It Takes a Village, Alas

Japan, Land of Peasants, Embraces Conformity and Decline

It is not a land, not a culture, not a language prone to self-analysis or philosophy. The thought of reinvention has no resonance. Postwar Japan is a land of peasants without warlords. It is self-sufficient. Or that, at least, is what the Japanese still believe about themselves, all evidence to the contrary. It is a pathological and paralyzing condition. A peasant may venture out of his village into larger society, but he is quick to return to the protection of the village when things go wrong. He knows that his existence is ultimately dependent only on the village.

This means that for better and worse, the Japanese are barely affected by the outside assessment of their nation’s stagnation and decline.

Peasants are typically treated as an anachronism in thinking about contemporary societies. Still, it is commonplace for Japanese commentators to frame Japan as a village, a closed society imbued with feudal traits. Following the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe, even outside commentators have come to adopt the Japanese metaphor of the “nuclear village.” It is the secretive and consequentially corrupt and publicly irresponsible world of the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the Ministry of Economics, Trade, and Industry, the Nuclear Regulation Agency, and other assorted inhabitants. The nuclear village behaves as if the existence of society as a whole is not necessary for the existence of the village.

But almost none of the Japanese commentators employing the village metaphor delve into its essence. If Japan is a village, then its inhabitants must be peasants, executives at Tokyo Electric and the commentators themselves included. The village is uniform and autonomous. It is self-sufficient with its separate and distinctive pattern of social relations. The peasant is conservative and suspicious, especially of fellow villagers, for he knows who they are and what they are about. The peasant is basically powerless in making basic decisions that affect his life. The peasant shows more kindness to outsiders than to his own, thus the famed Japanese hospitality toward the white foreigner, who safely remains an outsider.

Village stability is generated by the ever-present threat of ostracism. The peasant is ostracized not for obvious wrongdoing but for hubris, the dire threat against the uniformity of the village. In the village, individual autonomy and efficacy are anathematized. Bound by the conformist dictate, the peasant never thinks that he is getting a fair share. If life turns miserable, there is satisfaction in knowing that everybody around is equally miserable. Complacency is found in sameness. Despite two decades of deflation, withering wealth, social stagnation, political dysfunction, and no hope of redemption in sight, the Japanese today remain remarkably complacent. If the Chinese economy, so remote from the Japanese village, has become bigger, so be it.

Before Japan abruptly lost its dynamism, nearly a generation ago, the Japanese media was in the habit of reporting the country’s rising international status and recovery from the devastation of the Pacific War by GDP measure. At the height of the asset bubble in the late 1980s, such reporting dissipated. By then the world’s second largest economy came to match American wealth in per capita terms and was growing. Economists around the world found in Japan a superior form of capitalism that no other country could emulate. American public opinion polls identified Japan, an ally, as the greatest threat to national security, never mind the Soviet Union with its vast nuclear arsenal. This Japan was seen to be on the verge of taking over the universe. But it was at this very moment that the Japanese realized, hitherto unarticulated to themselves, that they do not want to be number one.

To be number one would have meant the destruction of village integrity. Japan could not remain a village and lead the world. It would have had to reinvent itself. Better to follow the United States, the maker of international rules and guarantor of Japan’s national security, and stay a land of prosperous peasants. It is with this understanding that the Japanese came to care much less about their country’s relative international position and reputation. Wealth does not necessarily equal power.

The late 1980s and early ’90s was an intense season of America’s Japan bashing. At the 1992 Winter Olympics, a Japanese and an American competed for the gold medal in ladies’ figure skating. I knew then many Japanese living in Washington and New York who prayed for their compatriot not to beat the American, for fear of adding fuel to the bashing. Their prayers were answered. The gold medalist was the American Kristi Yamaguchi.

Soon after that Olympics, it became evident that the Japanese economy had stalled. Thus began Japan’s “lost decade(s).” Village Japan was in need of reinvention, not to become number one and lead the world, but to adapt to economic globalization and move beyond a heavy reliance on manufacturing exports to support a closed and uncompetitive domestic economy. The village order so carefully crafted since the defeat in the Pacific War is no longer viable, and the peasants are becoming less prosperous by the day.

The inability to embrace adaptive change historically has been a cause of social decay. But the village norm is so embedded and tightly woven, there is little room for critical thought to dissolve paralyzing illusions. Potential change agents are quickly ostracized and buried. Postwar Japan remains a village of submissive and passive peasants, bound by a smothering dosage of social cohesion, each part geared to every other part, blocking the possibility of reinvention. Any possible change, more than being about this or that new policy, will have to be about the whole of Japan—the relationship between its parts must be altered for the creative destruction of inward-looking village Japan to take place.

Japan has always been a nation on the periphery, selectively receiving things from the world’s center, which was China for a long while. Confucianism, Buddhism, city planning, court rituals, arts, language, and much more about Japan are originally Chinese. Eunuchs and foot binding were not to Japanese taste. Then, in the modern era, things came from the West, especially Britain, Germany, and the United States, including imperialism, jazz, and democracy. Throughout, there was no real attempt to develop a native philosophy to judge right from wrong. What matters is to figure out who has got it right at any given time and cultivate friendly relations, but always cognizant of keeping a certain distance.

Today, if we Japanese are honest and take stock of our own village, or peer outside it, we’d have to conclude that nobody seems to be getting it right.

Masaru Tamamoto lives in Yokohama, Japan. He is a researcher at the University of Cambridge and senior fellow of the World Policy Institute in New York.
Primary Editor: Andrés Martinez. Secondary Editor: T.A. Frank.
*Photo courtesy of andreakw.
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