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Japan Unbound: A Volatile Nation's Quest for Pride and Purpose

Japan Unbound: A Volatile Nation's Quest for Pride and Purpose

by John Nathan

Not since World War II has Japan faced a crisis like the one before it now. An apparently endless recession has weakened the foundations of the traditional family and severed the bond between Japan's corporations and employees. Unruly children turn classrooms into battlefields. Ultranationalist pride and xenophobia are celebrated in best-selling comic books and


Not since World War II has Japan faced a crisis like the one before it now. An apparently endless recession has weakened the foundations of the traditional family and severed the bond between Japan's corporations and employees. Unruly children turn classrooms into battlefields. Ultranationalist pride and xenophobia are celebrated in best-selling comic books and championed by media superstars, including the governor of Tokyo. Upheavals across the society have significant ramifications for America. As the Japanese reject their traditions wholesale, they view their half-century-old connection to the United States with mounting skepticism.
Drawing on his fluent Japanese and unmatched intimacy with the culture, John Nathan reveals a nation newly unmoored from the traditions that have shored it up and sometimes stifled it. Dramatic changes in business are augured by Carlos Ghosn, the Brazilian president of Nissan, once scorned as an outsider, now hailed for reviving a moribund giant. The soft-spoken artist Yoshinori Kobayashi foments and reflects rabid nationalism among millions with his hugely popular comic books. Yasuo Tanaka, a puckish writer and bon vivant, wins the governorship of Nagano and revolutionizes Japanese politics with his radical populism.
Nathan delves beyond Japan's celebrities to map the epic shifts in daily life. He unveils the horrors of the Japanese school system. He goes inside a "career transition service" to witness the novel, nuanced rituals of job-hunting Japanese-style. He takes the pulse of ordinary citizens who are caught up in the country's many profound social shifts: agitprop pop culture, emerging feminism, environmentalism, teenage consumerism, entrepreneurship, and more.
With immediacy and élan, John Nathan dispels conventional wisdom about Japan and replaces it with a brilliant vision of a country roiling with pride, uncertainty, creativity, fear, and hope.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A fascinating book..."—The Economist
The New York Times
… [Nathan's] extensive reportage, combined with an understanding of Japanese culture gained from his years as a student, gives an insightful study of a culture little understood in the United States. — Priyanka Motaparthy
Library Journal
Until its recent upturn, Japan's economy had been marking time for more than a decade. However, according to Japan scholar and translator Nathan, Japan itself has been vigorously redefining itself in ways that belie the notion of a country adrift and without purpose. This process involves reconnection with its own past and rediscovery of its links with Asia, particularly China, after more than half a century of circling in an orbit prescribed by American power and culture. Nathan's portrait of contemporary Japanese society is not an academic treatise but a richly anecdotal, spirited, and accessible survey of a gallery of powerful and idiosyncratic Japanese individuals including corporate leaders and politicians whose will to innovate is transforming Japanese society from the inside out. Some of the new nationalism has a decidedly anti-American edge, but this is neither surprising nor unhealthy in a U.S.-Japan relationship that cannot forever be defined by the post-World War II order. This lively and well-informed guide to contemporary Japan deserves a wide readership and belongs in all libraries.-Steven I. Levine, Univ. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A nation terrorized by gangs of roving youngsters, governed by cryptofascist politicians, mired in me-firstism and ennui. The England of A Clockwork Orange? No, it's modern Japan. Just two decades ago, American business analysts held Japan up to be the shining example of an economy and society that worked-and that would soon own everything. That was before the sickening crash-and-burn spiral of the Nikkei index, "a crash that dwarfed 'Black Monday' in 1987," which signaled the end of Japanese affluence. The nation has yet to recover from a decade and more of economic stagnation. Meanwhile, by Nathan's account, the Japanese are shrouded in gloom, wondering what it means to be Japanese and what it means to live amid technological splendor but spiritual emptiness; they seek answers by consulting the writings of the right-wing crazy Mishima Yukio, who slit his stomach open in 1970 after failing to inspire a military coup d'etat. Compounding their woes is an apparent epidemic of bad behavior on the part of the preadolescent and adolescent set, who terrorize schools throughout the land and slay their elders as newspapers print helpful pieces on how to avoid provoking the kids ("keep your eyes averted and never talk back"). It all makes for an awful mess, and if his prose is curiously flat, Nathan (Japanese Studies/Univ. of California, Santa Barbara; Sony: The Private Life, 1999) suggests that still more serious trends are at play: as Japanese question the foundations of their exceptionalist society, many of them increasingly reject Western, postmodern mores. The "changes occurring in the national psyche," the author warns, thus include "a growing disenchantment with the United States and thegradual discovery of an affinity with the rest of Asia in general and China in particular, which goes beyond economic interests." An alarmist treatise, as American analysis of Japan tends to be. But worth considering, especially as the hold of the pro-US government weakens and Chinese power grows. Author tour

