Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Best Ruling Power

Friend Garren in Japan just sent me a news item from the Japan Times about the latest move by the ruling class to define patriotism. It goes like this: Patriotism is... “cultivating an attitude which respects tradition and culture, loves the nation and homeland that have fostered them, while respecting other countries and contributing to international peace and development."

Garren made no mention of the disease the syntax of this sentence is suffering from (verbal dystrophy? nominal hypoplasia?), probably because he is preoccupied with a disease of his own, one manifested by a large amount of froth in his mouth.

So what’s wrong with patriotism, you ask?

Not so long ago, the public schools of Tokyo erupted in controversy over whether teachers and kids should stand and sing the Kimigayo and salute the rising sun. OK, so we don’t have the rays in the sun anymore since we canned Tojo and started over. It’s not as if we’re fishing for kamikaze pilot material or anything.

But don’t buy stock in that idea just yet, either. It’s just that we’ve got to do something to get folks to rally round, now that China has gotten big and rich and strong and Korea has nuclear weapons. Imagine what shape we’d be in if Japanese thought of themselves as citizens of the world instead of bamboo spikes along the shores.

What’s wrong with patriotism is that it’s like religion and any other ideology. It’s a way the right wing has of making you their bitch.

As with most things Japanese, the problem is not on the surface. On the surface who seriously wants to complain that people are being asked to respect tradition and culture? Or to love the nation and homeland that fostered you? Or to respect other countries? Or (heaven forfend) international peace and development?

Let’s start with culture. Some words have more than one meaning. I used to teach a course in “argumentation” and I can’t begin to tell you what kind of resistance I had from students whose only notion of arguing was that it came with bad feelings that arise out of conflict. Totally unfamiliar with this quaintly British upper class notion that gentlemen could agree to disagree that the rest of us have made our own, these young Japanese used to tell me even after acquiring considerable skill in verbal or written debate they were still uncomfortable at the very idea of argumentation, so ingrained were the beliefs they must avoid disharmony at all costs. Culture is like argumentation in that you sometimes can’t see the denotations for the connotations.

Japan is one of those places where the standard truth is that language and culture and race and ethnicity and nation and people are isomorphic categories – they all share the same boundaries. This contrasts Japan with more conspicuously multicultural places where nobody is surprised to find their neighbor speaks a different language, has a taboo against eating oranges, and believes God is a turtle. It enables the Japanese Ministry of Culture to put out language textbooks with crap like, “In our country we fly kites? What do you do in your country?” After years of this “we eat rice, you eat bread” indoctrination, Japanese are ready for the ultimate self-serving relativism. “You go to your church and I’ll go to mine” works only if you are trained not to realize there are lots of people who don’t go to church. Training in simplistic relativism reduces the world into “us” and “them” categories. And I leave you alone not because it’s the right thing to do but so that you will allow me to bash about on my island without your interference. No criticism of our ways, please. We’re Japanese.

This cultivation of non-critical thinking makes Hiroshi a very dull boy. When it comes to patriotism, it makes him a potential firecracker. Culture is not a good thing and it’s not a bad thing. Culture has two distinct denotations – the sociological sense, the products of the “best and brightest,” a nation’s Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, on the one hand; and the anthropological sense, the attitudes, values, beliefs and practices from marrying first cousins to putting grannie on an ice flow when she becomes too old to carry her own weight in the igloo. Neither one of these “cultures” needs to be respected. In the first case, it is worthy of adoption. I’m not Austrian, but Mozart is mine, honey. I’m not Greek, but democracy is also mine.

And it’s not my damn fault that Americans put their old folks in old folks’ homes and forget about them. And I’d really like you French and Chinese and Peruvians to help us get rid of the wretched practice.

And then there’s “respect for tradition.” Conservatives (the good kind, not the kind we have blowing up the world these days) focus on retaining the good. Liberals focus on eliminating the bad. People of good will on both sides can recognize these differences are only over which is background, which is foreground. Reasonable people can be expected to take both conservative and progressive stances alternatively, as the spirit moves them. But to speak of respect for tradition without also speaking of the importance of developing critical thinking skills is to put 100% of the weight on the conservative side. And that gives the war revisionists more chips to play with than those who would like Japan to fess up and put a little sincerity into their war apologies.

So watch it when you suggest that I (or anybody else) should cultivate an attitude of respect for culture and tradition. It’s a landmine waiting to go off. In the Japanese context (in many others as well, of course) culture is synonymous with “nation” and that means hands off Hitler when he invades Poland, the U.S. when it invades Iraq, hands off everybody. Say nothing about another nation’s encounter with the world because – if you’ve been brought up proper – you will recognize “we all have our own culture” and it’s important to mind your own business.

What a disservice to the youth of your nation to saddle them with this poisoned pablum. And, by the way, I didn’t mention that this is all being done as groundwork for a new “Fundamental Law of Education.” [1]

The manipulation of the abused term “culture” is not the whole story. There’s more. The ruling coalition has been debating the language of the law. The Komeito wanted patriotism to be “a mind that treasures the nation,” but the ruling LDP preferred “love.” Curious coincidence that “a mind that loves the nation” (never mind the associations with mind control) was the language of the 1930s and 1940s under the militarists.

And the Komeito General Secretary also noted happily that the suggestion that the current government be described as "the best ruling power" was rejected. Kept your ass out of the fan on that one, fellahs.

Bad enough we’ve got teachers losing their jobs for not standing up to salute the flag. Putting this into the basic law now, so close on the heels of that kerfuffle... you have to wonder why.

A whale of a place, Japan.

All covered with nasty nationalist barnacles.

April 15, 2006

[1] For the full story, see 

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