Bending Adversity – David Pilling

“We are lost and don’t know which way to go. But this is a very natural thing, a very healthy thing”

  • Haruki Murakami

“I loved that Japanese people always put their hands together to thank their food before they ate it, and the way they apologized before they asked for money in a shop as though payment sullied the otherwise pleasant human interaction. I learned the correct place at which guests should sit at a table – furtherest from the door, a position in former times that was safest from suprise attack. I gained an appreciation for small, considerate gestures. My teacher had told me, for example, that it was rude in a business conversation to say that you were busy, since this might imply that you were more in demand than the person to whom you were speaking. I liked it that even cheap restaurants handed out a hot hand towel before you ate and that, when it rained, there was a machine at the department store to seal your wet umbrella in a plastic cover. I marvelled at how social convention trumped laws. The streets were entirely litter-free. No one would dream of answering their mobile phone on the train or in a lift, not because it was illegal but because consideration was expected. Even in the street, people cupped their hands over mouth and phone to muffle the sound of their voice.”

“Social systems, however, are not always easy to disentangle. Their strengths are often their weaknesses and vice versa. Cultures are not menus from which one can order a la carte.”

“Now they came to appreciate the incredible endurance of its people: in Japanese it was called gamanzuyoi – steadfast patience.”

“One Japanese playwright said their actions drew on ‘an intriguing tradition of forging onward while holding on to a sense of our impermanence’.”

“Mourners burn incense and stay up through the night, chanting prayers to keep the deceased company.”

“Japan’s struggle to find a place in the international hierarchy goes back centuries. Its self-imposed isolation fro 1630 only delayed the necessity of joining the internation discourse. When it finally did so, through its embrace of western learning in the Meiji Restoration, it was initially triumphant: a ‘European’ Great Power in Asian garb. But Japan’s timing was terrible. It became a colonial power just as the naked colonism practised by the likes of Britian, Spain and Portugal was fading as a legitimate practice. Its hopes of becoming the Great Britian of the Orient were dashed. That Japan’s colonial compaign was out of step with history was only compounded by the disastrous miscalculations of its semi-fasist government, whose adherence to the fanatical cult of emperor worship blinded it to the inevitability of defeat. Japan’s near-annihilation by war’s end closed for good any hope of achieving international ‘status’ thorugh military means. All that was left was to take the economic route.”

“By 1878, European nations and their offshoots controlled 67% of the world’s landmass, a figure that would jump to an ashonishing 84% by 1914.”

“What was expected of a ‘civilized’ power was neatly summed up by Kakuzo Okakura, author of The Book of Tea. ‘The average westerner was wont to regard Japan as barbarous while she indulged in the gentle arts of peace,’ he wrote. ‘He calls her civilized since she began to commit wholesale slaughter on the Manchurain battlefields.'”

“From the early 1930s, Japan had shifted from light to heavy industrialization, emphasizing warships, bombs and chemicals over textiles and handicrafts. Fukoku kyohei – ‘rich country, strong army’ – had been the centrepiece of the Meiji project, an objective that slipped into militarism. Now that Japan was forbidden from fighting, it could concentrate solely on building a strong economy.

Washington was soon to regret writing the pacifist clause into Japan’s constitution. But in what became known as the Yoshia Doctrine – after Shigeru Yoshida, prime minister for much of the decade after the war – Japan used its lack of international obligations to its own advantage. Released from the burder of defence and pretected by the US military, it was able to throw all of its energies into economic development. Wealth creation was seen as the alternative way of getting national prestige. The link between pre- and post-war ambitions, and the means of achieving them, was sometimes explicit. Kiyoshi Tomizuka, a professor of engineering at Tokyo Imperial University, wrote in his diary in April 1945, ‘An army in uniform is not the only sort of army. Scientific technology and fighting spirit under a business suit will be our underground arm.”

“Honda was by no means the only entrepreneru to invent a business from scratch. More than any company, Sony exemplifies Japan’s rise from the rubble and its transformation from a producer of shoddy trinkets to a manufacturer of world-beating technology. It began its life, quite literally, in a bombed-out building, the shell of the Shirokiya department store in Nihombashi, where Masaru Ibuka opened a radio repair shop in late 1945. The following year, he and Akio Morita, who had been expected to take over his family’s 300 year old sake business in Nagoya, founded a company with the unpromising name of Tsushin Kogyo, of Tokyo Telecommunications Enginerring Corporation. The initial investment was $500.”

“The entire economy revolved around exports – a legacy that Japan still lives with. At home, thrifty households were given meagre interest by banks and the post office, allowing the government to lend cheaply to industry. Big business were allowed to pollute the environment in the interests of profit and to charge Japanese consumers more than foreign ones in the interests of the nation’s balance of trade. Some of the fruits of Japan’s rapid growth were, in other words, sacrificed to the greater, abstract, goal of nation-building. These were the seeds of what some have called Japan’s ’empty-affluence’.”

“There is a certain absurdity to the obsession with maximizing long-term average income growth in perpetuity.”

“Women waited around for Mr Right, putting off marriage and childbirth. ‘Not only are they living in a dreamland but they’re not waking up.’ Yamada despaired. ‘They’ve given up. There’s no idea about changing society, or changing their own life.’ Perhaps, I ventured, they didn’t want to change society because their lives weren’t all that bad. Maybe they were contented as Furuichi said. ‘Those who live outside the established system have no way of getting in,’ Yamada said a little contemptuously. ‘That’s why they remain’ – here he curled his lip mockingly – ‘so-called happy and free.'”

“To the extent that we keep talking about things in that way, there’s not a lot of room for change and progress. I don’t want to pigeonhole Japanese society in that way. It is not very challenging for men. They’ll just say, “Oh yes. We’re the villians of the piece. How terrible.” But it doesn’t actually challenge them to come up with their own ideas about how things are, or where they should go. It lets them off the hook.”

“Once nulcear power became a national imperative, it was almost an article of faith that it be safe. How else to justify building fifty-four nuclear reactors, roughly one in ten of the world’s total, in the most seimically unstable country on earth? That imperative bred a culture of denial, arrogance and cover-up that was breathtaking.”

“If one takes the view that culture is immutable, Kurokawa’s cultural explanations were, indeed, next to useless. To view culture as fixed and unchangeable borders on geographical and racial determinism. But Kurokawa may have been trying to say something quite different. Few who have lived in Japan would edeny they recognize some of the natinoal traits he identified – a tendency to look inwards, to defer to authority, to play down on the importance of the individual. No serious observer of Japan, however, would pretedn this was the whole story.”

“When the harried officials eventually concluded the meeting and made for the exit, they were chased down the corridor by townspeople waving bottles of their children’s urine, which they demanded be tested for radiation. The meeting ended in disarry with the mandarins surrounded – one suspects for the first and only time in their careers – by protesters chanting, ‘I implore you take this urine.'”


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