The Chrysanthemum and the Sword
Sipping sake in a noisy Japanese restaurant this noon, I incidentally cast a glimpse at the lunchtime news on the TV wall in the restaurant. The moderator was talking about something like Abe's recent decision to revise Japan's national defense guidelines and scramble fighter jets to head off China's marine airplanes patrolling the Diaoyu Islands. Hmm... interesting, I thought to myself. Seems that this Abe is really unusual. Could he be the guy to escalate the crisis and eventually ignite the regional arsenal? Well, in many ways...quite likely.
Then in the evening, when I browsed the Internet for some post-dinner leisure, I noticed, again incidentally, a piece of local news the mentioned Japan's new ambassador to China, Masato Kidera, was hosting an adulthood ceremony in Beijing for both Chinese and Japanese young people. The smile on the ambassador's face is so amicable that one can hardly notice the hostility and tensions between the countries. As I found out later from the news, the ambassador obviously would like to take the event as an opportunity to boost friendship among young people of the two countries. Or perhaps improve Japan's image among Chinese youngsters?
Having read the news, I could not help developing two sets of very different images in my mind about the country: one smiling, amicable Japan and one belligerent, evil-minded Japan ... one lovely Japan represented by such cartoon figures as Chibi Maruko Chan and one militant, aggressive Japan embodied by samurai (yes, the same samurai in the 2003 Tom Cruise/Edward Zwick movie "The Last Samurai").
Perhaps the images of chrysanthemum and the sword put forward by anthropologist Ruth Benedict more than six decades ago are more accurate. Benedict's The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture (1946) was sponsored by the US Office of War Information and so great was its influence that Benedict's support for keeping the Japanese emperor in power was eventually accepted by Washington. The book sold two million copies in Japan and in the 2000s has sold nearly 100,000 copies in China. It is one of the most influential books available in terms of shaping attitudes towards Japan, including the attitudes of Japanese themselves.
Benedict relied partially on information from interviews with Robert Hashima, a Japanese-American who experienced the growing military aggressiveness of pre-war Japan. Hashima, like many, didn't like the growing fascist tendencies of the Japanese and Benedict's book reflects those sentiments. She finds Japanese culture to be ever holding two perspectives at once. The Japanese, she writes, are aggressive and unaggressive, brutal yet peaceable, rude yet respectful, brave yet fearful, creative yet rigid, etc. The book also distinguishes between shame-based cultures of Asia and guilt-based cultures of the West. This distinction continues to color anthropological arguments over Japanese behaviors to this day.
Benedict's book was written during World War II as an attempt to understand the culture of a powerful enemy, and therefore she was never able to travel to the society she was analyzing. Nonetheless, as I've pointed out, her insights continue to be influential. One can read into Benedict's work the idea that shame/honor based cultures like those of Japan inhabit an atmosphere of subdued yet incipient violence. In guilt-based societies with the expectations of an afterlife, sins can be expiated via confession. But no such outlet is available in shame-based societies where the punishment is ostracism and the honorable solution is often suicide.
But what of whole societies? One can argue that Japanese society has been pushed to the limit by a 20-year-old recession, a series of terrible geological/nuclear disasters and a calcified economic and political system that is incapable of resolving the culture's larger problems. The result has been a plunging birth rate, an infantilizing of Japanese young adults and a general sense of hopelessness stemming from a stagnant economy and an ongoing, grinding lack of employment.
These problems tend to feed on themselves, especially the low birthrate that exacerbates larger, negative economic-demographic trends having to do with the ability of society to support its promises to the elderly regarding financial support and adequate health care. As Japanese society continues to buckle under these manifold difficulties, the political leadership itself faces the shame of multiple failures and ongoing exposures as inadequate.
The society itself, however, cannot commit seppuku, and the alternative for us is at once more dismaying and even threatening. Bound by traditional habits (and post-war Japanese behavior has not changed nearly as much as one might think), political leaders will eschew personal violence for state aggressiveness. Failure must be expunged, perhaps by blood, but unfortunately it will not be the blood of leaders, ordinarily, that will be spilled. As has been the case previously, ordinary Japanese will suffer.
