Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Ian Buruma on Japanese Nationalism

I attended a lecture by writer/journalist Ian Buruma last week but haven't had time to write about it until now. His talk was ostensibly on nationalism in Asia, but the focus was really on Japan. There was a little bit about China, and a brief mention or two of Korea.

Buruma reiterated what is pretty much the standard story about Japan--Japanese identity was lost after World War II and during the American occupation. The Japanese left supported the pacifist constitution, he said, because they believed Japan was like an alcoholic who had to swear off drinking forever. The right, on the other hand, argued that Japan had done nothing to be ashamed of, and those who said otherwise were victims of occupation propaganda. History, the right said, was being (re-)written by the victors.

Buruma says that there's been a recent upswing of nationalism in Japan, which he evidences by Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni Jinja, textbook reforms, and that other usual suspect, right-wing manga artist Kobayashi Yoshinori.

Like I said, pretty standard stuff so far, but what I thought was interesting was that he claimed nationalism has become mainstream due to a collapse of the left, which up until the 1980s kept the far right in check.

The part of the talk concerning China was mainly about the recent anti-Japan demonstrations there. While he admitted that the Chinese do have a legitimate grievance and the Japanese have not fully faced up to their actions during the war, neither is in the extreme the other makes it out to be. The Chinese know little about the various Japanese apologies for wartime conduct, and that the textbooks and the shrine visits are separate issues not worth the protests. The protests, he said, were "instrumentalized" by the government to deflect attention from homegrown problems.

I didn't have time to stick around and ask questions (hinshi bunkai awaited), but what I wanted to ask was, Why is it that both the Japanese left and the Japanese right agree that the soul of Japan is defined by its behavior during WWII? Important? Yes. 100%? No. Even if we take the war as the end of a process which began with the Meiji Restoration, isn't that still but a drop in the historical bucket? I know Japanese nationalists have created some kind of revisionist "Yamato spirit" and bushi propaganda during the war--hasn't anyone on the left or otherwise tried to rehabilitate those cultural images?

The other problem I had (have) is this view of China. It may be accurate to some extent, but I think it is perfectly plausible that a great number of Chinese like their system the way it is and like to see "troublemakers" (dissidents) get into trouble, etc. I mean, look at neocons in the States who would tell you anyone who criticizes the war or the president is unpatriotic. People like that would also certainly have strong anti-Japanese feelings but I wouldn't say they are only due to the fact that they've been manipulated. We can't assume that deep inside all Chinese wish they lived in the USA or the UK and would cherish "freedom" and "democracy." I don't think it's ncessarily the case that they were all stirred up to begin with and were "venting" by demonstrating against Japan.

As I have said, I am more of a Sinologist than Japanophile. I would like to hear opinions about the limited scope of Japanese debate on its own identity from people more informed than myself.

14 comments:

IbaDaiRon said...

I don't have any particular insights to offer on the Japanese situation; just wanted to note that what Buruma said about the Chinese government "instrumentalizing" the protests chimes in nicely with something a Chinese acquaintance said recently; in short, they seem to be trying to foster internal cohesion by emphasizing an external "common enemy."

Azuma said...

I'm very unsympathetic to this talk of Japanese nationalism. The loud, proud nationalism of China, and to a lesser extent Korea, throws the occasional hiccups of it in Japan to shame. For the Chinese to call Japan nationalistic for, what, wanting a standing army is just beyond parody, I think.

I still remember a huge banner just casually strapped across one of the tallest buildings in Kunming: "Long Live the Great Chinese Race!!!"
I don't think you could find something similar if you looked around Japan for a decade.

Matt said...

I think the reason that WWII (and the decades leading up to it) became such a focal point is because the government of the time intentionally painted it as a sort of apotheosis of Japaneseness, for want of a better word. They explicitly linked modern technology (especially of war and conquest, because that was what they were interested in) to ancient Japanese symbols, revised Shinto and the Emperor system to support their goals, etc.

