A Nation’s State

Japan’s tormented relationship with its modernity

01 October, 2013

TOKYO THESE DAYS LOOKS LIKE Asia’s oldest metropolis—at least to those accustomed to the shinier buildings, grander avenues, and the more garish newness of Shanghai. Compared to the upstart countries of Asia today, much of Japan presents a spectacle of aged modernity: brown plains marked by a clutter of small houses, and crisscrossed by giant power pylons. Even the wild beauty of the country’s coastal areas is now touched, after the nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima, with menace. And it is with some shock that you recall that Japan was where once the future lay, before its bubble burst in the early 1990s, and the country, pushed inward by adversity, became a strange absence in our lives.

While Japan languished within a low-growth economy, its poor cousin of the 20th century, China, unexpectedly became Asia’s pre-eminent economic power, and its old domineering mentor, the United States, suffered a severe economic and geopolitical diminishment. Now, insecurity caused by the rise of China, and America’s growing inwardness, is driving neo-nationalists in Japan to risky geopolitical and economic experiments. China, in turn, seems fully committed to anti-Japanese nationalism—violent demonstrations, often abetted by the communist regime, erupted in 2005, 2010 and 2012.

Japan’s new prime minister, Abe Shinzo, has been promoting an ambitious plan of national renaissance, which looks, particularly to the country’s alarmed neighbours, like revanchism. Though well below the highs of the early 1990s, the stock market has responded keenly to ‘Abenomics’, his strategy to kick-start the Japanese economy, which combines devaluation of the yen with increased public spending on infrastructure, and aggressive quantitative easing. Emboldened by early success, the prime minister, a conservative nationalist, assures his rapidly ageing electorate that “Japan is back.”

A range of opinions, from Joseph Stiglitz to the Financial Times and The Economist seem to agree. Certainly, after several faces blurred by revolving doors, Japan has a leader who commands international name recognition. Interviewed gingerly in Foreign Affairs about his bold policies, Abe has been hectically touring one Asian country after another, drumming up business for Japan—and support against China—in countries as different as Mongolia and Myanmar. Undaunted by the disaster in 2011 at Fukushima, where an earthquake and tsunami devastated a nuclear plant, Abe signed a $22 billion deal in May to build nuclear plants in seismically active Turkey. India’s poor safety record has not slowed down his pursuit of a lucrative nuclear deal with the Manmohan Singh government. Reports in early August of fresh radiation leaks from Fukushima, the world’s worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl, did not seem to have dented his confidence; if anything, it was instead boosted further this September by Tokyo’s successful bid for the 2020 Olympics.

In contemporary Japan, an impressive physical and social infrastructure was nonetheless underpinned by a sense of long decay. ROMANO P RIEDO

Actually, Abe’s promise of Japan’s return has begun to seem a bit minatory. It is also less than clear whether, as Abe desires, Japan will ever abandon its status as a great pacifist power, assume leadership of an anti-Chinese coalition, or become economically regnant again. In any case, it seems unlikely, to take a matter closer to my heart, that Sony and Panasonic could ever regain the lead in consumer electronics that they have lost to Apple and Samsung. It was, after all, Japan’s consumer products, its simple conveniences, gizmos and gadgets that once tantalised many of us in India. After the war, Japanese consumers had moved quickly from cherishing the “three treasures” of domestic living in the 1950s—black-and-white television, fridge and washing machine—to coveting higher things in the 1970s: an air-conditioner, a car and colour TV. The rest of us were decades away from attaining this holy trinity of consumer capitalism. In the 1970s and 1980s, Japan had been, for many middle-class Indians, synonymous with Canon cameras, JVC stereos, and Sony televisions, which the luckier among us hauled back, in flimsy cardboard boxes secured with nylon strings, from trips to duty-free utopias in the Persian Gulf. Suzuki was the respectable other half of Maruti, rescuing the “People’s Car” from the fantasies of the maladroit dynast Sanjay Gandhi; Japanese expertise with Hero Honda motorcycles also helped fuel social mobility in the 1980s among the lower middle class.

Japan’s economic heft was then provoking fresh hallucinations of the Yellow Peril in the United States, and Japan itself was about to reach the limits of its peculiar model of cartelised capitalism. But Japanese philanthropy in Bihar’s antique Buddhist heart, and tourists garlanded with expensive cameras in Varanasi and Agra, spoke of the lone Asian nation that had miraculously conquered poverty, and achieved high literacy and long life expectancy.

VISITING JAPAN THIS YEAR, however, I felt pulled back in time. I had over-prepared, in a way, for this trip, reading widely, and seeking out authorities on the country, for several years. Still, I was surprised and often baffled by its isolationism, over-regulated economic regime, monopolies and inefficiencies—visitors will find it easier, for instance, to procure a data connection on their smartphone in Laos than in Japan, and a SIM card for voice calls is simply unobtainable.

The Japanese were still rich. But why did their houses look so flimsy, their supermarkets so poorly stocked, and their public architecture so unprepossessing? As early as the 1920s, Japan was introduced to the material culture of capitalism, and its attendant phenomena: the consumption of cars, radio, films, magazines, the rise of the nuclear family, and the commercially motivated exaltation of youth and romantic love, and Western mores; it was also then that a popular culture grew around the new urban middle class, featuring the ubiquitous so-called salaryman (sarariman) and the hard-working white-collar women—moga, or modern girls, who were, in the overheated Japanese male imagination, as prone to retail kisses as Western clothes.

But Japan’s modernity, famously encrypted in neon after the war, seemed to have visibly stalled in the 1970s and 1980s. In Tokyo, the decades had petrified into buildings of startling ugliness and vulgarity, given an interesting weirdness only by the heavy fluorescence of the evening, and by young men and women with stylised haircuts. The uniformly gray commuters added to the strange impression of sameness and exclusivity in a city that remains defiantly non-multicultural in the age of globalisation, where very few people speak English or look foreign; the Pakistani I met running an Indian restaurant looked subdued by his alienness as much as by his subterfuge.

