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Sunday, Nov. 4, 2012
Beware the parallels between boom-time Japan and present-day China
Special to The Japan Times
Futaro Gamagori was born into a destitute household. His father was a no-good womanizing lush; his mother, unable to afford medical care, died of illness. The young Futaro sets out on a life of serious crime — thieving, raping, murdering. He eventually becomes the rich president of a big company, but continues to debauch, assault and slaughter.
Fortunately, Gamagori is fictional — the main character in "Zenigeba," a manga story by George Akiyama. Zeni is a slightly low form of the word "money"; geba is from the German gewalt (power, force), and in this context means "violence." Hence "Zenigeba" could be translated as "Lust for Lucre."
The story began its serialized life in 1970 in Weekly Shonen Sunday published by Shogakukan. It was made into a movie that year starring iconoclastic dramatist/actor Juro Kara. Then, in 2009, the popular actor Kenichi Matsuyama played evil money-grubbing Gamagori in a television series.
I bring up this grisly character from 1970, a pivotal and portentous year for this country, because I see him as a kind of symbol, if a hyperbolic one, of the drive for riches that characterized Japan for decades after the end of World War II. A very similar drive pervades all levels of society in China today. Comparisons of Japan then and China now are eerily telling.
As I was living in Kyoto at the time, the opening of the world Expo '70 in nearby Osaka on March 15 that year was a major event. In all, it logged some 62-plus million admissions — and I was five of them.
Another event occurred, however, not a month into the opening, that threw a pall over the festive mood. An enormous gas explosion at the excavation site for a new Osaka subway line killed 79 people and injured 420. It taught that rapid urban modernization can come at a drastic cost.
The 2010 Expo in Shanghai hosted some 73 million people and played the same role for China as Expo '70 had for Japan: It opened people's eyes to the achievements of the nation and widened their global horizons. Last year, an accident involving a new fast train in Zhejiang province killed 38 and injured 192 ... and I flashed back to that gas explosion in Osaka.
The environmental movement was not even in its infancy in Japan in 1970, and the photochemical smog in Tokyo that summer was so bad as to be fatal for many. Beijing's air pollution now is so bad that Reuters has referred to the city as "Greyjing."
Young radicals were still active in Japan in 1970, though the student protests of the late 1960s were morphing into activists becoming engaged in violent infighting known as uchigeba (internal gewalt). In fact, it was the radical students' use of the word geba that had made its way into the title of Akiyama's startling work.
On March 31, 1970, nine members of the Red Army Faction of the Japanese Communist League, later to be renamed the Japanese Red Army, hijacked Japan Airlines flight 351 on its way from Haneda Airport in Tokyo to Fukuoka in Kyushu. After a stopover in Seoul, where they released passengers and crew, the plane flew to Pyongyang in North Korea, where they were granted asylum. This was Japan's first hijack incident; and it brought home to everyone in this country the damage that could be inflicted on it by young radicals out of control.
But it was another kind of hijacking in 1970 that shocked Japan even more as it, too, sent ripples round the world. Famed novelist Yukio Mishima showed up at the Eastern Army headquarters of the nation's Ground Self-Defense Force in Ichigaya, Tokyo, together with four members of his right-wing "army," the Tatenokai (Shield Society). Dressed in their smartly starched uniforms, they took over the second-floor office of Lt.-Gen. Kanetoshi Mashita. Then, after 45-year-old Mishima gave a short speech to SDF soldiers from the building's balcony, he returned to Mashita's office and thrust a short blade into his belly, and Tatenokai member Masakatsu Morita, acting as his second, promptly sliced off his head. (Curiously, this wasn't the first ritual suicide Mashita had witnessed. As a young officer, he had stood by as Maj. Makoto Haruke killed himself in August 1945 to atone to the Emperor for Japan having lost the war.)
Thus, with Mishima's final act on Nov. 25, that most dramatic year of 1970 drew to a close.
China is today witnessing hot-headed young radicals demonstrating out of control. Of course, the context is different; and, in the Chinese case, the impetus for the violence is coming primarily from the government itself.
But the nature of the violence is similar in that it is being perpetrated for reasons of ideology that relate to the very legitimacy — or illegitimacy — of governance.
The main reason why the demonstrators in China are venting their rage against Japan is that they are unable to vent it against their own government.
In Japan in 1970, issues of the legitimacy of power and of the wartime role of then Emperor Hirohito (posthumously called the Showa Emperor) was at the core of the violence. In China today, the legitimacy of the Communist Party to monopolize power in perpetuity is the single most crucial issue facing that nation.
If Japan has not come to terms with its crimes committed in the name of the Emperor during World War II, then neither has China faced up to the brutalities committed against tens of millions of ordinary Chinese citizens in the name of communism. Both nations are equally adept as gravediggers of the past.
Despite dissimilarities in political institutions and the role of law, China has chosen the same path as postwar Japan took: growth for growth's sake, the aggrandizement of money — and damn the environment. And the Chinese economy is also experiencing a property bubble strikingly reminiscent of Japan's in the 1980s.
History does not simply repeat itself: It goes underground and reemerges in another place at another time. The Chinese believe their road to power and prestige to be unique. But just as Japan provided the model for an Asian country to modernize back in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), so it affords the lessons of failure in our own era.
How will China cope peacefully when the economy slows down like Japan's? The Chinese would do well to look at Japan in the watershed year of 1970 and study what happened afterward.
Translate "Zenigeba" into Chinese, change the names and locations and you have a portrait of China 2012. An environment being destroyed in the name of "development"; gleaming Expos of progress alongside horrible accidents triggered by "progress"; a voracious lust for lucre and lawlessness paling anything that went on in Japan, even in the bubble era.
The blind fixation on money and mayhem in the circles of Chinese power prompt this question: Is Futaro Gamagori alive and well and thriving in China?