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Read an Excerpt


I first went to Japan in the fall of 1961, fresh out of Harvard with a joint degree
in English literature and Far Eastern Languages, and remained there for
seven years, until I returned to seek my fugitive identity at home. In those
early postwar days, the Japanese were in the grip of a national conviction
that no foreigner — the Japanese word translates more closely to
mean "outsider" — could ever learn to use their language or understand
anything about them. At Tokyo University, where I was admitted as an
undergraduate in 1963, among the writers and artists I was beginning to
meet, and certainly at home with my Japanese host family, it was conceded
that I could speak and understand Japanese. This was a curious and unlikely
phenomenon, but there it was. On the street, I was seen as just another
foreigner, which meant that I was often unable to make myself understood.
Rejection was eloquently communicated with a simple gesture: the rapid
waggling of a hand in front of the nose, as if to fan away an unpleasant
odor. "No!" it signaled. "I don't understand what you are saying and I want
nothing to do with you." As I asked directions of passersby, or gave
directions to a taxi driver, or purchased tickets at a train station or stamps at
a post office, or ordered from a menu, all in Japanese increasingly close to
fluent, people would fan their noses in my face to indicate their refusal to
understand. If they spoke at all, it was not to reply but to whine aloud to no
one in particular that they failed to understand and had no access to an
interpreter. "You don't need an interpreter," I would protest. "If you will just
listen, you will hear that I am speaking Japanese." The hands continued to

I was obsessed with my study of Japanese, reading my way
through a one-hundred-volume set of modern Japanese fiction and practicing
words and phrases in front of a mirror at home for hours every day, and this
variety of rejection knifed intolerably into my pride. I encountered it
everywhere, even among intellectuals. A professor in my own department at
Tokyo University told a reporter for the school paper that he experienced my
command of Japanese as usan-kusai. I thought I knew what the word meant,
but it seemed such an unlikely thing to say that I consulted my battery of
dictionaries and discovered that it was even more of an affront than I had
realized. Usan-kusai: bizarre to the point of being suspicious, of doubtful
wholesomeness, tainted. That week I stayed home from class. I felt lonely
and bitter.
Even so, I was aware of something comical and even charming
about Japanese parochialism. I also discovered that the astonishment
produced by rattling Japanese assumptions even a little could work in my
I got around on a motorcycle. In those days, the sight of a
foreigner astride a Honda 250 cc "Sport" was sufficient to attract the attention
of the police, and if I exceeded the speed limit by a kilometer, I was pulled
over. The first time, when he had asked to see my license and foreigner
registration, the motorcycle cop noticed the briefcase hanging from my
handlebars and asked what was inside. "Books," I replied. "Books? What
kind?" he inquired, as curious now as any four-year-old. I withdrew my copy
of the eighth-century Chronicle of Ancient Matters, the earliest Japanese
mythology, and opened it to show him. His eyes widened. "You can read
that?" I nodded, sensing an advantage on the way. "Let's hear." I intoned a
few lines: "So, thereupon, His-Swift-Impetuous-Male- Augustness said: 'If that
be so, I will take leave of the Heaven- Shining-Great-August-Deity and
depart.' With these words he forthwith went up to Heaven, whereupon all the
mountains and rivers shook, and every land and country quaked." The
policeman's eyebrows lifted and his gaze narrowed; into the mike on his
shoulder, never taking his eyes off me, he called for backup. A patrol car
drove up, and two more officers cautiously approached. "Read some more,"
the motorcycle cop ordered. Standing on the shoulder of the Tokyo beltway, I
read aloud another passage. The policemen listened as though stunned.
When I finished, they laughed together, like friends who have stumbled on
something they are forbidden to see and are uncertain what to make of it. A
little giddily, they waved me on with just a warning to observe the speed limit.
Thereafter, I made sure my briefcase was always loaded with a Japanese
literary classic when I climbed on my motorcycle. Sometimes I took The Tale
of Genji or a collection of Basho's haiku. A newspaper would have served me
just as well.
But such moments of comic relief were out of the ordinary. Day by
day, my chagrin grew. In time, I devised a hustle that took advantage of the
assumptions about me that I found most insulting. I would enter an izaka-ya,
a Japanese version of a British pub, at an hour when it was crowded with
company men on their way home from work, and would find an opportunity to
mention in the course of a conversation at the bar that I not only spoke but
could also read and write Japanese. Someone always asked, often in
English, "You mean kana, Japanese alphabet!" "Kana, of course, but Chinese
characters, too, just like you." Silence. "If you don't believe me, let's have a
writing contest, a kakikkura, and to make it interesting we'll bet a little
money on the side."
I would suggest a thousand yen (roughly $3 at the time) for round
one, and my opponent — someone always took the bait — would put money
on the bar and write a Chinese character on a paper napkin. It was likely to
be a simple four-stroke character, "tree" or "water" or "hand." I would read the
character and produce another similarly basic word for my opponent to read.
For round two, I would up the stakes to five thousand yen. This
challenge motivated my opponent to present me with a compound of two or
more characters, such as "reality" or "landscape" or "capitalism." I would
respond at the appropriate level of difficulty. Another draw.
By now we would have attracted a crowd, and they were hooked.
For the final round, I would produce a ten-thousand-yen note, real money in
those days. Sometimes my opponent would ask a friend to put up half his
We had now arrived at the cunning part of the game. Encountering
a foreigner who could read was so disorienting to my opponents that it never
occurred to them that the kinds of words most likely to challenge me might
be child's play for them. The truth was, anyone in the bar could have defeated
me easily by selecting character compounds that were likely to be familiar to
any Japanese — place names for example, which had not been disallowed —
and unfamiliar to me, words that had to be known and could not be figured
out. Instead, their choices were governed by what they expected would be
difficult for native readers. The result was always a term that I had no trouble
reading: "calumny," "garrulousness," "smithereen."
Then it was my turn to end the game. I carried around in memory
for this purpose a list of Chinese characters with unlikely Japanese readings
which had sent my learned Japanese landlord to his dictionary. I now
produced one of these — an alternate character for "flying squirrel," or the
name of a blind Buddhist angel who sits above the clouds playing his flute —
and held it up for my opponent to see. As a precaution against claims that I
had fabricated the character, I kept a dictionary in my bag, but I was never
challenged. As the napkin was passed around, the men who had witnessed
my victory observed me with surprise and confusion. It was gratifying to
imagine that I had succeeded in shaking their view of the world if for only a
I understood that the Japanese insistence on the impenetrability
of their language was an assertion of their uniqueness. What I failed to see at
the time was that the compulsion to assert uniqueness was the obverse side
of a deep uncertainty about who they were, about what it meant to be
Japanese in the modern world. Every society views itself as unique and has
grounds for claiming uniqueness. Few societies are compelled to assert their
uniqueness as loudly and insistently as the Japanese. Foreign students living
in China report that their efforts to learn Chinese are welcomed and
appreciated. With the exception of the French, whose arrogance about their
culture reveals another variety of uneasiness, Europeans also tend to be
pleased by foreigners' efforts to learn their languages. In America, the
prevailing assumption is that American English is the only real language in
the world. A corollary assumption is that anyone who happens to be in the
United States will have a command of English; Americans in general are not
conscious of a necessity to accommodate non-native speakers struggling
with the language, nor do such efforts elicit either appreciation or resistance.
An anecdote about a Texas governor is a striking confirmation of how airtight
this assumption is. Angered by a grass-roots movement to elevate the
Spanish language to parity with English in the Texas public school system,
Governor John Connally declared at a press conference: "If English was good
enough for Jesus Christ, it ought to be good enough for us Texans!" It is no
coincidence that America is a society dramatically untroubled by uncertainty
regarding national purpose or, for that matter, national identity.
Throughout their history, the Japanese have been prompted by
familiar, troubling questions about identity to focus on their language as
evidence of who they are and, more important, what makes them special. In
a popular book written in 1985, The Japanese Brain, an audiologist named
Tadanobu Tsunoda argued that the Japanese language was not only evidence
of Japanese uniqueness, but its source:

