Ryotaro Shiba, the great author of historical novels, was a student of Mongolian at Osaka University of Foreign Languages when, at the end of 1943, he was drafted into the army. Then aged 20, he received a “provisional graduation qualification” (the actual certificate was issued the following year) and found himself in Manchuria, which was at that time the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo.

After he entered the Army School at Siping, where he was already exhibiting literary traits and founded a haiku club among the ranks, he was assigned to tank duty. Though he excelled more with tanka poems than tanks, he was sent to Mudanjiang, in what is now Heilongjiang Province in northeastern China, and made platoon commander of a tank unit.

Writing years later, he recalled putting a question to his commanding officer.

“If the enemy lands here,” he said, “we’ll have to take the tanks south. But the roads are really narrow. What do we do if horse-drawn carts are coming the other way?”

“The officer stared at me in silence for a while,” wrote Shiba, “and then gave his answer. ‘Run ’em down,’ he said.”

I bring up this incident from long ago not because it characterized the attitude toward forward planning that pervaded this country’s military forces during World War II — but because that attitude is eerily pervasive today in the government and corporate culture of the nation.

In Japan, it’s customary at the end of each year to choose a word that best describes the esprit of that year. My choice for 2012, hands down, is “musekinin.”

Musekinin means “irresponsibility”; but the Japanese word is somewhat stronger in tone than the English one, more akin to “a total absence of responsibility,” or “a lack of a sense of liability.”

In the general election on Dec. 16, the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was elected in a landslide on the pledge to pump a mass of new money into the economy in order to jump-start it out of its stalled misery. But this is precisely what the LDP did when it was in power in the 1990s, pouring tens of billions of yen into public-works projects that left Japan with much often-useless concrete infrastructure and the mother of all national debts. Why, one asks, would such a policy work now, when the debt is already galactic in size and most local governments have no appetite for old-fashion pump-priming?

The LDP answer to anything blocking its way is the same as that given to tank-soldier Shiba, as the mentality has not changed in three-quarters of a century: Run ’em down.

No matter that the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, was followed by events at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant leading to three reactor meltdowns, because the LDP government is now poised to okay the restart of most of the country’s dozens of idled reactors. And that despite adequate safety checks, which should have been conducted before the plants were built, not having been carried out.

It is ironic, too, that both major parties — the LDP and the then-ruling Democratic Party of Japan — kicked off campaigning in the recent election, which began on Dec. 4, in Fukushima.

The residents of that prefecture have been treated like the unwanted. They have been deprived of information and sufficient compensation. Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), the owner and operator of the stricken nuclear plant, has simply wished they would go away — which, with time, they will, one way or another.

As with the millions of Asian victims of Japanese aggression prior to the end of World War II in 1945, the policy adopted after the events is to mollify with ambiguous and insincere apologies … and wait until the last one dies.

The same “run ’em down” attitude is again, basically, not far from being the mindset of the corporate bosses in the nuclear industry — or, if not run ’em down, then “run ’em out” — which is what they did to the people of the radiation-affected districts of Fukushima Prefecture.

In this way, politicians, bureaucrats and the corporate elite are evading responsibility for either the collapse and stagnation of Japan’s economy or the contamination of its land, air and water, and what that has meant for people’s livelihoods.

They have not apologized in any meaningful way nor have they shown any true sense of responsibility for these two catastrophes of mismanagement and cover-up regarding the real causes of the economy’s collapse and the nuclear disaster. Their solution is to return to the status quo ante, dig in their heels, pick up their antiquated weapons — the only tools at their disposal — and carry on fighting.

This is what is meant by musekinin as we approach what may be the point of no return that this country faces in 2013.

There was a reason for my beginning this column with a story about the war, for the wartime mindset of organized irresponsibility is with us again. Way back in 1946, writing in the May issue of the magazine Sekai, Masao Maruyama, the most brilliant political scientist of the postwar period, referred to the military mindset as one that protected “the organization” above all else.

What he meant was that all appeals to the organization for rationality or logic on the basis of objective analysis of a real situation are rejected in the interests of the decisions taken by the organization — be it an army, a government agency or an electric power company.

Hence, even though you are facing a catastrophe, such as total defeat in war or the probability of another nuclear accident occurring, you still ignore factual data that contradicts the organization’s set plan. If you are defeated, then you simply go on to ignore your victims and glorify those who persevered in the name of “the cause.”

Just as the bankrupt ideology of communism doomed rational economic and social planning in the old Soviet Union to failure; just as the ideology of anti-communism doomed the United States to the committing of war crimes (without apology or compensation) in the Vietnam War — so the ideology of organizational irresponsibility and the hypocritical shirking of liability are dooming Japan to moral, economic and social decline today.

This time, the entire populace of Japan will be run into the ground, where they will be expected to stay — docile, dejected and defeated — until the white gloves of the next election’s candidates appear before their eyes and their presence is temporarily required in the voting booth.

There are many root causes for this mindset remaining steadfast so many years after the defeat in a war that should have killed it off once and for all, just as the nuclear disaster affecting the northeastern Tohoku region following the Fukushima disaster should have killed it off in the corporate and political realms.

My dear friend, the late playwright Hisashi Inoue, believed that it was the failure to link the wartime responsibility to the Emperor that was at the core of the problem of irresponsibility.

“If the Emperor, who was at the top of the chain of command, did not have to apologize for the defeat and take responsibility for Japan’s cruel war in Asia and the Pacific,” he told me in 1974, “then why should any Japanese feel the necessity to take responsibility for anything?”

In other words, you can acknowledge that the invasion of the Asian mainland was a horrific blunder; you can admit that “the culture of Japan” was at fault for the radioactive contamination that has ruined hundreds of thousands of lives; but, well, no one has to take final responsibility — because we should all now just put those “tragedies” behind us and move happily toward the future.

The trouble is, there is no way in the world that you can avoid repeating the same drastic mistakes if you do not go back and pick up the charred fragments in the fire you left behind you.

As we enter the new year, do we have any recourse other than to stand by the side of the road and watch as the tanks go “forward,” crushing anything that’s in their way?

Will anyone stand in front of them and force their commanders to stop and accept liability for the calamity left behind?

If not, then what will we do when our rulers — with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe leading the charge — drag us smack into the middle of the conflagration ahead? This time, we won’t be able to say we mistook the deadly flames for fireworks over the horizon.

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