Cover image for Japan unbound : a volatile nation's quest for pride and purpose
Japan unbound : a volatile nation's quest for pride and purpose
Nathan, John, 1940-
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Publication Information:
Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
Physical Description:
271 pages ; 24 cm
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Includes index.
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DS822.5 .N376 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Not since World War II has Japan faced a crisis like the one before it now. An apparently endless recession has weakened the foundations of the traditional family and severed the bond between Japan's corporations and employees. Unruly children turn classrooms into battlefields. Ultranationalist pride and xenophobia are celebrated in best-selling comic books and championed by media superstars, including the governor of Tokyo. Upheavals across the society have significant ramifications for America. As the Japanese reject their traditions wholesale, they view their half-century-old connection to the United States with mounting skepticism.
Drawing on his fluent Japanese and unmatched intimacy with the culture, John Nathan reveals a nation newly unmoored from the traditions that have shored it up and sometimes stifled it. Dramatic changes in business are augured by Carlos Ghosn, the Brazilian president of Nissan, once scorned as an outsider, now hailed for reviving a moribund giant. The soft-spoken artist Yoshinori Kobayashi foments and reflects rabid nationalism among millions with his hugely popular comic books. Yasuo Tanaka, a puckish writer and bon vivant, wins the governorship of Nagano and revolutionizes Japanese politics with his radical populism.
Nathan delves beyond Japan's celebrities to map the epic shifts in daily life. He unveils the horrors of the Japanese school system. He goes inside a "career transition service" to witness the novel, nuanced rituals of job-hunting Japanese-style. He takes the pulse of ordinary citizens who are caught up in the country's many profound social shifts: agitprop pop culture, emerging feminism, environmentalism, teenage consumerism, entrepreneurship, and more.
With immediacy and élan, John Nathan dispels conventional wisdom about Japan and replaces it with a brilliant vision of a country roiling with pride, uncertainty, creativity, fear, and hope.

Author Notes

John Nathan is the author of the definitive biography of the novelist Yukio Mishima & has translated the novels of both Mishima & the Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe into English. He is an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker & lives in Santa Barbara, California.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

In September 1990, the Tokyo Stock Exchange dropped 48% in four days: a pop that signaled the end of the bubble of Japanese prosperity. Now the country is mired in its longest recession since World War II and, according to this brilliant treatise by UC Santa Barbara professor Nathan, the nation's financial woes are bringing to the surface Japan's centuries-old struggle to define its national identity. Drawing upon his extensive scholarship and first-hand knowledge of the country, Nathan begins his analysis of Japan's "existential uneasiness" by delving into the country's history of traditionalism, which he argues has crumbled significantly since the stock market crash. Nuclear families are breaking up and forsaking their belief in collective living, he says, while middle managers who once expected promotions and job security are now staring down pink slips, and hard-working students who are no longer guaranteed admittance to top colleges are demonstrating violent tendencies or simply refusing to leave their homes to attend class. Feeding into this growing discontent are the right wing extremists, Nathan writes, who promulgate messages of fanatic nationalism and attempt to whitewash history texts in order to glorify the nation's past. Nathan's chronicle relies primarily on in-person interviews and the author treats his subjects with sensitivity, but is not afraid of asking pointed questions. Nowhere is this clearer than in the book's two concluding chapters on the uber-Nationalist governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, and his liberal antithesis Yasuo Tanaka, the governor of rural Nagano. Up-to-date and written in a clear, conversational style, this fascinating and articulate look at contemporary Japan will intrigue readers of all persuasions. 8-page b&w photos insert not seen by PW. (Feb. 18) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

Choice Review

Nathan (Univ. of California, Santa Barbara) explores the dynamics of cultural continuity and change in Japan driven in part by economic stagnation. His direct observations, interviews, and well-crafted prose form a compelling analysis based on the experiences and words of Japanese people caught in the wave of recent challenges to basic institutions and practices. In other words, the reader is confronted with the human cost of cultural/structural change in Japan. The author also confronts the reader with the links between a loss of personal pride and purpose as a result of economic uncertainty, and the search for a new basis of pride and purpose in the form of heightened nationalism. It is but a small step, he reminds us, from this new nationalism to an orientation toward the outside world that links Japan's future with Asia rather than with the West. The occurrence in Japan of movement from economic dislocation to individual disorientation, to the breakdown of basic social structures, to political polarization, to shifts in world view, is a story that must be told--and Nathan tells the story in a way that makes it accessible to the general reader. This book is a must for general and specialized library collections. ^BSumming Up: Highly recommended. All levels. J. M. Peek Lyon College

Library Journal Review

Japan in crisis, as seen by a professor of Japanese studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