My findings seem to provide an explanation of the uniqueness and universal
aspects of Japanese culture. Why do Japanese people behave in their
characteristic manner? How has the Japanese culture developed its
distinctive features? I believe the key to these questions lies in the Japanese
language. That is, the Japanese are Japanese because they speak
Japanese. My investigations have suggested that the Japanese language
shapes the Japanese brain function pattern, which in turn serves as a basis
for the formation of Japanese culture.

Since the late nineties, dozens of books promising to reacquaint
readers with the expressive beauty and power of the Japanese language
when it is used correctly have climbed to the top of the bestseller lists every
year. The recent "Japanese language boom" is but one of many indications
that Japanese society is once again in the grips of a need to reconfirm its
In fact, the Japanese have suffered recurrently from a tenuous hold
on their cultural identity since long before the "modern" period. In The Tale of
Genji, the eleventh-century romance that is the masterpiece of Japanese
classical literature, Prince Genji insists that his son, Yugiri, study the
Chinese classics despite objections from the boy's grandmother, an imperial
princess: "The truth is, without a solid foundation of book learning [in the
Chinese classics], this Japanese spirit about which we hear so much is not
of any great use in the world." By "Japanese spirit," Genji intends both a code
of valor and a poetics of life, an aesthetic sensibility that was neither
borrowed nor derived from the treasure house of Chinese wisdom. But Genji
is suggesting that "Japaneseness" can bloom only after pollination by
Chinese studies. The implication is that Japanese identity has its source, or
at best is in some way contingent upon, China. For the female author of
Genji, there was irony in this equation. Courtiers and poets of the day wrote
their serious essays and kept their diaries in classical Chinese or in a hybrid
version of that language cleverly evolved in Japan. Women at court were not
encouraged to study the Chinese classics and language, and they wrote in
pure Japanese that was unalloyed by Chinese constructions or vocabulary. It
is no coincidence that most of the great literary works of the period were
created by women, who were free to express themselves in their native
In the latter half of the eighteenth century, the nationalist scholar
Motoori Norinaga rediscovered The Tale of Genji and used it as the basis of a
Shinto revival. In a voluminous critique called The Jeweled Comb, Norinaga
challenged the traditional reading of the book as a cautionary tale about good
and evil animated by Buddhist and Confucian teaching. He argued that the
Genji was instead a pure work of literary art whose subject was the nature
and meaning of human existence, and that the wellspring of Lady Murasaki's
invention was the quintessentially Japanese aesthetic and philosophical
quality called mono no aware, a poignant consciousness of the evanescence
of all things. In Norinaga's view, The Tale of Genji was thus a monumental
and living elucidation of the "Japanese spirit," the essence of Japaneseness.
In the closing decades of the nineteenth century, the focus of
Japanese learning and emulation shifted away from China to Europe and,
increasingly, America. In 1853, Japan was pried open under threat from
American gunboats after 250 years of isolation from the rest of the world
under the feudal — Confucian — rule of the Tokugawa shoguns. Fifteen years
later the feudal government had toppled, and the country embarked on a
single-minded mission to transform itself into a modern state by borrowing
from the West. The central figure in the national project to understand
Western civilization was the philosopher-educator Yukichi Fukuzawa (1834–
1901), sometimes called the father of the Japanese enlightenment. The son
of a samurai, Fukuzawa received the traditional education in Confucianism
and the Chinese classics before he traveled to Osaka in 1851 to apply
himself to rangaku, "Dutch studies," or the study of Western philosophy,
mathematics, and medicine in the Dutch language. Three times he traveled
to Europe as a representative of the shogunal government. In 1868, he
founded in Edo (Tokyo) a school of Western studies in Dutch and English
which became Keio University. The translator of John Stuart Mill and author
of In Defense of [Western] Learning and A Theory of [Western] Civilization,
Fukuzawa held that Japan must turn its back on its Asian neighbors, on
China in particular, and look to the West for models as it embarked on
modernization. In the 1880s, he introduced the compound notion
wakonyosai, literally, "Japanese sensibility, Western knowledge." The
tension between these two elements has never been resolved.
The challenge was not only understanding European political and
social institutions and the worldviews they reflected, but adapting them to fit
the contours of Japanese society. Establishing an authentic sense of
national self and purpose in the modern world required the merging of two
disparate and often irreconcilable cultures, one native, inherent, grounded in
history, the other founded on concepts such as individualism and intractably
foreign. This exercise in cultural synthesis continues to tax and trouble the
Japanese imagination.
Throughout the twentieth century, Japanese intellectuals have
expended inordinate energy on attempts to locate and define the quiddity
of "Japaneseness" that Norinaga discovered in The Tale of Genji. In a society
as homogeneous as Japan, the intensity of this effort is telling: it suggests,
and there is abundant evidence to support the conclusion, that cultural
ambivalence, the chronic sense of contingency on values and behaviors
external to native traditions, has led to recurrent seasons of bewilderment
and despair akin to a national identity crisis.
This issue is not generalized, conceptual, abstract: it comes
down to an insubstantial sense of self that is experienced by individuals in
the society with deep uneasiness as the emptiness of life. It will be clear in
the chronicle of the current moment that is the subject of this book that
Japan today is in the throes of just such a crisis.
The burden of balancing two cultures is brilliantly distilled in the
writer-director Juzo Itami's 1986 film, Tampopo (the word means "dandelion,"
the name of a ramen shop). The film uses the ritual of preparing and enjoying
Japanese noodles as a metaphor for nourishment and community. In two
comic scenes, Itami dramatizes what I mean by cultural contingency and its
perils. In the .rst, a group of senior business executives files into a private
dining room in an affectedly French restaurant of the sort that is to be found
in every posh Japanese hotel. The last man in, balancing a stack of
briefcases in both arms, is an assistant who would have been played by Jerry
Lewis in an American film. The pokerfaced waiter hands the executive vice
president a menu, which he glances at uncomprehendingly: it is written in
French and English. He seeks safety in the one dish familiar to every
Japanese businessman, sole meunière. His first course is consommé,
another mainstay. Avoiding the imponderable wine list, he requests beer.
Around the table the junior executives follow suit. At last, the pimply factotum
contemplates the menu and inquires whether the boudin-style quenelles
might be the same dish that is a specialty at Taillevent. The waiter
acknowledges that the chef has trained at Taillevent. Unfazed by the
flabbergasted stares now fixed on him, the assistant calls for escargot en
croûte, an apple and walnut salad, and a glass of — rolling up his eyes and
smacking his lips — Corton Charlemagne. The rest of the table is
apoplectically silent.
In the second scene, a group of young ladies in Western party
dresses are in the midst of a "charm school" class in the main dining room.
Today's lesson is on the etiquette of eating spaghetti vongole. The chatelaine
who is the instructor reminds her pupils that spaghetti must be enjoyed
silently (unlike Japanese noodles, which are noisily inhaled from the bowl).
As she lifts her fork daintily to her lips to demonstrate, there comes a
clamorous slurping from across the room. All heads turn to discover a
foreigner wolfing down his own plate of spaghetti. The girls are confused, the
instructor outraged. Inevitably, the class abandons its tenuous hold on
acquired table manners and, giving in to impulse, joins its mentor in attacking
the vongole noisily, as if they were ramen.
The filmmaker's point is unmistakable: Western knowledge, as in
the first scene, is the source of power and authority. Obversely, as in the
second, the Japanese, in their frantic efforts to imitate the West, must
continually look outside themselves for the source of authenticity and are as
a consequence eternally subject to confusion about who they are.
The novelist Natsume Soseki, born in 1867 on the cusp of the old
and the new order, was an impassioned critic of Japan's frantic efforts to
Westernize, which he blamed for the emptiness at the center of his bleak
vision of life. Soseki's personal encounter with Western culture tormented
and disheartened him. In 1893, he became the second student to graduate
from the newly established department of English literature at Tokyo Imperial
University, where he would later teach briefly as a successor to Lafcadio
Hearn. Soseki read deeply in Shakespeare, Sterne, Fielding, and Austen,
and the more he read the more convinced he became of the futility of
studying a "foreign" literature. In 1900, he was sent to England on a
government stipend, and spent two wretched years in isolation in a London
rooming house convincing himself that English life and letters were not
merely beyond his comprehension but repugnant to his sensibility as a
Japanese. This drove him into fits of depression that prompted a Japanese
student to report back to the government, "Soseki has gone quite mad." In
the preface to his 1906 Theory of Literature, he summarized his passionate
and failed encounter with Western civilization:

As a child I enjoyed studying the Chinese classics. Although the time spent
in this kind of study was not long, it was from Chinese classics that I
learned, however vaguely and obscurely, what literature was. In my heart, I
hoped it would be the same when I read English literature, and that I would
not necessarily begrudge giving my whole life to studying it, if that were
required. What I resent, and the source of my agony, is that despite my
study I never mastered it. I have been plagued by the disquieting feeling of
having been somehow duped or cheated by English literature.

