W hen did Japan begin to change and enter its present phase of burgeoning nationalism? (I hesitate to call it “new” nationalism, because it’s actually just a rehashing of old myths for 21st-century consumption.)

This country seems to be opting for a kind of Designer Fascism social model, with decisions largely made in political cabals after only a semblance of democratic debate. Meanwhile, the media is shamefully abrogating its watchdog role, acting more like the Establishment’s lapdog, docile and tame, only emitting the occasional growl. And throughout this, the attitude of the Japanese people is a shrugging, apathetic, “Whatever.”

Welcome to the Land of the Rising Sun, 2007.

In an attempt to discover how and why Japan has fallen into this pitiful state, for the next four weeks in Counterpoint I am going to look at Japanese society over the last four decades of the 20th century, beginning with the pivotal 1980s.

I remember well the day in June 1989 when the great singer Hibari Misora died. Emperor Showa had passed away less than six months earlier. If it had been the end of a political era with the Emperor’s death, it was the end of a cultural one with the passing of the Empress of Song. Both of them had been so closely associated with the esprit of postwar Japan.

I was, that year, a regular on a television talk show called “The Week,” hosted by Shinya Sasaki, a sports commentator turned news anchor. With the death of Hibari Misora, the scheduled topics of discussion were axed, the studio was decked in flowers and somber colors, and the entire show was dedicated to a discussion of her brilliant, iconic career.

Two things struck me during that broadcast.

First, there was no mention of the fact that this greatest interpreter of Japanese popular music of all time was ethnically Korean. (Nor, to be fair, was there mention of Emperor Showa’s Korean roots when he passed away.)

Second, although in other shows Mr. Sasaki and the show’s other anchor, the now popular actress Chizuru Azuma, often asked me to comment on Japanese affairs, during this particular broadcast I was virtually shut out.

Sad day for ethnic Koreans

Only once was I asked to give a “brief comment.” I really should have pointed out that this was a very sad day for ethnic Koreans in Japan, but instead I meekly whispered, “Kireina koe no mochinushi deshita ne (She certainly possessed a beautiful voice).” What a ridiculous and embarrassing comment! It sounded like damning someone with the faintest praise and, had it been possible, I would have dug a hole in the studio floor and jumped into it. Instead, after the show I just grabbed my briefcase and rushed out.

With the deaths of Emperor Showa and Hibari Misora, the 1980s were over.

It had been a decade characterized by the term Firingu Jidai (literally, “Feeling Era”), when the words nau-i (super-trendy) and yangu (young) became keys to society’s consumerist values. For the first time in Japanese history, young people had considerable amounts of money to spend, and the consumer market, from funky fashion to cutesy gewgaw, reflected their tastes.

Japanese-speaking foreigners, particularly white ones from squeaky states like Utah, became as popular as Snoopy. Japanese people were traveling overseas in droves, aided by an ever-strengthening yen. The price of land, particularly in the major cities, was higher than a skyful of kites, thanks chiefly to a host of jiageya, or professional land-price hikers, who were reaping profits the like of which would not even be matched a decade later in the hi-tech industries. As well, there was an unprecedented gourmet boom throughout the country, and sushi as a symbol of Japanese culinary culture was becoming popular for the first time around the world. Japan was a conspicuous star, and the atmosphere here was euphoric.

Meanwhile, the United States was bogged down in a massive savings-and-loan scandal; the USSR was stagnating in corruption and ecological disaster, of which the catastrophic nuclear accident at Chernobyl was only the most dramatic of countless, dire environmental and health crises; and China was still a sleeping, if rousing, dragon, unaware until the Tiananmen Square Massacre of June 4, 1989, of how to deal with growing political dissent and opposition.

TV talk shows in Japan were obsessed then, as now, with the state of affairs in Japan — but there was a difference. Whatever channel they were on, the panels of experts shared the view that Japanese society was “the best of all possible” societies. Japan was virtually free of drugs, guns, sexual harassment, child abuse, divorce or teenage pregnancies. Moreover, it appeared destined to overtake the U.S. — where all of the above problems seemed legion — as the world’s foremost economic power.

While it was true, and thankfully still is, that Japan does not suffer from a national drug or handgun problem, the apparent absence of the other problems was due both to lack of coverage in the media and a silent, very Japanese conspiracy among the populace to — as the saying goes — “keep the lid on something that stinks.”

Intense social pressure

The reality was that women and children were under intense social pressure to keep any sexual abuse to themselves; the low divorce rate masked a profound problem of unhappiness and unfulfillment in marriage, so much so that a term — kateinai rikon (divorce within marriage) — had to be invented; and the low incidence of teenage pregnancy was largely thanks to readily available abortion.

However, it was not only these problems that the lid was kept on. Issues of wartime responsibility and the call to make them a subject in schools, as they had been in West Germany, were ignored by the government. (The attitude was, If Japan is soaring so high in every respect, why try to pull it down?)

Yasuhiro Nakasone, prime minister for five years from November 1982, visited Tokyo’s war-celebrating Yasukuni Shrine in 1985, igniting the issue that persists as a symbolic bow to fascism to this day. While the media was wallowing in a giddy interest in foreign talent, Nakasone made it clear publicly that he attributed Japan’s social and economic success to the relative absence of ethnic minorities here. Hibari Misora must have drunk much “Sad Sake,” the title of her 1966 hit song, upon hearing that.

It was the Nakasone policy of, to use the euphemism, “restoring pride to the Japanese nation” — but at the expense of social democracy — and insisting that Japan is a racially homogenous nation, that directly underpin the reactionary policies of today’s government.

But to return to those two deaths in 1989.

The Japanese had been open to comments by foreigners up till then, but only as a kind of glamour-gimmick, to have token gaijin titillate their native curiosity. It was a way of saying, “See how different and exotic we are? After all, even the foreigners are puzzled by our unique ways.” When it came to real “family” tragedies, however, like the deaths of Emperor Showa and Hibari Misora, frank outside opinions were unwelcome.

By 1989, the openness was gradually disappearing, and the brilliant sheen on the surface of Japanese society was fading. Japan was entering a new, darker decade that was to be at once more introspective, yet leaning ominously toward the “new” nationalism that has leapt into the light in this first decade of the 21st century.

This is the first in a series of four:
2nd installment: More than money was found wanting in ‘the lost decade’

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.