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Sunday, June 20, 2010

BIG IN JAPAN

Is Japan going loopy in a world so alien


"Loopy," "hapless," "embarrassing" — such is the world's, and Japan's, verdict on the short unhappy prime ministership of Yukio Hatoyama. In retrospect, this 21st-century Japanese Don Quixote seems to have been doomed to failure from the start. What he attempted was honorable, but impossible. What was this naturally compassionate man doing in politics? Answer: Learning the hard way that politics and compassion don't mix.

In his maiden speech to the Diet last October, Hatoyama, coarchitect of an electoral landslide that has almost certainly buried one-party rule in Japan once and for all, set out what he hoped to achieve as prime minister.

"There is no end," he said, "to the number of people who take their own lives because they cannot find in society even a humble place to which they belong, and yet politics and government are thoroughly insensitive to this fact. . . . My primary mission is to rectify this aberrant situation."

The name of the benevolent and moderate philosophy of which this was a capsule statement is yuai, a neologism combining the kanji characters for friendship and love. The word enjoyed a fleeting vogue as Japan and the world wondered just what it would mean in hard, practical, down-to-Earth terms. We now know. It means nothing. Hatoyama is history, and yuai, to all intents and purposes, is dead.

Political commentator Hisayuki Miyake rings its death knell. "Yuai," he tells Shukan Gendai magazine in an interview, "reminded me of Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda in 1977, when a JAL plane was hijacked to Dhaka."

Just as Hatoyama hoped to perfect the world with compassion, the revolutionary United Red Army of the 1970s hoped to perfect it with violence. Last gasp in a long terrorist campaign was the hijacking to the Bangladeshi capital of a JAL DC-8, with 156 passengers and crew aboard. The Red Army offered a deal — the hostages in exchange for six imprisoned Japanese radicals. To the horror of much of the world, Fukuda agreed. The remark with which he justified an apparently humiliating capitulation was, "Life weighs more heavily than the Earth." So it does, but whose life? If the freed radicals go on to commit mass murder — so went the worldwide criticism heaped on Japan — whose fault will it be?

Miyake sums up the qualities a leader needs in order to do good in a flawed, often brutal world: "A politician must sometimes kill small bugs so that big bugs may live. Hatoyama lacks that kind of heartlessness."

If he didn't have what it takes to lead Japan, Hatoyama at least represented Japan to perfection. In a sense he is Japan personified. The adjectives and nicknames that stuck to him — "loopy," "alien" — apply no less to the country, in its early 21st-century incarnation, than to the man. For better or for worse, Japan is going through a decidedly loopy phase, which it will be the role of this new column to chronicle.

Loops have ups and downs. By most definitions, Japan is down. A landmark book that appeared in the United States in 1979 titled "Japan As Number One" now reads like a quaint relic of the ancient past. Its author, Harvard scholar Ezra Vogel, wrote: "Japanese institutions have been extraordinarily successful. These successes are not only economic but political and social as well. . . . In many areas Japanese institutions are coping with the same problems we (Americans) confront more successfully than we are. Could we not profit by showing the same eagerness to learn from the East that Japan has shown in learning from the West?"

That was two recessions and one-and-a-half lost generations ago. Today the talk is of how to avoid falling into the Japanese miasma. In March, the weekly Shukan Post ran a story whose headline, in katakana English, was a mocking salute to Vogel: "Korea As Number One?"

An aging, stalled country peers into the future and sees . . . what? Blur, mostly. What will this most elderly society in history make of a world changing with such dizzying, propulsive, incomprehensible rapidity as to make past historic convulsions seem tame and predictable by comparison? There's good news and bad news — or maybe it's all bad news if the "loopy," "alien" vibrancy of manga, anime, computer games and cosplay (costume play) strikes you as absorbing a disproportionate share of the nation's creativity and external appeal.

Earlier this year, two magazines published articles suggesting a surrender to the direst prevailing forebodings. "Is it true," demanded Shukan Gendai in a black banner headline in February, "that the Japanese have grown stupid?" Its theme was declining educational standards and a consequent unfitness to meet the unprecedented challenges ahead. A month later, the biweekly Sapio offered its own views on "dumbing down." Its headline, splashed across the cover, reads like a reply to Shukan Gendai: "Year by year the Japanese are becoming unbelievably stupid."

This is a terrible time for that to be happening.



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