In a lecture he delivered at the newly created Peers' School in
August 1911, "The Civilization of Modern-Day Japan," Soseki established an
explicit connection between what he called "the loss of moral balance" and
Japan's slavish emulation of the West:

Simply stated, Western civilization (that is, civilization in general) is internally
motivated, whereas Japan's civilization is externally motivated. Something
that is "internally motivated" develops naturally from within, as a flower opens,
the bursting of the bud followed by the turning outward of the petals.
Something is "externally motivated" when it is forced to assume a certain
form as the result of pressure applied from the outside . . .
A nation, a people that incurs a civilization in this way, can only
feel a sense of emptiness, of dissatisfaction and anxiety. There are those
who gloat over this civilization of ours as if it were internally motivated, but
they are wrong. They may think they represent the height of fashion, but they
are wrong. They are false and shallow, like boys who make a great show of
enjoying cigarettes before they even know what tobacco tastes like. This is
what the Japanese must do in order to survive, and this is what makes us so

The hero of Soseki's 1909 novel, And Then, predicted that
equilibrium would not be regained until the doubtful day when "feeble Japan
could stand shoulder to shoulder with the greatest powers of Europe." That
day has come and gone, but the struggle to assimilate Western influence
without losing balance continues. The novelist Kenzaburo Oe addressed this
dilemma in the speech he delivered in English in Stockholm in December
1994 upon accepting the Nobel Prize:

My observation is that after 120 years of its modernization since the opening
of the country, present-day Japan is split between two opposite poles of
ambiguity. This ambiguity, which is so powerful and penetrating that it divides
both the state and the people, affects me as a writer like a deep-felt scar.
The modernization of Japan was oriented toward learning from and imitating
the West, yet our country is situated in Asia and has its own deep-rooted
culture. The ambiguous orientation of Japan drove the country into the
position of an invader in Asia, and resulted in its isolation from other Asian
nations, not only politically but also socially and culturally. And even in the
West, to which our culture was supposedly quite open, we have long
remained inscrutable or only partially understood.