You can also see those decades as the time when Japan first began making its own mark on the outside world (in a reprehensible way, but nevertheless, its mark), rather than simply ignoring it/studying and adapting its technologies and culture for internal use. Given that both the right and the left want Japan to be a major, respected world power, it's only natural that both should want to control the public's perception of this period.

Note that in non-political contexts, the preferred self-images tend to be Heian Kyoto (for a 'cultured', feminine image), the Sengoku period (for an exciting, manly image), the Edo Period (for a bustling, zany image) or the furuki yoki (postwar!) Showa period (for a 'natsukashii' image).

amida said...

IDR: I don't completely deny that the government is instrumentalizing the anti-Japan sentiment, but I think it is a dangerous assumption to say (as some do) that the CCP is allowing the Chinese people to "let off steam" against the Japanese. That's assuming they had some "steam" to begin with, and I think many, if not all, didn't.

azuma: Good point, but I am not so quick to discount Japanese nationalism. On my first visit to Japan I was shocked (and a bit amused) to see Japanese guys in Nazi-esque uniforms shouting about the Emperor and foreign domination from atop their parked sound truck in the middle of Ikebukuro.

Matt: This is very interesting. I guess what I am getting at is, this fundamental assumption of apotheosis of Japaneseness goes unchallenged. It might help the left position to at least partially discount that notion even if it is the point when Japan began to make an impact. ("Well, we got off to a bit of a rough start there, but Japan can be a positive force in the world because X Y and Z.") Then the images you mentioned could be recontextualized to fit.

It's a bit odd that this identity issue is so big while other parts of the war have become ancient history to the Japanese. I very rarely heard anything from Japanese people about the fact that our nations fought each other during WWII. I was actually pretty nervous when I went to Hiroshima because as an American I didn't know what to expect (emotionally or otherwise). Then as soon as we got there I saw a local walking around with a shopping bag emblazoned with a big... American flag.

By the way, Buruma's opinion was that normalization would bring Japan a larger degree of responsibility which would in turn help them to put the war in perspective. I tend to agree with that, but the reception that idea got from some Japanese around here suggests that perhaps there's a lot more to the story.

amida said...

Isn't the official line that a militaristic government usurped the Emperor's power and prosecuted an unnecessary war? Doesn't that leave "Japaneseness" at least partially in the clear? ("Tojo did it!")

Matt said...

Perhaps it's hard to get past it because some of the changes back then remains un-undone -- especially the Shinto/Emperor revisions. I suppose the Right has an interest in keeping that system together and useful. Much of the Left, on the other hand, doesn't buy the whole "the Emperor was an innocent puppet" story, so they're still picking away at it all.

Re the guys in sound trucks, they are disturbing, but they are more a product of the Japanese legal system (especially its free speech protections, partly thanks to postwar influence) and the cultural tendency to avoid confrontation (paradoxically -- this applies to everyone else, not the sound trucks!) than anything else. You'll note that even if they are in Ikebukuro blathering on, no-one stops to listen, and no-one takes them seriously. This, I think, indicates just how representative they are of the average Japanese citizen.

Azuma said...

I second Matt on the "black trucks". The children in my school, a country school in a town of 20 thousand, who know nothing about politics and care less, already know the word for "right wing", because it's the word adults use to explain to them "who those annoying people are driving the loud cars up and down the streets every now and then". None of the kids could explain to you about right and left in political terms, or even what "left wing" would mean. But when one of those back vans rolled a street away from my school and some kid said "what's that?" during a lesson, two or three students (12-year-olds!) said variations of "it's the right-wing".

Presumably there will always be a few nuts in the basket, so as long as Japanese law protects free speech, and Japanese people don't feel sufficiently annoyed enough to restrict them, they'll always be there for the uninformed Chinese tourist who can read "Kamikaze Squadron" on the side of their vans and take the news home. The difference between that and the active encouragement of nationalism by the Chinese government is like night and day, I feel.