There were many signs of a still impressive physical and social infrastructure, such as the serenely swift Shinkansen railway, matched by the quick courtesy and cheerful goodwill of ordinary Japanese. The temples, shrines and gardens of Kyoto and Kanazawa rapidly eradicated all fear of disappointment; and even the careful partitions of bento boxes spoke of an unatrophied aesthetic sensibility. But there was no avoiding the sense of a long malaise, the product of two previous ‘lost’ decades, during which pachinko, a form of pinball, had become one of Japan’s biggest industries.

To be in Japan was to see how the intimations of decay had deepened despite its flourishing soft-power exports worldwide, of manga and anime, and the insistent chirpiness of Pokemon and Hello Kitty. The human toll of the slow economic implosion showed in the statistics about suicide (one every 15 minutes), child abuse (a fourfold increase since 1999) and rising domestic violence, and in the stories in the press about empty rooms where salaried employees with no work were asked to spend their day until they resigned. An estimated one million Japanese people almost never leave the house. Many of those that bother probably do so in order to indulge in the otaku subcultures of obsessively idle young men.

The political consequences of the long economic winter were manifest, I found, in the aggressive self-pity and sanctimoniousness of the neo-nationalists I met. They reminded me of the retailers of Hindutva in the 1980s: the same revisionist energies, invocations of the “national spirit”, claims to extended victimhood and the attempt to mask, with a bogus cultural unity, the inconvenient facts of poverty, inequality, environmental degradation, and social discrimination. The aged were everywhere, as befitting a country with a swiftly declining population, the packed subways and tiny restaurants as though designed for their small frames. The youth, deprived of the stable jobs their parents had, and languishing in cafés with their smartphones or po-facedly working up a racket at pachinko parlours, reminded one that Japan had pioneered what the art historian TJ Clark calls “the essence of modernity”, which, “from the scripture-reading spice merchant to the Harvard iPod banker sweating in the gym, is a new kind of isolate obedient ‘individual’ with technical support to match.”

FOR MUCH OF ITS HISTORY, however, Japan had self-consciously incarnated another idea of the modern in Asia: one that exalted collective strength and endeavour, nation-building, patriotism and war. Few places in Japan encapsulate its compromised triumphs and resulting schizophrenia more vividly than the controversial Yasukuni shrine and the adjoining Yushukan Museum, which indiscriminately commemorate Japanese who died in the so-called imperial cause, a category that includes some high-ranking war criminals, and periodically provokes howls of fury among Japan’s neighbours. The path-breaking defeat of China in 1895, the glorious triumphs of the Russo-Japanese war in 1905, and the pain and tragedy of what many Japanese called the “war to end all wars”—Japan’s anti-imperialist campaign that, by a terrible self-contradiction, came to be an imperialist war in Asia—are all here, landmarks of Japan’s desperate struggle to be modern.

The shrine and the museum lie just north of the Imperial Palace, where Tokyo’s promiscuous clutter makes way, briefly, for the self-conscious monumentality of the imperial city: broad avenues, parks, and vistas. It was raining heavily as I walked past the ceremonial gates, the last of the cherry blossoms sticking to the long path. But the tour buses still discharged scores of elderly Japanese visitors. Old enough to have lived through, and even fought in, the Second World War, or seen their fathers, husbands and brothers consumed by it, they looked weighed down by their transparent plastic umbrellas as they stood before the Shinto shrine, and then shuffled off to the adjoining Yushukan museum.

Originally an Italianate castle, the museum was rebuilt in the pan-Asian style in the early 1930s, with gabled roofs. The gesture to pan-Asianism was part of that decade’s intellectual and political mood, which influenced most Japanese into thinking of their country as the liberator of Asia. The exhibit continues to reflect moods and sensibilities within the country—the mingled emotions of pride, defeat, humiliation, and wounded vanity.

A Zero fighter used in kamikaze missions dominates the lobby of the museum. It sets the tone for displays of the locomotive used in the Thailand–Burma railway, the one-man submarine, or “human torpedo”, and many pictures of soldiers with raised guns shouting banzai cries to the glory of the emperor. Japan had joined Western nations in brutally suppressing the Boxer Rising in China in 1900. But the crucial point of this appalling episode, according to the exhibit, is that Japanese soldiers “impressed” the Chinese by their discipline. It presents the invasion of Manchuria in 1931, which inaugurated a particularly deranged phase of Japanese militarism, as an act of “legitimate self-defence”.

The exhibit complains about American support for Chiang Kai-shek, but says nothing about American businessmen assisting the Japanese war machinery all through the 1930s; it would have been too much to expect the inclusion of Japan’s military and technological tutelage to Britain and the United States until the 1920s. The Rape of Nanjing in 1937 is referred to as the Nanjing “Incident”, in which “Chinese soldiers in civilian clothes” were “severely prosecuted”. The narrative on display portrays the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 as a response to America’s malign bellicosity. Coerced into war, Japan kept pursuing peace but was crudely rebuffed by the Allies, and then fiendishly firebombed into submission, but not before it had “liberated” much of Asia from Western domination.

Nothing undermines this litany of half-truths, omissions, suppressions and outright falsehoods more than the simple failure to acknowledge that Japan’s pan-Asianist crusade actually came as a calamity to most Asians. For Japan, the moment of self-reckoning was postponed in the wake of defeat and American occupation. And no single individual assisted in this great exculpation more than an Indian: a Bengali jurist called Radhabinod Pal.

