Agreat debate is raging in Japan, and it is not about economics or politics . . . well, not ostensibly so. It is about semantics. And yet, the outcome may have as much impact on the future of this country as many more seemingly concrete issues.

The semantic debate revolves around the word aikokushin (patriotism), that emotion of hot panting and conspicuous fist-waving described by George Bernard Shaw as “your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it.”

On April 13, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported on the inclusion of a definition of aikokushin in a bill to revise the Fundamental Law of Education. A debate had broken out between the two normally chummy coalition partners, the Liberal Democratic Party and the New Komeito Party.

The debate was picked up by a variety of English-language news services and dailies. According to these, the LDP pushed for this definition of patriotism: “a mind which loves the nation.” New Komeito objected to that, insisting that it smacked of prewar nationalism, and suggested “a mind that cherishes the nation.”

Fascinating stuff, especially if you look at the original Japanese.

The LDP proposal was for kuni o omou kokoro. This simply means “a love for [your] country.” Nothing to do with the mind at all. Translating kokoro as “mind” or, for that matter, “heart,” is literal and unsatisfactory.

New Komeito proposed kuni o taisetsu ni suru kokoro, which means “cherishing [your] country,” in the sense that you “hold it dear.”

At any rate, the two ruling parties came to an agreement that patriotism for the Japanese people of the 21st century would be defined as “respect for tradition and culture, and love of the nation and homeland that have fostered them.” Admirable sentiments, but what do they mean for the people who are supposed to harbor them? And why are the powers-that-be in Japan today getting so hot under the helmet about the definition of patriotism?

Downright dangerous

In order to answer these two questions, we must go back some years. Patriotism to the people of prewar Japan was a clear-cut affair. Semantics didn’t even get a look in. Patriotism was equated with loyalty; and loyalty, in turn, with allegiance to the Emperor, the absolute symbol of the nation of 100 million souls. The operational term was chukun aikoku, or “loyalty and patriotism.” Entertaining one without the other, especially as even the semblance of conscientious objection disappeared by the late 1930s, was inadvisable, if not downright dangerous.

After the war, the very word aikokushin took on negative connotations, which it still, generally, possesses. Postwar Japanese asked if they had aikokushin would be apt to answer in the negative. But most would admit to having kuni o omou kokoro.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s attempt to equate those two sentiments amounts to no less than a strategy to restore the legitimacy of aikokushin and reinstate the prewar values that underpinned it. That answers the latter question as to why the powers-that-be in Japan today are keen to define patriotism: It is because they want to relegitimize an ethic of primary loyalty once ground into the earth under the boots of fanatical soldiers.

The core of this debate, however, is found even deeper down inside another issue, an issue that relates to the first question about the meaning of “the love of the nation” for Japanese people today.

It’s fine to couch loyalty to symbols of authority in terms of “tradition and culture,” but the fact remains that tradition and culture mean vastly different things to different people. One man’s tradition is another’s relic; one woman’s culture is another’s unwished-for burden.

Which tradition? The martial tradition of the Kamakura Period (1192-1333) or the tradition of splendor and decadence of the Genroku Period (1688-1703)? The exquisite and effete culture of Kyoto in the Heian Period (794-1185) or the brash and often alarmingly kitsch culture of the Edo Period (1603-1867)? Which culture? Granny’s tea ceremony and flower arranging? Mum’s hot-springs tours and mahjong parties? Little sis’s Hello Kitty baubles and geeky chat rooms about the latest manga? Patriotism may abhor a vacuum, but you can’t fill it with a million gewgaws and call it noble gas.

Symbolic oaths

The fact is that, with the colossal defeat in 1945, Japan lost the one symbol around which the patriotic sentiments of all citizens could gather — the divine Emperor — replacing it with a visible goal: rebuilding the nation. Once the nation is rebuilt, there is nothing else collectively to aspire to, nothing greater than the self to look up to.

Realizing this, the old guard, as represented by the ruling parties and their hubristic backers, have decided once again to bolster patriotic feeling in Japan with symbolic oaths and publicly expressed allegiance to the ethic that long ago united this nation. The vacuum is once again being filled by the hot air coming off patriots’ lips.

Emperor Showa himself decried the loss of loyalty in his people. In writing to his son, the present Emperor Akihito, about Japan’s defeat, he said, “The military put too much weight on the spirit and made light of disparities in national power.”

The spirit he referred to was the spirit of loyalty and patriotism, which were one and the same. But he wasn’t taking his warriors down a peg for an excess of zeal; rather he was criticizing them for being unrealistic about the enemy’s potential to destroy Japan. Had Japan won the war, I have no doubt that the military and the nation alike would have lauded that same unwavering spirit to the heavens, and the Emperor would have remained the divine presence that he was.

Arguments about certain words go far beyond mere semantics. Whether you call it love or cherishing, the present leaders of Japan are trying to do nothing less than reinvent their country along some very old lines: lines of people, in and out of uniform, marching in a single direction, singing the same song, looking, toward the sky, to catch a glimpse of the same all-powerful symbol.

The choice between cherishing and love is not much of a choice when the drums start beating and the flags start waving in the breeze again.

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