M.G. “Bucky” Sheftall academic paper on “Shattered Gods” and the dying mythology of “Japaneseness”


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Hi Blog. What follows (and will take us up through the weekend) is an academic paper that changed my world view about Japan earlier this year. Written by friend M.G. “Bucky” Sheftall, and presented at the Association of Asian Studies annual convention in Honolulu, Hawaii, on April 3, 2011, it talks about how Japan’s culture is dysfunctional and, put more metaphysically, unable to fill the need of a people to “deny death“. This will on the surface be difficult to wrap one’s head around, so read on, open the mind wide, and take it all in.  Reprinted here with permission of the author and revised specially for Debito.org.

A word of advice to those not used to reading dense academic papers: I suggest readers immediately skip down to the latter half of the paper (I suggest starting from the heading “A personal meditation on the “metaphysical malaise” of desymbolized postwar Japan”), and only go back and read the whole thing after that (even most academics don’t read the whole thing — they just want all ideas grounded in something and read deeper if they need the sources).  Read the conclusion, in any case, and then work backwards if your interest is piqued.

Concentrate. It’s like a dense episode of the X-Files. And it will raise fundamental questions in your mind about whether it’s worth one’s lifetime doing service to and learning about a dying system, which is ascriptive and exclusionary in nature, yet essentially serving nobody.  I have some comments at the very, very bottom.  Arudou Debito


Shattered Gods: The Unresolved Cultural Consequences of Japan’s Post-1945 Desymbolization Crisis

M.G. Sheftall, Shizuoka University


In this paper, I will discuss the state of the “cosmological health” of modern Japanese culture. As I employ the term here, a “cosmology” is the formal symbolic codification of a culture’s core beliefs regarding “the nature of the universe, human society, and the individual’s (proper) relation to them” (Charton [undated website]). Throughout history, cosmologies have tended to be theologically canonized or at least to some extent mythologically framed.[1] In terms of pragmatic function, a cosmology legitimates authority structures within a given culture and, in return, rewards its constituents (i.e., those whose “consent of the governed” legitimizes those authority structures) with existential equanimity in the form of a “transcendent ethos to provide appropriate sense of purpose…(symbolic) anchorages that can provide stable meanings…” (Bell 1976: xcix). For obvious psychological reasons, it will behoove the constituents of any given culture to believe that their cosmology is firmly grounded in ontological authority and metaphysical validity, and to have faith that it affords them access to (if not outright exclusive proprietorship of) ultimate truths about the nature of the universe and their own proper individual and collective place in it. Accordingly, when faith in a cosmology’s authority and validity is compromised, for whatever reason, the affected cultural constituents will experience this development with psychological stress in the form of what theologian Paul Tillich called “spiritual anxiety” (1952) or, to use my preferred term, “existential dread”.

From the late 19th century until Imperial Japan’s defeat in the Second World War in 1945, the native constituents of Japanese culture inhabited a reassuringly secure and intensely Emperor-centric symbolic universe I call “the Meiji cosmology”, after the historical and political circumstances of its origin (i.e., Meiji Era Japan, 1868-1912). Tokyo-based British academic Basil Hall Chamberlain, writing as a contemporary eyewitness to the earliest official mass proselytization of the Meiji cosmology, claimed that the ideological campaign he had observed constituted an “invention of a new religion” created almost entirely from scratch with the two-birds-with-one-stone aim of 1) restoring existential equanimity to the general populace, whose centuries-old traditional native cosmology the Meiji founding fathers had essentially demolished in the zealous modernizing/industrializing/militarizing pursuit of their nation-building project; and 2) legitimating and rallying popular support for Japan’s new centralized Imperial regime (Chamberlain 1912).