A memorial to Pal, easily the most famous Indian in Japan, stands just outside the Yushukan Museum. Breaking the Japanese reserve before foreigners, two women shot approving looks and even a faint smile at me as I stood trying to decipher through the rain these words inscribed in stone:

When time shall have softened passion and prejudice

When reason shall have stripped the mask from representation

Then justice, holding evenly her scales, will require

Much of past censure and praise to change places.

The lament of bitter victimhood was borrowed appropriately from the president of the losing Confederate side in the American Civil War. The Japanese conservative Eto Jun had once pointed to America’s relationship with its own defeated secessionist states after the Civil War as a prototype for the country’s post-war relationship with vanquished Japan. Pal seems to have been in tune, too, with other Japanese grievances about their country’s treatment by its victors. He was one of the token non-Western judges at the show trials in Tokyo, Japan’s protracted version of Nuremberg, whose proceedings were almost entirely directed by American and Western European jurists. In his voluminous 1,235-page dissent, Pal voted to acquit all 25 Japanese accused by Allied powers of the “unprecedented” crime of “conspiring against peace”.

A closeted Bengali nationalist who had rejoiced in Japan’s victory over Russia in 1905, and resentfully put up with the hypocrisies and humiliations of British rule over India, Pal seems to have seized the chance to make his Western counterparts feel uneasy. To be sure, Pal wasn’t a supporter, like many Indian nationalists, of the Japanese militarism that had claimed nearly 20 million lives across Asia. He faulted the trials on proceduralist grounds; he also offered a broad vision of capitalist imperialism, in which Japan could be seen as both victim and perpetrator.

Modern Japan caught up with, and even surpassed, the Western world on several fronts, but not without intolerable turmoil. ROMANO P RIEDO

He argued that thousands of Japanese implicated in atrocities during the war—the ‘Class B’ and ‘Class C’ criminals—had already been executed or imprisoned. There were serious problems with the Tokyo Trials. The Soviet Union’s representative had previously served as a judge in Stalin’s mock trials of the 1930s. The British, Dutch, and French presuming to judge Japan’s conduct invited attention to their own much-despised imperialisms in Asia. China, with its 15 million dead in a war that began as early as 1937, or other Asian victims of Japanese imperialism, would have been better placed to judge Japan than the United States.

In fact, the trial was rendered absurd from the beginning by the occupying American general Douglas MacArthur’s aggressive and obsessive attempt to shield Emperor Hirohito from responsibility for his country’s crimes. The chief Japanese militarist and wartime prime minister, Tojo Hideki, was forced to recant his statement of the obvious: that he could not have done anything against the wishes of the divinely ordained emperor. The American chief prosecutor lunched with Hirohito on the day Tojo’s death sentence was confirmed. Even the right-wing General Charles Willoughby, MacArthur’s chief intelligence officer, privately denounced the trials as the “worst hypocrisy in recorded history”.

Pal brought a special political edge to these denunciations. The Tokyo Trials, he said, were no more than a “sham employment of legal process for the satisfaction of a thirst for revenge”. Though “fiendish”, Pal argued, Japan’s expansionism was hardly unprecedented. Like all modern imperialist and industrial powers, it had sought to advance its outsized ambitions and respond to perceived threats.

The Japanese philosopher Takeuichi Yoshimi was to remark in the late 1940s on a similar irony in Japan’s urgent mimicry of Western ways, and its lapse into imperialism: “Europe’s invasion of the Orient resulted in the phenomenon of Oriental capitalism, and this,” he stressed, “signified the equivalence between European self-preservation and self-expansion.” Japan felt that it had to acquire colonies in order to survive; the logic also overcame many European nations, most prominently Germany, in the late 19th century. Other points raised by Pal also warned against an easy moral clarity about Japan’s war in Asia. He argued that the Allied firebombing of nearly 70 major Japanese cities and the nuclear incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki should also be counted as major war crimes. These state-sanctioned atrocities against civilians, he implicitly argued, were on a greater scale than the depredations of assorted Japanese commanders in the field.

Not surprisingly, Pal became a hero to those Japanese who felt more victim consciousness than guilt over Japan’s brutalising of Asia. Tojo Hideki honoured him with a haiku shortly before being executed. Kishi Nobusuke, an employer of slave labour in Japan-ruled Manchuria, was a fan. So is his grandson Abe Shinzo, who wants to revise Japan’s 1995 apology for its Asian war; Abe even sought out Pal’s son in West Bengal on a state visit to India in 2007.

ON 15 AUGUST 1945, Emperor Hirohito had revealed himself as a master of understatement when, after the annihilation of Nagasaki, he went on air to inform his countrymen that the “war had developed in a manner not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.” He called on his vanquished country, now faced with a prolonged American occupation, to “endure the unendurable and bear the unbearable”, partly so that Japan could “keep pace with the progress of the world”.

The American occupation that followed ended in 1952, but the legacy of its policies remains alive to this day. The contradictions, absurdities and hypocrisies of the occupation opened up plenty of scope for conservative nationalists even as they became Japan’s most staunchly pro-US force. The CIA-sponsored Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) institutionalised one-party rule. The “iron triangle” of LDP politicians, senior bureaucrats, and businessmen came to underpin the country’s institutional corruption; it helped secure a pliant media, and cultivate historical amnesia.

Unlike Germany, Japan avoided a painful reckoning with its war. Men like Kishi Nobusuke became the beneficiaries of a hasty and expedient rehabilitation; as prime minister in the late 1950s, he became notorious for railroading through strong opposition a security pact with the United States that confirmed Japan’s subordinate status. The political and economic dominance of these pro-American conservatives sparked a potent backlash from Marxists and liberals. Japanese leftists in the 1960s, who defined the strength of this counterculture, tirelessly repeated that almost all of the napalm unleashed by American bombers on Vietnamese peasants was manufactured in Japan. For many of them, their own country’s botched attempt to remake Asia through war was reflected in the American crusade to make it safe for democracy. Certainly, Japanese writers and thinkers couldn’t help but see—the experience of defeat having destroyed their illusions—that Japan, the nation state forged by aggressive wars and then occupation, had shown that large-scale violence and a Darwinian struggle for national existence was the clearest sign of modernity.

