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The Japanese Malaise

Alex Kerr is an American who came to Japan in the 1960s, when the Construction State was in its infancy. He wrote a book called Lost Japan in 1996 in which he bemoans the destruction of natural beauty and of what was left, after the ruinous war, of traditional Japanese architecture. His rage against ugly modern development was heartfelt, and yet also, here and there, a trifle precious. There was a little too much talk in his book of grand houses, ancient families, and fastidious aesthetes who couldn’t abide an inferior tea bowl or imperfect flower arrangement. Love of tradition verged on antiquarian fetishism. Kerr’s latest book is stronger because his aesthetic concerns have a political dimension; he shows that the asphalt blanketing is not just ugly but the mark of a corrupt political system.

I was reading Kerr’s book in Gifu, a large provincial city in the center of Japan, famous for its cormorant fishing in the Nagara River. Tourists are taken out in boats to watch the cormorants dive for fish. Held on a leash, the long-necked birds are pulled out of the water to disgorge their catch. My brother-in-law, whose small advertising business went bust in the recession, is now looking for a job as a cormorant handler. The problem is that tourism has dwindled since a huge new dam and concrete riverbanks killed natural life in the Nagara River. The dam was conceived in 1960, the year of the Ikeda plan. Twenty years later it was clear that the dam wasn’t needed. There was an oversupply of water. But the monster got built anyway, despite much local protest, because too much government money was at stake. Now the sweetfish have to be brought in especially for the cormorants to catch. My other brother-in-law appears to be weathering the recession a bit better than his younger sibling; his main asset is a concrete carpark where the graceful old family house once stood.

So Kerr is right: much of Japan is ugly, and the political system is pretty rotten. The construction business is just one—albeit the main one—of the many scams that fuel the LDP state; every ministry has its own deals with private businesses and public agencies. Kerr is also right to point out in a few devastating examples how the culture of secrecy in Japanese government, and corporate management, causes the most terrible blunders. The initial handling of the 1995 Kobe earthquake was a disgrace, with endless delays and slip-ups. The safety equipment of the nuclear plant that exploded in 1999 had not been repaired for seventeen years. There was a repair manual, but it was secret and ignored critical safety regulations.

The trouble with Kerr is that exaggeration too often undermines his case. Kerr dismisses graduates from Tokyo University, the elite academic institution, in one sentence: “They go straight into government ministries, where they proceed to collect bribes, lend money to gangsters, falsify medical records, and cook up schemes to destroy rivers and seacoasts….” No doubt some do, but it is hardly the norm; there is diversity even among Tokyo University alumni. And to say that much of Tokyo is less than beautiful is one thing, but to compare it unfavorably to Bangkok and Jakarta is ridiculous. There is much to admire in modern Japanese architecture and design. But this has no place in Kerr’s polemics. He is too angry for that. He feels a sense of mission to reveal the “trouble eating away at the nation’s very soul.”

What is it that makes him so overwrought? He appears to be obsessed with “foreign observers” and “old-line Japanologists” who are “preaching Japan’s glory.” Who is he talking about? There is also something self-regarding in Kerr’s tone of personal hurt, something of the erstwhile Japanophile who feels spurned or let down. He sees recent departures from Japan of eminent expatriates as a sign of Japanese sickness. Certain “legendary” figures are mentioned who left for greener pastures, such as Hong Kong and Bangkok. I was not entirely surprised to read in his biographical notes that the author himself had recently taken up residence in Bangkok.

Even though Kerr writes a great deal about politics and economics, his real concern is culture, which muddles his conclusions. The Ikeda deal came to an end because the Japanese economy could not grow at top speed forever. No mature economy can expand that fast, and the cocoon of the LDP state cannot protect the domestic economy from global competition anymore. Nor should it: the same mercantilist system, with its maze of corporate and financial crossholdings that helped to boost Japanese industrial fortunes, has now turned into an albatross. When Renault managers were sent in to overhaul Nissan, and Daimler-Chrysler bought a large chunk of Mitsubishi motors, it was clear that the old ways were done for. The question is how long the LDP state will survive the end of the Ikeda deal. For what legitimacy does a secretive, less than democratic, de facto one-party state have left when jobs and prosperity can no longer be guaranteed?

