Individualism, Japanese Style

byNorma Field.Pantheon, $22.00.
FOREIGN DISCUSSIONS about Japan often boil down to more or less polite versions of a single question: How different are these people, really? In Thailand, I once saw a photo of the man who was then the Thai Prime Minister slithering across a floor on his belly because a member of the Thai royal family was in the room. This behavior, although it made sense within the society’s own rules of conduct, struck me as an exception; most other interactions in Thai daily life can be explained by rules that prevail around the world.
In Japan the actions that must be explained by local social rules are more numerous. The chirping, falsetto voice that women adopt when speaking to men, the reflexive bowing even when speaking on the phone—these and other phenomena naturally arouse outsiders’ interest. The most compelling questions about Japanese behavior are those that concern the balance between individual and group. How can so many millions of people be encouraged, or required, to suppress their impulses and idiosyncrasies so as to blend in with the mass? Why do people so often act as if their identity as members— of team, company, or nation—is more important than their individual interests and roles? People in other societies do the same thing, of course, but usually on a limited scale—family by family, on sporting teams, or in armies.
Attempts to account for Japan’s group spirit fall mainly into two categories: “system” and “culture.”The system approach assumes that Japanese people have the same desires and resentments as people anywhere else, but that an unusually thoroughgoing, subtle, and effective system of controls keeps most of them in line. For instance, Japanese people waste very little time and money suing one another, even though they have the same disagreements that people in other societies resolve in court. The most important single reason is that Japan’s courts and legal apparatus have been deliberately kept in a vestigial condition, so that it is hard and costly for citizens to bring suit. Similarly, the main reason Japanese students put up with the notorious rigors of the school system, with its hair-length regulations and endless rote-memory exams, is that they have no choice. Corporate hiring policies are such that students who rebel or slack off during the high school years have virtually no chance of ever getting a good job.
Explanations from the culture category maintain that Japan’s people willingly accept the constraints that are placed upon them, just as members of a family or a religious order might, because they know that discipline makes the whole society strong. Japanese spokesmen have usually sounded apologetic when advancing the cultural theories, saying that it would take a while before Japan could “catch up" with individual-minded, rights-oriented democracy as practiced in the West. Recently a number of Japanese intellectuals, along with others in Asia (notably Lee Kuan Yew, of Singapore), have stopped apologizing and started asserting that a more controlled, group-oriented, authoritarian political system might be better matched to the basic values of their region.
Norma Field’s book, which is about individuals who stand up for their own unpopular beliefs in Japan, implicitly offers strong support for the system view. But skipping ahead to that political message may be a disservice to the book. It is remarkable first as a vivid, taut, graceful piece of writing. Being immersed in a foreign culture can be at once exhilarating and frightening: the strangeness you see around you challenges your assumptions and ideas about how society should operate. The real test of writing about a foreign culture is whether the author can convey that exciting yet threatening sense of immersion. In the Realm of a Dying Emperor does so with tremendous power.
Field, who teaches Japanese literature at the University of Chicago, was born and raised in Japan. Fler father was an American soldier who came to Japan during the Occupation and stayed for a while as a civilian employee. He left the family when she was a child. After finishing high school in Japan, Field came to the United States for college and stayed to make her career here, but her mother and most of her relatives still live in Japan.
In the summer of 1988 Field returned to spend a year in Japan. The visit proved to be well timed. Japan’s economic success was ratified and consolidated in this period, and its political system went through upheavals that seemed important at the time. And what became the most dramatic event in many years began just after Field’s arrival: the prolonged and eerily humiliating deathwatch for the Showa Emperor, whom we know as Hirohito.
The Emperor was treated during this time as both more and less than a human being. Out of “respect for His feelings,”and in keeping with the Japanese theory that terminally ill patients should not be told what is really wrong with them, newspaper and TV accounts generally refused to mention the name of his disease: abdominal cancer. He was said instead to have taken a “turn for the worse” starting in September. Yet for the next four months there were news-flash updates four times a day and page-one charts about the Emperor’s toketsu and gekketsu—how many cubic centimeters of blood he had vomited or discharged from his rectum since the previous report. His actual death, on a rainy Saturday morning early in 1989, was perfectly timed so as to minimize interference with Japan’s elaborate New Year’s holiday season. It had the air of an administered event, since the Emperor had been kept alive during the preceding months through transfusions totaling some thirty gallons of blood.