IntroductionI first went to Japan in the fall of 1961, fresh out of Harvard with a joint degree in English literature and Far Eastern Languages, and remained there for seven years, until I returned to seek my fugitive identity at home. In those early postwar days, the Japanese were in the grip of a national conviction that no foreigner the Japanese word translates more closely to mean "outsider" could ever learn to use their language or understand anything about them. At Tokyo University, where I was admitted as an undergraduate in 1963, among the writers and artists I was beginning to meet, and certainly at home with my Japanese host family, it was conceded that I could speak and understand Japanese. This was a curious and unlikely phenomenon, but there it was. On the street, I was seen as just another foreigner, which meant that I was often unable to make myself understood. Rejection was eloquently communicated with a simple gesture: the rapid waggling of a hand in front of the nose, as if to fan away an unpleasant odor. "No!" it signaled. "I don't understand what you are saying and I want nothing to do with you." As I asked directions of passersby, or gave directions to a taxi driver, or purchased tickets at a train station or stamps at a post office, or ordered from a menu, all in Japanese increasingly close to fluent, people would fan their noses in my face to indicate their refusal to understand. If they spoke at all, it was not to reply but to whine aloud to no one in particular that they failed to understand and had no access to an interpreter. "You don't need an interpreter," I would protest. "If you will just listen, you will hear that I am speaking Japanese." The hands continued to wag. I was obsessed with my study of Japanese, reading my way through a one-hundred-volume set of modern Japanese fiction and practicing words and phrases in front of a mirror at home for hours every day, and this variety of rejection knifed intolerably into my pride. I encountered it everywhere, even among intellectuals. A professor in my own department at Tokyo University told a reporter for the school paper that he experienced my command of Japanese as usan-kusai. I thought I knew what the word meant, but it seemed such an unlikely thing to say that I consulted my battery of dictionaries and discovered that it was even more of an affront than I had realized. Usan-kusai: bizarre to the point of being suspicious, of doubtful wholesomeness, tainted. That week I stayed home from class. I felt lonely and bitter. Even so, I was aware of something comical and even charming about Japanese parochialism. I also discovered that the astonishment produced by rattling Japanese assumptions even a little could work in my favor. I got around on a motorcycle. In those days, the sight of a foreigner astride a Honda 250 cc "Sport" was sufficient to attract the attention of the police, and if I exceeded the speed limit by a kilometer, I was pulled over. The first time, when he had asked to see my license and foreigner registration, the motorcycle cop noticed the briefcase hanging from my handlebars and asked what was inside. "Books," I replied. "Books? What kind?" he inquired, as curious now as any four-year-old. I withdrew my copy of the eighth-century Chronicle of Ancient Matters, the earliest Japanese mythology, and opened it to show him. His eyes widened. "You can read that?" I nodded, sensing an advantage on the way. "Let's hear." I intoned a few lines: "So, thereupon, His-Swift-Impetuous-Male- Augustness said: "If that be so, I will take leave of the Heaven- Shining-Great-August-Deity and depart." With these words he forthwith went up to Heaven, whereupon all the mountains and rivers shook, and every land and country quaked." The policeman's eyebrows lifted and his gaze narrowed; into the mike on his shoulder, never taking his eyes off me, he called for backup. A patrol car drove up, and two more officers cautiously approached. "Read some more," the motorcycle cop ordered. Standing on the shoulder of the Tokyo beltway, I read aloud another passage. The policemen listened as though stunned. When I finished, they laughed together, like friends who have stumbled on something they are forbidden to see and are uncertain what to make of it. A little giddily, they waved me on with just a warning to observe the speed limit. Thereafter, I made sure my briefcase was always loaded with a Japanese literary classic when I climbed on my motorcycle. Sometimes I took The Tale of Genji or a collection of Basho's haiku. A newspaper would have served me just as well. But such moments of comic relief were out of the ordinary. Day by day, my chagrin grew. In time, I devised a hustle that took advantage of the assumptions about me that I found most insulting. I would enter an izaka-ya, a Japanese version of a British pub, at an hour when it was crowded with company men on their way home from work, and would find an opportunity to mention in the course of a conversation at the bar that I not only spoke but could also read and write Japanese. Someone always asked, often in English, "You mean kana, Japanese alphabet!" "Kana, of course, but Chinese characters, too, just like you." Silence. "If you don't believe me, let's have a writing contest, a kakikkura, and to make it interesting we'll bet a little money on the side." I would suggest a thousand yen (roughly $3 at the time) for round one, and my opponent someone always took the bait would put money on the bar and write a Chinese character on a paper napkin. It was likely to be a simple four-stroke character, "tree" or "water" or "hand." I would read the character and produce another similarly basic word for my opponent to read. For round two, I would up the stakes to five thousand yen. This challenge motivated my opponent to present me with a compound of two or more characters, such as "reality" or "landscape" or "capitalism." I would respond at the appropriate level of difficulty. Another draw. By now we would have attracted a crowd, and they were hooked. For the final round, I would produce a ten-thousand-yen note, real money in those days. Sometimes my opponent would ask a friend to put up half his stake. We had now arrived at the cunning part of the game. Encountering a foreigner who could read was so disorienting to my opponents that it never occurred to them that the kinds of words most likely to challenge me might be child's play for them. The truth was, anyone in the bar could have defeated me easily by selecting character compounds that were likely to be familiar to any Japanese place names for example, which had not been disallowed and unfamiliar to me, words that had to be known and could not be figured out. Instead, their choices were governed by