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Guilt, identity, and Japaneseness: if we are to love Japan, we must learn to forgive the Japanese. This will never be easy, since the Japanese do not seek collective forgiveness and believe they did nothing as a nation that might make it necessary.

JAPANESE, on the quasi-official level that encompasses everything from school textbooks to political speeches, believe that whatever they did in the 1930s and 1940s can be explained, usually by a glib plea of self-defence. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, for example, was necessary to limit American encroachment on the western side of the Pacific. Many Japanese believed that in 1941. Many believe it now. Those who study the Japanese consider this just one of the many contradictions that make them the most exceptional of peoples: famously humble, they nevertheless refuse to atone for what others consider atrocities.

Yasukuni National Shrine, a handsome Shinto temple in central Tokyo, the most contested and anger-provoking memorial building in the world, reflects the special quality of Japan's response to its own history. Whenever a Japanese prime minister makes a public visit to Yasukuni, certain Japanese applaud him, certain other Japanese mildly rebuke him, and various foreign nations, above all China, ferociously attack him, never failing to point out that many of the men honoured at Yasukuni (including Hideki Tojo, prime minister during the Second World War) are rightly considered war criminals. Such a visit is never made on a whim and never lacks meaning. It violates the constitutional separation of religion and state but declares to the voters, in effect: "We can ignore the opinions of officious foreigners because we have done nothing that shames us." No one ever says such a thing (it would be impossibly un-Japanese) but everyone understands the message.


Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has made a point of visiting Yasukuni every year he's been in office and seems to have regarded Chinese and other protests as no more than annoying background noise. This summer, with his time in office coming to an end, he went a step farther and paid his visit on 15 August, the anniversary of Japan's surrender to the Americans. In Beijing and elsewhere that was considered a particularly flagrant provocation.

For these reasons Yasukuni is the perfect place to begin an examination of what scholars often call Japaneseness, an indefinable term that is nevertheless frequently defined, a theoretical construct that plays a large part in the self-image of Japan. Japaneseness depends on tradition, innovation, style, confidence, and a plethora of metaphors, most of which (like Japaneseness itself) carry an infinity of meanings.

Yasukuni memorializes the 2.5 million Japanese men who have died in battle since the Meiji restoration of 1868. On my first visit, two decades ago, I was astonished to discover that among those honoured were kamikaze pilots and sailors who intentionally crashed their planes or boats into American targets in the last ten months of the Second World War. I had somehow guessed that this aspect of warfare would be judiciously overlooked. All to the contrary; the displayed photographs amount to an eloquent tribute, even a celebration of the valour of the kamikaze project. And this small exhibit in itself constitutes a perfect example of Japaneseness, being at once baffling, glamorous, perverse, and outrageously deceptive.


There were some 4,000 kamikaze pilots and human torpedoes. In the photographs at Yasukuni, they look young and beautiful in their dashing military headbands. They pose beside anxious-looking parents, arm-in-arm with their comrades, and finally waving goodbye--to life, to Japan, and to the curious observer who examines them in a museum vitrine many decades after their deaths. Some boastful or ill-informed curator added to the photographs a mendacious printed tribute, making the pilots "martyrs to the new Japan" whose "spirit has laid the ground work for the peace and prosperity of our nation ..."

All lies, of course. Surely no 18-year-old, in 1945, crashed into an American destroyer in hopes of making the world a better place for Nissan. Their deaths accomplished nothing, delaying the American march across the Pacific for no more than a week. The part about their status as martyrs is equally misleading. Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, a University of Wisconsin anthropologist, has recently demonstrated, in Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers (University of Chicago Press), that most of what we assume about them (and what the Japanese say about them) is dead wrong.

The translated diaries of seven student soldiers, assembled by Ohnuki-Tierney, draw an appalling and surprising portrait. Outside Japan, kamikaze pilots were considered fanatics who willingly sacrificed their lives for their emperor. In Japan, on the other hand, they were (and, at Yasukuni, still are) regarded as heroes who gave their lives to defend the homeland, their fellow citizens, and their families.

But the ugly truth, as Ohnuki-Tierney makes clear, accords with neither of these beliefs. No one volunteered as a kamikaze pilot. They were all drafted, in effect handed a death sentence when many were in their late teens, recent conscripts with cursory training. A desperate vice-admiral invented the scheme, apparently in the belief that if the Americans could be delayed for even a little while then some miracle would save Japan. The suicide units were called the tokkotai, or "special attack force," the word "special" meaning they were intended to be one-way flights.

