Beppu, Oita Pref. – Societal schisms are becoming one of the grave issues confronting nations worldwide. Former U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis noted in the June 3 issue of The Atlantic magazine, “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us.” He went on, “We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership. We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society.”
Forces trying to openly cause a schism in society like those supporting Trump appear to be on the rise in Japan as well. I would like to share with readers the views of my respected friend, John Lukacs, who died in May 2019, on this issue as I interpret them.
A factor that hampers the healthy development of peace and democracy is the existence and action of groups whose members hold in common a complex of one type of perception, emotion, discourse and behavior, and who empathize with each other. Japan has seen such groups engaging in intense activities over the past several years. Their messages can be broken down to five points, as follows:
1) Strong hostility toward and an attempt to purge liberal groups such as opposition parties and existing media.
2) Hatred, contempt and delusion of injury against other countries, especially China and South Korea.
3) Groundless and unconditional praise of Japan, characterized by such discourses as “the cultural level of the Japanese people is high” and “Japan has succeeded in containing the new coronavirus.”
4) A strong tendency toward conformism and aggression toward those who do not follow the herd, as exemplified by grassroots moves to crack down on or censure those who seem to defy the calls for "self-restraint" in their behavior amid the COVID-19 crisis.
5) Discrimination against and contempt for women and a return to patriarchy, as shown by antipathy toward the demand for legal changes that would allow married couples to have different surnames. These messages go along perfectly well with each other, almost without exception, and constitute a clear style.
Biologically speaking, the tendency for national isolation and atavism, ethnocentrism and collectivism are intrinsically seen among homo sapiens as a fixed type of thought and behavior. But which individuals have these characteristics more strongly or more weakly is genetically determined. The latest studies show that among individuals having a strong degree of these characteristics, it is common that they have a higher than average sense of fear.
Based on these findings, it becomes easy to analyze and understand the five points above. The first represents a fear of the existing society changing; the second a fear of other countries; the third a fear of one's own group being looked down upon; the fourth a fear of one being thrown out of the group; and the fifth a fear of women taking on greater roles in society.
Therefore, when those groups become active, it stands to reason to think that a situation is developing that fuels the fears held by their individual members. In Japan, the decline of the nation's economic position, which served as the basis of postwar Japanese identity, the rise of neighboring countries, especially China, the progress of globalization and women’s advancement in society are thought to constitute such a situation. The increased activities of such groups at the time of a social crisis or stagnation resemble what was observed in the Axis powers before World War II.
Since such groups tend to base their behavior on emotions rather than logic, they usually have an iconic figure with whom they can entrust their emotions. Viewed this way, it becomes easy to understand why U.S. President Donald Trump has become an icon among his fanatical supporters. For such groups, there is no need for their idol to bear the blame for thinking or behaving in contravention of a socially approved norm, even if it fails to disprove a fact check that shows its thought or behavior is wrong. This is because for them the idol is an idol above this world. No matter how strongly forces opposing such groups demonstrate their idol's falseness or illogicality, it is impossible to get their members to understand. This way, the schism in society deepens.
These are the views of my respected friend. If so, are there any ways to save society from being divided? I think there are.
One way is education. Generally speaking, fear is driven by ignorance. By giving evidence-based education, it will be possible to some extent to prevent young generations from having groundless fears. Another is mass media carrying out thorough fact checks. Humans are animals that “willingly believe what they wish” as Julius Caesar said. But at the same time, they long to know the facts. One evidence is that “Factfulness” by Hans Rosling has become a big bestseller also in Japan.
Still another way, which I think is the most important, is to raise Japan’s labor productivity and turn the nation into a dynamic society. Japan's labor productivity has continued to be the lowest among the Group of Seven countries since statistics began to be taken in 1970. Over the 30 years of the Heisei Era, which began in 1989, the average working hours of full-time company employees stayed above 2,000 hours a year and didn't decrease. In the meantime, real GDP growth did not go above 1 percent.
Since Japanese society is blanketed with an inexorable feeling that no matter how hard people work, they cannot get fairly rewarded, groups colored by the psychological complex mentioned above emerge. In “The Future of History,” Lukacs said that whereas patriotism is generally defensive, nationalism with a populist tinge is aggressive and that nationalism is patriotism that has formed an illicit relationship with an inferiority complex. Wouldn’t it be possible to weaken those groups by dissolving their inferiority complex through the creation of society filled with joy and excitement?
In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, Japan’s information technology literacy has gone up through the widespread practice of remote work, online meetings and online education. In this "new normal," a considerable improvement of labor productivity can be expected.
Haruaki Deguchi is the president of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu, Oita Prefecture. A popular lecturer and author of more than 40 books, he founded Lifenet Insurance in 2008 after a career spanning nearly 35 years at Nippon Life Insurance Co.
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