what they expected would be difficult for native readers. The result was always a term that I had no trouble reading: "calumny," "garrulousness," "smithereen." Then it was my turn to end the game. I carried around in memory for this purpose a list of Chinese characters with unlikely Japanese readings which had sent my learned Japanese landlord to his dictionary. I now produced one of these an alternate character for "flying squirrel," or the name of a blind Buddhist angel who sits above the clouds playing his flute and held it up for my opponent to see. As a precaution against claims that I had fabricated the character, I kept a dictionary in my bag, but I was never challenged. As the napkin was passed around, the men who had witnessed my victory observed me with surprise and confusion. It was gratifying to imagine that I had succeeded in shaking their view of the world if for only a moment. I understood that the Japanese insistence on the impenetrability of their language was an assertion of their uniqueness. What I failed to see at the time was that the compulsion to assert uniqueness was the obverse side of a deep uncertainty about who they were, about what it meant to be Japanese in the modern world. Every society views itself as unique and has grounds for claiming uniqueness. Few societies are compelled to assert their uniqueness as loudly and insistently as the Japanese. Foreign students living in China report that their efforts to learn Chinese are welcomed and appreciated. With the exception of the French, whose arrogance about their culture reveals another variety of uneasiness, Europeans also tend to be pleased by foreigners" efforts to learn their languages. In America, the prevailing assumption is that American English is the only real language in the world. A corollary assumption is that anyone who happens to be in the United States will have a command of English; Americans in general are not conscious of a necessity to accommodate non-native speakers struggling with the language, nor do such efforts elicit either appreciation or resistance. An anecdote about a Texas governor is a striking confirmation of how airtight this assumption is. Angered by a grass-roots movement to elevate the Spanish language to parity with English in the Texas public school system, Governor John Connally declared at a press conference: "If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it ought to be good enough for us Texans!" It is no coincidence that America is a society dramatically untroubled by uncertainty regarding national purpose or, for that matter, national identity. Throughout their history, the Japanese have been prompted by familiar, troubling questions about identity to focus on their language as evidence of who they are and, more important, what makes them special. In a popular book written in 1985, The Japanese Brain, an audiologist named Tadanobu Tsunoda argued that the Japanese language was not only evidence of Japanese uniqueness, but its source:My findings seem to provide an explanation of the uniqueness and universal aspects of Japanese culture. Why do Japanese people behave in their characteristic manner? How has the Japanese culture developed its distinctive features? I believe the key to these questions lies in the Japanese language. That is, the Japanese are Japanese because they speak Japanese. My investigations have suggested that the Japanese language shapes the Japanese brain function pattern, which in turn serves as a basis for the formation of Japanese culture. Since the late nineties, dozens of books promising to reacquaint readers with the expressive beauty and power of the Japanese language when it is used correctly have climbed to the top of the bestseller lists every year. The recent "Japanese language boom" is but one of many indications that Japanese society is once again in the grips of a need to reconfirm its uniqueness. In fact, the Japanese have suffered recurrently from a tenuous hold on their cultural identity since long before the "modern" period. In The Tale of Genji, the eleventh-century romance that is the masterpiece of Japanese classical literature, Prince Genji insists that his son, Yugiri, study the Chinese classics despite objections from the boy's grandmother, an imperial princess: "The truth is, without a solid foundation of book learning [in the Chinese classics], this Japanese spirit about which we hear so much is not of any great use in the world." By "Japanese spirit," Genji intends both a code of valor and a poetics of life, an aesthetic sensibility that was neither borrowed nor derived from the treasure house of Chinese wisdom. But Genji is suggesting that "Japaneseness" can bloom only after pollination by Chinese studies. The implication is that Japanese identity has its source, or at best is in some way contingent upon, China. For the female author of Genji, there was irony in this equation. Courtiers and poets of the day wrote their serious essays and kept their diaries in classical Chinese or in a hybrid version of that language cleverly evolved in Japan. Women at court were not encouraged to study the Chinese classics and language, and they wrote in pure Japanese that was unalloyed by Chinese constructions or vocabulary. It is no coincidence that most of the great literary works of the period were created by women, who were free to express themselves in their native language. In the latter half of the eighteenth century, the nationalist scholar Motoori Norinaga rediscovered The Tale of Genji and used it as the basis of a Shinto revival. In a voluminous critique called The Jeweled Comb, Norinaga challenged the traditional reading of the book as a cautionary tale about good and evil animated by Buddhist and Confucian teaching. He argued that the Genji was instead a pure work of literary art whose subject was the nature and meaning of human existence, and that the wellspring of Lady Murasaki's invention was the quintessentially Japanese aesthetic and philosophical quality called mono no aware, a poignant consciousness of the evanescence of all things. In Norinaga's view, The Tale of Genji was thus a monumental and living elucidation of the "Japanese spirit," the essence of Japaneseness. In the closing decades of the nineteenth century, the focus of Japanese learning and emulation shifted away from China to Europe and, increasingly, America. In 1853, Japan was pried open under threat from American gunboats