Early in its modern history, Japan had broken from the typically benign account of progress, in which democracy and liberalism followed, if they did not accompany, the nation state and industrial capitalism. Japan became an economic and military power without enshrining liberal concerns for individual rights, which were subordinated to the economic and military imperatives of a country lurching very late into the modern world, dominated by the West. Few Japanese wished to criticise the slogan “fukoku kyohei” (“enrich the country and strengthen the military”), or challenge the notion of “kokutai” (roughly translated as “national polity embodied by the emperor”) as their country rapidly advanced in the late 19th century under the not-so-benign gaze of the UK, Russia and the US. Nor did Japan embrace the Anglo-American traditions of economic liberalism, which encouraged individualism, laissez-faire economics and a fundamental distrust of state power. From the early years of the 20th century to the present, the Japanese state has been closely involved in building up domestic industries, and giving them a competitive advantage in international markets.

Still, catching up with the West had called for an intolerable degree of turmoil. Unlike India or Indonesia, Japan wasn’t occupied by a European power. Nevertheless, the country’s earliest reformers, the Meiji, had decreed Japan’s surrender to the West in the inner realm of thought and values as well as the outer realm of material culture and political forms. They had taken modernisation to be equivalent to Westernisation. They had counter-posed tradition to modernity, and found it greatly wanting, especially in countries like China and Korea, which, in Japanese eyes, had yet to awaken from their backward slumbers.

The result of this internal colonialism was a wrenching social and intellectual crisis, which preoccupied and consumed some of the country’s sensitive minds; the suicide of the short-story writer Akutagawa Ryünosuke in 1927 set a grim precedent for many anguished self-extinctions by writers and artists, including Mishima Yukio and Kawabata Yasunari. By the 1930s, the tormented consciousness of mimicry and loss forced some of Japan’s most sensitive writers, thinkers, and artists to stand behind the emperor, endorse the Yamato-Damashii (the word used by nationalists to signify a wholly indigenous, intrepid and indomitable Japanese spirit), and hail the “war to end all wars”. They shared the vague hope that Japan, assuming the leadership of Asia after ridding it of Western imperialists, would open up the space for a uniquely Asian modernity. The Japanese words that subsequently entered international parlance—kamikaze, hara-kiri—belonged to that mood of fanatical self-purging.

In a freshly globalised world epitomised by the high towers of Shanghai and Seoul, Japan presents a spectre of aged modernity. ROMANO P RIEDO

The recent eruptions of Islamic fundamentalism, and an atavistic Western obsession with Islam in general, have distracted us from the fact that Japan had initiated the “form of revolt that is the most modern”. Japanese pan-Asianists in the 1920s and 1930s preceded Sayyid Qutb and Ali Shariati in aspiring for a kind of “political spirituality” that breaks “away from all that marks their country and their daily lives with the presence of global hegemonies” and aims at “another way of life, and new relations with the West … with Asia, and so forth”. The words are of Michel Foucault, writing on the Iranian revolution of 1979. But they could have well belonged to Okawa Shumei, a scholar of Islamic studies, who in the 1920s provided the philosophical underpinnings to Japan’s own plan to overcome Western modernity, and the spiritual malaise brought about by its industrialisation, and the attendant ills of atomisation, alienation and anomie.

According to Okawa, the Asia that had invented gunpowder and the printing press, and originated all major religions, could not be inferior to the West. It had to find its own way to a renaissance, and here the historically consecrated Japanese spirit could help save not only Asia for Asians, but also the West from Western modernity. This goal was to be reached by violence, if necessary.

Okawa shared his aims with a wide range of writers and thinkers recoiling from secular Western ideologies, including Miki Kiyoshi, a student of Heidegger, who spoke of a new “co-operativism” as an antidote to atomisation. Aesthetes such as the novelist Tanizaki Junichiro, who, in In Praise of Shadows in 1933, hailed the “magic and mystery” of old Japan, and the “silence and tranquillity” banished by the invention of the light bulb, took on the task of proving traditional Japanese culture to be the equal of, if not superior to, Western culture. Many of these culturally defensive Japanese took to heart the German distinction between “civilisation”, identified with vulgar material progress and human degradation, and “culture”, spiritual and creative self-realisation.

The “father of the Chinese nation”, Sun Yat-Sen, who depended on Japanese patrons for much of his life, weighed his words carefully in 1924, in one of his last speeches: “Japan today has become acquainted with the Western civilisation of the rule of Might, but retains the characteristics of the Oriental civilisation of the rule of Right. Now the question remains whether Japan will be the hawk of Western civilisation of the rule of Might, or the tower of strength of the Orient. This is the choice which lies before the people of Japan.”

The militarists who committed Japan to an Asian war of conquest in the 1930s had already made their choice. In their fantasy of an Asian lebensraum, the vast territory of China was there to be conquered and pressed into the service of Japan’s industrial economy. Step by step, the dislike of the Westernisation imposed by an early generation of Meiji utilitarians led many Japanese into praise for their country’s invasion of China in 1937. It helped that Japan was already being led by the depression of the 1930s into a desperate quest to commandeer Asia’s markets and resources. The rhetoric grew wilder after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and the swift annexation of European-ruled Asia. Asia, it seemed, would soon be directing its own cultural destiny, free of the specialists without spirit and sensualists without heart that had ruined modern cultures and shattered the spiritual unity of Japanese culture.