Whether or not this cosmology formally qualified as a “religion”, per se, is an issue beyond the scope of our present discussion. Nevertheless, across the roughly six decades during which it was still functioning “as designed” – i.e., providing its constituents with a robust sense of individual and collective purpose in life and a sense of transcendent connection to (some never more than vaguely circumscribed formulation of) the eternal and divine – the Meiji cosmology certainly displayed many of the classic hallmarks of a religion (Fujitani 1996). First of all, it clearly possessed the ability to compel its constituents (its “faithful”) to extremes of devotion and self-sacrifice, largely through the manipulation of mythology, sacred symbols, and Imperial rescripts and edicts handed down “from on high” with all the pious ceremony and heavy portent of Papal bulls (perhaps stone tablets from Mount Sinai are a more apt metaphor). In addition, it held jurisdiction over the rigid circumscription of sacrosanct “off limits” areas of political discourse. It also provided public facilities and employed clergy-like professionals for the administration of cosmology-proselytizing/legitimating rites and devotional ceremonies (e.g. Shinto shrines and their administrators constructed and salaried, respectively, with public funds) (Garon 1997). Lastly, it oversaw the “policing of the ranks” of its cosmological constituency through frequent and very public excoriation of “heretics” and “apostates” (particularly during the early Shōwa Era, e.g., the harsh professional fate and personal trauma suffered by eminent prewar political scientist Minobe Tatsukichi, who had dared to define the Emperor’s political raison d’etre as “an organ of the state” earlier in his career [Bix 2000] ).

At the peak of its metaphysical centrality in the symbolic lifeworld (Habermas et al) of the general populace – arguably, and ironically, during the years of mobilization for, and prosecution of, the “total” war of 1937-1945 that would eventually result in its catastrophic invalidation – the Meiji cosmology possessed a firm enough “claim to definitive truth and unalterable moral certainty” (Lifton 1998: 11) to compel its constituents to great extremes of individual and collective self-sacrifice in its defense. The operant constituent mindset is clearly evident in virtually any sampling of textual artifacts of contemporary Japanese establishment rhetoric, as in this example from an essay by Shintō ultranationalist Kakehi Katsuhiko published in a 1938 issue of Chuō Kōron:


No matter how much of a wrongdoer, no matter how evil, a Japanese subject may have been, when once he has taken his stand on the field of battle, all his past sins are entirely atoned for and they become as nothing. The wars of Japan are carried on in the name of the Emperor and there they are holy wars. All the soldiers who participate in these holy wars are representative(s) of the Emperor; they are his loyal subjects. To put the matter of what kind of person he may be, (he) possesses the inherent capacity of becoming a loyal subject and of being empowered to put that loyalty into operation. The matchless superiority of the Japanese national life lies just here…(quoted in Skya 2009: 205).


Minus the Japan-specific cultural signifiers, the reader would be forgiven for mistaking Kakehi’s words for quotations from modern day Jihadist recruiting copy. The fact that text as metaphysically ambitious as this appeared in a respected organ of national intellectual debate demonstrates just how compelling – even to the point of “magical thinking” – the Meiji cosmology had become by this point in Japan’s modern history. And as that history also shows, this cosmology – in its most fanatic 1930s-1940s militarist-ultranationalist incarnation – was underscored and reified in the Japanese military’s resort to kamikaze attacks and other forms of suicide tactics in the final year of the 1937-1945 war (Sheftall 2008). However, ostensibly unbeknownst to its original crafters – and perhaps only first suspected by its custodians and constituents three generations later as it neared the effective end of its ideological life in 1944-45 – the Meiji cosmology harbored a congenital flaw of extreme sensitivity to falsification by worldly events. In the end, to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, the Meiji cosmology turned out to be “a faith which could not survive collision with the truth”.


Theoretical framework of my concept of “cosmology”

According to the (relatively) new socio-psychological field of Terror Management Theory (TMT) (Greenberg et al 1986), from the ultimate reductionist perspective of evolutionary benefit, we human beings need cosmologies to protect ourselves against the potentially pathological existential dread that would otherwise assail us as sentient, intelligent beings conscious of our inevitable mortality and ever aware (on some level of conscious) of the possibility that the ostensibly “heroic” personal strivings and dramas of our lives may be, all things said and done, essentially “inconsequential in the cosmic scheme of things” (Raymo 1998: 110). Accordingly, when people find themselves in a position where they are unable to access a sufficiently robust cosmology – either because of individual mental health and/or philosophical crisis issues or, collectively, because their cosmology itself is for some reason no longer able to function “as designed” to provide its constituents with existential equanimity – the psychological consequences can be dire. As Sigmund Freud once wrote to one of his (many) acolytes, “The moment one inquires about the sense or value of life, one is sick” (quoted in Jones 1957: 465). When a cosmology is working “as designed”, it is supposed to inoculate its constituents against just this “sickness” Freud identifies here, which we are referring to in our present discussion as “existential dread”.

