Thursday, August 19, 2010

Fujiwara's 'The Dignity of The Nation': "Shrill rant" . . . or something more?

Five years after its initial publication, and three years after its translation and publication in English, I've finally read Masahiko Fujiwara's (藤原雅彦) Dignity of the Nation [Kokka no Hinkaku], and I've been both surprised and disappointed.  Surprised, mainly, by the book itself, which is good-humored, even-tempered, and thoughtful.  Disappointed, retrospectively, by Western reads, including this summary from Time and a Financial Times article excerpted here that characterize it in terms usually reserved for Japan's reactionary, old guard far-right.  One can't always trust an author's own protestations, but Fujiwara's condemnation of nationalism as "sordid," a "foul philosophy that everyone should steer clear of,"  is actually held up by the book as a whole.  While it's clear that he has some views that I'd consider beyond the pale (for instance, his reference in the FT interview to differences between Japanese and non-Japanese brains), these don't surface often in Kokka.  What emerges instead is a clearly conservative stance, but one that's quite in line with a lot of enlightened contemporary thinkers on nation and politics (And who can hate a book that contains such a vociferous advocacy for reading?).

The most compelling and truly thought-provoking elements of  Fujiwara's book are his reflections on just what makes a nation, and on the components of national character.  As he puts it, Fujiwara is an advocate, not of nationalism (aikokushin), but of sokokuai - love of one's ancestral homeland, something characterized not by unbridled self-interest, but aesthetic and cultural cultivation.  He does not consider Japan exceptional in the absolute sense shared by the nationalists.  His thoughts on Japan's unique cultural points - having to do with the Bushido ethical system and the cultivation of beautiful emotions of pathos and nostalgia - fit into a bigger picture in which the people of each nation have a unique contribution to make to world society, with the greatest benefit to the globe coming when each nation develops its own unique character to a high degree.  Now, Fujiwara undeniably shoots himself in the foot when he summarizes this position with statements like "There is no such thing as a global citizen," but he is certainly no advocate of renewing Japan's closed-borders policy.  His desire is for a cultivated Japaneseness to exist within an international system that values diversity.  As he puts it, tulips are beautiful, but to plant the entire planet with tulips would be foolish.

This seems like a reasonable enough position, and meshes with what have been characterized as his anti-globalization views.  But Fujiwara primarily opposes cultural globalization, while clearly stating that he sees the benefits of economic and technological globalization (not to be confused with liberalization, on which more later).  His most compelling point here is his opposition to the amount of mandatory English taught to Japanese students, many of whom now study English starting in elementary school.  Travelers in Japan benefit regularly from the minimal English the six-year curriculum gives Japanese people, but as Fujiwara points out and others agree, this is a relatively poor return on investment.  He argues that Japanese people would have more to contribute to global society if that class time was used developing higher levels of literacy in their native language, or on math and science training.  While I can see how people from English-speaking nations might find this position unnerving, Fujiwara is hardly frothing at the mouth.

In fact, Fujiwara's extremism, if any, is more of a leftist variety.  Frankly, much of the condemnation of Fujiwara, which at least in the West came from elite mouthpieces like Time and the Financial Times, seems to me an attempt to distort Fujiwara's theories of national character in order to discredit his stances against neoliberalism and economic deregulation.  In fact, Fujiwara often sounds less like a nationalist and more like a black-bloc partisan throwing stones at the windows of a G8 summit.  Some of his leftist stances were, in 2005, remarkably ahead of their time.  He devotes a large section to a critique of deregulation and laissez-faire economic theory, and to derivatives trading specifically, long before those derivatives revealed themselves to be weapons of financial mass destruction.  His critique of rationality, though easily dismissed by puddle-deep journalists and other reactionaries, is part of a much larger trend of thought that transcends easy left-right dichotomies.  At the highest levels, thinkers like Slavoj Zizek and Homi Bhabha have made careers off mapping the irrationality of human behavior.  The financial collapse itself, fueled as it was by strictly rational formulae, has woken up a large chunk of Western readers to the limits of rationalism, and similar or related ideas have been big successes lately in the North American nonfiction market, in the form of books like Blink, Predictably Irrational, and A Drunkard's Walk.

The most truly difficult stances Fujiwara takes are his negative evaluations of equality, freedom, and democracy. The first stance he describes as the "brutal truth" that human abilities differ, and he proposes that a sense of compassion for the weak is more important than the fiction that all people are truly equal.  This seems no different from the conservative side of American debates.  His stance against 'freedom,' though, again echoes the Western far left, who in recent years have increasingly come to share the sense that the rhetoric of 'freedom' is often a mask for compulsive egotism and social irresponsibility.  For Fujiwara, the Western sense of freedom has done much to undermine old Japanese social values, and I would say it has increasingly had the same effect in the West itself.

An opposition to democracy could be easily slotted into the militarist authoritarianism so identified with Japan's far right.  But Fujiwara's most convincing argument here is strongly anti-militarist, not to mention offering no sops to the Japanese ego.  A major part of the spiritual reconstruction of postwar Japan was the insistence that the Japanese people themselves had little to do with the decision to prosecute war - blame was mostly laid at the feet of Tojo.  But Fujiwara claims that public sentiment before and during the war was intensely fanatical and militaristic, sentiments reflected and fanned by the Asahi Shinbun.  He generalizes this to the claim that "the implicit precondition for democracy - a citizenry capable of exercising mature judgment - is something that can never be."  As a longtime opponent of the Iraq war who felt extremely isolated amidst the rah-rah bullshit that swept my own country when the tanks rolled on Baghdad, I'll admit I found Fujiwara's argument in favor of a well-educated and moderate elite compelling, at least emotionally. 

In other respects, too, Fujiwara's stance on the legacy of World War II is what most clearly separates him from the run-of-the-mill nationalist you might see wearing fatigues and singing gunka at Yasukuni.  It strikes me as relatively subtle - in fact, trying to evaluate it has me pushing at the edges of my historical knowledge.  First, Fujiwara makes a stark distinction between the war against the U.S., and the war against China.  He claims that the first was necessary for Japanese self-preservation, a position I don't feel qualified to evaluate.  Much more interesting, and clearly challenging to assessments of Fujiwara as a conventional nationalist, is that he roundly condemns the events of the the Manchuria incident and subsequent Japanese invasion of China.  He does so in terms of the bushido ethics he attempts here to revive, calling the abuse of a weak enemy by a stronger one 'base' and undignified.  This is, obviously, dramatically different from the typical nationalist stance that, for instance, the Rape of Nanking is strategically exaggerated by China as a bargaining chip.

Offhand dismissals of Kokka no Hinkaku have done no favors to Westerners seeking to better understand Japan.  If all right-wing thought in Japan is instinctively lumped in with militarist nationalism, what we're left with is the distorted picture of a country with only one viable political philosophy.  Fujiwara clearly holds some controversial views, and it must be granted that this is amateurish, off-the-cuff writing - he's not a political philosopher, but a pamphleteer.  But the positions he articulates resonate with various completely legitimate and vital thinkers on matters of national identity.  In his own moment-to-moment thinking, the man may not be clear on the boundary between cultural and racial distinctiveness, but his book is not a piece of blood-and-soil nihonjinron.  It's a political philosophy that values distinction and uniqueness, and opposes the ethos of globalist universalism that he sees as a code for Western neo-imperialism.  There are, inevitably, inconsistencies and holes in his logic.  But to dismiss this book does no favors for the mutual understanding that globalists claim to value.

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