The boy pilots, far from being the eager and compliant martyrs that history has portrayed, were furious about the fate imposed on them. As they listened to the instructions and exhortations of their superiors, they were bitterly aware that not even one senior officer in all of Japan, and not a single officer trained at a military academy, volunteered to go with them on their mission. What they did was much praised, but as an assignment it was not much desired. They were lonely as well as doomed.

Occasionally their fury exploded. Ohnuki-Tierney includes a letter written in 1995, at the age of 86, by a steward who observed young pilots during the last night before a suicide run from the Tsuchiura Naval Air Base:
 At the hall where their farewell parties were held, the young student
 officers drank cold sake.... Some gulped the sake in one swallow;
 others kept gulping down.... The whole place turned to mayhem. Some
 broke hanging light bulbs with their swords. Some lifted chairs to
 break the windows and tore white tablecloths. A mixture of military
 songs and curses filled the air. While some shouted in rage, others
 cried aloud. It was their last night of life ...

Often the pilots had trouble locating targets, and some didn't put much enthusiasm into the search. One pilot returned nine times, reporting after each sortie that he couldn't find the enemy; after the ninth failure, his superiors had him shot. Some pilots would avoid ramming a US vessel, since that would mean their death in an explosion. Instead they would try to land on water near shore. There were those who, before flying off on their missions, insolently buzzed the officers' quarters as a way of briefly terrifying them. They could have exploded their own base, but there's no record of such a radical rebellion.

Angry or not, they were Japanese, therefore committed to the national ethic of collaboration. And even as they reluctantly accepted preordained death they never for a moment surrendered their relationship to the central metaphor of Japaneseness--the cherry blossom. Ohnuki-Tierney describes the single pink blossom painted against a white background on each side of every suicide aircraft. Many kamikaze pilots who flew their missions in April of 1945, when the cherry trees were in bloom, went into the air with branches of blossoms on helmets and uniforms. Others wrote about cherry blossoms in their poems and letters. There's a well-known photograph in which high school girls wave flowering cherry branches as they bid farewell to kamikaze pilots.


FOR MORE than a thousand years the Japanese have seen the cherry blossom as their national emblem. To this day, the appearance of the blossoms makes national news. They bloom first in southern Japan and then move steadily northward, their progress reported frequently on television.

What do they signify? Just about everything. Many who love Japan and its contradictions say that in the Japanese mind the cherry blossom stands above all for the brevity of life; our lives may bloom magnificently, but in a short time, like cherry blossoms, they come to an end. Japan, however, is the land of the malleable metaphor, and there is no symbol with only one connotation.

Ohnuki-Tierney's most persuasive and engaging chapter, "The Militarization of Cherry Blossoms in Japanese Culture," describes how various governments, from the 1860s onward, have manipulated this symbol: "The symbolism of cherry blossoms became the master trope of Japan's imperial nationalism." In the 1930s, during the expansion of the Japanese empire (the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere), cherry trees were planted in the colonies as poetic symbols that would transform foreign lands into Japanese territory. The cherry blossom, its beauty transferred to "the Japanese soul," stood for the way soldiers sacrificed themselves for the emperor. Yasukuni's logo is a cherry blossom. Originally cherry trees were planted there so that the blossoms could console the spirits of the dead, but in the twentieth century blossoms came to represent the souls of the dead.

Whatever they mean, they constitute a major component of Japanese identity, which is never less than a serious problem in Japan. A stranger would assume that language, apparent racial homogeneity and powerful traditions, taken together, must give Japan a more secure identity than any other modern culture of our time. But the opposite is the truth. No one has ever worried more about national identity than the Japanese do now.

Outsiders who love Japan tend to wonder why this is so--why, for instance, the recent book Japan-ness in Architecture (MIT Press) by Arata Isozaki should express so much anxiety about what is essentially Japanese in architecture and how architects, including Isozaki himself, can create Japanese buildings in the context of modernity. The simpleminded might suggest that since all of his buildings show considerable Japanese influence (they include the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona), he need only follow his present course. But that would be to ignore the tortured sense of doubt that seems to afflict all articulate Japanese and the chronic instability of meaning within Japanese culture.

We can grasp some of his hesitation in the section of Japan-ness in Architecture called "A Non-Japanese Japanese Architecture." It deals with the Japanese complex most often cited and imitated by Western architects, the Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto. Bruno Taut (1880-1938), a major figure in Berlin architecture for many years, came to Japan in May 1933 and was taken to see Katsura on his first day in the country. He quickly decided that this seventeenth-century building anticipated many of the principles he had helped to develop in Europe. Over several years in Japan he wrote detailed articles that claimed Katsura for modernism--a fact that has made Japanese architects uneasy ever since.