TMT marked the opening of an important new field in social psychology when it first appeared during the 1980s as the brainchild of (then) doctoral candidates Sheldon Solomon, Jeffrey Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski. Originally inspired by the work of late cultural anthropologist and philosopher Ernest Becker (1924-1974), and since validated in hundreds of psychology and other social science discipline studies around the world (including Japan, cf. Mukai 2003; Kashima et al 2004; et al), TMT holds that a culture provides its constituents with existential equanimity by means of two mutually-supporting structural elements (which I subsume under the term “cosmology”). One of these is the culture’s “worldview” – a “social construction of ‘reality’” (Berger & Luckmann 1967) which is usefully thought of as providing a “stage” in symbolic space upon which the cosmology’s loyal constituents play out their lives in (what most cultures frame as) a fundamentally just universe where things happen for valid reasons and where virtue is rewarded. The second element in the cosmological dyad is the culture’s “hero-system(s)”, which – sticking to our dramaturgical metaphor – can be thought of as the “script” or “stage directions” for the playing out of those “meaningful” lives on their respective “worldview stages”. If all goes well, all involved in the production, performance and audience participation of this cosmological theater (if you will) will receive social feedback-reinforced self-esteem and thus a form of symbolic immortality as diligent participants in the (its constituents hope) immortal narrative of the grand cultural project itself (cf. Freud 1930, Rank 1932, Becker 1962, 1973, 1975, et al).

Regarding the taxonomic hierarchy of these terms, it is useful for our purposes to envision “hero-systems” as functioning within the context of their venue-providing “worldviews”, with both of these elements, in turn, subsumed (again, in my taxonomy) within a “cosmology”. This taxonomy reflects what I see as the relative affective scale of the respective components, and thus their relative importance to a culture. To wit, I believe that cultures can and do survive frequent “adjustments on the fly” to their respective hero-system(s) and cultural worldviews, as dictated by the constant flow of incoming new environmental information that behooves such adjustments (lest the culture “lose its grip on reality”, so to speak). Moreover, in all but the most rigid and isolated cultures, a cycle of constant hero-system and (in moderation) worldview tweaking and readjustment is the normal state of affairs, as the culture’s mores and standards of value naturally shift to accommodate social, economic, and technological changes emerging from generation to generation (e.g. the turbulent but not necessarily catastrophic effect of the decade of the 1960s on American and European middle class hero-systems and worldviews). Certainly, throughout its history, Japanese culture has repeatedly proven itself to be highly adaptable and flexible in this regard. But as both history and anthropology show us, the delegitimization of a cosmology – the ideological and ontological functions of a culture that gives its constituents’ lives meaning – is an ontological catastrophe that can have the direst consequences for the health of a culture (Wilson 1981, Mitscherlich & Mitscherlich 1975, Schivelbusch 2002[2001]). The reason for this is that when a cosmology is threatened, the normally culturally provided illusion of immortality, either symbolic (e.g., fame, glory, lasting achievements, membership in an “immortal” cultural project, etc.) or literal (as in belief in an “afterlife”, etc.) that is the basis of its constituents’ main psychological defense against existential dread is also threatened.

As long ago as Thucydides, students of human conflict have recognized that “human hopes…for immortality tend to overwhelm human fears, even of violent death” (Ahrendorf 2000:579). It is precisely these hopes that a cosmology’s concomitant array of worldview and hero-system(s) function to fulfill (immortality aspirations, after all, merely being mortality fears more heroically and romantically rephrased). Of course, in any era and culture, there will be certain individuals who will have attained the status of “heroes” in the most literal sense, both validating their respective cosmologies (and thus winning the gratitude and adulation of the constituencies of those cosmologies) through their personal glories and achievements and, in so doing, securing a level of symbolic immortality most of us can only dream about. That is all fine and well for such “immortals”, but what, one may ask (perhaps not without some trepidation), are all the rest of us “mere mortals” to do about our own existential equanimity needs? Denied even the Warholian “fifteen minutes of fame” that was supposed to be our birthright in this age of mass communications (YouTube and Facebook notwithstanding), what are we supposed to do about securing our own modest shred of symbolic immortality to leave our mark on this world before departing it forever?

