Japan is ‘beautiful’ — and don’t you dare disagree


Japanese tradition has it that your first dream of the new year (hatsuyume) is a portent of what is in store for you in the 12 months to come. There are three hatsuyume (wouldn’t you just know that the Japanese would even designate dreams) they hold to be symbolic: If on the night of Jan. 1 you dream of Mount Fuji, your year’s omen is good; the second most propitious dream is of a hawk; and the third, of an eggplant.

Actually, I had quite a memorable dream — more of a nightmare — on the first day of this year, and I hope to god that it doesn’t come true. It wasn’t about anything personal. Rather, it was about the future of this country where I arrived 40 years ago this year. I would call the vision in that dream “disturbing,” though it may be closer to “ominous.” It was about three “signposts.”

The signposts leading to the future of Japan (alluded to in a JT Editorial; Dec. 31, 2006) may point to a kind of social, if not political, fascism that is slowly on the march here. It is not the kind of brutal fascism that overwhelmed Japan roughly between 1935 and 1945. Rather, it is a cooler, leaner movement, a kind of “designer fascism” that wears a fashionable white shirt instead of a brown one, and a slick suit in lieu of a starched uniform.

In the coming years it may not be troops marching down the street who are to be feared, but the people standing in front of their shops smiling and waving them on. That was in my dream: millions of smiling people nodding their heads, as if saying, “Keep going forward, just don’t stop in front of me.”

If democracy is threatened in Japan, it will be due not solely to politicians enacting pernicious laws, or government bureaucrats channeling spending into the pockets and accounts of their corporate chums. It will primarily be the fault of ordinary Japanese people, whose apolitical apathy and social lethargy let democracy down.

Where are the signs that this designer fascism is nearing the gates, waiting for them to be opened wide? Let’s look back for a moment at the last few years.

Patriotism and ethical values

There are three clear signs. Sign One: The unconstitutional dispatching of Self-Defence Forces to Iraq on the pretext that the country, or a part of it, was a “non-combat zone.” This ties in with the express wish of the present government to scrap war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution.

Sign Two: The political pressure put, in 2001, on NHK, the national broadcaster, by the current prime minister, Shinzo Abe, to excise portions of a program that would imply imperial responsibility for war crimes. Add to this the government ordering NHK in 2006 to broadcast information about the North Korean abductions in the service of the country.

Sign Three: Education “reform” introduced by Prime Minister Abe stressing patriotism and ethical values. Add to this the punishment that’s been meted out to teachers who refused to sing the national anthem at graduation ceremonies.

Where is the public’s response to these signs?

Of course there were protests against the dispatching of troops to Iraq. Also, editorials in the vernacular press, particularly the Asahi Shinbun, criticized the government for twisting the wires of NHK to its own ends. And hundreds of teachers and parents demonstrated in front of the Diet, outraged over the restrictive obedience that the government was forcing on educators.

But such protests and demonstrations come to naught in Japan. The protesters are laughed off by the politicians in power as a radical fringe (which they most certainly are not); and the press gives them coverage only for the drama of the protest or demonstration itself. It does not follow up such dissent as a viable and legitimate minority phenomenon.

In Japan, once a decision is made, those who objected to it are expected to fall into line in the interests of social harmony. There is real freedom of speech only before a decision is made. All dissent is presumed to evaporate into thin air once the “proper course” is set. The social pressure on post-facto dissenters in this country is stunning.

While the government’s policies today are, as yet, a far cry from the aggressive military policies of prewar Japan, the state of society now is not all that different from that in the 1930s, when seen from the point of view of the ordinary citizen.

The great experiment in social pluralism that was represented by what is called Taisho Democracy, when Emperor Taisho was on the throne from 1912 to 1926, was interrupted and curtailed by a government that more and more emphasized ethical values and the unity of the Japanese people. Political and military leaders alike realized that the only effective way to justify the Japanese colonial presence in Asia was to envelop it in the cloak of national unity. This was exemplified by their propagandizing the cherry blossom, a fitting symbol for the epitome of beauty that, like the life of a pure-hearted soldier, lasts only for a brief moment in time.

The intense intellectual life that existed in Japan in the Taisho Era, and early in the following Showa Era, was snuffed out, largely by a public that found itself imbued with the ring of high-sounding patriotic values and the crafty recasting of traditional symbols of beauty. In other words, the Japanese traded their personal independence and integrity for a cache of cliches and images, and their soldiers tramped across Korea, China and the countries of Southeast Asia spreading mayhem in their name.

Supporters of the imperial cause

It may be forgotten by many that some of the greatest writers of Japan were gung-ho supporters of the Imperial cause. These included celebrated poets such as Kotaro Takamura, Hakushu Kitahara and Mokichi Saito, as well as popular novelists like Kan Kikuchi and Eiji Yoshikawa.

Perhaps none was as ardent as Takamura, whose unflagging support for the war effort went a long way toward convincing skeptics that it was the right war to fight. Takamura wrote in the 1942 White Paper titled “The Great East Asian War and Us (Daitoasenso to Warera)” . . . We stand for justice and life They, for greed and profiteering Their pride is arrogance We are creating the Great Asian family “They,” of course, were Japan’s enemies. He also wrote, in “War and Poetry (Senso to Shi)” . . .

“[This war] is a holy war that will majestically bring to all the true significance of our 2,600-year-old Imperial country. . . . In an era of holy war such as this, the intensity of beauty itself is heightened . . . and we cannot help but be acutely aware of our soldiers, to whom we are inexpressibly dedicated.”

After the war, Takamura, racked with guilt, atoned for his admitted sins by isolating himself for seven years in a small hut outside Hanamaki in Iwate Prefecture. During the 15-year war in Asia and the Pacific, legions of Japanese writers and artists went along with their government. Virtually all dissent, such as it might have been, was silenced among the general public. What’s worse, those who did dissent then are not truly considered heroes today, as they should be. The Japanese people prefer those who “went along with everyone” — whether they wanted to or not. “Keep it to yourself” might be the eternal motto of this nation.

Will we see this all again in any other place but New Year’s nightmares?

What does Prime Minister Abe mean by “beautiful Japan,” if not a country where “everyone goes along” without complaint and pays obeisance to the flag of the Rising Sun, and where beauty itself is perverted to act in the interests of a nationalistic cause?

Such a perversion of beauty is destined to be fleeting, not to mention portentous of the millions of lives it takes with it when, like the petals of the cherry blossom, it falls swiftly to the ground.