after 250 years of isolation from the rest of the world under the feudal Confucian rule of the Tokugawa shoguns. Fifteen years later the feudal government had toppled, and the country embarked on a single-minded mission to transform itself into a modern state by borrowing from the West. The central figure in the national project to understand Western civilization was the philosopher-educator Yukichi Fukuzawa (1834 1901), sometimes called the father of the Japanese enlightenment. The son of a samurai, Fukuzawa received the traditional education in Confucianism and the Chinese classics before he traveled to Osaka in 1851 to apply himself to rangaku, "Dutch studies," or the study of Western philosophy, mathematics, and medicine in the Dutch language. Three times he traveled to Europe as a representative of the shogunal government. In 1868, he founded in Edo (Tokyo) a school of Western studies in Dutch and English which became Keio University. The translator of John Stuart Mill and author of In Defense of [Western] Learning and A Theory of [Western] Civilization, Fukuzawa held that Japan must turn its back on its Asian neighbors, on China in particular, and look to the West for models as it embarked on modernization. In the 1880s, he introduced the compound notion wakonyosai, literally, "Japanese sensibility, Western knowledge." The tension between these two elements has never been resolved. The challenge was not only understanding European political and social institutions and the worldviews they reflected, but adapting them to fit the contours of Japanese society. Establishing an authentic sense of national self and purpose in the modern world required the merging of two disparate and often irreconcilable cultures, one native, inherent, grounded in history, the other founded on concepts such as individualism and intractably foreign. This exercise in cultural synthesis continues to tax and trouble the Japanese imagination. Throughout the twentieth century, Japanese intellectuals have expended inordinate energy on attempts to locate and define the quiddity of "Japaneseness" that Norinaga discovered in The Tale of Genji. In a society as homogeneous as Japan, the intensity of this effort is telling: it suggests, and there is abundant evidence to support the conclusion, that cultural ambivalence, the chronic sense of contingency on values and behaviors external to native traditions, has led to recurrent seasons of bewilderment and despair akin to a national identity crisis. This issue is not generalized, conceptual, abstract: it comes down to an insubstantial sense of self that is experienced by individuals in the society with deep uneasiness as the emptiness of life. It will be clear in the chronicle of the current moment that is the subject of this book that Japan today is in the throes of just such a crisis. The burden of balancing two cultures is brilliantly distilled in the writer-director Juzo Itami's 1986 film, Tampopo (the word means "dandelion," the name of a ramen shop). The film uses the ritual of preparing and enjoying Japanese noodles as a metaphor for nourishment and community. In two comic scenes, Itami dramatizes what I mean by cultural contingency and its perils. In the .rst, a group of senior business executives files into a private dining room in an affectedly French restaurant of the sort that is to be found in every posh Japanese hotel. The last man in, balancing a stack of briefcases in both arms, is an assistant who would have been played by Jerry Lewis in an American film. The pokerfaced waiter hands the executive vice president a menu, which he glances at uncomprehendingly: it is written in French and English. He seeks safety in the one dish familiar to every Japanese businessman, sole meunire. His first course is consomm, another mainstay. Avoiding the imponderable wine list, he requests beer. Around the table the junior executives follow suit. At last, the pimply factotum contemplates the menu and inquires whether the boudin-style quenelles might be the same dish that is a specialty at Taillevent. The waiter acknowledges that the chef has trained at Taillevent. Unfazed by the flabbergasted stares now fixed on him, the assistant calls for escargot en crote, an apple and walnut salad, and a glass of rolling up his eyes and smacking his lips Corton Charlemagne. The rest of the table is apoplectically silent. In the second scene, a group of young ladies in Western party dresses are in the midst of a "charm school" class in the main dining room. Today's lesson is on the etiquette of eating spaghetti vongole. The chatelaine who is the instructor reminds her pupils that spaghetti must be enjoyed silently (unlike Japanese noodles, which are noisily inhaled from the bowl). As she lifts her fork daintily to her lips to demonstrate, there comes a clamorous slurping from across the room. All heads turn to discover a foreigner wolfing down his own plate of spaghetti. The girls are confused, the instructor outraged. Inevitably, the class abandons its tenuous hold on acquired table manners and, giving in to impulse, joins its mentor in attacking the vongole noisily, as if they were ramen. The filmmaker's point is unmistakable: Western knowledge, as in the first scene, is the source of power and authority. Obversely, as in the second, the Japanese, in their frantic efforts to imitate the West, must continually look outside themselves for the source of authenticity and are as a consequence eternally subject to confusion about who they are. The novelist Natsume Soseki, born in 1867 on the cusp of the old and the new order, was an impassioned critic of Japan's frantic efforts to Westernize, which he blamed for the emptiness at the center of his bleak vision of life. Soseki's personal encounter with Western culture tormented and disheartened him. In 1893, he became the second student to graduate from the newly established department of English literature at Tokyo Imperial University, where he would later teach briefly as a successor to Lafcadio Hearn. Soseki read deeply in Shakespeare, Sterne, Fielding, and Austen, and the more he read the more convinced he became of the futility of studying a "foreign" literature. In 1900, he was sent to England on a government stipend, and spent two wretched years in isolation in a London rooming house convincing himself that English life and letters were not merely beyond his comprehension but repugnant to his sensibility