Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Whither Japan? and some thoughts on accountability

In the hope of musing on something completely unconnected to the horrors of the moment, I've been reading David Pilling's Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival. I know almost nothing about Japan except that Paul Krugman continually holds up the economic stagnation in that nation as a horrible precursor of where we may be going.

After reading Pilling, I can say I've been exposed to a bit more, even if I don't feel exactly enlightened. Pilling, a Brit who worked in Tokyo for the Financial Times from 2002 through 2008, sets out to share aspects of Japanese culture by way of historical data and voluminous interviews with contemporary Japanese leaders, scholars and ordinary citizens. He begins and ends with the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown followed by devastation and some recovery on the country's north sea coast. In between we meet government leaders, technocrats, entrepreneurs and non-profit enthusiasts, all contesting, mostly politely, the future of their country. I found the book fascinating, though sometimes hard to follow.

Perhaps wisely, though to the detriment of incisiveness, Pilling is partial to a familiar journalistic formula: recourse to on-the-one-hand, on-the-other hand story telling. And he hedges his conclusions. Some specimens of his technique, borrowed from James Fallows' review.

“It would be foolish to suggest that rapid aging doesn’t present big challenges.”

“It would be rash to claim that a single event, even one as traumatic as the March 2011 tsunami, could change society overnight.”

“We should be wary, though, of looking only at the surface.”

My personal "on the other hand" to my own critique seems warranted: what foreign observer can make strong pronouncements about a wildly different culture and country without including some cautionary qualifiers? Only a foolish one. David Pilling seems no fool and I appreciated what I learned from this volume.
One historical reality that may prove important for Japan's future is the country's failure to move beyond continuing resentment among people in places victimized by Japanese aggression in the mid-20th century. Quite understandably, Chinese and Koreans easily become aroused at any whiff of Japanese assertiveness. This makes for continued tensions with near-neighbor states and promotes continued Japanese dependence on an unequal alliance with the United States. (Japan was even drawn into committing troops to "humanitarian" missions in our Iraq war.)

Pilling attributes Japan's inability to soften its national image to a combination of its own nationalism, its feeling of victimization as the one people ever subjected to nuclear attack, and U.S. choices after the war. U.S. observers reflexively call out the Japanese for "racism. Pilling emphasizes a particular history.

The Americans' exoneration of the emperor, [scholar John Dower] concluded had turned the issue of 'war responsibility' into a joke. In post-war Germany, by contrast, Nazi leaders, ... had died or been executed. ...In Japan's case there was no such clean break with the past. ... Bureaucrats and politicians who had served during the war continued to play a prominent role after it.

Accountability for Japanese war crimes never took place, so no clean break ever came as far as Japan's critics are concerned.

When I think of the long catalog of crimes committed by my country, even if I limit my thoughts to the last century, I find it nearly impossible to imagine all the accountability we'd have to accept and the amends we ought to make to countries and peoples around the world. In addition to Japan's representing a cautionary story of the limits of bubble-inflated hypercapitalism, it also serves as a cautionary example of what happens when a country fails to face up to the evils of its own past actions. Horrors.

1 comment:

Hattie said...

There is so much to think about here. Japanese-Americans have their point of view based on the unfair treatment during the war and their eventual success as a "model minority."
I was in Japan in 1992 and found it completely alien and yet understandable (??????). I would have to write volumes here to explain this! I think it's because I was staying with a family and had three weeks of day to day interaction with them. This was a teacher exchange.
You could look at Musings (on my sidebar) and read about the travel experiences in Japan of my friends Kay and Art and her mother. They also have relatives near Fukishima and went to visit them after the disaster.
Two other fragments of thought here:
A nascent feminist movement was totally crushed in the 20's. Hence the "submissive" Japanese woman, so beloved of western men.
And the best thing I've read about Japan, and I can't remember the source, is that they industrialized without modernizing. I'm thinking about a Japanese friend who lives in Portland who goes back every year to her family in southern Japan to celebrate a day honoring her ancestors, even though she and her husband are, as they say, as poor as churchmice. They also visited the house in China where her parents, "new colonists," lived until they were chased out.
Weird, eh. This very liberal and intelligent woman does not in any way judge her parents for their opportunism. I actually experienced some of that mentality, I must say,in Germany among people who styled themselves as victims of the war.
Just fragments, as I say.

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