Blogs > Liberty and Power > More on Japanese Nationalism

Oct 31, 2005 4:36 pm

More on Japanese Nationalism

Are"guilt" and"shame" useful as analytic terms for Japanese culture? Certainly the Japanese themselves think so. And it makes sense to pay attention to what they are saying, especially since, invariably, expressions of nationalism in Japanese culture are juxtaposed to arguments about shame and its corrolary, pride.

In Japanese popular culture “evil” (aku, jyaaku) is represented through images of breakdown and decay. The Japanese recognize this breakdown in their own increasing inability (as they see it) to feel shame or experience pride. According to this view, shame is the orientation to the gaze of others that inhibits purely selfish acts, such as talking loudly in public or disobedience to authority.

The absence of shame is marked by increasing emphasis on personal autonomy and a reluctance to assume social responsibility. It is widely believed that such problems date from the end of the Pacific War and have become especially prominent with the decline of the Japanese economy after 1990. The Japanese media routinely call attention to the decline of a shame-based culture and relate shamelessness to the eruption of murderous rage among adolescent students.

While student murders are statistically insignificant, they have added to the public perception of a problem in social control. It is said that shame used to be sufficientto prevent most criminal acts since the perpetrator’s family would suffer a loss in social standing. The killing of the an 11-year-old in 1997 in Kobe, for example, transfixed Japan in part because of its shameless savagery: His head was left resting on the front gate of a junior high school with a defiant message stuffed in the mouth.

But is insufficient shame a factor in explaining the schoolboy’s murder or, more generally, the moral decay contemporary Japanese tend to perceive? Consider what the killer himself (Seito Sakakibara) said when he taunted police and threatened more slayings."I can relieve myself of hatred and feel at peace only when I'm killing someone," he said in a letter sent to a local newspaper."I can ease my own pain only by seeing others in pain.”

Lack of shame might be the convenient interpretation, but as the killer’s own words suggest the opposite might be true. The killing apparently served a curative or therapeutic purpose for a young man who reported constantly feeling watched and look down on by others. Murderous rage, in other words, functioned as a regressive therapy for feelings of intense shame that were not too weak but too strong to repudiate or resolve more peacefully.

Excessive shame is made all the more potent by the unavailability of pride as a compensating emotional orientation. Insufficient pride is manifest in the phobic anxiety that surrounds any expression of nationalist sentiment. Many Japanese were horrified, for example, to see their fellow citizens waving Japanese flags during the 1998 winter Olympic Games in Nagano. And the debate over displays of the flag on public buildings, such as schools and post offices, continues despite the parliament’s decision a couple of years ago to authorize such use.

Many Japanese believe that anxiety over the issue of national pride is intensified by the post-war habit of apologizing every time reference to the war is made by other countries. However, an important corner was turned in 1998 with the release of the blockbuster movie, “Pride: Moment of Fate,” whose subject, Tojo Hideki, appeared as the rehabilitated leader of Japan’s war-time government after decades of Hitler-like vilification and public neglect.

The message of the film was unambiguous: Japan had acted in its own self-defense and Tojo was a hero despite the fact that he launched the attack on Pearl Harbor. It is therefore right that modern Japanese take pride in their history and seek the full restoration of their national glory, and that they identify with figures like Tojo. Interestingly, Tojo is repeatedly depicted in the film as a loving grandfather - kissing his grandchildren and bouncing them on his knee - and this points to the fact that pride and identification with the grandfather are, from the point of view of Japan’s contemporary nationalism, one and the same.

comments powered by Disqus