Like Soseki, Oe grew up at a time when Japan's connection to
the values of its historical past was abruptly severed as a result of its defeat
in World War II. The war effort had been fueled by a national mission that left
no room for ambivalence or ambiguity, by Japan's traditional sense of itself
as "the land of the gods" — but that comforting certainty was blown apart in
August 1945. First there was the inferno of two atomic bombs. One week
later, on August 15, Emperor Hirohito went on the radio for the first time and
informed his subjects in his own voice that they must now "endure the
unendurable" and lay down their arms. Oe later recalled listening to the
emperor in his mountain village as a boy of ten: "The adults sat around their
radios and cried. The children gathered outside in the dusty road and
whispered their bewilderment. We were most confused and disappointed by
the fact that the emperor had spoken in a human voice. . . . How could we
believe that an august presence of such awful power had become an ordinary
human being on a designated summer day?"
The disorienting possibility that Hirohito was a mortal man was
reinforced by the unthinkable photograph of His Majesty standing alongside
General Douglas MacArthur which appeared in the Tokyo morning
newspapers of September 28, 1945.MacArthur had arrived in Japan from the
Philippines on August 30; always strategic, he declined to visit the emperor
at the palace, ordering Hirohito to pay his respects to him at the U.S.
embassy. MacArthur chose to wear suntans with his collar open and no
decorations or insignia of rank. In the photo, he stares straight at the camera,
his face void of expression; one hand is thrust carelessly into his pocket; the
other is on his hip. Alongside, reaching only to the general's shoulder,
Hirohito stands ramrod-stiff in his coat and tails. The day after the photograph
appeared, as if to underline the shocking disparity in power that it conveyed,
MacArthur told the Chicago Tribune: "Japan has fallen to a fourth-rate nation.
It will not be possible for her to emerge again as a strong nation in the world."
The recurrent uneasiness that afflicts postwar Japan has its most
recent source in a constitution based on principles like democracy that had
evolved in the West and were antithetical to the groupism at the heart of
traditional society. Many Japanese are opposed to amending even the most
controversial dictum in their constitution, Article 9, the war renunciation
clause, but I have yet to meet anyone on the right or the left who refers to it
with pride. In contrast to the resonant English of America's founding
documents, even its language is foreign, a literal and wooden translation of
the original English version.
Japanese history between 1950 and the early 1980s is principally
about economic recovery. But even as Japan focused on outdoing America
while embracing American values and the American way of life, there was
evidence of longing to regain the defining sense of purpose and mission that
had been lost at the end of the war.
Two historical moments in 1970 symbolized the fulfillment and the
emptiness that are the defining paradox and dilemma of modern Japanese
life. In March 1970, Japan marked its arrival on the global scene as a major
world economy with the opening of Expo '70 in Osaka, a giant trade fair on
which the government lavished $2 billion to attract participation from seventy-
seven countries and which prompted the futurist Herman Kahn to predict
that "the twenty-first century will be the Japanese century." And on November
25, the novelist Yukio Mishima committed ritual suicide by hara-kiri. At 10:50
in the morning, accompanied by four uniformed cadets from his private army,
the Shield Society, Mishima paid a visit to the commandant of the Tokyo
Battalion of the Self-defense Force on the pretext of showing him an antique
Japanese sword. On a prearranged signal, the cadets seized and bound the
commandant and Mishima ordered him to assemble the battalion in the
courtyard below. Just before noon, he stepped onto the balcony and delivered
a short speech appealing to the troops to join him and his cadets as true
men and samurai warriors in a battle to the death in the name of the emperor
against a postwar democracy that had deprived Japan of its army and robbed
the nation of its soul. When the eight hundred soldiers began to boo and jeer,
Mishima went inside and killed himself.
Mishima's suicide was driven in part by a longing for death —
specifically a martyr's death — that he had contemplated fearfully since his
childhood. But we must not explain away the social significance of his act
with a clinical diagnosis. As a young man during the Pacific War, he had
tasted briefly the comforting certainty of identification with a transcendent
ideal embodied by a divine emperor. Then, in 1945, following the defeat, he
was expelled with the rest of his generation into a hollow postwar world that
had been bereft of tradition and severed from historical continuity. During the
1950s, his response to what he described as "existential uneasiness" was to
acquire a gaudy wardrobe of European and American styles and sensibilities
and to wear them flamboyantly. When he built his house in 1958, he told his
architect that he wanted to sit in a rococo chair in jeans and an aloha shirt.
The result was a mélange of Greek statuary and French period furniture that
looked like a movie set and made many Japanese who received invitations to
his cocktail parties on Tiffany stationery desperately uncomfortable.
Meanwhile, by his own account, beneath the masquerade he suffered from a
growing feeling of emptiness.
Beginning in the early 1960s, Mishima turned his back on
Western rationalism and the Greek ideals of symmetry and measure and
embraced the dark, romantic, death-ridden aesthetics of ultranationalism. In
July 1968, he published an elaborate disquisition on identity, "In Defense of
Culture," in which he established the rationale for his final act. Mishima
argued that the Japanese self could be discovered only in Japanese culture,
and that authentic culture had its source only in the emperor. Specifically,
His Imperial Majesty was the defining source of miyabi, a value in Japanese
classical aesthetics that is usually defined as "courtly elegance," as
epitomized in The Tale of Genji. In Mishima's singular definition, miyabi
was "the essence of court culture and the people's longing for that
essence . . . . If we Japanese ever hope to regain our connection to miyabi,
the quality that defines us, we must protect the emperor at any cost."
Mishima was not alone in his suffering. If American democracy
was proving to be a not entirely satisfactory substitute for wartime values,
neither was the frantic pursuit of GNP that was being promulgated as the new
national mission. By the late 1960s, the company man, the cog in the wheel
of Japan's emerging economic miracle, was feeling tired and vaguely
disillusioned. He was earning more money than his father had ever seen, and
he had acquired the undisputed trophies of middle-class success known in
the media as "the three Cs," an air conditioner, a car, and a color TV. But as
he watched Ben Casey and The Partridge Family and I Love Lucy dubbed in
Japanese on Sony Trinitrons, he observed Americans setting out for their