The months between the Emperor’s “turn for the worse" and his eventual “demise” (a comparably elevated word, rather than the simple counterpart to “death,” was used to describe his passing) seemed dense with powerful but half-expressed emotions, because so many of Japan’s successes and failures were bound up with this man. The failures included not just the obvious one, Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, but also the country’s postwar failure, or refusal, to come to terms with what it had done before and during the war. In the early months of the Occupation, Douglas MacArthur and other U.S. authorities resisted Australian and British suggestions that the Emperor be put on trial as a war criminal. The American theory was that the Emperor could be more useful on the throne than in the dock. No doubt this was the right choice. But the Occupation policy was subtly different from a forgive-and-forget approach. In practice the policy was an agreement simply to forget the preceding decade of the Emperor’s life, and to decree a version of history in which he had always been a mild-mannered marine biologist wringing his hands disconsolately as the evil militarists went wild.
Because the country was so poor after the war, and above all because of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the prevailing view among the Japanese was that the moral slate concerning the Emperor and themselves had been wiped clean. It was time to move on, rather than to look backward at unpleasantness or wallow in guilt. As Field says, “The difficulty of discussing war guilt in general and of imperial responsibility in particular produced a national amnesia that first mobilized a labor force for stupendously hard work and then facilitated the transition to unreflective prosperity.”
The question of war responsibility, like the nature of the Emperor’s disease, was barely discussed while he lay waiting for death. Around this period Norma Field was visiting three people who in varying ways were challenging the rules, trying to remind their countrymen of issues that had officially been declared closed. Most of the book consists of Field’s profiles of these three, who in modest, unflamboyant, but completely iron-willed ways were determined to stand up for their beliefs.
THE FIRST IS Shoichi Chibana, a supermarket owner in Okinawa, who in 1987 burned the Japanese flag during a national sports meet in Yomitanson, a village on Okinawa. The act was extraordinary, for reasons different from those that would apply in the United States. The risingsun Japanese flag is not quite the object of mass veneration that the Stars and Stripes has become. It would be surprising to see it flown outside someone’s house, and many groups consider it a symbol of militarism. Still, to burn it is shocking, and the impact was compounded by the disturbance of a large, very formal ceremony. “To create an awkward moment is a sin in Japan,” Field says. “To cause disruption puts one beyond the pale.”Chibana paid a high price for his moment of defiance. He was put on trial for flag-burning, through which the government apparently hoped to establish the flag’s official status. The trial was still dragging on when Field completed her book, but Chibana had been ostracized by many in his community, had received threatening letters from the Japanese right wing, and saw his supermarket business fall off for a while.
Field tries to unravel Chibana’s motives, through a series of flashbacks about what the war and its aftermath meant to Okinawa, especially in its relationship to the rest of Japan. Okinawa, with the other Ryukyu Islands, had been an independent kingdom before it was conquered and absorbed by Japan. Since then its status has been roughly similar to Puerto Rico’s relative to the United States. Legally Okinawans stand on equal footing with other Japanese, but economically, educationally, and socially they do not. People in Okinawa still talk about “the Japanese” as if they were a separate nationality. “The reversion of Okinawa [from U.S. control] to Japan in 1972 effected only telling variations on the motif of inferiority,” Field says.
Prostitutes had to shift their attention from American GIs to the construction workers descending from the mainland [that is, the main islands of Japan] for a succession of projects that were to bring the trappings of Japanese prosperity to the islands. . . . ‘Blue skies, blue seas’ became the Homeric epithet for Okinawa in travel posters. Pineapple, sugar cane, and easy—that is, dark—women; tropicality, relative undress, pleasure, and second-class citizenship.
The most disturbing part of the Okinawan complaint is the widespread belief that Japanese commanders chose Okinawa as the place to make their major stand against the Americans in April of 1945 knowing that horrific suffering would be inflicted on civilians. By burning the flag, Chibana meant to commemorate one particularly gruesome episode that reflected the wartime mentality of Japan—and had been covered up as part of the country’s “war amnesia.”
On April 1, 1945, as the Americans began their invasion, 140 Okinawans, mainly women and children, hid in terror in a cave near the village of Yomitanson. They had been led to expect that the Americans would behave mercilessly when they took charge. American soldiers came to the cave and, through an interpreter, told the villagers that they would be safe if they left the cave. “That no one could believe this message was the immediate cause of the tragedy about to take place,” Field says. Eighty-two of the people in the cave, including forty-seven children, then perished, in an act described as shudan jiketsu, or “collective suicide.”A mother drove a knife through her teenage daughter’s neck, so that she could die while “she was still pure.” An army nurse injected her whole family with poison. “Many others begged her to inject them, but she refused, saying she had just enough for her own family and relatives,” Field says.
Memories of the cave episode were generally suppressed after the war, Field says. When mentioned at all, it was supposed to be regarded as a Masada-like demonstration of commitment and iron will. (Field points out that the many Japanese soldiers who killed themselves rather than submit to capture are officially recorded as cases of gyokusai. Dictionaries render this term as “death for honor,” but the characters that make it up literally mean “shattering jewels.”) Field argues that it should instead be seen as an episode of “compulsory group suicide,” because of the many pressures operating on the families in the cave. These included the Japanese army’s threats to kill any stragglers who got in the way, and above all the ideology that citizens could never do enough to prove their loyalty to the Emperor. Shoichi Chibana paid his price because he wanted to have the episode remembered as a tragedy, as part of a more honest view of the war as a whole.
