NEW YORK — Why are politicians so often regressive? Several years ago the Japanese government legally ritualized the singing of the national anthem and the raising of the flag. Now it is intent on changing a 60-year-old education law to codify patriotism.

Like “love of mankind” (jinruiai, hakuai), “patriotism” (aikokushin) carries with it something at once facile and forced. Worse, unlike “love of mankind,” it can’t escape a taint of ill repute.

Samuel Johnson famously pronounced in 1775 that “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” In jotting down this apothegm, Johnson’s friend and biographer, James Boswell, felt it necessary to add that the doctor meant only the “pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak of self-interest,” but not “a real and generous love of our country.”

Ambrose Bierce felt no need for caution when he took up the word for “The Devil’s Dictionary”: “In Dr. Johnson’s famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit that it is the first.” The first part of Bierce’s definition was “Combustible rubbish ready to the torch of any one ambitious to illuminate his name.”

George Bernard Shaw, who was in his preteens when Bierce was fighting in the Civil War, made one of his characters say, “You’ll never have a quiet world till you knock the patriotism out of the human race.”

Another observation by the Irish dramatist — that “Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it” — reminds me of a catcall a Japanese writer, who happened to be Samuel Johnson’s contemporary, hurled at a prominent scholar of “national learning.” It went, “In any country, its soul is its stink.” Let me explain.

“National learning” or kokugaku arose during the Edo Period (1600-1868) on the notion that you could distill the Japanese heart, Yamato gokoro, by removing from Japanese culture (especially literature) all the impurities that were the Chinese influences. As Kamo no Mabuchi (1697-1769), one proponent of this approach, typically stated, “In anything, once you are adversely affected (by them) . . . you lose the original Japanese spirit” or Yamato damashii. In “national learning,” Yamato damashii was synonymous with Yamato gokoro.

So what is the Japanese heart or spirit? Moto’ori Norinaga (1730-1801), Mabuchi’s top student, defined it in a tanka as something as sparkling and pure as “the mountain cherry blossoms fragrant in the morning sun.” He did not stop there. When he turned 70, he inscribed the poem on a portrait of himself and distributed it to his disciples.

Ueda Akinari (1734-1809), a kokugaku student but no cultural exclusionist, scoffed when he heard about this self-promoting act. “What’s all this talk about the Yamato damashii?” he asked. He then followed it with the observation quoted above.

Like many literati of his day, Ueda was well read in Chinese literature, and some of his stories were retellings of Chinese tales. But I don’t think he snarled at the avatar of kokugaku because he was Chinese-infatuated. Unlike Moto’ori, he knew nationalistic assertions were silly. Each country has what it considers to be its soul and regards it as special. But that soul is also its defect.

No, Ueda did not use the word aikoku, which combines two Chinese characters meaning “love” and “country.” The word, perhaps not a part of classical Chinese, may not have existed until the early Meiji Era (1868-1912).

Yukio Mishima suggested that much when he wrote an essay on the word aikokushin to say that it gave him “gooseflesh.” It “smells of something made by government,” he wrote, “something sneakily forced upon you.” He noted that the word must have had a good deal to do with the Christianity that poured into Japan as the country opened itself to the West, because the idea of “love” as suggested in the word had never been part of Japanese tradition.

Mishima, of course, is famous for “Patriotism,” the title of the short story as well as the movie he made out of it. But as he pointed out when he chose the story for the anthology he edited with Geoffrey Bownas, “New Writing in Japan” (Penguin, 1972), the Japanese word he used was yukoku, which “conveys more than a hint of melancholy.” It is derived from an old Chinese word, youguo, “worried about the state of the nation.”

Why did the word aikokushin give Mishima “gooseflesh?”

“When you are inescapably within a country and are a member of it,” he explained, “you are nevertheless asked to put that country opposite you as an object,” as if it were “a Pekinese or a Sevres vase,” and “to deliberately ‘love’ it. That’s too hokey and I hate it.” You may fall in love with your country but you can’t be forced to love it, Mishima said. He wrote the essay three years before his death, when he was making increasingly esoteric, intractable cultural arguments. But in this essay he was clear and convincing.

Be it the last refuge, as Johnson had it, or the first resort, as Bierce preferred, aikokushin or patriotism is “a universal camouflage,” as Mishima put it, for something nefarious.

With yet another U.S.-initiated war under way, I think of the U.S. missile named Patriot. Although I’m reminded that in Japan during World War II the favored name for a fighter plane donated by a rich citizen to the army was “Aikoku,” droves of Patriot missiles are sold to countries that are not particularly helpful to the U.S cause, whatever that may be.

And, of course, the law hastily put together after 9/11, with the main purpose of curtailing many of the liberties Americans are said to cherish, is called the Patriot Act. Without a hint of irony.

For now, the Liberal Democratic Party has been compelled to drop the outright use of the word aikokushin in a proposed revision of the Fundamental Law of Education of 1947, but its original plan hasn’t changed a bit. In opposing the revision, the Tottori Prefecture’s Lawyers Association has stated that when the government tries to specify by law “tradition,” “culture,” “the country” and “the homeland” as things to be “esteemed” and “loved,” the only motive that could be deduced is “thought control.”

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