lakeside cabins to try new motorboats and was troubled to realize that he
had no place to go. In any event, he was too busy at work even to consider
taking his annual weeklong vacation. Sundays, his one day off, he went
shopping with his wife at the electronics bazaar in Akihabara or hit balls at a
crowded driving range on the roof of a department store — real golf courses
were still beyond his means. He was tired; his head ached from drinking with
his boss and colleagues every evening; and he was beginning to wonder why
life was affording him so little gratification despite his hard work: prosperity
was not after all a goal worth living for. Asked what such a goal might be, he
would hardly have answered a reconnection to miyabi achieved by a warrior's
death. Nonetheless, the insubstantial sense of self that tormented Mishima
was becoming endemic in Japan. There is no question that his suicide was
personal and idiosyncratic, fully comprehensible only in the light of his
lifelong erotic fantasies. At the same time, it should be understood as a lucid
expression of a national affliction: the pain of cultural disinheritance.
The Mishima incident shocked the public — though many shared
his dismay at the country's inability to find its own footing and its own
voice — and angered and discountenanced the government, which was intent
on demonstrating to the world that Japan was now a thoroughly
modernized — Americanized — nation. By 1980, except for a fringe element
of Mishima worshippers on the extreme right, the writer had been
marginalized as a novelist and largely forgotten as a public figure. Recently,
however, he has been rediscovered, and there is currently a full-scale
Mishima boom in progress. Between 1999 and 2002, thirty-seven new books
have been written about him, and every large bookstore in Japan today has
a "Mishima corner." On the thirtieth anniversary of his death, in November
2000, his publisher, Shinchosha, announced a new complete works in forty-
two volumes. So far the first fourteen, the major novels, have been released,
and each volume has sold between five and six thousand copies at a price of
$50. At a time when book sales in Japan are at an all-time postwar low,
these figures are telling. It would appear that the current climate of
uncertainty and uneasiness has disposed readers to find meaning for
themselves in Mishima's work and final act, evidence that he understood their
plight and might even serve as a beacon to guide them out of confusion and
disheartenment to a rediscovery of self.
In the 1970s and 1980s, uncertainty about identity and purpose
was forgotten in the euphoria of spectacular economic success. Between
1970 and 1985, Japan's GNP increased 450 percent. In 1986 the value of
Tokyo real estate doubled, and doubled again in 1987; in September of that
year, one hundred square feet on the downtown Ginza was selling for $1
million. (By mid-1988, the value of Japanese real estate would be worth five
times that of the United States.)With bank vaults stuffed with money, and
interest being held by the government below 2 percent, loans were easy —
far too easy — to obtain. Fortunes were amassed overnight by purchasing
land with borrowed money and turning it over at a colossal profit.
In 1986, Japan began deploying its yen reserves outside the
country, adding financial services to its long list of exports, and quickly
became the world's largest creditor nation: by 1987, 30 percent of U.S. debt
was financed by Japan through the purchase of U.S. Treasury bonds; the
world's ten largest banks and four largest security companies were all
Japanese; and the Tokyo Stock Exchange was larger than New York's.
As capital accumulated and the yen continued to appreciate
against the dollar and other currencies, Japan went on a buying spree in the
United States that was perceived hysterically in this country as a threat to
sovereignty. Japanese investors acquired banks, golf courses, and resorts all
over California, including Pebble Beach, and purchased landmark properties
on the East Coast one after the other, including Rockefeller Center. In 1989,
when Sony acquired Columbia Pictures, Newsweek's cover dressed the
company's logo, the lady on the pedestal, holding a torch, in Japanese
kimono and hairstyle, and proclaimed in a banner, "JAPAN INVADES
In truth, a fantasy of occupying the United States was not
unfamiliar to the Japanese imagination. In Yasujiro Ozu's 1962 film, An
Autumn Afternoon, a jovial mechanic wonders aloud to his former commander
in the imperial navy, "What if we had won, sir? What if we had occupied New
York? I'll tell you what — you'd have all these foreigners with their white skin
drinking sake and eating raw fish and playing their rockabilly music in
samurai hairdos!" The fantasy is comic, but not without wistfulness. In 1989,
the head of Nomura Securities, the world's largest investment broker at the
time, with cash on hand of $4 billion, proposed a Japan- U.S. currency
and "joint ownership" of California.
Sudden wealth led to a degree of conspicuous consumption that
had no precedent in Japan or elsewhere. Farmers who sold rice paddies or a
tiny hillock for unearthly prices replaced their fillings with gold and laid out
thousands of dollars for a night with the tall, blond, Caucasian girls who had
always danced in their dreams. Japanese shoppers monopolized the
boutiques on Rodeo Drive, Madison Avenue, and Via Condotti; controlled the
world markets in art, diamonds, yachts, and racehorses; spent $500 on a
Madonna concert ticket; imported ice cubes from Antarctica; and paid up to
$3.5 million for a membership at one of Japan's more than two thousand
private golf courses (in 1992, 13 million of the world's estimated 50 million
golfers were Japanese).
In 1989, Shintaro Ishihara, a member of parliament at the time,
and Sony's founder, Akio Morita, collaborated on a book they titled The
Japan That Can Say No, a defiant indictment of U.S. trade policies which
radiated the confidence and purpose Japan was feeling at the close of the
affluent eighties. In September 1990, that apparently robust certainty was
undone when the Tokyo Stock Exchange lost 48 percent of its value in four
days, a crash that dwarfed "Black Monday" in 1987. In 1993, the land bubble
also burst, creating the largest asset deflation in the history of modern
capitalism. Japan's banks and brokerage houses were left with $6 trillion in
uncollectable property and building loans against collateral that had more
than halved in value.
Japan has yet to recover from its plummeting fall, and as the
national gloom deepens, familiar, troubling questions have reframed
themselves: What does it mean to be Japanese? What are the source and
nature of Japan's uniqueness? The continuing absence of satisfactory
answers to these pressing questions has brought to the surface once again a
national uneasiness that many Japanese experience today as a sense that
something fundamental is missing from their lives.
On a recent trip to Tokyo, I was surprised to find an explicit
reference to this emptiness in a column on the front page of the Asahi
Shimbun. The unsigned column, "The Voice of the People," appears daily and
is organized around a current event, in this case the World Soccer Cup
cosponsored by Korea and Japan which was just ending and had the entire
country in a frenzy of excitement:

Something is missing. That vague feeling is spreading across the country.
For a brief moment, our soccer team filled that hollowness. The young man
who told me "The World Cup gave us a sense of unity" was expressing
himself honestly. I heard a young person in the United States express the
same sort of feeling. He was responding to a speech by the former president
Bill Clinton. It was right after an American ship had been attacked by
terrorists in the Middle East. The president expressed sadness and called for
courage and unity. The American president isn't merely the head of the
government. At times he appears before the people in the role of a prophet.
He moves people with what he has to say and shores up the American sense
of unity. That's one of the roles of American government. At such moments,
people confirm with one another that they are Americans.
The United States incorporates a variety of nationalities and races
and languages. In our relatively homogeneous society, many people would
feel that being Japanese is self-evident and beyond ambiguity. And yet
something is missing from our full sense of being Japanese [italics mine]. It
seems to me we are carrying some kind of emptiness around. What is the
current Japanese language boom but an impulse aimed at filling that
emptiness? Japanese is our native language but we know so little about
beautiful Japanese. The sense of crisis that awakens is appropriate.
I recall a verse by the late poet Shuji Terayama:
In the brief instant the match flares
the sea is in fog
is there a native land I can
throw myself away for?
These lines are moving to many readers: what appears in the
instant of light is not only the loss of a native land but also the longing to be
part of one. This "postwar landscape" is still what we return to when the
excitement is over. What will be the landscape of our future?

