‘I for one, cannot believe that love of one’s country must consist in blindness to its social faults, in deafness to its social discords, in inarticulation of its social wrongs. Neither can I believe that the mere accident of birth in a certain country or the mere scrap of a citizen’s paper constitutes the love of country.’

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These words, from a speech made 90 years ago, speak eloquently of an informedpatriotism, one based on the degree of freedom and social justice in a person’s native or adopted country.

The speech was made in 1917 by the Russian-born American activist, feminist and anarchist Emma Goldman (1869-1940). While her advocacy of violence in pursuit of her causes is not to be applauded, the causes for which she stood — in particular, gender equality, freely available birth control and the organization of labor — have long been accepted and institutionalized by democratic societies around the world. (Goldman was incarcerated in the United States for two years due to her opposition to conscription during World War I, and was subsequently deported to Russia.)

Patriotism is not often a hot political issue in itself. More often it is taken for granted and left up to each individual to interpret in their own way. But in times of high national polemics, such as those we see now in the United States and Japan, the nature of patriotism may define the national debate.

The word for patriotism in Japanese, aikokushin, has lost the stigma it acquired after the war. Japanese people still loved their country in the immediate postwar decades, but they were reluctant to apply that word to it for fear of being branded reactionary. Now the word aikokushin has come back into fashion.

In December last year, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper conducted a survey of 3,000 citizens on this very subject. The results reflect the growing sense of pride that Japanese people have in their country.

Stigma once marked the word

To the question, “Do you have patriotism [toward Japan]?” 78 percent replied with a “yes.” I suspect that this is less than the percentage in some other democracies, but nonetheless it is a high figure for Japan, considering the stigma that once marked the very word. “The number of people who said they were ‘glad’ to be born in Japan was as high as 94 percent,” reported the Asahi.

To me, the startling — and heartening — statistic in this public-opinion poll concerned the question, “Do you believe that Japan must hansei suru about its invasion and colonial rule of Asian countries?” A full 85 percent replied that they felt the need for Japanese to do hansei over these actions taken largely during the war (and in the case of Korea, Taiwan and parts of mainland China, long before it).

I have left the word hansei in Japanese not because it is untranslatable, but because it is frequently mistranslated in the media, as “to reflect (on something).” Hansei suru does have this meaning — but its usage here is different . . . and stronger. The implication of hansei suru as it is used in the Asahi survey contains “to feel remorse over, to regret, to do soul-searching about.” Eighty-five percent of the Japanese in the survey, in effect, felt that the prewar and wartime invasion and domination of Asian countries by Japan was wrong, and that this required Japanese people to take some action to redress the injustices. Hansei suru implies action taken in the future to avoid the recurrence of a wrong. Translating hansei suru here as “to reflect upon” makes it look like Japanese people today are treating the crimes of the past lightly. They are not.

I am now reading a remarkable book that relates closely to the issue of love of country: “Gakutohei no Seishinshi (Spiritual Record of Student Soldiers),” by Emiko Onuki, published last year by Iwanami Shoten. Here are letters and diary extracts written by kamikaze pilots. Their most intimate thoughts, aspirations and fears are expressed profoundly.

Five hundred students of Tokyo Imperial University (forerunner of the University of Tokyo) were among those called to arms as suicide pilots in December 1943. Though these young men professed a deep love of their country, they by no means approved of the brutal treatment meted out to them and their comrades by sadistic superior officers, and they even questioned the motives and goals of the Japanese war effort. According to Onuki, the image of the gung-ho and fanatic kamikaze pilot that so many have come to accept as the norm is way off the mark. These men were not averse to sacrificing their lives for their country, but not for a country that was perpetrating wanton death and destruction in Asia.

Wrenchingly moving letters

The last letters written by these young men are wrenchingly moving. What, after all, were they dying for? As Onuki points out, the difference between the German soldiers and the Japanese was that the former were inculcated with the desire to kill the enemy, while the latter were taught to do this and also to die for their country. During that era, at least, patriotism required the sacrifice of life for its proof.

Returning to the present, it is obvious that patriotism today is a far cry from what it once was — an excuse to control resources in Asia and the Pacific. But that leaves the question: What is the proper basis for 21st-century Japanese patriotism?

There needs to be a national debate on this issue, so that Japanese patriotism can find its meaning in the advocacy of social justice and the welfare of all citizens.

But unfortunately, the citizenry doesn’t seem to be very interested in participating in any debates these days, and the media aren’t encouraging them. This gives the government free rein to decide on the terms of patriotism, terms they will naturally leave abstract (such as, creating a “beautiful” country) and noble sounding (such as “love of tradition”).

The Fundamental Law of Education was revised in the Diet last year, opening the way for patriotism to be taught at schools in Japan. But, according to the Asahi survey quoted above, a majority of young people said they did not support teaching patriotism at school. This gives hope that they would rather form their own notion of what love of country is than be compelled to accept someone else’s.

You can’t teach patriotism. You have to want to embrace it of your own accord, and in your own way. The young people who are proud to be Japanese, but do not wish to follow the rigid dictates of the state, are Japan’s hope. They will have to rely on their individual consciences to determine the basis of their patriotic sentiments.

In 1917, Emma Goldman said of her new country, “We say that if America has entered [World War I] to make the world safe for democracy, she must first make democracy safe in America.”

Wise words for Americans in 2007. And sound advice for young Japanese who, unlike those elite university students in 1943, are at least being given the chance to choose where their patriotism may lead them in the end.

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