“For the more passive masses of mediocre men”, in Ernest Becker’s rather blunt formulation (1973:6), the only symbolic immortality game left for us to play is diligent loyalty to the respective cosmologies into which we are born. We essentially live out our entire lives in this cultural bubble, utterly unaware that we are essentially ontological prisoners in the closed systems of our native cosmologies, each of which is itself merely one among a myriad of equally cosmologically valid culture-specific ideological modelings of reality enjoying the devoted loyalty of countless other human beings around the world and throughout history. Barring neurotic breakdown and/or catastrophic worldview invalidation by external agency (as per the case under examination in this study), most of us remain blissfully ignorant of our participation in the evolutionarily beneficial cosmological theater of worldviews and hero-systems, confident that our lives have meaning and cosmic significance simply because an accident of birth afforded us automatic congenital constituency in the one, single cosmology that just happens to possess exclusive interpretational rights to absolute truth and the ultimate secrets of meaningful human existence. Simultaneously emboldened and blindered by this illusion, we wake up every morning thanking the heavens for our good luck and pitying (while doing our best to mock, convert, kill, or just ignore) the benighted “infidels” in other cultures who are either too perverse, misguided, or just plain stupid (the poor saps!) to realize, as we do, that they live under bogus cosmologies.

While we are on the topic of effective ways of dealing with rival cosmologies, this is a good place to begin a discussion on the dangers of the mutually-reinforcing triangular relationship of: 1) cosmologies; 2) violence; and 3) the human need to feel significant. Becker terms the human need to feel significant “the problem of heroics”, an issue that is:


the central one of human life…it goes deeper into human nature than anything else because it is based on organismic narcissism and on the child’s need for self-esteem as the condition for his life. Society itself is a codified hero system, which means that society everywhere is a living myth of the significance of human life, a defiant creation of meaning (1973:7).


Unfortunately for past and current conditions – and future prospects – of the human species, the fighting of (and vigilant preparation for) war has spectacular utility in terms of addressing this “problem of heroics.” After McLuhan (1964), Gellner (1983) and Hobsbawm (1990), I would add that the traditional centrality of warfare in human cosmologies has attained a new urgency since the development of mass communication technologies and the increased lethality of industrialized armaments production facilitated the advent of new populist constructions of national subjectivity (with ideologically appropriate supportive cosmologies) in Western Europe and North America during the 18th century, followed by East Asia approximately one century later. This understanding of modern societies at war as superlative producers (as well as rabid consumers) of mass-disseminated, martially-valorized hero-systems darkly underscores Becker’s original formulation of “society” as “a symbolic action system, a structure of statuses and roles, customs and rules for behavior, designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism” (1973:4). Now that an ever-increasing number of mutually antipathetic cosmological projects around the world are girding their loins with nuclear weaponry, humanity faces the ultimate irony that what must have seemed a great design solution for the problem of existential dread for our deity-inventing ancient ancestors now poses the ever-present risk of wiping us out. In other words, our cosmologies now pose the very real threat of someday ending up being the death of us all. In the next section, let us examine the background conditions and consequences of modern Japanese culture’s near-miss experience with such a fate.


A brief history of the Meiji cosmology

After many decades of postwar national psychoanalysis of Japan by scholars and public intellectuals both domestic and foreign, (by the way, I concur with historian Harry Harootunian in considering Japan’s “postwar period” to still be an ongoing condition), it is almost an academic truism to observe that Japanese culture has suffered two catastrophic cosmological upheavals in its modern history. The first of these was the Meiji “Restoration” of 1868, which itself had been triggered by the earlier crisis of the “opening” of Japan to the West in the 1850s. Although this development has tended to be glossed as a cultural triumph both in establishment interpretations and in popular consciousness of modern Japanese history, many astute pre-1945 Japanese observers – Meiji contemporary author Soseki Natsume, cultural anthropologist and folklorist Yanagida Kunio, and the thinkers of the pre-war “Kyoto School” of philosophers spring to mind as famous examples – were sensitive to the vast cosmological disruption the willfully-imposed chaos of the Restoration left in its wake, as have many postwar Japanese observers, as well (Kishida 1977, Oketani 1996, et al). The second of these upheavals – and one with a far more complicated (and still very much psychologically raw) presence in both establishment and popular consciousness – is the cosmological collapse Japanese culture experienced as a consequence of Japan’s 1945 defeat in the Second World (Asia-Pacific) War and during seven years of culturally intrusive postwar military occupation by the American-led Allied Powers (Kitahara 1984).

Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, in his frequent writings on Japan, refers to the post-1868 and post-1945 cosmological upheavals as “historical dislocations”, times:


when (cultural) change is too rapid and extreme to be readily absorbed; it then impairs symbol systems having to do with family, religion, social and political authority, sexuality, birth and death, and the overall ordering of the life cycle…There is a loss of a sense of fit between what individuals feel themselves to be and what a society or culture, formally or informally, expects them to be…. At such times, our psychological viability as the cultural animal, or what might be called the “immortalizing animal” (they are virtually the same), is under duress – until new combinations can reanimate our perceived place in the great chain of being (1993: 14-15)


It is ironic to appreciate that the Meiji Restoration of 1867-1868 – the event generally recognized as marking the birth of modern Japan (Maruyama 1963[1956], Reischauer 1970, Gluck 1985, Morris-Suzuki 1998, Buruma 2003, Gordon 2003, et al) – and one that also gave birth to the superlatively compelling (but also immeasurably destructive and fatally falsifiable) Meiji cosmology – was itself a direct consequence of Japanese response to an earlier ontological/cosmological crisis, namely, the forced “opening” of Shogunate Japan by United States warships in 1853-1854. This American intrusion resulted in Japan’s abrupt emergence from two and a half centuries of self-imposed and near-total cultural and diplomatic isolation from the outside world, subjecting Japanese culture to what Lifton (1979) refers to as a crisis of “desymbolization” – that is, a period during which, in my terminology, a culture’s cosmology ceases to function properly and thus cannot provide its constituents with symbolic immortality robust enough to stave off existential anxiety.

The American interventions of 1853-1854 set in motion a fifteen-year-long chain of events that saw the collapse of the 265-year-old Shogunate regime in 1868 and its replacement by a centralized national bureaucracy (later joined by a legislature) that wielded sovereign authority under the tutelary aegis of the young Emperor Meiji (1852–1912). The society the new Imperial regime inherited from its Shogunate predecessors was one that was still, in many senses of the term, medieval. By any measure, Japan was at this point still woefully unprepared – socially, economically, culturally, and militarily – to interact from anything but the most humiliatingly obsequious subaltern position (one certainly not conducive to robust symbolic immortality provision!) with the dominant Western powers (rekkyō) that were so feared yet also so enthusiastically emulated by Japan’s new leadership (LaFeber 1997, Oguma 2002 [1996]).

Accordingly, from the outset of the great Meiji Era nation-building project, the ex-samurai running the new regime saw the correction of this unacceptably weak strategic position as Japan’s most urgent national goal. One major obstacle to this agenda was the fact that the largely uneducated rural proletariat  (Gordon 2003) that was the overwhelmingly dominant demographic cohort of this still medieval society inhabited pastoral, animistic, microscopically localized cosmologies that afforded little concept of national subjectivity beyond a catalogue of vague cultural foundation myths passed down through oral tradition by troubadours and local wise men. It is doubtful that many of the Emperor’s new subjects in 1868 even had a clear conception of the institution of the Imperial throne. But long years of huge national investment in educational policy eventually bore fruit. The Emperor’s new national subjects were given an almost entirely new cosmology for their new existence as “Japanese”, replete with a robust, internationally-aware, and pride-inspiring worldview and a network of compelling hero-systems mutually supportive of one another and, most importantly of all, of and for the greater glory of the new Imperial project.

The symbolic lynchpin of the Meiji cosmology – the careful crafting of which was indelibly marked by the influence of arch-conservative Imperial Japanese Army figures such as ex-samurai Field Marshal Yamagata Aritomo (1838-1922) (Norman 1943, Smethurst 1974, Humphreys 1995, Yoshida 2002, et al) – was the notion of divinely ordained Japanese cultural infallibility manifest in the august person of the Emperor himself, from whose immortal ancestral bloodline all Japanese were descended, regardless of social station, and to whom all owed as a sacred debt their entire existence, being, loyalty, and destiny, both physical and symbolic. Proselytized with stunning efficacy by Meiji Japan’s national education system (cf. Gluck 1985, Morris-Suzuki 1998, et al) and the army (cf. Smethurst 1974), the Meiji cosmology embraced a hero-system ethos that valorized self-sacrifice for the national/cultural project as the pinnacle of symbolic immortality to which any loyal subject of the Emperor might ever hope to aspire – a somewhat more earthbound and figurative Japanese equivalent to the literal “afterlife” immortality aspired to by believers in the “revealed” faiths of Christianity and Islam. As subsequent overseas military ventures would soon prove, this was a supremely efficient ethos for the mobilization of a society in toto for the era of industrialized total war these Meiji ideologues foresaw – with a certain self-fulfilling prescience – as mankind’s glorious and terrible fate in the upcoming 20th century (Peattie 1975).

