On June 7, The New York Times’ op-ed columnist Bob Herbert wrote an intriguing piece about the United States in 1968, recalling the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy exactly 40 years ago, and also referring to Sen. Barack Obama clinching the 2008 Democratic Party nomination for the presidency.

“The United States in 1968,” he wrote, “was a stunningly different place from the country we know now, so different that most of today’s young people would have trouble imagining it.”

This got me to thinking about 1968 in Japan, my second year of living in this country.

Would today’s young Japanese have trouble imagining their country as it was then? And — more crucially — would they be able to say that, as in the U.S. 40 years on, Japan might now elect, say, an ethnically Korean, Chinese or Brazilian Japanese to be prime minister?

Japan in 1968 was bursting with pride and hopeful anticipation to build on its burgeoning prosperity.

The brilliantly successful Tokyo Olympics were already four years in the past, and people had started taking the Shinkansen bullet train — such a marvel when it began operation in 1964 — for granted. In April of 1968, too, Japan’s first skyscraper, the 36-story Kasumigaseki Building, had been completed. Then novelist Yasunari Kawabata was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and Dr. Juro Wada of Sapporo Medical College performed Japan’s first heart transplant. (Sadly, the 18-year-old patient lived for only 83 days.)

Meanwhile, the average monthly wage for a university graduate was just a bit over ¥30,000 back then — but a beer cost only ¥130; and for ¥660 you could have both the morning and evening editions of the Asahi Shimbun delivered to your home for a month.

In 1968, everyone wanted all three of the so-called 3Cs: car, cooler and color-television set. These had steadily come within the reach of the average household, though a state-of-the-art Sony color TV then set people back the hefty sum of ¥120,000 (the equivalent, perhaps, of five times that now).

Five celebrity personalities were elected to the House of Councilors on July 7, 1968: novelist Shintaro Ishihara, comedian Yukio Aoshima, writer Toko Kon, volleyball coach Hirobumi Daimatsu, and comedian “Knock” Yokoyama. The Agency for Cultural Affairs (Bunkacho) was established in June. Japan may have not have been No. 1, but it had officially become — as far as GDP went — No. 2 in the world. The goal of the leaders of post-feudal Meiji Era Japan (1868-1912) to catch up with and overtake the West had been, despite the catastrophe of World War II, largely achieved.

All of this would be easily imaginable by young Japanese people today.

Even the politicians now running this country bear the same reactionary countenance and born-to-rule attitude of those in 1968 — as if to prove the adage, “Once an oligarchy, always an oligarchy.”

The then Agriculture and Forestry Minister Tadao Kuraishi blasted Japan’s so-called peace Constitution when he exclaimed in February 1968: “With its ridiculous Constitution, Japan is no more than a concubine.”

The oligarchs who ran Japan then were keen — as they are now — to revise the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution in order to remilitarize Japan. In Japanese politics, deja vu is a way of life.

As for agriculture, the Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives (Nokyo) had an iron hold over the lives of farmers, keeping them beholden to its credit lines. Nokyo was hand-in-glove with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, giving conservative politicians a rock-solid rural base that has only recently begun to crumble.

But as much as their country in 1968 may be easily imaginable to them, the intellectual ferment and exciting polemics of Japan 40 years ago would come, I believe, as a shock to the placid, inward-looking young technogeeks of today.

The student movement, with a broad spectrum of support throughout the community, was agitating on campuses. On March 28, students took over the Yasuda Auditorium at the University of Tokyo and halted the graduation ceremony. When mothers with sons and daughters at the university sent their children caramels, so gaining the nickname “Caramel Mamas,” someone put up a poster, on Nov. 23, reading, “Don’t Stop Us Now, Mummy!” Most critically, the entrance exams for 1969 were aborted, dealing a blow to the university’s immediate future.

The three top movies of 1968 took up serious themes of persecution and war: Shohei Imamura’s “Kamigami no Fukaki Yokubo (The Profound Desire of the Gods),” Kihachi Okamoto’s “Nikudan (The Human Bullet),” and Nagisa Oshima’s “Koshikei (Death by Hanging).” Intellectual ferment, expressed and widely read in the thick monthly magazines, was evident on campuses, in theaters and in the nation’s living rooms.

On March 27, 1968, a research committee of the then Ministry of Health and Welfare revealed that Itai Itai Disease, which attacks the bones and often kills, was caused by cadmium poisoning, and that pollution by mining companies was to blame. Along with the recognition of the industrial causes of Minamata Disease, a grave neurological disorder caused by the ingestion of mercury, this marked the first consciousness in Japan of the effects of wanton industrialization on the environment and health.

Many things were yet to come.

In 1968, disabled people and minority groups of all sorts had to grin and bear the ignorance of the general population toward their plight and the active bias against them. Women were blatantly discriminated against in the workplace and openly harassed; children were bullied with impunity. Japanese society was anything but victim-friendly.

Yet despite this, back in 1968 there was not only a sense of hope in the air but also a dogged idealism — that Japan could create an equitable and fair society; that the new prosperity would be shared; that young people would have a voice in their future.

Young people in 2008 looking back to the Japan of 40 years ago would see the same ultraconservative cliques in power as today. They would no doubt be dismayed by the lack of concern for the disabled, for minorities, and for the environment.

But they would be wrong to conclude that their counterparts then were apathetic and uncommitted to radical social change. In fact, the entire Japanese society had a social dynamism in 1968 that it pitifully lacks today.

If this dynamism can somehow be revived, and if young Japanese today commit themselves to reform and its realization as diligently as they do to the pursuit of career and money, then a new kind of leadership can certainly emerge in Japan.

I believe that there will be a female or ethnically mixed Japanese prime minister, and it won’t take another 40 years. But, long before that occurs, we will first have to witness a genuine revival of meaningful polemics and a rejuvenation of ideals.

When that will start to reach the surfaces of society is anybody’s guess.

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