25 August 2015

Madame Butterfly’s offspring: the irony of Japanese traditionalism

I recently posted a storyi to Facebook about the grassroots resistance to Abe Shinzō’s current legislative plan to rearm Japan and to alter Japan’s military doctrine to something resembling what they had prior to WWII, and I did so with a supportive (of the protesters) comment to the effect of ‘it’s a good thing certain segments of the Japanese populace are still more sane than their government’. To which a traditionalist friend of mine, currently living in China, replied simply: ‘are you joking?’

Well, no, in fact, I’m not. But explaining why this is the case takes far more space than would make sense on Facebook.

First off, though, let me be clear about my own commitments. I am Orthodox, monarchist and populist – in that orderii. Both Orthodoxy and monarchism presume a level of respect for traditional folkways and received forms of wisdom which make me more sympathetic to Japanese attempts to reclaim their own cultural distinctiveness and ancient practices. On a certain level, I would be happy to see Japan reclaim its status as a sovereign state and a sense of its own civilisational aspirations. But for reasons which have grown increasingly clear to me, these cannot take place without a serious and critical examination of Japan’s current political commitments, her highly-schizophrenic relationship with her own history, and the critical pathologies of her culture. The irony is that the people who are currently most vocally eager to reestablish Japanese geopolitical sovereignty are also the most deliberately deaf to any consideration that Japan might even have a historical or cultural crisis.

Let’s start with the obvious, then. Japanese tradition is Sinophile. This is historical fact; it would be impossible to overstate the Chinese influence on Japan’s growth as a culture from the reign of the Sinophile Soga regent Kamitsumiya forward. Both the Buddhist religious deposit and the adoption of Confucian ethics and norms of government left indelible marks on Japanese societyiii, and both Buddhismiv and Confucianismv were imported along Chinese or Chinese-tributary pathways. So deep was this influence that even the resistant aboriginal tradition of Shintō ended up adopting not only Chinese styles of religious art and calligraphy, but also even deeper philosophical justifications (e.g., from the Yijing)vi. Japanese writing (including both poetry and prose), architecture, agriculture, religious and political thought – all either originated in a Chinese cultural import or adapted themselves to those that were already there.

The sole, partial exception to Chinese influence was the class of mounted warriors who served as retainers to the Japanese emperor and his generals, who proved highly resistant to Chinese cultural imports, often seeing them as effeminate and decadent. But in the end, even they found it useful to adopt certain Chinese beliefs and practices – most notably bushidō, the famous samurai warrior code which shows a clear adaptation both of Confucian morality and of Buddhist indifference toward deathvii.

However, Japanese society underwent a catastrophic and geometric change beginning in 1868. The taproot of Chinese cultural influence on Japanese society was suddenly cut off for reasons of political expediency as the government under the Meiji Emperor reoriented itself from building on a Chinese template to building on a more ‘rational’ Prussian oneviii. Though the Westernising principle of Japanese government had a definite logic to it – namely, they were eager to undo the economic damage brought about by the unequal treaties they were forced to sign with various Western powersix – and although it brought about a significant degree of material benefit, it immediately produced a cultural crisis. The warrior elites of Japan, who had previously resisted Chinese cultural influence, now found themselves among the Chinese cultural deposit’s few remaining defenders – and the new bureaucratic class, realising this, moved to strip them of all their former powers and privileges. The dramatic culmination of this crisis was the Satsuma Rebellion, in which General Saigō Takamori made his last stand against a bureaucratising government bent on stripping the samurai of their established place in societyx.

From this point forward, the Meiji government would wrap itself in the cloak of a traditional legitimacy whilst simultaneously undermining the basis for any Japanese traditionalism worthy of the name. This led Japanese cultural traditionalists to begin making common cause with the more radical elements of Japanese society to resist such geometric cultural changes as character simplificationxi, which were being proposed by industrialists, the liberal press and members of the new class of bureaucrats. In this case, what the traditionalists – the remnants and the defenders of the traditional samurai class – and the radical assorted agrarians, proletarians and internationalists had in common was a respect for, and desire for closer and friendlier relations with, China. This was symbolised concretely by their championing the use of the traditional Chinese character set.

More broadly, the appalling conduct of the Meiji government on the continent of Asia, showing how eagerly they’d taken to heart the lessons of Western colonialism, shows further the contempt this government had for tradition. In particular, the assassination and defilement of the Empress Myeongseong of Korea by Japanese soldiers under General Miura Gorō in the autumn of 1895, followed by official pardons from the Meiji government for all implicated parties, shows in the starkest possible terms the limits of the Meiji government’s respect either for the sanctity of monarchical persons or for the Confucian norms of monarchical legitimationxii.

But even within Japan itself, the ground continued to shift rapidly. The forces of modernisation, in this way, were and are bound up with the forces of militarism and conquest. The goal of Japanese accession to a world system defined on the basis of industrial, financial and military power necessitated, in the eyes of the new class and the new military, a thoroughgoing rationalisation of Japanese society and business structure. Far from being the voice of the values of tradition, the voice of the military throughout the Meiji and Taishō eras, all the way up to the Mukden Incident, was one of consolidation, bureaucratisation and territorial expansion, particularly at the expense of China and Korea, and occasionally Russia. The liberal Meiji-era reformer and educator Fukuzawa Yukichi, a vocal proponent of the views of Herbert Spencer, rendered the advice that ‘we must behave in the same way as the civilised countries in the West are doing… we would do better to treat China and Korea in the same way as do the Western nations’xiii – that is, invade them and treat them as colonies.

