“We are living in extremely hard times. . . . I have been reading news- papers for 60 years, and I can’t recall any era when the local news pages have appalled me more.”

So writes novelist Hiroyuki Itsuki in an intriguing essay titled “Determination is necessary for the Japanese in the Era of Decline” in this month’s issue of the popular magazine, Chuo Koron.

Itsuki bemoans the number of suicides in Japan, “exceeding 30,000 for 10 straight years, with the number of indiscriminate murders on the increase, too.”

He does not consider Japan unique . . .

“Now America, Europe, Asia and the countries where the Muslim religion holds sway,” he writes, “are facing what might be called ‘a panic of the mind,’ an indescribably deep psychological abyss.”

He notes that for 60-odd years since World War II, Japan has been “rushing through an era of ‘highs,’ ” and goes on to explain how the country fell from these highs into the depression it suffers from today.

Is Itsuki’s assessment of the psychological and social state of his nation bleaker than its reality?

There is no denying the scale of individual depression suffered by Japanese people today — particularly the young, who find society aimless, cold and unforgiving; and the elderly, who feel themselves abandoned by distant families and an even more distant government. While the particular characteristics of this depression may differ between Japanese people and those in other countries, I doubt that the situation is any worse here than elsewhere.

Perhaps this is what Itsuki means by the “psychological abyss” in other countries.

Youth suicide in Australia is soaring; and, with nearly 50 million Americans living without any form of medical insurance, I’d rather grow old in Obama, Fukui Prefecture, than in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

To Itsuki’s generation — he was born in 1932 — the era of gung-ho growth in Japan from the 1950s to the ’80s offered both a sense of personal and national direction and that most precious commodity in any period of transition: hope.

It was direction and hope that provided Itsuki and his fellow Japanese with those “highs” that he talks about: The belief that life tomorrow was bound to be better than today.

Certainly, Japan is now a country at sea, with neither sail to give it forward motion nor rudder to guide its course or any captain with a vision of where the ship of state ought to be heading.

Itsuki offers a solution to get Japan out of its doldrums. That solution is Japanese people’s faith that places nature at the center of human existence.

“Japanese syncretistic practices have been thought of as an embarrassment by intellectuals here since Meiji times,” he writes in the Chuo Koron essay, referring to the Meiji Era of Westernization from 1868 to 1912, when Japanese for the most part eagerly reconciled theirs and outsiders’ opposing beliefs and practices.

“But the reason why America’s policies to improve the environment are likely to fail stems from their basic notion that humans are at the center of everything. . . . It is Japanese pantheism, which has been considered here outmoded, that will, I believe, be able to contribute (to the welfare) of the world from now on. . . . Japan has the potential to show the world, in our century, a way to survive.”

He infers that it is Japan’s animistic philosophy — which reveres and worships trees and mountains and nature itself — that can save the world and also help get Japan out of its communal depression.

It isn’t surprising that Itsuki sees the solution in these terms. Despite being one of Japan’s most popular authors — with six, million-selling books to his credit — he interrupted his career at age 49 to enter Ryukoku University in Kyoto, where he was drawn specifically to the faith of Shinran, a 13th-century monk who founded the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism.

While the promotion of such a faith-based solution to Japan’s national “lows” is admirable, I don’t see much serious nature-worship in this country of concreted hillsides, rivers and coasts — despite the lip service given to it.

“Nature” in Japan is merely another snazzy design-commodity, commercialized to attract tourists and make locals feel less alienated from the environment than they really are.

But Itsuki doesn’t expect Japanese people to actively embrace animistic faith as the answer. Instead, he trusts that “when the time comes, (the Buddhist thinkers) Nichiren and Kukai and Honen and Shinran will make a comeback. . . . Great people are called upon in times of need.”

Well, I — for one — am not holding my breath.

Japanese philosophy can teach the world the importance of nature and our proper place in it — not as its conqueror. But it seems highly unlikely that Japanese people themselves will take this old message to heart, let alone succeed in convincing other countries, lumbered with other unwieldy religions, to follow their lead.

So, what’s the way for Japan back to the highs of yesteryear?

Well, comparing our era now with the three previous eras of great change in modern Japan, one possible solution stands out. Those who brought about a political revolution in the Meiji Era, those who championed social democracy in the Taisho Era (1912-1926), and those who achieved stunning artistic and economic progress in the wake of World War II were, by and large, all young and iconoclastic. They ignored, changed or turned to their advantage the stultifying rules of the Japanese society they were born into, and left their historic marks by means of their personal motivation and creativity.

The question, then, is this: Will a young generation make its mark on Japanese society soon, and give it impetus to move ahead with a sense of direction and vision?

If this is to happen, Japanese institutions of authority will have to open their doors to the young, and empower them to make decisions in the political, economic and cultural spheres. The future in our world is no country for old men. It is President Barack Obama’s age and intellectual dynamism that may change America. His ethnicity is a symbol of change — a very important one — not a catalyst for it.

Why are Japan’s young people so meek and mild? Is Japan so repressive that a Japanese Obama couldn’t even get to first base? Well then, it must be time to fire the umpires and let this nation’s young pinch-hitters run.

Itsuki concludes his essay this way: “Today, when we are faced with ‘the hell of class difference, the hell of poverty and the hell of care for the aged,’ it is the starved soul of the Japanese that will bring forth someone [to save us].”

I agree with him that someone will come forth. I just don’t expect that person to be wearing saffron robes and fiddling with beads in their hand. They will more likely be wearing jeans and have beads around their neck. But when they will make their appearance is anyone’s guess, and the longer it takes, the less chance there will be for Japan to glimpse those highs now receding so swiftly into the distant past.

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