Prevented by native religious tradition and cultural pride from access to the ontological safety net (so hated by Nietzsche!) of the “revealed” (and thus unfalsifiable) theologically-based cosmologies (i.e., Christianity) animating the worldviews of Japan’s Western counterparts, the Meiji ideologues instead fashioned a self-reverential “god” out of their new formulation of Japanese national subjectivity itself. This formulation provided the theological mortar for the structure of their new cosmology. And as history would eventually prove (and as we have already observed), the new “god” of an infallible and invincible Japan these ideologues created turned out to be tragically vulnerable to falsification by worldly events – namely abject military defeat and the aforementioned humiliating and immeasurably traumatic experience of a lengthy and culturally intrusive Allied occupation that changed the political, cultural and psychological landscape of the nation forever. This fundamental flaw not only nearly pushed Japan to national extinction in 1944-45 as the culture’s constituents resorted to extreme measures to shore up their faltering cosmology in the face of impending collapse, but moreover, it left the Japanese people unprotected when that collapse finally came. The structure of the Meiji cosmology being what it was, the Japanese people had to absorb the full shock of shattering defeat without the back-up ontological “safety net” of a robust native religious tradition (having had that taken away after 1868) equipped with theological rationalizations for worldly human setbacks. The psychological aftershocks of this cosmological failure still rumble both beneath and above the surface of Japanese national subjectivity today (cf. Etō 1974, Katō 1995, Oketani 1996, Nathan 2004, et al).


Post-Meiji cosmology collapse Japan

The combined shocks of Imperial Japan’s defeat, surrender, and subsequent occupation by Allied forces proved fatal for the continued metaphysical validity of the Meiji cosmology, rendering it unable to provide for the metaphysical/spiritual needs and existential/psychological equanimity of its constituents. Nevertheless, despite (or perhaps, from a more sinister perspective, possibly because of) the Meiji cosmology’s broken condition, the Allied Occupation forces allowed its comatose body to retain a central symbolic position in the political domain of postwar national subjectivity, kept alive on a kind of ideological artificial life support system administered in turn by Occupation authorities, conservative Japanese establishment figures and institutions, and even yakuza right-wing underworld elements (Kodama 1951).

This aspect of Occupation policy was the consequence of a concatenation of several circumstantial exigencies. First was the strategic utility of promising the postwar continuation of the Imperial institution as a way of convincing hard line Japanese military leaders to accede to the Emperor’s decision to surrender to the Allies in August 1945. Another was the political consideration of the Allies appreciating the utility of the Imperial institution as an instrument of Occupation policy (including the prevention of Japan emerging from the ashes of its postwar cosmological collapse reincarnated as a communist state – a scenario which, in the Cold War era context of the times, it was in the interest of both the Imperial institution and the Allies to prevent being realized) (Matsuda 2007). Lastly, apparently, was a cultural and historical misinterpretation on the part of the Allied authorities – in large part a result of input from Japanese establishment figures in the confusion of the initial stages of the Occupation – that the basic structure of the Meiji cosmology was of such ancient and hallowed origins (as opposed to its actual late 19th century origins) that its retention would be central and indispensible to any formulation of national subjectivity that could possibly be psychologically acceptable to the Japanese populace (Dower 1999, Frank 1998, Bix 2000, Matsuda 2007)). That said, this “misinterpretation” may very well have been one of convenience, as these same Allied authorities were determined to see that while the postwar incarnation of the Meiji cosmology would of course be useful in preventing Japan from ever drifting into the Communist orbit, it would also never again be robust enough to inspire its constituents to become warriors against the West capable of the level of fanatic combat ferocity the American military had encountered on battlefields across the Pacific during the war. Appropriate measures were undertaken to ensure that the necessary ideological changes (or, as many postwar Japanese commentators have put it, ideological emasculation [Nonaka 1997]) would take place. Ostensibly, Japanese political authorities were so overcome with relief and gratitude at their country’s new occupiers’ decision to spare the central signifier of the dysfunctional Meiji cosmology – i.e., the Imperial institution – and so desperate to believe that all had not really been lost in defeat, that they failed to foresee the severe cost in terms of the metaphysical validity of Japanese culture (especially in terms of existential equanimity) this decision would end up exacting from both contemporary and later generations of Japanese.