as a Japanese. This drove him into fits of depression that prompted a Japanese student to report back to the government, "Soseki has gone quite mad." In the preface to his 1906 Theory of Literature, he summarized his passionate and failed encounter with Western civilization:As a child I enjoyed studying the Chinese classics. Although the time spent in this kind of study was not long, it was from Chinese classics that I learned, however vaguely and obscurely, what literature was. In my heart, I hoped it would be the same when I read English literature, and that I would not necessarily begrudge giving my whole life to studying it, if that were required. What I resent, and the source of my agony, is that despite my study I never mastered it. I have been plagued by the disquieting feeling of having been somehow duped or cheated by English literature. In a lecture he delivered at the newly created Peers" School in August 1911, "The Civilization of Modern-Day Japan," Soseki established an explicit connection between what he called "the loss of moral balance" and Japan's slavish emulation of the West:Simply stated, Western civilization (that is, civilization in general) is internally motivated, whereas Japan's civilization is externally motivated. Something that is "internally motivated" develops naturally from within, as a flower opens, the bursting of the bud followed by the turning outward of the petals. Something is "externally motivated" when it is forced to assume a certain form as the result of pressure applied from the outside . . . A nation, a people that incurs a civilization in this way, can only feel a sense of emptiness, of dissatisfaction and anxiety. There are those who gloat over this civilization of ours as if it were internally motivated, but they are wrong. They may think they represent the height of fashion, but they are wrong. They are false and shallow, like boys who make a great show of enjoying cigarettes before they even know what tobacco tastes like. This is what the Japanese must do in order to survive, and this is what makes us so pitiful. The hero of Soseki's 1909 novel, And Then, predicted that equilibrium would not be regained until the doubtful day when "feeble Japan could stand shoulder to shoulder with the greatest powers of Europe." That day has come and gone, but the struggle to assimilate Western influence without losing balance continues. The novelist Kenzaburo Oe addressed this dilemma in the speech he delivered in English in Stockholm in December 1994 upon accepting the Nobel Prize:My observation is that after 120 years of its modernization since the opening of the country, present-day Japan is split between two opposite poles of ambiguity. This ambiguity, which is so powerful and penetrating that it divides both the state and the people, affects me as a writer like a deep-felt scar. The modernization of Japan was oriented toward learning from and imitating the West, yet our country is situated in Asia and has its own deep-rooted culture. The ambiguous orientation of Japan drove the country into the position of an invader in Asia, and resulted in its isolation from other Asian nations, not only politically but also socially and culturally. And even in the West, to which our culture was supposedly quite open, we have long remained inscrutable or only partially understood. Like Soseki, Oe grew up at a time when Japan's connection to the values of its historical past was abruptly severed as a result of its defeat in World War II. The war effort had been fueled by a national mission that left no room for ambivalence or ambiguity, by Japan's traditional sense of itself as "the land of the gods" but that comforting certainty was blown apart in August 1945. First there was the inferno of two atomic bombs. One week later, on August 15, Emperor Hirohito went on the radio for the first time and informed his subjects in his own voice that they must now "endure the unendurable" and lay down their arms. Oe later recalled listening to the emperor in his mountain village as a boy of ten: "The adults sat around their radios and cried. The children gathered outside in the dusty road and whispered their bewilderment. We were most confused and disappointed by the fact that the emperor had spoken in a human voice. . . . How could we believe that an august presence of such awful power had become an ordinary human being on a designated summer day?" The disorienting possibility that Hirohito was a mortal man was reinforced by the unthinkable photograph of His Majesty standing alongside General Douglas MacArthur which appeared in the Tokyo morning newspapers of September 28, 1945.MacArthur had arrived in Japan from the Philippines on August 30; always strategic, he declined to visit the emperor at the palace, ordering Hirohito to pay his respects to him at the U.S. embassy. MacArthur chose to wear suntans with his collar open and no decorations or insignia of rank. In the photo, he stares straight at the camera, his face void of expression; one hand is thrust carelessly into his pocket; the other is on his hip. Alongside, reaching only to the general's shoulder, Hirohito stands ramrod-stiff in his coat and tails. The day after the photograph appeared, as if to underline the shocking disparity in power that it conveyed, MacArthur told the Chicago Tribune: "Japan has fallen to a fourth-rate nation. It will not be possible for her to emerge again as a strong nation in the world." The recurrent uneasiness that afflicts postwar Japan has its most recent source in a constitution based on principles like democracy that had evolved in the West and were antithetical to the groupism at the heart of traditional society. Many Japanese are opposed to amending even the most controversial dictum in their constitution, Article 9, the war renunciation clause, but I have yet to meet anyone on the right or the left who refers to it with pride. In contrast to the resonant English of America's founding documents, even its language is foreign, a literal and wooden translation of the original English version. Japanese history between 1950 and the early 1980s is principally about economic recovery. But even as Japan focused on outdoing America while embracing American values and the American way of life, there was evidence of longing to regain the defining sense of purpose and mission that had been lost at the end of the war. Two historical moments in 1970 symbolized the