Even on the Yasukuni issue, which I am sympathetic about, the bare half that supports the Prime Minister visiting it I feel is mostly motivated by a desire not to give in to modern, powerful, fearsome China, rather than to fight for the twisted representations of historical conquered, colonized China in the museum at Yasukuni. I'd be willing to wager that a mere fraction of that half would support him visiting the musuem as opposed to merely worshipping the war dead.

In fact, polls show that even among those who are against him going there, a large number want him to stop not because they agree with Chinese and Korean anger, but because they want to assuage it. I feel this is a very significant point. For most Japanese, who know the extent to which their modern society has totally disavowed, by voice and silence, the imperialist Japan of the past, that two dozen of the millions enshrined are war criminals is a symbol of unwillingness to face the crimes of the past is a ridiculous arguement. And even still, to assuage anger over a proposition they can't agree with, a huge number of Japanese are willing to go along in the prudent belief that China and Korea are worth it. Whatever that is, it's not a nationalist spirit.

Honestly, I think there's a lot more to protest in the textbooks than anything else, even if most people don't quite understand them. Not the wingnut textbook by Fusousha, which almost nobody uses, but the widely used, tamer ones. They don't so much whitewash history as ignore it. For most Japanese, for the children of my school, WWII is about the suffering of Japan. You probably would have to look long and hard to find a kid who would promptly respond with memorized right-wing justifications of say, the Manchurian "incident". But it would be incredibly easy to find kids 8 and adults) nearly completely ignorant about the entire invasion of China! And that is a big problem. But it's a flight impulse driving it, not a fighting one.
(Incidentally, a history study-aid I own by Sigma (a private company) actually makes an effort to emphasize the sufferings of Koreans and Chinese, but it has to be done in an "extra features" section, because, well, it won't appear on the government-text based tests. Too bad.)

Azuma said...

Heh. Come to think of it, those popular self-images Matt mentions are what attracted me to Japan too. Heian, Sengoku, Edo. Even I have to force myself read about WWII and the lead-up thereto. It's so bleakening. Like a box of pain and anger sitting there in locked silence on the end table. Lay a finger to it and it rushes up your spine in a cascade of red, shouting imagery. Release, shaking, and the room is silent again. Perhaps there must be a reckoning, but happily to let it decay under dust is an understandable longing..

amida said...

Thanks for the insightful comments, everyone.

More on the sound trucks--I take it that you guys see them as isolated nut-jobs and don't buy into the conspiracy theory that claims they are in leagues with their more mainstream right-wingers and are sent out to harrass enemies by parking in front of their businesses, etc. Maybe I have been reading too much Alex Kerr and Patrick Smith. It's plausible, I suppose. Here in the States the right-wingers have what lefties call a "right wing noise machine" of on-point talk shows, etc.--maybe in Japan they do literally.

And slightly off-topic but related: I saw an episode of the Tom Green Show where they were in Kyoto doing stupid and ridiculous stunts to catch the Japanese reaction... and there was none. I was so proud of the Japanese. Tom Green was shouting nonsense on the bus and people wouldn't even look at him. Beautiful.

Matt: Shinto revisionism being un-undone meaning it has not returned to the militaristic, nationalistic thing it was during the war? Or the pre-Meiji Shinto? I could see a healthy nationalism developing around the latter.

azuma: Excellent point about Yasukuni vs. the museum attached. I have to say, even as a Sinophile I sympathize with the desire of Japanese not to bend to China. After all, how many times have we heard China telling the world to keep out of its "internal affairs"?

Which brings me to another point about China. If this anti-Japan sentiment is being encouraged by the government, perhaps it is just as much for external reasons as internal. They might want to allow the feelings to get heated so as to keep Japan in check, to remain the only Asian power on the UN Security Council, etc.