The search for an unalloyed cultural past, free of the contaminations of modern materialism and individualism, culminated in a famous debate in July 1942 in Kyoto, where intellectuals were given full license to invent their own noble reasons for supporting war. History, it seemed in 1942, was finally being shaped by the Japanese and their unique Yamato spirit. The world-historical meaning of Pearl Harbor could still be discussed without much self-doubt about Japan’s likelihood of victory in the war. Participants freely denounced Meiji bureaucratic modernisers as philistine and soulless. They expressed their hostility to naïve evolutionary theories of progress, including dialectical materialism, which had shaped Japan’s path from the Meiji era onwards.

Japan’s impasse amid a crisis of global capitalism might yet point, in some ways, to the possibilities of new futures. ROMANO P RIEDO

The literary critic Kobayashi Hideo feared that Japan was becoming a pale replica of the West, repeating its tragic modernisation with a pathetic comedy. Others worried more parochially about the urban fads of mobo and moga, and the cults of fast living (supido) and erotic laxity, among other fads of mass production culture imported from the rootless immigrant society of the United States. Old values of scarcity and restraint, many participants agreed, had been damaged by a culture that sanctified possession of trivial mass-produced goods.

THIS ANTI-MODERN RHETORIC combined with boosterish speculation about Japan’s destiny proved to be an unbreakable intellectual prison. Japan miserably underestimated China’s resilience and American resources in the war. Defeat and surrender in 1945 briefly put an end to the culture talk. Remarkably, it soon resumed, and actually intensified as Japan rose from the proverbial ashes, and realised the old Meiji dream: it became an economic, if not political, superpower.

There were many critics in the 1960s of Japan’s post-war obsession with growth, or “GNP-ism”. Takeuichi Yoshimi believed that Japanese modernisation had been catastrophically successful, and that the Japanese, recklessly Westernised, had failed to appreciate the variety of Asian approaches to the challenge of Western power. Like many other Japanese intellectuals, Takeuchi wondered whether Japan’s total rout would expedite a new intellectual and political awakening, similar to the one he saw occurring in China. Intellectuals such as Maruyama Masao, Japan’s greatest modern political theorist, self-consciously constituted a “community of repentance”, keenly scrutinising the pre-war Japanese political model for flaws. “National sovereignty,” Maruyama concluded in his seminal work Thought and Behaviour in Modern Japanese Politics, “was the ultimate source of both ethics and power, and constituted their intrinsic unity.”

The Japanese, in this view, had failed to make an essential separation between their public and private spheres. Their mindless adherence to a family-oriented polity like kokutai was why the recklessly bellicose emperor hadn’t been overthrown during or after the war; no resistance movement, unlike in Italy or Germany, had developed in Japan. Seeking to explain their compatriots’ meekness, and their superstitious belief in the bushido and Yamato spirit, liberal-leftists concluded that the true spirit of science and reason had been lacking in Japan, along with personal autonomy and genuine historical subjectivity. As Maruyama saw it, Japan had never achieved modernity, let alone overcome it. Japan’s Westernisation had been incomplete, hobbled by the collectivist ethic, the family state and the imperial system. What it needed now was true liberal democracy.

And, to an extent, democracy was what Japan did get, under American supervision, allowing a diversity of political voices to emerge. But Japan after the war was to be invigorated more by the instrumental rationality of economic growth than by the Enlightenment values of reason and self-criticism. The conservative bureaucratic and business elites despised by the intellectuals remerged, sans the war rhetoric, to become the prime movers of the national economy—an “economic general staff” in Chalmers Johnson’s excellent phrase. Ironically, the claims to Japanese exceptionalism, previously advanced through invocations of Yamato and bushido, were now harnessed to explain Japan’s success in defeating the West at its own game: the mass-production of consumer goods. Arguments about the nature of Japan’s modernisation in the past—the frequent recourse to colonialist violence and expropriation, for instance—seemed moot, as the pre-teen boy of Western fantasies of domination metamorphosed into a miracle man, with his high-tech innovations in electronics and communications.

The achievements of the Japanese economy after the war and occupation were considerable: Japan moved out of agriculture and into manufacturing; rural poverty was wiped out; the country was integrated into new global economic structures. The family-owned zaibatsu conglomerates such as Mitsubishi and Nissan that had powered Japan’s industrial revolution before the war were allowed to reconstitute themselves as keiretsus, bank-centred industries, as ready as ever to benefit from their proximity to the state. Japan’s success had knock-on effects in the region. China under Mao was closed to foreign investment. Japan signed war reparations agreements with Southeast Asian countries, largely export credits for the purchase of Japanese products. By the early 1970s, Japan and the United States had become the biggest external investors in the region, extracting natural resources and investing in industrial and infrastructural development. Thus Japan became—in yet another dark irony—the chief enabler, under American auspices, of a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity sphere”, an idea it had first mooted during the fanatically anti-Westernist late 1930s.

The success of its state-led industrialisation had keen admirers and imitators across East Asia, including Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea. All these Asian state capitalists received much assistance from the US as it pursued its geopolitical interests, boosting local economies through wars in Korea and Vietnam, foreign aid, and its open markets. But Japan, weathering well the 1973 oil shocks, outgrew American patronage in the 1980s. Japanese corporates, buying up Rockefeller Center in New York or snapping up Columbia Studios, suffered fresh caricature in the mainstream Western media.

By then, GNP-ism was the regnant ideology in Japan, part not only of the quantitative mania that spread across industrial societies in the 1950s and 1960s—an obsession with economic statistics and indicators—but also the key component of a self-congratulatory nationalism. Revisionist accounts of the war in Asia first emerged in the 1960s, on the rising tide of national pride after the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. As the Japanese novelist Oda Makoto wrote in 1965, “The Pacific war was fought for the liberation of Asia, and it is undeniable that that many Japanese participated in the war for the sake of that principle.…Many Japanese still sincerely believe this, and this makes our conception of peace three times more complicated.”