fulfillment and the emptiness that are the defining paradox and dilemma of modern Japanese life. In March 1970, Japan marked its arrival on the global scene as a major world economy with the opening of Expo "70 in Osaka, a giant trade fair on which the government lavished $2 billion to attract participation from seventy- seven countries and which prompted the futurist Herman Kahn to predict that "the twenty-first century will be the Japanese century." And on November 25, the novelist Yukio Mishima committed ritual suicide by hara-kiri. At 10:50 in the morning, accompanied by four uniformed cadets from his private army, the Shield Society, Mishima paid a visit to the commandant of the Tokyo Battalion of the Self-defense Force on the pretext of showing him an antique Japanese sword. On a prearranged signal, the cadets seized and bound the commandant and Mishima ordered him to assemble the battalion in the courtyard below. Just before noon, he stepped onto the balcony and delivered a short speech appealing to the troops to join him and his cadets as true men and samurai warriors in a battle to the death in the name of the emperor against a postwar democracy that had deprived Japan of its army and robbed the nation of its soul. When the eight hundred soldiers began to boo and jeer, Mishima went inside and killed himself. Mishima's suicide was driven in part by a longing for death specifically a martyr's death that he had contemplated fearfully since his childhood. But we must not explain away the social significance of his act with a clinical diagnosis. As a young man during the Pacific War, he had tasted briefly the comforting certainty of identification with a transcendent ideal embodied by a divine emperor. Then, in 1945, following the defeat, he was expelled with the rest of his generation into a hollow postwar world that had been bereft of tradition and severed from historical continuity. During the 1950s, his response to what he described as "existential uneasiness" was to acquire a gaudy wardrobe of European and American styles and sensibilities and to wear them flamboyantly. When he built his house in 1958, he told his architect that he wanted to sit in a rococo chair in jeans and an aloha shirt. The result was a mlange of Greek statuary and French period furniture that looked like a movie set and made many Japanese who received invitations to his cocktail parties on Tiffany stationery desperately uncomfortable. Meanwhile, by his own account, beneath the masquerade he suffered from a growing feeling of emptiness. Beginning in the early 1960s, Mishima turned his back on Western rationalism and the Greek ideals of symmetry and measure and embraced the dark, romantic, death-ridden aesthetics of ultranationalism. In July 1968, he published an elaborate disquisition on identity, "In Defense of Culture," in which he established the rationale for his final act. Mishima argued that the Japanese self could be discovered only in Japanese culture, and that authentic culture had its source only in the emperor. Specifically, His Imperial Majesty was the defining source of miyabi, a value in Japanese classical aesthetics that is usually defined as "courtly elegance," as epitomized in The Tale of Genji. In Mishima's singular definition, miyabi was "the essence of court culture and the people's longing for that essence . . . . If we Japanese ever hope to regain our connection to miyabi, the quality that defines us, we must protect the emperor at any cost." Mishima was not alone in his suffering. If American democracy was proving to be a not entirely satisfactory substitute for wartime values, neither was the frantic pursuit of GNP that was being promulgated as the new national mission. By the late 1960s, the company man, the cog in the wheel of Japan's emerging economic miracle, was feeling tired and vaguely disillusioned. He was earning more money than his father had ever seen, and he had acquired the undisputed trophies of middle-class success known in the media as "the three Cs," an air conditioner, a car, and a color TV. But as he watched Ben Casey and The Partridge Family and I Love Lucy dubbed in Japanese on Sony Trinitrons, he observed Americans setting out for their lakeside cabins to try new motorboats and was troubled to realize that he had no place to go. In any event, he was too busy at work even to consider taking his annual weeklong vacation. Sundays, his one day off, he went shopping with his wife at the electronics bazaar in Akihabara or hit balls at a crowded driving range on the roof of a department store real golf courses were still beyond his means. He was tired; his head ached from drinking with his boss and colleagues every evening; and he was beginning to wonder why life was affording him so little gratification despite his hard work: prosperity was not after all a goal worth living for. Asked what such a goal might be, he would hardly have answered a reconnection to miyabi achieved by a warrior's death. Nonetheless, the insubstantial sense of self that tormented Mishima was becoming endemic in Japan. There is no question that his suicide was personal and idiosyncratic, fully comprehensible only in the light of his lifelong erotic fantasies. At the same time, it should be understood as a lucid expression of a national affliction: the pain of cultural disinheritance. The Mishima incident shocked the public though many shared his dismay at the country's inability to find its own footing and its own voice and angered and discountenanced the government, which was intent on demonstrating to the world that Japan was now a thoroughly modernized Americanized nation. By 1980, except for a fringe element of Mishima worshippers on the extreme right, the writer had been marginalized as a novelist and largely forgotten as a public figure. Recently, however, he has been rediscovered, and there is currently a full-scale Mishima boom in progress. Between 1999 and 2002, thirty-seven new books have been written about him, and every large bookstore in Japan today has a "Mishima corner." On the thirtieth anniversary of his death, in November 2000, his publisher, Shinchosha, announced a new complete works in forty- two volumes. So far the first fourteen, the major novels, have been released, and each volume has sold between five and six thousand copies at a price of $50. At a time when book sales in Japan are at an all-time postwar low, these figures are telling. It would appear