur of the crimson alley, and Soseki Natsume, scholar and satirist, lived, respectively, in Germany, France and England. They brought home not only the aesthetic notions underpinning the cultures of those countries, but academic and scientific principles that helped create the 20th-century Japanese lifestyle. Translators such as Bin Ueda (French literature) and Masao Yonekawa (Russian literature) were not only influential men of letters: They were popular cultural figures.

The era of Taisho democracy, roughly the second and third decades of the century, saw in a virtual flowering of pluralistic values, all run through the culture of the literature, the stage, the art gallery, the coffee shop, the press. (This amazing era was suffocated by the iron-gloved hand of Japanese militarism.)

After the war, the third great movement of intellectual activity took Japan by storm, with a proliferation of magazines and polemic currents. The war naturally left an ethical void; and it was filled at first by proponents of decadence and lyrical despair, the likes of Ango Sakaguchi, whose essay “On Decadence” was a major influence on postwar thinking, and the Osaka wit, Sakunosuke Oda. Novels such as “Fire on the Plain” and “Luminous Moss” pulled no punches as to the horrors brought to you by the vicious Japanese militarists who produced the war. And this led directly into the polemics of the ’60s, beginning with the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty protests and culminating in the meaningless radicalization of both sides: the collapse of the student movement on the left with factional in-fighting, and the destruction of the intellectual pretensions on the right with the suicide of Yukio Mishima.

In all of these postwar polemics there had been a rapid and thorough filtering down through the layers of society. What these people did and wrote mattered. The films, the books, the plays, the art, even the demonstrations . . . their themes and styles were discussed and discussed again. And the single thing that the parts of this body of thought — left, right or center — had in common was a seriousness of purpose, a dead earnestness.

This changed in the 1980s, and the intellectual culture, as important to the Japanese as it was to the French, for instance, was discarded by the wayside. This decade ushered in what was called at the time the Feeling Era, with its stylish imagery and its intentional mindlessness. It was a thumbing-of-the-nose counter to the intense mindfulness of Japanese culture up to then, and its Japanese byword was “run-run,” the equivalent of the American expression of the 1920s “boola-boola.” Amid the prosperity of the ’80s, the culture of huddled abstractions was replaced by the culture of the exposed brand name. Conspicuous consumption, a rare phenomenon for the reticent Japanese, became the norm. The material objects and benefits that many in the West had associated with a high level of culture — fast cars, whirlwind foreign trips, gorgeous accessories, gourmet indulgences — took precedence for the first time in a culture whose principles had been built on restraint, reflection, paucity and subtle elegance.

This sleek prosperity, cracked in hideous fashion in the 1990s, was shown to be no more than a consumerism-driven vehicle with the captains of leading Japanese industries at the wheel. The captains, with some exceptions, came out of it with untold wealth and power; the rest of us — the passengers — had been taken for a ride. We are worse off now than before and find ourselves far away from our guiding ideas, somewhere down an unknown road.

Where are the thinkers and writers and artists who will lead this society? The daily newspapers no longer serve as beacon. Their pages amount to little more than a sheet of “what’s on here and there.” The electronic media, barring the satellite stations, are pitifully short on anything that resembles an idea. The prime interest in the so-called IT revolution in Japan is the business of product how-to: how to find, how to choose and how to purchase. The Japanese, in short, have abandoned their genius for abstracting and distilling intellectual and aesthetic concepts, leaving a void that can be filled only with the gadgets of sleeked-up practicality.

We can, however, fully expect a new generation of artistic and intellectual reformers to emerge. The younger generation of Japanese travels freely, is generally at ease with foreigners and is demonstrative and deeply receptive to change. In mid-Meiji and its amazing aftermath and in the postwar chaos of Showa, the intellectuals were the people who taught their fellow citizens how to stand on their own two feet. They will do it again. I, for one, just wish we knew the road that will lead them to us.

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