Just Say Noh

The Japan That Can Say ‘No’: The Card for a New US–Japan Relationship

by Morita Akio, by Ishihara Shintaro
Kobunsha, 160 pp., 800 yen

Is there a possible connection between the Sony Walkman and the Japanese emperor? Or, if that sounds too farfetched, is there a link between haiku poems and the FSX jet fighter? Or, if that is too outré, what about computer technology and the uniqueness of the Japanese brain? In sum, can Japanese proficiency in high technology be a function of Japanese culture?

Ishihara Shintaro, Liberal Democratic party politician, former Minister of Transport, failed candidate for the prime ministership of Japan, and one of the authors of the book at hand, thinks it is. I first read his argument, largely repeated in the book, in an article that appeared at the time of the late emperor Hirohito’s funeral. It was published in Bungei Shunju, one of the more serious literary journals in Japan.

The argument went roughly as follows: because of its climatic and geographical position, as well as its racial homogeneity, Japan has developed a unique culture, whose unique symbol is the Japanese emperor. In Ishihara’s words:

The essence of Japaneseness has remained unchanged…. The firm unity of the Japanese people has developed over the ages for many reasons, but it explains why we identify with our emperor, which is how we are able to evaluate our lives…. Our honest and sincere emperor is the tribal symbol within our national polity and our culture; indeed, he is like the father of our family….

Having established the preeminence of the imperial symbol, Ishihara goes on to define what he sees as the national genius. This is the unique talent to receive ideas or forms from abroad and refine them beyond the wildest dreams of the cruder peoples who initiated them. The examples, says Ishihara, are legion: Buddhism, Confucianism, art, architecture—all these reached the pinnacle of sophistication in Japan.

One can usually tell by the foreigners a Japanese thinker quotes where he or she is, as they say, coming from. Ishihara quotes Toynbee and Malraux, both solid standbys in the arsenal of Japanese nationalists; Toynbee because of his prophecy of doom for the West and Malraux because he pleased his hosts by pronouncing at every opportunity upon the spiritual superiority of Japanese art, in this case Japanese Buddhist sculpture. Ishihara also cites a Japanese, whom he professes to have admired above all others: Genda Minoru, the “genius who planned the attack on Pearl Harbour.” Genda observed that whereas the European sword was merely a tool for killing people, the Japanese sword was a thing of extraordinary and mysterious beauty, a true work of art, again a clear sign of superior sophistication.

What, then, is the reason for this? Ishihara starts off with a fairly down-to-earth explanation: Japan, being at the outer edge of a great continental civilization, could not pass on its culture elsewhere and instead polished to greater perfection whatever it received. But soon wilder flights of fancy take over: “The special quality of our people may have been a gift from Heaven, in any case, it is …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.