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This is the final article of a 10-part series on contemporary Japan.

When I first arrived in Japan in 1967, the Japanese were in the throes of an obsession. This was an obsession with change. The Japanese economy was about to be confirmed as the world’s second largest. New models of cars and appliances were greeted by the populace with a craving interest. Japanese businessmen returning from stints overseas were implored by their compatriots to comment on the upgraded affluence that had overtaken the country in their absence.

A Japanese journalist eagerly asked me just such a question in my early days here. “Japan has really changed, hasn’t it?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I just got here.”

As we look back on those years of heady, incessant growth — the years that formed what came to be known as the Japanese miracle — and their promise of a good and fair deal for all Japanese, we can now see clearly where the train of state slipped the track: The postwar Japanese excelled at growth for its own sake, but were stymied by the requirements for the uses of that growth.

The embarrassing dilemma of possessing riches and managing them poorly, however, was no mere accident of incompetence. To call Japan’s leaders incompetent merely begs the questions of cause and intent. The fact is that the Japanese people, with the encouragement and blessing of their postwar American mentors, gave the ownership, planning and operation of the vehicles of power to a class of managers who were steeped in the nationalistic ethics of prewar Japan.

These managers — the mainstream politicians of the country since the mid-’50s — had not absorbed the lessons of democracy that presumably formed the basis of the new Japanese morality. And it was not in the commercial interests of the United States (are there any other interests that the U.S. authentically recognizes?) for Japan to be truly democratic either . . . nor is it now. A democratic Japan would be a progressive and less easily manipulated Japan.

As the world moves into the 21st century in a few weeks’ time, there are two dominant burdens that Japan carries with it from the dying century. One is the legacy of Japan’s war in Asia and the concomitant responsibility of Emperor Showa in its complicity; the other, the oppressive social and political ethos that Japan’s leaders have used, under the astute bluff of a seemingly democratic rhetoric, to control society.

In recent months, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori has gone on record for making what some have called gaffes, dropping obtuse and anachronistic clangers here and there, that Japan is a divine country — and this is the intended meaning behind the phrase “kamigami no kuni” — and that it has the Emperor at its core. This so-called gaffe caused a stir in the media but, needless to say, did not lead to his ouster.

In the autumn of 1995, the head of the Management and Coordination Agency, Takami Eto, was obliged to resign over his remarks in guarded praise of the brutal Japanese occupation of Korea between 1910 and 1945. Eto said that Japan had done “some good things” in Korea.

In May 1994 the atrocity at Nanking was debunked by a former interior minister as being a “trumped up” event. In fact, over the past 45 years similar statements by Japanese leaders using what should be the restricted terminology of Japanese imperialism and ethnic superiority attest to the fact that the elite class of politicians in power are, deep down, unreconstructed nationalists of the old hellfire persuasion.

The use by public officials of such words as “kokutai” (national polity) and “sangokujin” (alien) may seem harmless enough. But in reality these words are potent reminders of a most offensive nationalism. They are emblems on the banners of the leaders who brandish them, emblems that remind us all that their ability to flaunt these symbols of reaction before our very eyes can, at their whim, be the forewarning of a more thoroughgoing and ferocious suppression.

So the prolonged and constant suppression of the truth and the secrecy over Japan’s past deeds have been no accidental flaw in an otherwise open society. Make no mistake. These have served the interests of the men who derailed the train of democracy for their own greater good, as well as for the good of their patrons, clients and numerous sycophants. It has been crucial for them to keep Japanese people in the dark about what was done during the war. Were the truth to come out and be recognized by a wide public here, the entire leadership of this country, the leadership that has ruled over the past half century, would be readily delegitimized and thrown out of power.

The design was to focus a timid and industrious populace on the benefits of constant growth, to buy their loyalty with pieces of the pie. But the paint of the design’s slogan “you’ve never had it so good” began to chip off in the early ’90s, until now, when the message itself is barely readable.

This is why the powers-that-be in Japan fear this particular recessive economic era the most. The Japanese people are admirably stoic and will take almost anything. But they want to be taken seriously. They are coming to realize gradually that the forfeiture of the integrity of their history for material gain may not be such a sanguine tradeoff in the coming century.

And this brings us to the question of the war responsibility of Emperor Showa. I have no doubt but that the Japanese people will come to terms with Emperor Showa’s obvious role in the major policy decisions of the ’30s and ’40s. The only impediment to this has been, and continues to be, the stake that the leadership of this country has had in its sly obfuscation.

When the truth about Japan’s actions in Asia during the war and the role played by the postwar rulers in its withholding come out, the trauma of revelation, I believe, will not be as severe as some people reckon. To the contrary, the process of revealing it will be not only tolerable but liberating.

The stage is set for another era of continual change, this time not of a materialistic but of an ethical and political nature.

I cannot help but feel that the coming decade will set the stage for liberal-minded and genuinely democratic young Japanese to step up and make their mark. All the props are at their disposal and they have only to write their lines.

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