If these words were from the pen of a neonationalist, they would
not be so unexpected, or so telling. The Asahi Shimbun, reviled by the far
right, is Japan's leading liberal-leftist paper, an unwavering supporter of the
constitution as it stands and of détente with Beijing. It seems reasonable to
interpret the column as a yearning for unambiguous identity that extends far
beyond any political agenda and permeates the culture. Many Japanese of all
ages are aware, consciously or not, that they have lost their hold on what the
novelist Saul Bellow, speaking of his identity as a Jew, once called "first
consciousness." Bellow wrote, "I can continue to do what I have done all my
life; that is, to turn instinctively toward my first consciousness. This first
consciousness has always seemed easily accessible and most real." Few
Japanese today have access to this degree of certainty about themselves. If
there is a central argument in the chronicle of contemporary Japanese life
which is the subject of this book, it is that much of current Japanese thinking
and behavior is colored by an urgently felt need to regain first consciousness
and the vitality it enables by connecting, or reconnecting, to native culture —
properly speaking, to native culture as it resides as a memory in the
imagination, before it was alloyed by "foreign" elements in the process of
While it is clear that many Japanese today are afflicted by a
troubling if often vaguely perceived sense of being lost, it is by no means true
that Japanese society today is paralyzed or static or even bereft of its fabled
vitality. In fact, contemporary Japan is undergoing convulsive changes in
values and behavior in government and politics, business, popular culture,
education, and family life, which are in the process of transforming the
society into a landscape radically different from its traditional, or even recent,
past. The chapters that follow will chronicle some of these changes and,
where possible, account for them in the context of existential uneasiness on
one hand and the related longing to rediscover and reclaim in a certain and
tangible way the meaning of "Japaneseness" on the other.
Some of these changes are ominous. Riotous classrooms in a
country long famous for respectful children, and the recent epidemic of
juvenile violence and crime, are disturbing symptoms of the breakdown of the
traditional family system. Others, the new breed of politicians whose doors
are always open to their constituents, or the recent emergence of young
entrepreneurs, may hold within themselves, like puzzles waiting to be
unlocked, the promise of new and heretofore unimaginable solutions to
wresting a substantial sense of self and purpose, national and individual, from
the confluence of "native" sensibilities and values and Western culture.
The book begins with the lawlessness in and out of the classroom
which has unseated the adult community and appears to be a reflection of its
own confusion. Chapter 2 focuses on the breakdown of the traditional family,
until recently the cornerstone of Japanese self-certainty. Chapter 3 examines
the unraveling of the familial ties between the business organization and the
company man. I have used the fundamental restructuring of Nissan Motors,
Japan's first major business organization to be led by a foreigner, as the
most dramatic example of a company struggling to achieve global viability
while preserving traditional Japanese business practices and social values.
Chapter 4 chronicles the growth of entrepreneurship that has occurred in
parallel with the breakdown of the corporate family. Chapter 5 profiles the
demagogue cartoonist Yoshinori Kobayashi in the context of emerging
neonationalism. Chapter 6 considers other manifestations of nationalism as a
quest for pride and self-certainty: the history textbook controversy of 2001
and recent trends in national policy. Chapter 7 profiles Japan's most
prominent neonationalist and xenophobe, Shintaro Ishihara. Chapter 8
introduces Ishihara's nemesis, Yasuo Tanaka, governor of Nagano
Prefecture, the new hero of the grass-roots citizens' movement.
As I write, outside interest in Japan is at a low ebb. Coverage in
our national media is a fraction of what it was even five years ago, and is
limited to impersonal analyses of the financial crisis and dire predictions for
the future. Still mired in its longest recession in postwar history, Japan is
perceived by many observers as having permanently lost its footing in the
world; some argue that the country is in the process of devolving into a third-
world nation. Predicting the future is a fool's game, but such a fall is unlikely.
Japan remains the world's largest creditor nation and has reserves of wealth
and a level of technology second only to the United States itself. More
important, in spite of everything, Japanese society retains its resoluteness
and creativity and vitality. I have tried to convey this truth in the pages that
follow, and particularly in the profiles of the remarkable individuals who are
living examples of the struggle and the national alteration in process. Japan
today feels like a bewildered giant. But the country has a long history of
discovering in the darkest days of its bewilderment a source of renewal.

Copyright © 2004 by John Nathan. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.

Meet the Author

John Nathan, the Takashima Professor of Japanese Cultural Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is the author of a definitive biography of the novelist Yukio Mishima and has translated the novels of both Mishima and the Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe into English. He is alsoan Emmy Award-winning filmmaker. John Nathanlives in Santa Barbara, California.

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