The worst form of bondage is the bondage of dejection, which keeps men hopelessly chained in loss of faith in themselves.”

So wrote, nearly a century ago, the Bengali poet, author, musician — and Nobel Prize in Literature laureate -Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) in an essay titled “Nationalism in Japan.”

Tagore was a great admirer of Japanese ingenuity and industriousness, and saw Japan as a beacon of enlightenment for the people of what today is called “the developing world.”

“We have been repeatedly told, with some justification,” he wrote, “that Asia lives in the past. . . . When things stood still like this, and we in Asia hypnotized ourselves into the belief that it could never by any possibility be otherwise, Japan rose from her dreams, and in giant strides left centuries of inaction behind, overtaking the present time in its foremost achievement.”

Tagore was referring to Japan’s rapid transformation into a modern nation state during the Meiji Era (1868-1912). In less than 50 years then, a feudalistic, isolated and technologically backward nation became a world power, accomplishing in a few decades what it took some European countries centuries to achieve. Japan’s example proved that modernity and equality with advanced nations was not a monopoly, as the vast majority of white people believed, of the Christian West.

I reread Tagore’s essay to find some lessons for Japan today. Clearly, the historical circumstances of then and now are entirely unlike. And yet, the tasks facing the Japanese people in 2011 are not dissimilar to those that confronted the people of Meiji Japan.

The disaster that struck Japan on March 11 in the form of a huge earthquake and tsunami and a nuclear calamity has deeply disquieted the country, underscoring the necessity to redefine the goals of the nation. The emergence from more than two centuries of national isolation in the middle of the 19th century challenged the people of this country in a similar way.

The word “nationalism,” however, has a disreputable ring to it. My high school history teacher in Los Angeles told us, “Patriotism is good; nationalism, bad. We Americans aren’t nationalistic.”

Notwithstanding her specious take on the semantics of political bias, it is true that we don’t respond favorably to, and are generally wary of, what is called “nationalistic sentiment.”

Since 1945, the Japanese in particular have been profoundly circumspect about anything that smacks of nationalism, or patriotism, for that matter. The years leading up to World War II and Japan’s blindly patriotic aggression in Asia and the Pacific have made today’s citizens allergic to the hype associated with love of country.

I believe it is time for the Japanese people to cure themselves of this allergy. They’ve had it long enough. The very ethos of work, the relationships among people in this country, and the idea of where we all stand in nature have been called into question by the recent catastrophes. You can’t find answers in fault-finding and browbeating, though some of this is certainly necessary.

A nation must accentuate the positive, as the people of the Meiji Era did, searching far, wide and deep into both their own culture and those of others to guide itself in the future.

Why should the Japanese be denied a natural showing of pride, just because an aberration of history led them on the path of belligerency and national terror more than half a century ago? Are the Chinese, the Americans and the Germans, to name only three nationalities, not justly proud of what they represent on the world stage?

But won’t a new nationalism and national pride turn Japan once again into an axis of evil? Not if it is an informed nationalism, combining the traditional virtues of social harmony and selfless cooperation that we have witnessed since March 11 with a 21st-century commitment to individual rights.

This is a tricky balance in any society: Your freedom will easily encroach on mine, unless our social contract balances individual freedom with mutual pledges of responsibility for each other’s welfare. I am not advocating the prejudiced nationalism of someone like Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara. Informed nationalism has nothing in common with delusions of racial grandeur.

Americans, for instance, often err on the side of liberty, sacrificing the welfare and safety of their underprivileged in its name. Japanese have erred on the other side of the scales.

Until now in Japan, social harmony has required such a high degree of acquiescence that its people have negated their individual needs for the presumable good of the whole. This has created a nation of apathetic and politically unmotivated citizens — citizens who have felt they had no choice but to trust the word of their leaders in government and commerce.

Keep to yourself and you will be okay. Do nothing to risk public censure. A public display of assertive doubt is arrogance. Lay low, citizen, and you will be respected.

For years the gigantic corporations providing energy and power in Japan have told the people that they have taken every necessary precaution to prevent a nuclear holocaust such as the one the people of Fukushima and surrounding prefectures have been experiencing. And for years the Japanese people have laid low and accepted these assurances. Doing this seemed to be in the interests of the nation. Not any more. From now on, questioning, debate and informed polemics will be in the interests of the nation.

It is the people of Japan, not corporate executives, bureaucrats or politicians, who decide what is good for Japan. For them to do this, however, they must cherish a sense of pride in themselves as Japanese: that it is they who define the ethos that will move this country forward. Japanese people will now be reconsidering the use of resources with an eye to protecting the integrity of their natural environment. As I suggested in a recent Counterpoint (search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20110403rp.html), such a natural ethos is an integral part of their tradition.

Since the beginning of the Meiji Era, Japan’s contribution to the world has been immense: in every aspect of art and design — both spatial and graphic — in technology, in the example the Japanese create with their resilience and never-say-die inventiveness.

Tagore recognized this, while warning Japan that it must not follow the Western lead into imperialism. Unfortunately, Japan did not heed his warning.

A new and informed nationalism, based on pride of culture and social harmony, as well as an unflagging commitment to individual rights and the importance of a single citizen’s opinion, will help Japan extricate itself from the dilemma of where to go from here. Pride in country is pride in oneself — and this is precisely the pride that has been lacking in postwar Japan.

“One morning,” wrote Tagore, “the whole world looked up in surprise when Japan broke through her walls of old habits in a night and came out triumphant. It was done in such an incredibly short time. She showed the confident strength of maturity, and the freshness and infinite potentiality of new life at the same moment.”

We are living through one of those rare times when a nation can seek new goals of progress in tune with nature, and genuinely achieve them. But it requires all citizens to stand up and be counted for what they believe in — and to take a healthy pride in those personal beliefs.

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