Japanese conduct during the Second World War is well-known and need not bear repeating here. But the material point is that even in the aftermath, when Japan’s military had been disbanded, the zaibatsu had been broken up and the businesses and government turned to the tasks of reinvestment and reconstruction, they still had not fully cast off their attitudes toward the rest of Asia. The Western-looking Japanese government, with very few exceptions between 1952 and now, tacked into the winds of neoliberal ideology and American geopolitical leadership, thus putting even greater distance between its own leading values and the traditional values of the society prior to the Meiji Ishin, which have been preserved primarily, albeit imperfectly, in the countryside.

For a long time, the leading cultural critics in Japan from the ‘left’ and from the ‘right’ – Mishima Yukio, Kurosawa Akira, Miyazaki Hayao – have lamented this cultural shift. Miyazaki Hayao’s last full-length feature film is, in short, a broadside against the sort of militaristic nationalism that he sees affecting Japan’s public policy and international strategy now; and it attacks these nationalists from the standpoint of traditional concern. According to Miyazaki, the nationalists’ demands for a strong military are, in fact, neglecting Japan’s disease of the lungs, of the spiritxiv. Mishima himself, long the most strident voice of a uniquely-Japanese traditionalism, one year before his suicidal last stand at Ichigaya, penned a withering critique of the Japanese ‘nationalist’ right along these lines: ‘A group of Rightists, who had their own special stock-in-trade of nationalism snatched away from them, tried to counter a Leftist demonstration against a port call by the American nuclear carrier Enterprise by sallying forth with the Stars and Stripes in one hand and the Rising Sun in the other, just as if they were Madame Butterfly’s offspring on an operatic stagexv.’ The fact that middle-aged Okinawans themselves appeared to be so prominent in protesting Abe Shinzō’s recent, supposedly-‘nationalistic’ plan to modernise Japan’s armed forces, shows these selfsame dynamics at work, 45 years later.

In fact, I do agree somewhat with my traditionalist FB interlocutor about the question of the rearmament of Japan. In the long run, it may be that the rearmament question is not one of ‘if’, but rather one of ‘when’ and ‘how’. A Japan rearmed, yet without a sense of her own character, history and national destiny, is highly dangerous. Abe’s current approach to history and geopolitics may appeal strongly to the uyoku dantai crowd, a constituency which in any event has still failed to understand its idol Mishima’s derision of their predecessors. But it doesn’t serve his nation’s long-run interests or health. Japan needs to rekindle her long historical love-affair with the China-that-was, and in doing so she needs to set aside also her Western-inculcated sneers of disdain and her reactive distrust of China (and Korea) today. Ironically, to achieve any kind of national self-respect, Japan needs desperately to be delivered out of the hands of her misguided ‘nationalists’.

i The Japan Times, ‘United in outrage, protesters printing Anti-Abe posters in a nationwide campaign of dissent’, 19 July 2015, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/07/19/national/politics-diplomacy/anti-abe-posters-raised-across-nation-protesters-rally-security-bills/#.Vdxoz_kufyb.
ii Wikipedia, ‘Orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality’, last modified 1 December 2014, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orthodoxy,_Autocracy,_and_Nationality.
iii Walk Japan, ‘Chinese influence’, 2014, http://www.nakasendoway.com/chinese-influence/.
iv Japan Buddhist Federation, ‘A brief history of Buddhism in Japan’, A Guide to Japanese Buddhism, 2004. Accessible online at http://www.buddhanet.net/nippon/nippon_partI.html.
v Mark Schumacher, ‘Confucius and Confucianism in Japanese art and culture’, 2014, http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/japanese-confucianism.html.
vi Encyclopedia of Shinto, ‘Shinto and ancient Chinese thought’, 9 December 2006, http://eos.kokugakuin.ac.jp/modules/xwords/entry.php?entryID=825.
vii Nitobe Inazō, ‘Sources of Bushidō’, Bushidō, the Soul of Japan, 1905. Accessible online at http://www.sacred-texts.com/shi/bsd/bsd07.htm.
viii Ōno Ken’ichi, ‘Meiji (1): key goals of the new government’, National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, http://www.grips.ac.jp/teacher/oono/hp/lecture_J/lec03.htm.
ix LK, ‘Industrial policy in Meiji Japan’, 14 April 2012, http://socialdemocracy21stcentury.blogspot.com/2012/04/industrial-policy-in-meiji-japan.html.
x Wikipedia, ‘Satsuma Rebellion’, last modified 19 August 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satsuma_Rebellion.
xi Matthew Franklin Cooper, ‘Politics of character’, The Lanchester Review, 9 October 2014, http://lanchesterreview.blogspot.co.uk/2014/10/politics-of-character-by-matthew-cooper.html.
xii Matthew Franklin Cooper, ‘The dangers of ideological monarchism – Japan’, 25 October 2014, http://existentialmusingsofmatt.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-dangers-of-ideological-monarchism.html.
xiii Frank E. Smitha, ‘Imperialism to 1900’, http://www.fsmitha.com/h3/h48japan5.htm.
xiv Matthew Franklin Cooper, ‘What is Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises really about?’, Solidarity Hall, 30 June 2014, http://solidarityhall.org/what-is-miyazakis-the-wind-rises-really-about/.
xv Mishima Yukio, ‘Okinawa and Madame Butterfly’s offspring’, New York Times, 29 November 1969. Accessible online at https://www.nytimes.com/books/98/10/25/specials/mishima-okinawa.html.

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