No one could doubt Taut's observation that Katsura's exquisitely designed rooms, straight lines, and simple corners made it look like a modernist building. To some of us it seems to be modernism made perfect, modernism as it must exist in the mind of God. (If further proof were needed, in black and white photos the various facades look almost precisely like a collection of paintings by Piet Mondrian, who contributed more to modern architecture than any other painter.)

But was Taut (and many writers since) correct in arguing that this was truly a Japanese building, and that Japan's designs should therefore be absorbed into the buildings of the West as nineteenth-century Japanese prints had been absorbed into European painting? Isozaki's answer is a qualified No. He thinks that what the West loves most about Katsura, its purified stylization, can hardly be called Japanese at all. Others may call that a Japanese aesthetic; he believes it lacks the energy of the most valid Japanese work. Katsura, he says, "has no clearly defined, dominant form or style" but mingles several design methods in both buildings and garden. Any honest account of it must try to decipher the ambiguity created by this mix--but may in the end prove unequal to that task: "Katsura remains profoundly embedded in complexity--in terms of cultural genealogy, architectural style, political influence, and class-determined relationships." After 65 exquisitely and maddeningly composed pages, Isozaki is happy to leave us with the thought that "Katsura is indeed charged with contradictory and conflicting codes, all signalling a number of messages."

THAT MAY be confusing, but there are certain things (I have come to believe) that the Japanese have no interest in understanding. Perhaps nihonjinron, meaning theories of Japaneseness, is one. The less it is understood, the more excitingly mysterious Japan appears to itself and others. The status of the emperor, over several hundred years and particularly in the years 1938-1945, is another subject that the Japanese are only now beginning to discuss--though there are still many who consider it best left unexplored.

A third is rice. The progress of rice through Japanese history resembles in a certain way the path of the cherry blossom. Its status and meaning change, but it retains a sacred, transcendent quality. Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, in one of her earlier books, Rice as Self: Japanese Identities through Time (Princeton University Press, 1993), argues that over a long period rice has become a dominant metaphor for Japanese identity, even as that identity has changed radically under the force of history. (Her title refers to the nation's "collective self," rather than the self in the way the West understands it.)

In antiquity rice agriculture defined Japan because the same Sun Goddess that created Japan also seeded the first rice crop. In the Tokugawa era, ending in 1868, rice symbolized the collective and cooperative Japanese way of life. As recently as the 1980s a Japanese town planner explained to me that Japan's success as a peaceful, productive society depended on traditions created by the necessarily collaborative style of rice-paddy irrigation. In a sense, civilization began with the sharing of water rights.


As Basho (1644-1694), the great poet, wrote:
 Culture's beginnings:
 rice-planting songs from the heart
 of the country

and on another occasion wrote:
 Singing, planting rice,
 village songs more lovely
 than famous city poems

From the Meiji restoration of 1868 to the present, rice has symbolized the ideal of purity to which Japan aspires, an ideal that sets rice outside ordinary commercial practices. Growing rice has acquired over the centuries a mystical, almost sacramental uniqueness. You may not make a fortune doing it, but you will always be one or two classes above other producers and merchants. Its traditional status has given it, in the Japanese mind, the status of a national barrier against the dangers of modernity and a key to the survival of the Japanese soul. Certainly it carries more cultural force than all other agricultural products combined. In any trade negotiations it is taken for granted that the Japanese public and politicians will do all they can to preserve the prosperity of rice farmers, even if this means consumers must pay outlandishly high prices.


Like the countries of the West, with their hypersensitive hate-speech codes, Japan has developed (perhaps developed before we did) the belief that what you say about something, what word you apply to it, matters more than the thing itself. Ian Buruma, a brilliant writer on Japan, noted last spring that NHK, Japan's national broadcaster, constantly updates the appropriate words it applies to racial and social minorities. One minority consists of the burakumin, outcasts whose families traditionally earned their living in work (butchering, slaughtering, leather manufacturing, etc.) that many Japanese consider polluted. The unfairness of this prejudice is obvious to anyone; the great-grandchild of a butcher may find herself rejected by a respectable family as a candidate for matrimony. Various associations represent the burakumin, and each of them may at any point change the term by which they should be described. The language issue has now grown so complex that NHK and other respectable media avoid trouble by ignoring the subject entirely, making it likelier the problem will persist.

