‘Japan lost the war, and Bushido [the samurai spirit] perished. But then the human being was born for the first time in the womb of truth called decadence.”

That is what radical novelist and essayist Ango Sakaguchi wrote in his famous essay in Shincho magazine in April 1946, titled “On Decadence.” This month marks the centenary of his birth in northerly Niigata Prefecture, and it affords a good opportunity to crosscheck the wisdom of his words with today’s Japanese reality.

Though the two eras could hardly be more dissimilar, Japan is noiselessly sliding into a phase not unlike the one that Ango lived through. (Ango, like many famous authors in Japan, is referred to by his given name.) In “On Decadence” — which soon after its publication became the emblematic contemporary analysis of the Japanese national character — Ango first debunked and then rejected the two mythical excuses dished out to the Japanese to make them compliant to the will of their fascist leaders: the samurai spirit and the sanctity of the Emperor.

The war had left Japan in a shambles. Every major city and town with the exception of Kyoto had been carpet-bombed, from Hokkaido to Okinawa. Millions of Japanese were homeless or living in makeshift shelters, and the only things left standing in countless districts were gas meters and their pipes, sticking up out of the ground like objects from another planet.

But what, you might say, does this have to do with Japan today? Materialistically, there is certainly an immense contrast to the postwar days. But in terms of the state of the national ethos, there is an eerie similarity.

The Japanese people at that time slipped away from the old set of national myths (samurai spirit, Emperor worship). They were led to believe that they did not have to come to terms individually with their nation’s war crimes in Asia and the Pacific region; they just had to buckle down and concentrate all their aspirations on rebuilding Japan into an economic power.

Collective achievement

Personal happiness would eventually, according to the new unifying idea, come to them through pride in nation and collective achievement.

They did it. Japan became an economic giant. The material life of the people improved beyond all bounds.

But this is where Ango comes in. Ango realized that the happiness of a country’s citizens depends more on their personal choices, based on their individual preferences, than on some abstract notion of national pride.

In “On Decadence, Part Two,” an essay published not long after the first one, Ango laid it clearly on the line, urging Japanese “to desire frankly what you desire and declare offensive what you find offensive. It’s that simple.”

In other words, he saw the immediate postwar chaos and poverty of spirit as a chance to redefine the goals of individuals and the nation, not to get caught up, as Japanese had been before and during the war, in what he called “historical fakery,” such as that of the Emperor and the “spirit” that the monarch embodied and foisted on his unsuspecting subjects.

Japan today is functioning in just the kind of spiritual void that existed in the decade following the defeat in 1945. The “one big happy family-nation” myth shriveled away with the bursting of the “bubble economy” a decade and a half ago. No longer do most Japanese see their personal happiness in terms of the prosperity of their company or, for that matter, the strength of their nation. And yet, nothing has taken its place. Today there is no promising growth model, no practical alternative lifestyle — no Ango Sakaguchi to show people a way to stand on their own two feet again.

Young, brash IT entrepreneurs and profit-hungry M & A mavens now see two of their heroes, Takafumi Horie and Yoshiaki Murakami, both under indictment. The naked pursuit of profit seems a dubious goal.

Ango spoke and wrote often of the need “to fall.” The raku in daraku (decadence) is the kanji for “fall.”

What he meant was that individuals must look inside themselves, give up preconceived notions of collective patriotism and not be swayed by politicians’ promises of rosy futures. He called such promises “impertinent rubbish.” Individuals must go back to rock bottom and reconsider what it is that makes them personally happy. It is on the basis of millions of individuals doing this — with, of course, a sense of responsibility toward themselves and others — that the true goals of a nation are realized.

Individual responsibility

Ango, in this sense, was promulgating a new kind of social democracy for the Japanese people; it was one based on the importance of assuming individual responsibility for one’s thoughts and actions.

And it is this very thing that is missing in today’s Japan.

We are gradually slipping back into the old con, with lubrication supplied by Japanese neocon politicians such as former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and his successor Shinzo Abe. The slide downward is assisted by a timid and docile media that fails to fundamentally question the motives of such politicians.

Abe’s recent posters heralded the coming of “Japan the beautiful.” Now, utsukushii, meaning beautiful, is a beautiful word in Japanese. But what could this possibly mean? Is he going to embrace Al Gore’s philosophy to save the planet’s environment? Don’t hold your gradually shortening breath. Is he planning to foster freedom of expression in the media and the populace, so that a genuine variety of views can be known, analyzed and argued in public? Don’t hold the front pages for that one either.

Or is “Japan the beautiful” just another national mythic concept, like the samurai spirit and the divine Emperor, to rally all Japanese into a malleable lump under the flag of the Rising Sun?

Ango Sakaguchi died in 1955, never having seen his country reborn to “greatness.” He certainly would not have begrudged his compatriots a comfortable life, though he himself, dyed-in-the-wool bohemian that he was, preferred to wallow in the low life. But he would have denounced, in terms as potent as those he used in 1946, the vacuous and dangerous pursuit of an abstract symbol far bigger than any individual.

As fellow author Kazuo Dan said of him: “Ango’s madness was not a feature of his loss of self, but rather of the extraordinary struggle toward the creation of self.”

Ango Sakaguchi, born in October 1906, is our contemporary. We could do with a dose of just such “madness.”

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