(While travelling in China a couple years back, I switched on the TV to chill out after a long day. It seemed every channel was showing some movie about fighting the Japanese or the KMT or some such thing and I just wasn't in the mood. Finally I found one channel that was showing the Three Stooges--"Aah, I can relax with some mindless fun," I thought, when the Stooges started... blowing up Japanese people. No joke. The Chinese had unearthed some wartime anti-Japanese Three Stooges propaganda.)

And the textbooks: The one mentioned by Buruma was one written by the Tsukurukai, of which that manga artist is a member. It too has been adopted by a miniscule number of schools (though I read somewhere, schools for the learning impaired were early adopters--no joke). I think I am just about ready to consign these "nationalist manga" to the same Japan media hype as panty vending machines and Bladerunner references.

Azuma said...

Hmm... I've read Dogs and Demons ( before coming here). It made a lot of sense to me then, and a lot of it rings true, though certainly not all of it, even now. I did see a movie (Minbou), by the same guy who made Tampopo. Very funny. About some yakuza trying to shake down a hotel, and they do get some of the black vans to circle around the hotel trying to drive customers away at some point. From this I take it that it's easy to believe that yakuza have ties to the wingnut people. I have to say that I don't think the members of the LDP are in general in league with them. Remember that the poster boy for nationalism, Ishihara Shintarou, was forced to leave the party. I feel that there's a big difference between the right wing and the conservatives in Japan. I'm sure there's some crossover at the edges--not sure how much. But, say, I think the LDP wants Koizumi to visit the shrine because the bristle at the Chinese telling them how to honor their own war dead. I don't think they in general agree with the right-wingers outside the shrine prating about the "hoax" of the Nanking massacres and other such fun stuff. I hope not.

That's terrible about the three stooges show, sigh. But I know what you mean. Literally, how many movies can or must be made about the "War Against Japan"? It seems there must be a law, from what I saw during my semester there, that every night, on some channel , there must be something for those who want to get that "Down with the Japanese Devils" fix. I get the feeling that all of Chinese nationalism is waiting for an apotheosis of public Japan-shaming to compensate for the humiliation of WWII. It's too bad, really. It reminds me a lot of another country that went to war over intolerable humiliation by foreign powers about, say, sixty years ago. And we all know how that turned out.

And now back to something I enjoy thinking about! Classical Japanese verbs!

Matt said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I'm sure that there are some right-wing politicians with connections in the Noisy Black Van industry, but I don't believe it's because those politicians secretly share their extreme beliefs -- I think that it's a purely mercenary relationship, and the van people are just handy hired goons to use when you want to harrass someone. They need to make money somehow, and it'd certainly be difficult to find another group of people in Japan more ready and able to make a nuisance of themselves.

Re the un-undone -- right, I should have been clearer. I mean that the Meiji>1945 efforts to change the image of Shinto into that of a centralized National Religion dating back to the year dot with an uninterrupted chain of God-Emperors at its head were so successful that this is still sort of the default view for a lot of people, if you were to ask them "hey, so what's the deal with Shinto and the Emperor?"

I agree with you -- I think that Shinto in its localized, "original" form has incredible power, and it would be an obvious tradition to draw on for healthy national identity building -- a nationwide system with important, binding similarities combined with fascinating differences,

Matt said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
amida said...

Ah yes, Dogs and Demons--that's where I got that impression from. I always forget what was from Alex Kerr, what was from Patrick Smith, and what was from John Nathan.

Smith, in Japan: A Reinterpretation, says the "nationalists deny both history and their responsibilities in it, but... deserve a more careful hearing. [...] They alone stand for [self-respect, sovereignty, and Japaneseness], and make caricatures of them, for the simple reason that internationalists have surrendered the ground." Perhaps for the Japanese coming to terms with the world will mean coming to terms with themselves and when that happens the caricatures of "Japaneseness" that are perpetuated by the ultrarightists will be challenged. Pre-Meiji Shinto revival!