Japan Unbound: A Volatile Nation's Quest for Pride and Purpose

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9780618138944: Japan Unbound: A Volatile Nation's Quest for Pride and Purpose

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.

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About the Author :

John Nathan, the Takashima Professor of Japanese Cultural Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is the author of a definitive biography of the novelist Yukio Mishima and has translated the novels of both Mishima and the Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe into English. He is alsoan Emmy Award-winning filmmaker. John Nathanlives in Santa Barbara, California.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. :


I 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
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
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
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
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
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
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 ...

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