Saturday, November 28, 2009

One Dark and Stormy Night

Washington has had a very unusual fall. It has been dark, cold, and wet. Many evenings are punctuated by violent thunderstorms that uproot trees and set roofs on fire. The thunder is so loud that it shakes the house and sets the cat racing about.

It was one such night that I was reading about contemporary Japanese society. It is now nearly banal to say that the country's recent elections reflected the need for politics to catch up with modern society. Laws, regulations, and social services have not kept pace with Japan's profound and uncomfortable social changes. Right and Left both complain that Japan has lost its sense of identity.

The laws maintained and the attitudes preserved as upholding the "Japanese" system were merely those of a small group of elites who managed Japan through the LDP. This ruling class had evolved to focus solely on maintaing its privilege, and not the greater social welfare. It did not govern. These politicians had ruled so long that Washington believed the LDP when told the party was the only legitimate representative of the Japanese people.

Many analysts like to point out that the DPJ is composed of many former LDP members. The new government is simply a recast LDP. After all there are quite a number of ultra-conservatives in the DPJ. Hatoyama's Cabinet has five members of Nippon Kaigi, which wants to revive the role of the Emperor and believes Japan was tricked into the War (Kamei, Fujii, Maehara, Nakai, and Matsuno). It is also common to say that the election results were a judgement on the LDP faults, rather than support of any positive action from the DPJ.

Nonetheless, the LDP does know something big has happened. In a recent Sentaku article, a conservative magazine, the author admits that the LDP did not and may not adapt to the changing circumstances. He notes that "Taro Aso, then prime minister and LDP president, attributed the loss to 'citizens' accumulated dissatisfaction and distrust toward my party over the years.'" Reviving the party may not be possible as "its eventual collapse or disintegration cannot be ruled out."

This political upheaval reflects an unhappy Japan. Nearly two decades of economic malaise and technological revolution have exposed some raw edges in Japanese society. Urbanization has stylized village-centric social rituals into meaninglessness. Globalization has undermined the traditional way of work. And the extended work-day of the average salaryman has undermined the family. The ageing population combined with inadequate care for the elder has seriously strained many families. Nearly 40% of jobs are temporary; young people isolate themselves; women don't want to marry; and men seem to prefer women with boyish attributes (unjaded young girls). There is little room for children in this world.

In Private Worlds: Lives spent lurking too long in the shadows of the virtual, Roland Kelts observes:
What the pathologies affecting Japanese all have in common is a rejection of active engagement, a refusal to participate in the actual world beyond the confines of specifically tailored, intimately controllable private spaces – a bedroom, a booth in an internet cafĂ©, an online chat room or a bulletin board site. It’s something I’ve taken to calling Japan’s “Bartleby rebellion,” after Herman Melville’s eponymous 19th-century law staffer in his novel Bartleby the Scrivener, whose refusal to accede to societal expectations eventually results in his rejection of sustenance itself. He starves himself to death in his prison cell. Bartleby’s irreverent mantra? “I’d prefer not to.” Tell that to the cops.
Kelts finds a deep pessimism in Japan. There is a younger generation not only unwilling to take risks, but also given few opportunities to take them. Anxiety has overtaken desire. And unfulfilled desire leads only to disillusionment, resignation, and anger. Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the industrialized world.

Technology has further stylized the minimalist Japanese aesthetic. Whereas the private world was idealized, it is now ensured by the computer screen. Strangely there is a deeper isolation in social networks, gaming, and blogging. Kelts finds
The Japanese have also proven particularly adept at cultivating private virtual worlds amid very crowded public realities. Author and translator Frederik L. Schodt, a veteran authority on Japanese pop culture media, has used the term “autistic” to define the characteristics of a comparatively inward-looking, narrowly focused sensibility.
Yet, and this is a big yet, all this ennui has produced some great creativity in the arts and literature. It also voted the LDP out of office. As the late economist Herb Stein, liked to say, If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.

And it did.

1 comment:

  1. Dunno really, seems like young folk here are so engaged in their societal duties - study study study, pass exams, find your place in the real world, is it any wonder they search for a virtual release?

    Just because some loony killer was into the internet, doesn't make the internet bad (cf is Catcher in the Rye inherently evil because John Lennon's killer obsessed about the book?). Are Japanese teens so different from their western counterparts?

    Kelts is interesting but attributes great meaning to the fact that in public Japanese don't engage in mindless chit chat, as Americans do, but that's just societal manners isn't it? But then, Our Man is allergic to any commentator who brings up "the nail that sticks out" thingy.


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