THE SECOND profile is of Yasuko Nakaya, a middle-aged widow who waged a long and ultimately futile legal struggle over the separation of Church and State. Her husband had been a member of Japan’s postwar Self-Defense Force, the ambiguous army-like entity whose very existence seems contrary to the Japanese constitution. (The famous Article IX of the constitution says, “Land, sea, and air forces will never be maintained.” Japan gets around this contradiction by saying that no matter what is in a constitution, a nation cannot give up its inherent right to self-defense. Thus the armed force is always referred to as the jieitai, literally “self-defending force,” rather than the gun, or “army.”) The Self-Defense Force, or SDF, is ignored by the public at large, but Japanese right-wingers have deeply divided feelings about it. The postwar constitution, which was imposed by Americans and led to Japan’s current semiarmy, “is for conservative Japanese a grating symbol of the unmanning of their nation,” Field says. Some of this feeling of dishonor spills over onto the SDF. But at the same time, some conservatives see the military as the remaining vessel of national self-respect. Therefore they are always looking for ways to improve its now shaky public image.
Nakaya’s husband was killed in 1968, in a traffic accident while on SDF business. Soon afterward the veterans’ organization that maintains religio-patriotic Defense-of-the-Nation Shrines for Japan’s war dead inscribed his name on a shrine as a mikoto, a spirit that has been “apotheosized,” because he died in the defense of his country. Nakaya, who is part of Japan’s tiny Christian minority, argued that having her husband’s name appropriated by another religion disturbed her religious peace of mind. (The husband himself had not been a Christian.) Moreover, she argued that the apotheosis of SDF members, though not technically carried out by the state, blurred the Church-State distinction. In effect it was a step toward the wartime system of “State Shinto,” in which death for the Emperor was the highest religious act. After many years of appeals, and increasing social ostracism of Yasuko Nakaya, the Japanese supreme court rejected her claim, by a 14-1 vote.
In telling this story Field evokes several background themes. One is the awkward position of Christianity in Japan, which seems grating to many Japanese because it has been associated with social climbing, and also because of its insistence that people who are Christians cannot be anything else. Most Japanese participate in different religions at different stages of their lives, typically being baptized and married in Shinto ceremonies and buried as Buddhists. “Such habits produce a tolerance that contains its own intolerance, for an exclusive faith such as Christianity necessarily seems aberrant and at best, gracelessly rigid.”Field also explains why the right wing views the maintenance of the shrines, and the homage to mikoto like Mr. Nakaya, as crucial to the maintenance of martial values. Yasuko Nakaya, like Shoichi Chibana in Okinawa, suffered widespread public condemnation after challenging the military. Her appearance surprises most people who have read about her intransigence, Field says, because she looks like a mildmannered matron, Yet she has refused to give up.
THE THIRD CASE, best known outside the country, involves the mayor of Nagasaki, Hitoshi Motoshima. During the Emperor’s deathwatch Motoshima was almost the only official to raise the issue of war responsibility publicly. He hazarded the view that if the Emperor had forced the Cabinet to accept surrender several months earlier, the battle of Okinawa might not have been fought and Hiroshima and Nagasaki might not have been bombed. Like Nakaya, the mayor made his point politely and deferentially—but refused to back down. Hate mail and death threats poured in from right-wingers (although, soon after the Emperor’s death, he began to receive letters of support from all over Japan). Motoshima was forced to convert his residence into a fortress. A month after the police stopped guarding him—and a year after the Emperor’s death—he was shot by a rightwinger. Motoshima, who was then nearly seventy, survived the wound, and continued to express his views about the war.
Field traveled to Nagasaki to meet the mayor, and includes a long and lively transcript of her interview. Motoshima cites a passage from All Quieton the Western Front, in which Erich Maria Remarque says that people who went to war as adults and had a life to return to would eventually think of the war as just a bad dream. “But for those who went in as adolescents, who sacrificed their youth to the war—they wouldn’t be free of the war as long as they lived,” Motoshima says. “That describes me.”
Although Field has lived her adult life as an American, she seems to feel at home in Japan. She is at ease with the customs and the language. More important, she feels entitled to judge and criticize as if it were her own country, without constantly looking over her shoulder or worrying whether she is being insensitive or unfair in not dwelling on its strengths. She doesn’t feel obliged to say, or apparently even to think about, whether conditions in Japan are better or worse than those anywhere else. She has confined herself to discovering, and conveying with clarity and beauty, things as they are. □