SYRACUSE, Sicily — Sicily is an ideal place to ponder the fate of civilizations and to reflect on the future. This island off the boot of Italy, with a population of 5 million, has been a crossroads of civilizations for almost three millennia. The Greeks, Romans, Saracens, Normans, Catalans, French, Austrians and, of course, successive Italian regimes have all passed through and left their mark.
Syracuse once was one of the most thriving and influential centers of Greek civilization. In the center of the “modern” city, the magnificent architecture of the palaces and churches covers Romanesque, Norman, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles.
Sicily is famous, or rather infamous, for being home to the Mafia. But, as magnificent and rich as Sicily is, with a really hospitable people, it is not just the presence of the Mafia that suggests that all is far from well in Sicily, or indeed the rest of Italy.
In an Internet forum in which I participate, it was noted that while comparisons are drawn between Japan and other countries, the one that best fits the bill is Italy. Points in common include: the high level of political corruption in both countries; the prevalence of the mafia/yakuza in both business and politics; some of the world’s lowest birthrates; weak economies; the absence of true multinational corporations; low levels of immigration; and low fluency in English. Both countries also are the least responsible in assuming leadership in the Group of Seven.
Both Italy and Japan also stand out in the manner in which they appear to be committing what might be described as “long-term suicide” and failing to preserve their cultural assets for future generations.
In Sicily, the ancient monuments — in Segesta, Solinunte, Agricento and Syracuse — are all well preserved. But most of the cities, with too few exceptions, are disintegrating. Buildings that have been preserved for centuries are destined to disappear very quickly in this one. Walking around parts of Palermo brought memories of Sarajevo in seeing so many totally dilapidated buildings. In Sarajevo the condition is because of the war; in Palermo, pure neglect, on the one hand, and rapacious, Mafia-connected real-estate developers and construction companies, on the other, have replaced old buildings with architectural atrocities.
Several months ago, in my Aug. 26 column “Emphasize the beauty for grand objectives,” I referred to Shigeto Tsuru’s vision of the nation putting “emphasis on places of scenic beauty.” In the course of the 1960s and ’70s I traveled pretty much throughout the length and breadth of Japan. Japan’s cultural heritage, topographical diversity and scenic beauty are also without doubt among its greatest assets. Or perhaps, more appropriately, were.
In the last 20 years, my yearly visits to Japan have been pretty much confined to Tokyo. What I had not realized when I wrote the Aug. 26 article was how much the cultural heritage and the topography had been eroded by a combination of neglect and excessive culturally, environmentally and aesthetically destructive construction. Letters and e-mail sent to me by readers, and literature, including Alex Kerr’s “Dogs and Demons,” brought this home to me.
It is considerations such as these that led me in Sicily not only to contemplate and admire the great achievements of the past, but also to reflect upon and worry about the future. As things stand at the dawn of the 21st century, the prospects for the world we will bequeath to our children and grandchildren are not encouraging. Though there are many things wrong in Europe and America, a quote from The Economist, “nothing approaches the rot in Japan,” applies as well.
For more than 10 years now, Japan has been pretty much of an unmitigated disaster as a nation. Its economic policies have been abject failures; its system of governance is sclerotic, its institutions archaic; its “connectivity” to the outside world highly defective; and, on top of all that, there is very little internal robust debate.
What puzzles me the most is why the Japanese are allowing this to happen. Why, to put it in rather blunt terms, are they contemplating with seeming passivity their country going rapidly down the drain? And, as I have often insisted, this is not just the case with the economy, but with many other aspects of the nation, including its cultural heritage and countryside. Why is there an unwillingness to confront issues?
In conversations with a Japanese friend I met in a recent meeting in Hong Kong and with a Japanese businessman I talked to at an IMD conference, something that I had not fully appreciated was drawn to my attention. Basically, while a small minority of “responsible” Japanese genuinely worry about the state of the economy and the country’s governance and future, a considerable majority — and especially the great majority among the older generations — are very satisfied with the current state of affairs and thus radically opposed to change. This, my two interlocutors stressed, applies especially to the baby boomers and those older. For pensioners on fixed incomes, deflation is like manna from heaven.
These are the generations that, unlike those born in the late 1950s and after, experienced the hardships of war and the deprivations of the early postwar years. They had to work hard, with meager returns. They had very limited leisure time and, in any case, very little money to spend on leisure. Life was not much fun.
Now, however, things are fantastic. Prices are falling, the yen remains reasonably strong to indulge in foreign travel and shopping, the fact that economic life has come to a standstill rather suits them. “After us, the deluge” could be their motto.
Watching the Sicilian cultural heritage crumble would possibly lead them not only to contemplate past greatness, but also future disintegration and perhaps to a greater sense of responsibility vis-a-vis their children and grandchildren. Civilizations do die. Japan is headed for decline. But if the will is there, the decline can be arrested.
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