The national obsession with economic growth not only strengthened social cohesion—it also produced fresh imperatives of consensus and conformity. Visiting Japan, the American sociologist David Riesman marvelled at how “people refer to organizations as ‘undemocratic’ if there is no harmony or consensus. Thus democracy and politics would seem to be antithetical.”

Massive protests against the American war in Vietnam and environmental despoliation defined the strength of the counterculture in Japan. But this was also the time when fresh ideas about Japan’s uniqueness began to proliferate. Even the novelist Kawabata Yasunari became the purveyor of Nihonjinron (Japaneseness) in his Nobel lecture, titled ‘Japan, the Beautiful and Myself’, in which he rambled on about the tea ceremony and flower vases and Zen.

The old Meiji equation between civilisation and power, which had led to a disastrous militarism, was abandoned. Pacifist and entrepreneurial Japan was the new model of modernity, its national past and traditional values—consensus and harmony—enlisted in the project of making Japan look uniquely placed to generate high GDP. The men in khaki neck flaps—the much-despised fanatical fighters of Imphal and Manila—and the meek postwar salaryman were replaced by men in business suits, exalted by apparently Confucian company structures, mystically infused with the spirit of bushido. American sociologists helped adorn Japan with its self-image as a unique country with an organic sense of tradition: their skills at bonsai, it seemed, made the Japanese especially adept with transistors.

The vendors of Nihonjinron flourished, especially after the shock of the 1973 oil prices, when American—and general Western—decline began to seem a fact. A nine-volume report commissioned by the Japanese prime minister in 1979 concluded that Japan, as international financier and high-end exporter, had surpassed the West in material progress and industrial growth; its greatest task was now to promote its unique culture. Daytripping Japanophiles like Claude Lévi-Strauss were ready to endorse the vanity projects of the Japanese: “May they long maintain that precious balance between the traditions of the past and the innovations of the present, and not only for their own good, since humanity as a whole finds in them an example worth contemplating.”

It was as though Japan had finally overcome modernity, with high-tech exports rather than Zero fighters. It had not only caught up with the West; it was now defining the shape and texture of late capitalism. In a commonplace postmodern vision of Japan in the 1980s, the country emerged as perfectly depthless, living in an endless present, among a plenitude of commodities and signifiers of lifestyle and status. Private and public spheres now finally seemed independent of each other—too much so, in fact. Japanese glued to their Walkmans and video games seemed to have attained the sovereign authorship of the world enjoined by modernity. Many respectable intellectuals partook of the general giddiness, presenting ‘being Japanese’ as a unique privilege and dispensation.

THE CELEBRATION, on both sides of the Pacific, ended as the Japanese economy, buoyed by inflated land values, came down to earth, wiping out, by the early 1990s, about US$3 trillion, three times the size of Japan’s GDP—the Japanese stock market collapse remains the world’s biggest loss of wealth.

Western paranoia about an imminent Pax Nipponica, one achieved furtively through corporate takeovers and mergers, subsided as the Japanese asset bubble burst. Japan, already receding from the international stage, was pushed back deeper into itself by an earthquake in the city of Kobe in 1995 that killed more than 6,000 people, which was followed by the murderous sarin attacks by the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo on the Tokyo underground.

Damaged further by the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Japan has stagnated since then, and confronted a new normal of depopulation, a shrinking labour force, rapid ageing, young women forced into the sex industry, and homelessness. The decline, which has seemed irreversible since the 1990s, made plain that what had served Japan’s post-war recovery and growth well—cosy capitalism, rigidly organised and protected domestic systems—had become a liability in the freshly globalised world. Pampered for too long, bankers, industrialists and stockbrokers were caught out by new ways of doing things.

And they could not change in time. Two decades later, the Japanese economy remains hobbled by an insider-dominated labour market, irrational regulation, an underutilised female workforce, rigid anti-immigration policies and poor corporate governance. The country has fallen behind in almost every field—entertainment, tourism, medicine, software, communications—where it had once enjoyed the initiative. Even Japan’s lead in popular culture has been challenged by South Korea’s surging worldwide exports of television dramas and pop music.

The rapid turnover of governments and prime ministers hints at problems that no politicians can resolve. And the recourse by men within the Iron Triangle to neo-liberal recipes (deregulation and privatisation), especially under prime minister Koizumi Junichiro, and the consequences (extensive layoffs, income disparities, unstable jobs, unemployed youth) have only undermined the social compact built upon egalitarian ideas of trust, mutual dependency and security.

The Japanese public, it appears, has less faith in the government than ever before. As the novelist Oe Kenzaburo—Japan’s social conscience—puts it, “the structure of the Japan in which we now live was set [in the mid-1950s] and has continued ever since. It is this that led to the big tragedy”—the Fukushima reactor meltdown in March 2011, following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. This continuity was apparent in the mutually supportive networks of government bureaucrats, national and local politicians, and big business, and the media that came together to avoid blame for, and obscure the proportions, of the disaster.

It can be seen today in Abe’s reluctance to admit, until radioactive groundwater started to gush into the Pacific Ocean in August, that the plant owner Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), which has falsified its radiation data for the last two years, cannot be trusted to contain the after-effects. Unimaginably rich, and involved in massive nuclear deals abroad, Tepco commands loyal silence from the media, as well as politicians. Meanwhile, as Abe promotes Abenomics, his idiosyncratic mix of reflation and heavy government spending, capital and jobs continue to fly out of Japan. Japan’s once-vaunted income equality has eroded over the past two decades; its poverty rate is now among the worst in high-income countries.