that the current climate of uncertainty and uneasiness has disposed readers to find meaning for themselves in Mishima's work and final act, evidence that he understood their plight and might even serve as a beacon to guide them out of confusion and disheartenment to a rediscovery of self. In the 1970s and 1980s, uncertainty about identity and purpose was forgotten in the euphoria of spectacular economic success. Between 1970 and 1985, Japan's GNP increased 450 percent. In 1986 the value of Tokyo real estate doubled, and doubled again in 1987; in September of that year, one hundred square feet on the downtown Ginza was selling for $1 million. (By mid-1988, the value of Japanese real estate would be worth five times that of the United States.)With bank vaults stuffed with money, and interest being held by the government below 2 percent, loans were easy far too easy to obtain. Fortunes were amassed overnight by purchasing land with borrowed money and turning it over at a colossal profit. In 1986, Japan began deploying its yen reserves outside the country, adding financial services to its long list of exports, and quickly became the world's largest creditor nation: by 1987, 30 percent of U.S. debt was financed by Japan through the purchase of U.S. Treasury bonds; the world's ten largest banks and four largest security companies were all Japanese; and the Tokyo Stock Exchange was larger than New York's. As capital accumulated and the yen continued to appreciate against the dollar and other currencies, Japan went on a buying spree in the United States that was perceived hysterically in this country as a threat to sovereignty. Japanese investors acquired banks, golf courses, and resorts all over California, including Pebble Beach, and purchased landmark properties on the East Coast one after the other, including Rockefeller Center. In 1989, when Sony acquired Columbia Pictures, Newsweek's cover dressed the company's logo, the lady on the pedestal, holding a torch, in Japanese kimono and hairstyle, and proclaimed in a banner, "JAPAN INVADES HOLLYWOOD!" In truth, a fantasy of occupying the United States was not unfamiliar to the Japanese imagination. In Yasujiro Ozu's 1962 film, An Autumn Afternoon, a jovial mechanic wonders aloud to his former commander in the imperial navy, "What if we had won, sir? What if we had occupied New York? I'll tell you what you'd have all these foreigners with their white skin drinking sake and eating raw fish and playing their rockabilly music in samurai hairdos!" The fantasy is comic, but not without wistfulness. In 1989, the head of Nomura Securities, the world's largest investment broker at the time, with cash on hand of $4 billion, proposed a Japan- U.S. currency and "joint ownership" of California. Sudden wealth led to a degree of conspicuous consumption that had no precedent in Japan or elsewhere. Farmers who sold rice paddies or a tiny hillock for unearthly prices replaced their fillings with gold and laid out thousands of dollars for a night with the tall, blond, Caucasian girls who had always danced in their dreams. Japanese shoppers monopolized the boutiques on Rodeo Drive, Madison Avenue, and Via Condotti; controlled the world markets in art, diamonds, yachts, and racehorses; spent $500 on a Madonna concert ticket; imported ice cubes from Antarctica; and paid up to $3.5 million for a membership at one of Japan's more than two thousand private golf courses (in 1992, 13 million of the world's estimated 50 million golfers were Japanese). In 1989, Shintaro Ishihara, a member of parliament at the time, and Sony's founder, Akio Morita, collaborated on a book they titled The Japan That Can Say No, a defiant indictment of U.S. trade policies which radiated the confidence and purpose Japan was feeling at the close of the affluent eighties. In September 1990, that apparently robust certainty was undone when the Tokyo Stock Exchange lost 48 percent of its value in four days, a crash that dwarfed "Black Monday" in 1987. In 1993, the land bubble also burst, creating the largest asset deflation in the history of modern capitalism. Japan's banks and brokerage houses were left with $6 trillion in uncollectable property and building loans against collateral that had more than halved in value. Japan has yet to recover from its plummeting fall, and as the national gloom deepens, familiar, troubling questions have reframed themselves: What does it mean to be Japanese? What are the source and nature of Japan's uniqueness? The continuing absence of satisfactory answers to these pressing questions has brought to the surface once again a national uneasiness that many Japanese experience today as a sense that something fundamental is missing from their lives. On a recent trip to Tokyo, I was surprised to find an explicit reference to this emptiness in a column on the front page of the Asahi Shimbun. The unsigned column, "The Voice of the People," appears daily and is organized around a current event, in this case the World Soccer Cup cosponsored by Korea and Japan which was just ending and had the entire country in a frenzy of excitement:Something is missing. That vague feeling is spreading across the country. For a brief moment, our soccer team filled that hollowness. The young man who told me "The World Cup gave us a sense of unity" was expressing himself honestly. I heard a young person in the United States express the same sort of feeling. He was responding to a speech by the former president Bill Clinton. It was right after an American ship had been attacked by terrorists in the Middle East. The president expressed sadness and called for courage and unity. The American president isn't merely the head of the government. At times he appears before the people in the role of a prophet. He moves people with what he has to say and shores up the American sense of unity. That's one of the roles of American government. At such moments, people confirm with one another that they are Americans. The United States incorporates a variety of nationalities and races and languages. In our relatively homogeneous society, many people would feel that being Japanese is self-evident and beyond ambiguity. And yet something is missing from our full sense of being Japanese [italics mine]. It seems to me we are carrying some kind of emptiness around. What is the current Japanese language boom but an impulse aimed at filling that emptiness? Japanese is our native language