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Sunday, Nov. 17, 2002

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Sit up and beg, there's a good boy


The fatal stabbing of an independent-minded Diet member by an unbalanced ultrarightist last month raised the specter of the kind of political terrorism seen in pre-World War II Japan. If the global economy should worsen, could Japan once again fall into ultranationalism?

A timely new book by Rika Kayama examines the emergence of an unthinking and unselfconscious new nationalism among the younger generation in Japan, which she calls "petit nationalism" (nationalism lite). In "Puchi nashonarizumu shokogun" (The Petit Nationalism Syndrome; Chuko Shinsho), Kayama, a psychiatrist and social commentator, considers the implications of the new patriotism on display in, for example, the singing (often by "idol" singers) of the traditional national anthem at sporting events, and the waving of small Japanese flags at the World Cup games.

She is startled that young people today, unlike their parents' generation, can say "I love Japan" without any sense of ambivalence or irony. Similarly, they can say "I love my father" or "My dad is the greatest," as in a recent series of TV ads, without the mixed feelings and resentments of a generation raised by strict and domineering fathers. In the world of psychiatry as well, practitioners are seeing fewer cases centering around conflict with the father and more cases of separation issues involving the mother.

Indeed, Kayama wonders if Japan isn't witnessing a change in the psyche of the young, with many using the psychological mechanisms of splitting and dissociation to avoid integrating unpleasant experiences into the self. They lack a strong sense of identity and, rather than making objective and reasoned judgments, tend to either love or hate something, and to quickly flip-flop between the two emotions.

Splitting and dissociation also lead to a lack of any self-reflection and doubts, of any regrets or historical memory of past dark spots (such as Japanese war crimes). Kayama notes the increase in recent years in "realist" intellectual commentary by a new generation who takes the present as it is, divorced from history or left/right ideology. Such bottom-line, status-quo thinking accepts a society of winners and losers based on achievement -- or the achievements of one's ancestors -- and a growing gap in wealth and status among different social classes. Kayama worries that those left behind in Japan might well fall into a politics of discontent and ultranationalism.

She wonders if the extreme behavior of some World Cup fans (who did things like throwing themselves into a river to celebrate their team's victory) was not out of such wordless discontent, and notes that other youth disturbances have been occurring throughout Japan, for example at coming-of-age ceremonies and among those who gather to watch motorcycle gangs meet. However, localities have been active in organizing festivals and other events to dissipate the excess energies of young people living boring and dead-end lives. In particular, the popular Yosakoi Soran festival -- a kind of Bon odori/Rio Carnival hybrid -- gives alienated youth the opportunity to come together into teams and create a four-and-a-half minute performance for a combination parade and dance contest.

Kayama thinks the incorporation here of traditional Japanese motifs and symbols may not come so much from pride in Japan as from the lack of other sources of identity or a place in society. And she worries that young people's inarticulate frustration and search for security in a group identity could make them easy prey for a charismatic fascist leader. Meanwhile, the increasingly squeezed middle-class, although still identifying with the elite, now regards Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara as its last hope -- as if out of a vague premonition of further erosion of its status -- and turns a blind eye to his rightist leanings,

In an interesting section Kayama briefly wonders if young, elite, professional women might not be a source of change in Japan. Unlike privileged young men who accept the status quo and work to advance their own self-interest as a matter of course, elite women batting their heads daily against invisible barriers are forced, almost against their will, into a skeptical and questioning frame of mind, always searching out hidden motives and meaning behind the surface reality.

In this connection Kayama introduces a manga popular with young women now, Yayoi Ogawa's "Kimi wa petto" (You Are My Pet; Kodansha Comics Kiss), which details the odd relationship between such an elite professional woman and a young man who has dropped out from the social system altogether.

A Tokyo University graduate on the career track at a large newspaper, Sumire has been jilted by her longtime boyfriend for someone who is easier to be with, someone who isn't taller, smarter and earning more than himself. One day she comes home and finds a young man sleeping in a cardboard box outside her apartment building. She takes him in for the night and ends up offering to feed and keep him like a pet dog or cat. An unambitious but talented modern-dance performer, he happily accepts her proposal and is dubbed Momo after her childhood pet dog.

In one episode I read -- there are five volumes out now in the ongoing series -- there was a classic example of Japanese passive-aggressive behavior in which Sumire calmly and in a businesslike way tells an office lady working under her that she has made an error in addressing an envelope. A few hours later, the OL comes up to her in the company cafeteria and tearfully apologizes for making her so angry over the envelope. All the men rush to soothe this poor little abused girl, while Sumire is admonished for being mean to someone not strong like herself.

However, I found the pet theme, although intriguing in the abstract, to be rather creepy when portrayed in detail (as in Sumire sneaking medicine into the young man's food when he seems depressed). It does dramatize well, though, the difficult position of such women in Japan today: Sumire is only able to let down her guard with a "pet" male outside normal male-female relations.

Perhaps the artistic conceit of Momo the good pet, cheerful and doggishly affectionate, is especially unsettling because of the actual existence of an estimated million "bad pets" in Japan, the hikikomori males in their 20s and 30s who are dark and silent presences in the family home, never venturing outside into Japanese society. Their existence is one warning signal overlooked by Kayama in her provocative, if somewhat sketchy book.

Janet Ashby, a freelance writer and translator, came to Japan in 1975. She has a special interest in Japanese pop culture.


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