In true shame-oriented cultures, the duty of the individual as regards the larger culture is paramount. Self-respect is acquired by performing according to social expectations. The penalty for failure – even today – is often self-violence resulting in death. When such societies are stressed beyond normal toleration, one can begin to chart the eventual cultural collapse. As we can see in Japan, it is a slow collapse, rooted in demographics and a gradual renunciation of cultural validity. As people cease to believe, the society slowly dies.
But this does not hold true for the political culture. Japan, almost above all countries, is culturally predestined to react to larger social failures with a kind of aggressiveness both at home and abroad. There is no mechanism, for instance, for admitting that building nuclear power plants on fault lines is an unwise decision. To admit the larger incompetence would be to admit an inadmissible political failure. And thus it is that Japan's nuclear policies will be very slow to change, if they are to change at all.
What will change is the Japanese government's behavior toward those countries that surround it, with China being the most obvious target. I opened this article by mentioning Japanese behavior in regards to the controversial Diaoyu Islands. As I am writing it I see on my computer that according to Sina, Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera has just announced at a press conference that Japan will react with the "right" countermeasures in accordance with international guidelines if Chinese planes enter airspace over the islands.
When asked by a reporter from Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV to confirm earlier reports that Japan will fire warning shots at Chinese planes, he stressed Japan will fire flares to ward off them if the Chinese side defy Japan's warning sent by radio. "All countries will respond to airspace violations", Onedera added. – Sina
Is escalation inevitable? Will the sword soon replace the chrysanthemum in the hands of the Japanese samurai? I guess all stakeholders, including the US and China, are watching the game closely to draw conclusions and formulate their respective strategies. In this process, however, there is an important historical fact that no party should lose sight of. That is, compared to the 1930s when Japan started to exercise aggressions in China, China is economically much better off than Japan and politically less disintegrated this time. China's leadership seems to be keeping a steady hand on the tiller, cultivating a growing relationship with Japan. But let no one be blinded by illusions. Both sides are duplicitous – as duplicity lies at the heart of diplomacy – and this duplicity, coupled with various socio-economic and military manipulations, may soon culminate in the Event.
The grand drama unfolds ... Albert Einstein correctly pointed out many years ago that "we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper..."
Posted by 1776 on 01/19/13 02:50 PM
Temple distributes porridge, causing disorder Updated: 2013-01-19 (Xinhua)
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Posted by kapie9969 on 01/18/13 07:32 PM
One thing that is confusing is how the japanese make everything really nice and lasts a long time.
Chinese stuff is junk,ive never seen anything made well from china.
I always figured we could just place nuclear submarines in strategic spots and any enemy of ours cant win.Well if we actually used them.
A submariner told me two subs,one in Alaska and one in Maine can preety much destroy the planet from the docks! I think he said something like each missle(eight?)carried 164 warheads. These phony wars we fight are bulsht. ten years plus years in Afganistan? drop large bombs on major citys and crush the will of anyone to fight against us.
But no its all about contractors milking the american public, against countrys that i dont see as a security threat to the usa.
Posted by rossbcan on 01/17/13 09:58 PM
"there is an important historical fact that no party should lose sight of"
... divided they fall, big and small
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... prevents the inequities that are exploited by thos whom create conflict.
Posted by Saidani on 01/17/13 12:44 PM
Perhaps the government should be as concerned about the growing discontent by the Japanese youth who not only face a rather bleak future but are less likely to be rallied by a nationalistic fervor brought on by a crisis with China than in the past.
The economic collapse, the societal decline, and the growth of information technology have given this generation of youth a different perspective than their parents. They have grown up in uninspiring times and are beginning to realize that the government does not hold the answers for their dilemma.
As for the government, it has few resources available to inspire this generation or calm the discontent. Pushing a confrontation with China may not yield the domestic results Abe might hope for, especially from this generation.