JAPAN’S CRISIS, which began in 1989, seems existential as much as economic and political. Old myths and beliefs that gave meaning to ordinary lives lie shattered, along with secure jobs and stable families, and codes of moral belief and behaviour that had survived from close-knit communities in the pre-modern era. The rural collectivity was supplanted by a national community, united in the post-war era by the shared aim of economic growth. The rapid doubling of incomes, and the impression that everyone was middle class and in the same rising boat, nurtured strong social cohesion. But the culture of postmodern individualism undermined the national community and its sense of social solidarity, creating a vacuum that reactionaries and conservatives now try to fill.

A “boy of twelve” to American occupiers, post-war Japan grew into a miracle man, but seems lost in its present dotage. ROMANO P RIEDO

The writer Jeff Kingston, one of the shrewdest observers of contemporary Japan, concludes that “muddling through is probably the best case scenario”. This may sound gloomy. But Kingston is guardedly optimistic about Japan’s “quiet transformation” during the lost decades, when the media became a lot more diverse and alert, transparency and civil society blossomed and the public became more demanding and skeptical of their representatives. It is also true that Japan remains the only major economic power without an ongoing commitment to war or the armaments industry; the strong Japanese opposition to nuclear bombs remains an example to countries desperate to build them. Japan achieved rapid economic growth without rampant inequalities, at least until the 1990s. Its life expectancy remains highest among large countries; unemployment doesn’t rise much above 5 percent. Crime levels are among the lowest in the world and its social ills are the envy of other advanced industrialised societies. The Japanese thinker Kato Norihiro even argues for post-growth “maturity”:

The rest of the world’s population is still exploding, and we are coming to see the limits of our resources. The age of “right shoulder up” is over. Japan doesn’t need to be No. 2 in the world, or No. 5 or 15. It’s time to look to more important things, to think more about the environment and about people less lucky than ourselves. To learn about organic farming. Or not. Maybe you’re busy enough just living your life. That, the new maturity says, is still cooler than right shoulder up.

One of the signs of a possible new maturity is the politicisation of many young Japanese by the disaster at Fukushima. In the summer of 2012, massive protests filled Japanese streets for the first time since the great anti-Vietnam demonstrations of the 1960s. But Japan’s politics also displays more disquieting continuities with the past. As Kato writes:

...the old guard—those politicians who led the charge in the heady 1970s and ’80s and fought back (however pointlessly) against the economic stagnation of the ’90s —still want to compete. Those men, best represented in my view by Tokyo’s governor, Shintaro Ishihara, speak as if they are under siege. They hate being beaten by China. For them, it seems, maturity only means striving to be No. 1. They won’t change. They are too settled in an earlier stage of development, in a dream of limitless growth.

Indeed, China’s emergence just as Japan declined, and lost its position as the favourite destination of foreign investors, constitutes another reversal in the long history of Sino-Japanese relations. Transmitting its Confucian cultures to its neighbours, China had been Japan’s “teacher” for centuries. In the late 19th century, however, Japan abruptly broke free of its stagnant neighbourhood. While the Qing Empire floundered, and foreigners blithely sliced the Chinese “melon”, the feudal Japanese re-constituted themselves into a modern nation state. The new Japan’s coming-out party, appropriately, was the defeat of their doddery old tutor China in 1895. Many Chinese flocked, or were driven as political exiles, to Japan to learn the secrets of its awesome new power. Indeed, China’s political leadership and intelligentsia would be drawn from these men.

Visiting China in 1928, when a rising Japan had begun to prey on its neighbour, the Japanese poet Yosano Akiko took a surprisingly broad-minded view of anti-Japanese passion among the Chinese: “It’s surely frightful from the imperialists’ point of view,” she wrote in her travelogue, “but for the Chinese people it must be celebrated in the name of humanity.” Yosano wrote benevolently about the nascent Chinese sense of nationality, it seemed essential to the survival of a country ravaged by civil war. But prejudice and ignorance about China prevailed in Japan. Takeuichi Yoshimi, who was Japan’s leading Sinologist, was among the first to report a now familiar disconnect in modern scholarship: “When we studied Chinese history and geography,” he wrote, “we never studied the fact that there were humans there.” This dehumanisation had helped the perpetrators of the Nanjing massacres in 1937.

For a long time after the war, however, “the Rape of Nanking” was far from becoming Chinese shorthand for Japanese brutality. Mao Zedong discouraged public discourse about the Japanese invasion and waived reparations. The People’s Republic of China sought diplomatic recognition from Japan. Tokyo moved to restore relations with China in the early 1970s, even recognising the latter’s claims over Japan’s old colony, Taiwan. The next decade witnessed ever-closer cooperation as China opened up its economy to foreign trade and investment. Japanese relocated factories to China, and showered assistance on China, including massive infrastructure construction, and billions of dollars in loans and grants. Japan is now the second biggest investor in the country. The basis of the relationship laid then still exists in the form of the large Chinese student population in Japan.

China’s troubled history with Japan was disinterred only in the post-Mao era. This was when communist leaders, ushering their country into a market economy, first began to face the problems of uneven growth, which now included social unrest on a huge scale. The commemoration of the Sino-Japanese War is now central to the post-Cold War Chinese strategy of finding new foils internationally, and fresh ideological legitimacy at home.

It is a bit unrealistic to expect Japan’s conservative rulers today to periodically denounce their country’s short-lived empire and produce apologies on demand to its former enemies. A willed amnesia and self-righteousness afflicts all former empires, and many nation states—including China, which shows no signs of officially acknowledging the killings near Tiananmen Square in 1989. Japan’s extreme case of forgetfulness, ignorance and self-absorption can be credited to its long exemption from an honest reckoning with its history by its stifling embrace of the United States.