Kerr does not have a political answer to this essentially political question. He talks about “chronic” “cultural troubles,” and a nation that is “sick at heart because Japan has strayed so far from its true self.” Like Yukio Mishima, Kerr sees postwar Japan, and particularly the “sterility of Japan’s new landscape,” as a kind of betrayal of “everything the nation once stood for.” “The challenge of this century,” he says, “will be how to find a way home.”

This is all a bit vague. But Kerr is right that economic success came “at tremendous internal cost”—a ravaged landscape and a culture driven by commerce, celebrity, and bad television. Japan is hardly unique in this respect, but the peculiarly one-sided nature of the Ikeda Plan might have made things worse than in other developed nations. Lack of political transparency is certainly one reason why industries and governments get away with wrecking the environment. Kerr has a more cultural explanation, however. Traditional values, he says, have not died in Japan, but simply mutated. The obsessive taming of nature for instance: “Maladapted to modernity, traditional values become Frankenstein’s monsters, taking on terrifying new lives. As Donald Richie, the dean of Japanologists in Tokyo, points out, ‘What’s the difference between torturing bonsai and torturing the landscape?’”

Well, there is torture and there is torture; a thing of exquisite beauty or a cause of permanent damage. Japan still offers many examples of both.


Once in a while Japanese do revolt, often in bursts of terrifying violence. Young Turks in the armed forces staged a brutal anticapitalist rebellion in 1936, murdering several cabinet ministers. In the 1970s, the Japanese Red Army Faction sought to change the world by taking over embassies, machine-gunning airline passengers, and torturing “revisionist” comrades to death. And most recently, in 1995, members of the quasi-Buddhist Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) cult spread deadly sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system, killing twelve people and injuring thousands. The targets of these various rebellions were strikingly similar: a world corrupted by materialism and moral pollution. The goal, in each case, was to establish a new, purist utopia, by washing the old order in blood.

The novelist Haruki Murakami, who often writes about isolated individuals trying to find meaning in a materialist world, has written an oral history of the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack. He tried to piece together a moral background to this extraordinary event by interviewing survivors as well as cult members. Although Murakami’s own style is anything but overwrought (his prose is cool as cool can be), his preoccupations are similar to Alex Kerr’s. Like Kerr, he believes there is a spiritual sickness in Japan, exemplified by the Aum case, a lack of purpose or “broad world vision,” an “alienation between language and actions.” Also like Kerr, Murakami identifies the secretive nature of Japanese authority as the main reason for official blundering. The aftermath of the gas attack, when hospitals were paralyzed, and cagey police officers ran around in a panic, was sadly typical. Murakami writes:

Japan’s institutions remain inner-circle-upon-inner-circle, acutely sensitive to any public “loss of face,” unwilling to expose their failings to “outsiders.” Efforts to investigate what happened were greatly limited for all the usual hazy, accepted reasons: “It’s already on trial…” or “That’s government business.”

Certain themes emerge from his interviews which match Murakami’s own vision of Japanese sickness. Mr. Toyoda, a subway-station attendant, blames the whole Aum affair on the general lack of morals in Japan. Look at the way people litter the platforms just after they have been cleaned, he says: “There are too many self-assertive people out there.” Or consider this opinion, from Mr. Arima, employee in a cosmetics firm: “Since the war ended, Japan’s economy has grown rapidly to the point where we’ve lost any sense of crisis and material things are all that matters. The idea that it’s wrong to harm others has gradually disappeared.” Mr. Ishino, an officer in the Self-Defense Forces, believes that the “most important thing for Japan at this point is to pursue a new spiritual wholeness. I can’t see any future for Japan if we blindly persist with today’s materialistic pursuits.”