There are moments when a Japanese artist or propagandist tries to articulate Japaneseness. We can find such an effort in a movie made, before the Second World War, as part of an attempt to encourage patriotism. In 1937, a year after Germany and Japan signed the mutual aid treaty that was to make them allies, Arnold Fanck and Mansaku Itami directed a two-hour film, a Germany-Japan co-production, that was called The Daughter of the Samurai when it appeared in Germany and The New Earth when shown in Japan. The German title was intended to convey the strength of these new allies; the Japanese title referred to the new territories, above all Manchuria, that Japan was then busy colonizing.

The central character, Teruo, has just come back from his studies in Germany, a project which (then and now) would raise a crucial question in the mind of an audience in Japan: has he lost his Japaneseness? Has he become subtly foreign? At first the audience fears he has. Definitely he is Westernized, because he at first refuses to accept the marriage arranged by his parents, an assertion of personal independence that he has learned in the West. But slowly he regains his roots.

He comes happily to terms with his Japaneseness while attending a public event that somehow encompasses sumo wrestling, a "Cherry Dance" expressing the essence of cherry blossoms, and a performance by a Noh theatre company. Watching the Noh performance, he remarks to his sister, "I don't understand what the Noh performers are saying, but I feel my ancestors' blood flowing through my body intuitively understands it. When I listen to that voice, I feel I can remember the past." No doubt he's bored silly, since Noh drama has never had a popular audience, and its performers speak a language almost no one understands anymore; during the Edo period, before 1868, its audiences were mainly from the samurai class, which was never large and disappeared long before Teruo's birth. Today Noh drama lives a fragile life, through government subvention, no doubt administered by the same bureaucrats who maintain the tax on foreign rice.

EVERY FOREIGNER discovers a different Japan. The word "discover" may sound odd (even insulting) when Japanese hear it from a Westerner, but in fact an act of discovery is needed. Before my first visit to Japan I already loved many aspects of Japanese culture, from ancient architecture seen in books to the woodblock prints produced around 1900 to the hundreds of films I had seen, beginning, some fifty years ago, with Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon. But no one could tell me in advance that I would fall in love not only with these Japanese art-objects but, even more, with the ecstatic chaos of the Japanese cities, which sour and disillusioned Western commentators had prepared me to dislike. Tokyo in particular became a magic city to me, so much so that its brief appearance in a piece of TV or movie footage today produces an excitement that is almost sexual in its intensity.

Repeated discoveries like mine affect Japan. Japanese respond to foreign praise with a combination of flattered pleasure and the disdain common to everyone who knows infinitely more than the individual speaking. More than 70 years ago, Bruno Taut wrote in his diary, "I seem to be considered the discoverer of Katsura Imperial Villa," and Isozaki doesn't deny him that accomplishment. He says that architects in Japan found it dizzying that this internationalist from Germany had declared Katsura, which Japanese architectural historians had mainly ignored, "a masterpiece according to the measure of modern architecture."

Still, Isozaki can't give his unqualified endorsement to this example of the "external gaze" that the West directs at Japan and its accomplishments. He puts Taut in the context of earlier "Japanophilia" in the West, when the collecting of japonaiserie (woodblock prints, samurai helmets, folding screens, etc.) became popular and influential in Europe and America. The West embraced Japanese versions of qualities that appealed to Western tastes--simplicity, humility, purity, lightness, and a sophisticated form of austerity. Eventually the West (most enthusiastically represented, in the early twentieth century, by none other than Frank Lloyd Wright) processed these ideals and sent them back to Japan.

The element of irony intruded on this process when Japanese architects adopted Western styles that carried back home what the West considered Japanese qualities. Isozaki turns these contradictions over and over in his refined, cosmopolitan prose, until he seems to realize that he will never quite understand the process that governs his own art.

When I see a word like "Japanophilia" in a paragraph by Isozaki or any other Japanese commentator, I experience feelings of pleasure mixed with a vague guilt. Because in a small way (but meaningful to me) I am a Japanophile, guilty at times even of Japanolotry (OED: "Excessive devotion to or worship of Japanese art and customs"). I am never happier than when indulging this interest, even though it inevitably raises far more questions than I can comfortably handle.

ONE of the great American students of Japan, Donald Keene, the author of Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852-1912, remarked at a lecture in Tokyo in the 1990s that outsiders such as himself have come to believe there is no such thing as a way to understand Japan. He had been working on it for half a century and he certainly hadn't succeeded. But that's all right, he said, reassuring those of us in his audience who looked worried and perhaps slightly appalled at this confession. "The Japanese don't understand themselves either!"


ROBERT FULFORD is a columnist for the National Post and the author of, among other books, The Triumph of Narrative.
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Author:Fulford, Robert
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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