but we know so little about beautiful Japanese. The sense of crisis that awakens is appropriate. I recall a verse by the late poet Shuji Terayama: In the brief instant the match flares the sea is in fog is there a native land I can throw myself away for? These lines are moving to many readers: what appears in the instant of light is not only the loss of a native land but also the longing to be part of one. This "postwar landscape" is still what we return to when the excitement is over. What will be the landscape of our future? If these words were from the pen of a neonationalist, they would not be so unexpected, or so telling. The Asahi Shimbun, reviled by the far right, is Japan's leading liberal-leftist paper, an unwavering supporter of the constitution as it stands and of dtente with Beijing. It seems reasonable to interpret the column as a yearning for unambiguous identity that extends far beyond any political agenda and permeates the culture. Many Japanese of all ages are aware, consciously or not, that they have lost their hold on what the novelist Saul Bellow, speaking of his identity as a Jew, once called "first consciousness." Bellow wrote, "I can continue to do what I have done all my life; that is, to turn instinctively toward my first consciousness. This first consciousness has always seemed easily accessible and most real." Few Japanese today have access to this degree of certainty about themselves. If there is a central argument in the chronicle of contemporary Japanese life which is the subject of this book, it is that much of current Japanese thinking and behavior is colored by an urgently felt need to regain first consciousness and the vitality it enables by connecting, or reconnecting, to native culture properly speaking, to native culture as it resides as a memory in the imagination, before it was alloyed by "foreign" elements in the process of modernization. While it is clear that many Japanese today are afflicted by a troubling if often vaguely perceived sense of being lost, it is by no means true that Japanese society today is paralyzed or static or even bereft of its fabled vitality. In fact, contemporary Japan is undergoing convulsive changes in values and behavior in government and politics, business, popular culture, education, and family life, which are in the process of transforming the society into a landscape radically different from its traditional, or even recent, past. The chapters that follow will chronicle some of these changes and, where possible, account for them in the context of existential uneasiness on one hand and the related longing to rediscover and reclaim in a certain and tangible way the meaning of "Japaneseness" on the other. Some of these changes are ominous. Riotous classrooms in a country long famous for respectful children, and the recent epidemic of juvenile violence and crime, are disturbing symptoms of the breakdown of the traditional family system. Others, the new breed of politicians whose doors are always open to their constituents, or the recent emergence of young entrepreneurs, may hold within themselves, like puzzles waiting to be unlocked, the promise of new and heretofore unimaginable solutions to wresting a substantial sense of self and purpose, national and individual, from the confluence of "native" sensibilities and values and Western culture. The book begins with the lawlessness in and out of the classroom which has unseated the adult community and appears to be a reflection of its own confusion. Chapter 2 focuses on the breakdown of the traditional family, until recently the cornerstone of Japanese self-certainty. Chapter 3 examines the unraveling of the familial ties between the business organization and the company man. I have used the fundamental restructuring of Nissan Motors, Japan's first major business organization to be led by a foreigner, as the most dramatic example of a company struggling to achieve global viability while preserving traditional Japanese business practices and social values. Chapter 4 chronicles the growth of entrepreneurship that has occurred in parallel with the breakdown of the corporate family. Chapter 5 profiles the demagogue cartoonist Yoshinori Kobayashi in the context of emerging neonationalism. Chapter 6 considers other manifestations of nationalism as a quest for pride and self-certainty: the history textbook controversy of 2001 and recent trends in national policy. Chapter 7 profiles Japan's most prominent neonationalist and xenophobe, Shintaro Ishihara. Chapter 8 introduces Ishihara's nemesis, Yasuo Tanaka, governor of Nagano Prefecture, the new hero of the grass-roots citizens" movement. As I write, outside interest in Japan is at a low ebb. Coverage in our national media is a fraction of what it was even five years ago, and is limited to impersonal analyses of the financial crisis and dire predictions for the future. Still mired in its longest recession in postwar history, Japan is perceived by many observers as having permanently lost its footing in the world; some argue that the country is in the process of devolving into a third- world nation. Predicting the future is a fool's game, but such a fall is unlikely. Japan remains the world's largest creditor nation and has reserves of wealth and a level of technology second only to the United States itself. More important, in spite of everything, Japanese society retains its resoluteness and creativity and vitality. I have tried to convey this truth in the pages that follow, and particularly in the profiles of the remarkable individuals who are living examples of the struggle and the national alteration in process. Japan today feels like a bewildered giant. But the country has a long history of discovering in the darkest days of its bewilderment a source of renewal.Copyright 2004 by John Nathan. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. Excerpted from Japan Unbound: A Volatile Nation's Quest for Pride and Purpose by John Nathan All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Introductionp. 1
1. Monsters in the House: Japan's Bewildered Childrenp. 25
2. The Family Crisisp. 45
3. The Culture of Arithmeticp. 71
4. The Entrepreneursp. 99
5. In Search of a Phantomp. 119
6. The New Nationalism II: Institutionalizing Traditionp. 139
7. Shintaro Ishihara: The Sun Kingp. 169
8. Yasuo Tanaka: The Tricksterp. 203
Epilogue: Outgrowing Adolescencep. 231
Sourcesp. 255
Indexp. 259
Acknowledgmentsp. 273