But this is just how most members of the Aum cult felt about things too.4 What strikes one in Murakami’s interviews with them is their painful seriousness. A computer expert, named Mr. Kano, wanted to “prove Buddhism mathematically.” Mr. Hosoi, a young man who only left Aum while in prison following the gas attack, explained why he had joined. An isolated figure in search of meaning in this lonely world, he had grasped at a variety of straws: Nostradamus, yoga, theosophy. Then he stumbled on the works of Shoko Asahara, the nearly blind Aum guru: “What I liked most about the Aum books was that they clearly stated that the world is evil. I was happy when I read that. I’d always thought that the world was unfair and might as well be destroyed, and here it was all laid out in black and white. Instead of simply destroying the world, though, Asahara Shoko said: ‘If one trains and is liberated, then one can change the world.’” But in Asahara’s lurid vision, Armageddon would purge mankind of evil karma, and only the Aum members would survive as the chosen ones. Then, and only then, would real changes come to the world.

The Aum followers were not, on the whole, intellectual failures or resentful losers. On the contrary, they were the highly educated children of Japan’s Economic Miracle, the elite of mid-bubble Japan. Many were scientists or engineers. One of the two men who dropped nerve gas in the subway train, Ikuo Hayashi, was a senior medical doctor from a top university, a good family man with an excellent track record at the Ministry of Health and Technology. In many ways members of Aum behaved just like people in Japan’s large corporations or bureaucratic institutions, with the same sense of hierarchy, the same technocratic instincts, the same corporate zeal, until something tipped them over into lunacy.

Murakami writes as if the Aum Shinrikyo were a typically Japanese phenomenon. He compares the perverted idealism of its followers with the utopianism of his father’s generation, some of whose best and brightest moved into the Asian continent with fantasies of ruling the world under the benevolent gaze of the divine emperor. Other writers on Aum dig deeper into the Japanese psyche for cultural explanations. Robert Jay Lifton, in a thoughtful psychological study, quotes a Japanese philosopher called Yujiro Nakamura, who argues that the murderous sincerity of some Japanese is rooted in an extreme version of Confucianism.5 Such people would destroy the world in order to improve it. Japanese varieties of Buddhism, such as the Zen-like warrior spirit, or the moral detachment of the thirteenth-century Shin Pure Land sect, are also mentioned.

Lifton himself is more inclined to seek answers in the way Japanese have dealt, or not dealt, with the legacies of World War II. By dodging the subject as much as they could, they developed “unhealthy mechanisms” for staving off old feelings of humiliation and defeat, while being left at the same time with “reservoirs of guilt and shame associated with inexpressible truths.” And that “psychological combination,” in Lifton’s view, “could render extremely attractive a movement with apocalyptic claims to resolving all conflict and restoring collective glory, claims of a purification that would wash away all evil.”

Maybe. Yet it must be said—as Lifton does—that killer cults are not a Japanese specialty. America has its share of them. China has had many of them. And what was the Nazi movement if not a murderous cult? There cannot be only one reason for these eruptions, but a sense of impotence and disgust with the political system are common to all of them. In Japan, such feelings were mitigated for a long time by economic success. Many people, in and out of Japan, believed that this success would never end. One foreign observer wrote that the Japanese bubble would “not burst as long as the political setting in which it has emerged persists.”6

He turned out to be wrong. But he was right in a more important sense. Without the political setting there would not have been a Japanese bubble. The Yoshida and Ikeda deals, the construction booms, the mercantilist policies, the absurdly inflated land prices, the crash that followed the bubble, and the continuing malaise, spiritual, economic, and political, are all part of the LDP state. For things to get better, that state will have to go. Many Japanese recognize this. The popular new prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, is the first LDP leader to have publicly challenged some of the main tenets of the Yoshida and Ikeda deals, including the postwar constitution. But to challenge them in brave speeches is one thing; to change the governing habits of at least half a century will be quite something else.

  1. 4

    The cult still exists under a different name, Aleph. The number of members who turn up at events by the cult is around 1,000.

  2. 5

    Robert Jay Lifton, Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism (Metropolitan Books, 1999).

  3. 6

    Karel van Wolferen, “Japan’s Money Machine,” The Washington Post, November 5, 1989.

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