“the structure of the Japan in which we now live was set [in the mid-1950s] and has continued ever since. It is this that led to the big tragedy” Oe Kenzaburo
“In the last century, Japan seems to have run through a whole cycle of the modern experience, from industrialisation to nihilistic militarism, from the frenzy of economic growth to the passivity of otaku culture. It has objectified and instrumentalised nature, equated progress with technological advances, and, in its postmodern phase, equated individual subjectivity with sundering of social bonds; but the confusion and anomie that beset its greatest minds in the early 20th century seems to have only deepened.” Pankaj Mishra, A Nation’s State
Since the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, Japan has been a major influence on the whole of Asia. Their victory over Russia, emboldened and inspired budding nationalist movements across the continent as far afield as Turkey. Never having directly been colonised by a Western power, the archipelago began its modernisation process early and continued to prosper. This prosperity and the weakness of their neighbours developed alongside growing arrogance and imperial ambitions which led to war in China and the annexation of Korea. Their Empire expanded dramatically until World War II when they were comprehensively defeated by the allied powers. Unlike in Germany, this grotesque Imperial overreach and consequent collapse never led to any feelings of collective guilt or soul-searching. It was like the cruel US firebombing of 70 Japanese cities and the nuclear obliteration of 2, absolved them of their own crimes and enabled their own sense of victimhood without any acknowledgment of the malevolent nature of their fallen Empire. This was partially a result of the farcical US-conducted War Crimes Tribunal in Tokyo which exonerated Emperor Hirohito; the equivalent in Germany would’ve been exonerating Adolf Hitler had he lived to see the Nuremberg Trials. With its extraordinary economic growth from the 1950s to the 1990s, Japan’s prestige was ensured through its GDP instead of militarily. Its position as an enthusiastic client state of the US has shielded it from the hostility of its neighbours who’ve never forgiven it for its crimes. Today it is still an extraordinary country; it is a relatively equal society with low unemployment and one of the lowest crime rates in the world but there are many issues which could prove to be its undoing in the future.
Why am I rambling on about Japan’s history? Well, because during my time there it seems like it’s the most harmonious society I’ve ever visited and perhaps it is but the dark omens are mounting. The rising tide of nationalism and increasing militarism of the right-wing Abe government are alarming signs in a country that is propped up by US power. It’s a sad state of affairs in the 21st century when it’s not unimaginable that real conflict could occur in the far East between a rising China and a declining Japan (add Korea into the mix, and it’s an even bigger mess). Massive debt, an ageing population and a weakened currency are problems that will only get worse. The nuclear meltdown at Fukushima is a catastrophe that is massively downplayed by the Japanese government and has highlighted the irresponsible nature of the state. With the connivance of a powerful nuclear lobby there has been a media blackout in Japan about the extent, consequences and the inadequate government response to the disaster (almost matched by an international corporate media silence about the ongoing effects). The on-going fall-out is already far in excess of that of Chernobyl and yet the exclusion zone around the plant is only half the size of that in Ukraine/Belarus despite the crisis there being quickly contained (in contrast, Fukushima continues to release tonnes of radioactive ‘cooling water’ into the ocean and is likely to remain dangerously unstable for 100 years). One hope from all this is the awakening of the Japanese public to the true nature of their government (there have already been big protests about it) and could prompt a new wave of activism, fostering positive change in a society that desperately needs a new, radical, optimistic direction. You wouldn’t know the Fukushima crisis was happening from spending a short time Tokyo though. I go there for a day before getting a night bus back to Osaka and take in some of the main sights. I expected the Greater Tokyo area (the biggest metropolitan area in the world) to be chaotic and ugly but as much as I dislike big cites, it still feels relatively calm compared to every other big city I’ve been to.
The overnight bus from Tokyo to Osaka is one of the worst journeys I’ve ever had to endure. I believe I’d be on a ‘sleeper’ bus with ample room to at least move the seat back and stretch my legs but the conditions on the double decker bus are so cramped and uncomfortable I barely sleep. Added to the torture are bright lights that come on every time the driver decides to stop at a service station in the middle of the night, announcing this on the sound system. I don’t know what the fuck he’s going on about but he blathers on in a voice like a sleazy late night radio host for a few minutes each time. It’s as if he’s trying to placate a group of toddlers. He’s as irritating as it’s possible to be while remaining polite and violent fantasies go through my head as I silently seethe.
After getting some sleep in the same old-fashioned but comfortable hotel I stayed in two weeks ago my mood returns to its usual grumpy balance and I go to explore the busier streets of Osaka to enjoy the mellow strangeness of Japan for one last day.
Despite the same materialism and similar individualistic problems as the West, Japan is a much more civilised society. There’s a basic respect here that often seems absent in more ’emotionally open’ societies and the novelty of this is very attractive to me despite its own culturally unique imperfections. I hope the sayonara is a temporary one (the Goodbye Japan of the title of this post is not intended to be an a prophetic one on the existential status of the country!). I would be disappointed if I don’t get a chance to visit again in this lifetime.