But this can no longer be an excuse as Japan searches, still confusedly, for a new identity within the Asia it once dominated. Abe Shinzo needs Chinese and Korean tolerance of the steadily devalued yen; and his growth strategy will suffer if Japan’s exports to China don’t recover. Japan seeks to co-operate with China in dealing with the looming threat from North Korea. And it has to reckon with an unavoidable Chinese hegemony in the region. Japan needs to refurbish its image in order to advance these projects. But even Japan’s potential allies, such as South Korea, remember too acutely Japanese plans for Asian co-prosperity in the first half of the century. In most Asian eyes, Japan has remained, for the past six decades, an American client state—unable or unwilling to alienate its former occupiers by charting an independent path.

As Kato points out, right-wing Japanese politicians are largely to blame for their country’s isolation and unpopularity; a great majority of the Japanese remain wary of militarism, and firmly opposed to war. Tokyo’s governor Ishihara Shintaro provoked a stand-off with China last year with his plan to buy the Senkaku Islands—barren rocks claimed by China and known in Chinese as the Diaoyu Islands. The young mayor of Osaka, a rising politician, claimed publicly in May that the “comfort women” sexually enslaved by the Japanese military in the Second World War had helped maintain discipline and morale.

Abe Shinzo, too, stokes bad memories of this violence, and region-wide suspicions that the Japanese remain in denial about their history of imperialism. The United States had enlisted Japan into a “great crescent” of anti-communist states against communism in Asia; its substantial army, navy, and air force was later camouflaged with the moniker “Self-Defence Forces” so as to preserve, in letter at least, the war-renouncing Article 9 of the new American-drafted constitution that forbade Japan from maintaining any armed forces. Abe has already proposed to revise this pacifist constitution to officially acknowledge Japan’s possession of a remarkably large standing army, navy and air force. He openly doubts if imperial Japan was an “aggressor” in Korea. He has allowed his deputy to visit the Yasukuni shrine. A month after I left Japan, he appeared, wearing army fatigues, atop a fighter jet emblazoned with the numerals 731, the number of a notorious Japanese chemical and biological warfare unit during the Second World War.

More so than Ishihara, Abe is a typical representative of the old guard in Japanese politics, which gets worked up about things like the decline of the work ethic, and respect for hierarchy, flag and anthem. Abe wishes to restore the emperor as head of state; emphasise collective duties over individual rights; and, most importantly, promote veneration for the family. Speaking to the right-wing manga artist Kobayashi Yoshinori, Abe recently confided his belief that “Conservative spirit” is necessary to build a “healthy market system”. He said, “Japan has been a country in which people have lived by tending the fields together and sharing the water. With the imperial family at the centre, people prayed together for bountiful harvests and prosperity.”

This takes the old culture talk to a new level, enlisting it into the project of Japan’s market economy as an extension of the family, one that is fundamentally benign and in need of protection. The American historian John Dower points out that “national pride—acute, wounded, wedded to a profound sense of vulnerability—lay behind the single-minded pursuit of economic growth that created a momentary superpower a mere quarter-century after humiliating defeat.” Abe now seeks to revive that pride through a more explicitly nationalistic program. His supporters outline his grand ambition by actually invoking the fukoku kyohei slogan of the Meiji: “enrich the country, strengthen the army”.

Indeed, cultural nationalism is, at the moment, a bigger political trump card for Abe than Abenomics, as he confronts massive fiscal imbalances, public debt, ageing population, and a long stagnant economy. Still, Abe is unlikely to succeed in his plans to remake the whole of Japanese culture. The kind of socialising that turned individuals into loyal citizens of a conservative monarchy no longer happens in a country increasingly divided, in the American way, into “winners” and “losers”. The social capital that underpinned post-war Japan in its early decades has shrunk. The old life with its stability and promise of opportunity is gone even as older men like him cling to visions of the political and corporate collective.

Despite its much-heralded “pivot to Asia”, the United States, or any other foreign power, is not in position to substantially shape a new national narrative for Japan. Japan must assume alone the privileges—and burdens—of its growing autonomy. And perhaps there will be some lessons for the rest of us in how Japan lives its long historical defeat.

In the last century, Japan seems to have run through a whole cycle of the modern experience, from industrialisation to nihilistic militarism, from the frenzy of economic growth to the passivity of otaku culture. It has objectified and instrumentalised nature, equated progress with technological advances, and, in its postmodern phase, equated individual subjectivity with sundering of social bonds; but the confusion and anomie that beset its greatest minds in the early 20th century seems to have only deepened.

In 1952, the New York Times marked the end of America’s occupation of Japan with a cartoon depicting oversized American hands releasing a miniaturised figure in wooden clogs on to a meandering path. On his return to the United States, the supreme Commander and overlord of Japan, Douglas MacArthur, spoke of how the Japanese, measured by the standards of modern civilisation, were “like a boy of 12 as compared with our development”. Asia’s pioneering nation, the 12-year-old boy of MacArthur’s paternalist vision, grew up into a world-conquering businessman. But it can often seem lost in its dotage. Japan caught up with the West, and even surpassed it, only to find that there is now no place to go, no new course to chart. A regressive nationalism presently carries the burden of this end-of-things fatigue and bemusement. But Japan’s impasse amid a global crisis of capitalism also points to a new future—one as full of possibilities for the West as for Japan and Asia. As Kato writes, “Japan now seems to stand at the vanguard of a new downsizing movement, leading the way for countries bound sooner or later to follow in its wake. In a world whose limits are increasingly apparent, Japan and its youths, old beyond their years, may well reveal what it is like to outgrow growth.” Whether or not Japan takes it on, it would be an appropriate task for the oldest modern country in Asia.