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Sunday, Nov. 6, 2005

COUNTERPOINT

Say 'cheese' and snap out of such fanciful thinking


Special to The Japan Times

Foreign-ministers-in-waiting don't drop clangers for nothing. When the then Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Taro Aso spoke last month at the newly-opened Kyushu National Museum in Dazaifu, Fukuoka Prefecture, he fully expected his clanger to resound and reverberate when it hit the ground. Now, just weeks later, Mr. Aso has been named foreign minister in the new Koizumi cabinet.

As reported in The Japan Times (Oct. 18), Mr. Aso stated that Japan comprises one nation, one civilization, one language, one culture and one race. And this at a museum that is dedicating itself to Japan's historical and cultural ties with other Asian countries!

Before looking at the ulterior motive for such a misguided and unschooled claim, let's examine its content. Is there actually just one Japan that has, in every cultural and ethnic sense, the consistency of a big block of Kraft cheese?

To give the new foreign minister his due, his opinion about Japanese ethnic purity is misrepresented by the use of the word "race" in the English-language media translations of his statement. He used the word minzoku, which is not "race," but rather "nationality" or "ethnic group." He was voicing his opinion that all Japanese are part of a single nation of people, in the sense of the word as it is used, for instance, in describing the "Navajo nation" or the "nation of Kurds."

Be that as it may, this view of Japan is no more than fanciful myth.

Japan is a conglomerate of many ethnic and cultural elements. It has always been a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society in which indigenous currents have intermingled with those at first from the Asian continent and later from Europe and the United States. It is Japan's robust openness to foreign cultures throughout the ages -- while adhering to tradition -- that has given its people the means to create the ultra-modern country we see today.

I have always felt that far from having one culture the Japanese have at least six. Moreover, among these there are countless nuances and rich distinctions.

The Ainu culture, based as it was in Hokkaido, has exerted a major influence on the traditions of Japan. Contrary to popular belief, the Ainu had spread far beyond the shores of Hokkaido, as place names of Ainu origin as far afield as western Japan attest to. I might remind Mr. Aso, too, that even the Japanese word for "god" or "divinity" -- kami -- is derived from an Ainu word.

The second distinct Japanese culture would be, to my mind, that seen in the Tohoku region. I have spent a good deal of time in the northern prefectures of Honshu, and am always impressed by the tumult of nature there as it is described in the poetry of Kenji Miyazawa, giving rise to an aesthetic very different from the more delicate, understated Japanese one that is more widely known. The term gennihon, which means "the original, or primeval Japan," has been applied to this northern region of natural upheaval and elemental spirituality.

The bustling mercantile culture of Edo was formed by migrants from all over the country, turning into Tokyo with its chic fads and quick-change designer lifestyles. This created yet another kind of Japanese culture and civilization. This is where the money and the mouth of Japan are. Perhaps no nation has so concentrated its traditional and contemporary cultures in one place to this extent. It's well-nigh impossible to get a foothold in the nation's culture without stepping into Tokyo, where virtually all of the publishers, media groups and major galleries are headquartered. Tokyo civilization is brusque and understated, in your face and in the clouds at the same time. If that's a contradiction, then contradiction rules the day in Tokyo.

The culture -- or cultures -- of Yamato took form in Nara and Kyoto. This form of Japanese civilization, with its elegant poetry and profound beauty, has for centuries symbolized the subdued grandeur of Japan to the outside world. Add to this the Liverpool-like, Chicago-like brashness, wit and energy of Osaka, and the cosmopolitanism of Kobe, and you get a unique Kansai culture with, I might add for Mr. Aso's sake, a dialect that is, in some ways, as far away from "standard Japanese" as Swedish is from Norwegian.

The fifth Japanese culture exists in the very region where Mr. Aso gave his speech, northern Kyushu, where he himself hails from. The influence of Korean arts, philosophy, architecture and customs in that area has been immense. The pottery tradition there was inspired by Koreans, as were many of the stunning temples and Buddhas hewn in rock.

Finally, there is Okinawa, a nation of people set apart linguistically, ethnically and culturally from the Japanese. In the southern islands of Yaeyama people consider themselves separate again from the Okinawans. Jasmine tea, not green tea, is generally drunk there; many people eat their sashimi with garlic instead of wasabi; and the cherry blossom is a symbol of a distant land that people call "Yamato."

And there is a growing "seventh Japan," composed of non-native Japanese who wish to spend their lives here and contribute to Japan's society and culture.

Author Ango Sakaguchi once wrote that the Japanese people don't need to discover Japan, because they already are Japanese. But I suppose that the above description of "six Japans," written as it is in the form of cultural travelogue, might be useful for some parochial Japanese as well. Perhaps there is a need for some Japanese politicians, if not to discover, then at least to reconnect with their country's reality. Playing the philistine may garner support amid a minority nationalistic constituency; but the constituency of a Japanese foreign minister goes far beyond the confines of chauvinistic cliques and patriotic interest groups. A Japan that is recognized for its ethnic and cultural diversity is a Japan that will play an articulate and persuasive role on the world stage.

"One nation?" "One civilization?" "One culture?"

This variety of dramatic monologue is no more than a hackneyed alliterative device. It's bad theater and it's bad politics.

Was Mr. Aso delivering a not-so-subtle message to Japan's Asian neighbors, that they would be facing a united patriotic front?

Whatever his motive, his clanger will reverberate. Its resounding tones will send Japan's wellwishers here and overseas away with their heads bent shamefully down and their hands clasped firmly over their ears.



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