Over the past three weeks I have looked back in this column at the decades leading up to the 21st century, which has to date seen a marked shift in Japanese domestic and international policy back toward a not-so-new form of nationalism. In this last article I discuss the 1970s, when critical decisions were made about the future direction of the nation.

It was obvious from the start of the decade that the radical student movement was self-destructing at a rapid rate. While the antiwar movements in the West were increasingly effective in focusing attention on the cruelties and injustices perpetrated by the United States in Vietnam, the Japanese protest movement was rent by factional strife, symbolized by the word uchigeba (violent in-fighting). While student activists in Europe and America were becoming conscious of threats to the environment and the needs of the underprivileged, their counterparts in Japan were hung up on ideological struggles among Marxist and neo-Marxist factions.

In May 1969, left-leaning students held a debate with the novelist and monarchist Yukio Mishima on the University of Tokyo’s Komaba campus. This marked the peak of the 1960s polemic. Yet the debate, which went long over time, turned into a philosophical and aesthetic confrontation, culminating in Mishima’s professed adoration for the Emperor as Japan’s supreme national symbol — a symbol the ideology-bent anti-imperial students were never going to accept.

The death knell for the student movement was sounded on Feb. 28, 1972, when police, after a 10-day standoff, stormed the mountain retreat where members of the Japanese Red Army had holed up with a hostage. The Red Army members had gone to the Asama Sanso retreat in Nagano Prefecture after sentencing some of their comrades in a kangaroo court and murdering them. Japanese television was at the scene, televising the standoff and the dramatic freeing of the hostage in a kind of prolonged news coverage never before seen in this country.

Dumbing down of culture

With the Asama Sanso Incident, as it became known, the radical student movement that matured in the ’60s (with the wide support of the general public) collapsed. The interest the Japanese people had in social issues — whether concerned with the welfare of the underprivileged or ecological deterioration — was largely snuffed out.

Similarly, the social polemics of the ’60s, nurtured in virtually every art form, no longer dominated the national debate. The thick magazines that had carried in-depth articles on politics and art were slowly losing their readership, and the high status of serious literature, so popular in Japan since the war’s end, was beginning to wither.

The dumbing down of Japanese culture that we see today began not, as many critics say, in the 1990s, but two decades before, when Japanese people started to turn away from issues and problems in order to concentrate on something else.

Every decade seems to have its iconic image, one that characterizes it, if not sums it up. That “something else” in the 1970s was the iconic image created the day Shoichi Yokoi returned to Japan after spending nearly 28 years hiding in Guam.

Yokoi was a die-hard soldier who had refused to surrender. But he finally emerged and was brought back to a hero’s welcome in 1972. After alighting from the airplane at Haneda Airport he was sat down in a wheelchair. Something was then placed in his hand, and he waved it in the air, smiling broadly. Japan was telling this straggler from another time that here was the symbol of the new Japan, the thing now worth fighting for. It was, as some readers may recall, a 10,000 yen note.

So that was to be the 1970s: The impolite disregard for social needs, which society, the media and government were, in any case, all too happy to ignore; and the hoisting up of this new emblem of Japanese communal (and hence personal) aspiration. From then on, everyone’s primary goal was going to be the accumulation of little happinesses through increased personal diligence and the pursuit of property. Get your hands on as many of those iconic 10,000 yen notes as you could, and the good of the nation was bound to be right behind you.

One event at the time struck fear into the hearts of the Japanese, and that fear led them to be all the more cautious and circumspect of liberal social ideals: the oil shock of 1973.

Arab members of OPEC instigated policies that would quadruple the price of oil, and Japan, so dependent on oil imports, went into shock. There was a nationwide rush to buy toilet paper after word spread that it would be in short supply, with some people hoarding enough to last a lifetime. The lesson was clear: Prosperity is not guaranteed; there must be no let up on personal application and sacrificial enterprise if Japan is be safe from manipulation by outside forces.

On the one hand, the 1970 World’s Fair, or Expo, in Osaka had been an unmitigated success, with visitor numbers topping 64 million. Japanese people were clearly still fascinated by foreign customs, but their fascination went little further than a penchant for the trappings of culture, such as fashion and cuisine. European models of welfare politics, for instance, did not get a look in.

World prestige and power

The Liberal Democratic Party, entrenched in power for what then seemed for good, was determined to forge a Japanese solution to gain world prestige and power. This solution had no place for “soft” issues such as welfare and ecology.

Instead, the construction of dams, roads and bridges, whether needed or not, was pursued with a passion. These were seen as “prestige projects” that would be sources of pride for the Japanese. No matter that most Japanese were living in tiny “rabbit hutch” apartments, that the needs of the disabled were being roundly neglected, or that the country’s natural beauty was being systematically buried under millions of tons of concrete. As long as GDP went up, the government could convince the people that their personal efforts were worth the sacrifice. Don’t worry about the other guy, just look after yourself, your family and your company — and Japan will regain its rightful place in the world community.

There was, in fact, unprecedented prosperity in the 1980s, but it was a prosperity only for the rich and opportunistic . . . and it was to be short lived and ultimately destructive of social harmony.

The nationalism that we are confronted with today, with its concomitant social inequalities, had its roots in the last four decades of the 20th century. It didn’t just come about; it was orchestrated and conducted by the political elite, in coordination with their mentors, the banks and major corporations. The citizens of this country have not benefited as they should have.

In return, however, they are now being asked to revere the flag and sacrifice their personal industry for “the beautiful country” — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s emblematic slogan of this first decade of the new century.

Will this truly lead to the creation of a beautiful people, or will we see the emergence of an ugly Japaneseness intent on demonstrating pride in the nation while clutching a wad of 10,000 yen notes in one hand and wielding a big beautiful stick with the other?

I, for one, believe that the creation of a genuinely fair, compassionate and proud Japan is still possible.

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