Under pressure from Japan’s Allied occupiers, the effective metaphysical dismantling of the Meiji cosmology was personally acceded to and overseen by its primary custodians, i.e., the Emperor himself and his various relevant advisors and governmental ministries, through: deed (e.g., the infamous photograph of the Emperor visiting Occupation commander General Douglas MacArthur, published in all major national daily newspapers in September 1945) (Watanabe 1977); proclamation (e.g., the Emperor’s ningen sengen official announcement denying Imperial divinity, radio broadcast to the nation on January 1, 1946); policy (changes in national educational curricula, et al); and legislation (the largely American-written 1947 Constitution). Consequently, the Japanese populace as a whole appears to have effectively abandoned the cosmology’s more overt claims to metaphysical validity (Field 1993, et al) – a rejection motivated no doubt by the populace’s overall post-defeat psychological state of ressentiment and cultural disenchantment, but also motivated, it can probably be safely assumed, by a measure of disgust over the facility with which these custodians of the Meiji cosmology had accommodated the policies and wishes of the nation’s culturally alien Occupation Forces (Watanabe 1977).

In the aftermath of this rejection, however, the vast majority of postwar Japanese do not seem to have adopted any new cosmology to replace the dysfunctional Meiji variant they abandoned after their nation’s defeat. Although there are strong arguments (Reischauer 1970, Garon 1997, McVeigh 1997) that the phenomenal postwar popularity of the so-called “new religions” (shin shūkyō) of Sōka Gakkai, Perfect Liberty, etc., constitute just such an adoption of a form of “replacement cosmology” at the populist level, it cannot be claimed that these “new” religions – even in terms of their overall combined influence – come anywhere close to “filling the metaphysical shoes”, if you will, of the discredited Meiji cosmology.

Although most participants in Japanese political discourse from the far right-wing fringes continue to champion the metaphysically empty shell of the Meiji cosmology, it is very telling of its postwar condition of ideological impotence that these right-wing elements almost never make the cosmology’s metaphysical tenets a central element of their propaganda anymore. This is ostensibly because these discursive participants are astute enough to realize that doing so – in today’s Japanese discursive environment – would be both a waste of rhetorical airtime as well as counterproductive to their political agenda. The truth of the matter is that the dysfunctional Meiji cosmology simply is no longer capable of providing the great masses of Japanese culture’s constituents with any metaphysical benefit beyond its recognizability as a cultural signifier and the thin existential consolation of cultural/historical continuity inherent in the longevity of the Imperial institution itself. But even that thin comfort comes at the steep cultural price of successive generations shouldering the burden of various unhappy items of historical baggage associated with the tainted legacy of the Meiji cosmology’s complicity in war responsibility and/or the cultural humiliation of the 1945 defeat.

Nevertheless, the Meiji cosmology’s symbolic position in Japanese political space is still so salient, central, and sacrosanct that it prevents the emergence of any rival new cosmology to, again borrowing Lifton’s wording, “reanimate…a perceived place in the great chain of being” for the modern day constituents of Japanese culture that might serve as the foundation for a more metaphysically robust formulation of postwar Japanese national subjectivity. Moreover, the centrality and sanctity of the Meiji cosmology’s position has been regularly and spectacularly enforced by right-wing violence during Japan’s long postwar (e.g., the assassination of Japan Socialist Party chairman Asanuma Inejiro in 1960, the attempted assassination of the mayor of Nagasaki in 1989, regular violent attacks against staff of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper and other liberal rhetors, etc.) to the point where public discourse over the cosmology’s continuing validity (or lack thereof) would appear to have been effectively crushed by the weight of the so-called “chrysanthemum taboo” (Sugimoto 2010). It is my opinion that the resultant “metaphysical lacuna” in postwar Japanese culture has been kept frozen in place by fear, inertia, lack of imagination, sentimentality, and historically misinformed cultural loyalties. It is also my opinion that the resultant cultural condition has had, and is continuing to have, negative repercussions vis-a-vis the ability of modern Japanese culture to provide for the existential equanimity of its constituents over the six-decades-long postwar era, with commensurate negative effects on the ability, again, of postwar Japanese culture to serve as a framework for a more robust formulation of national subjectivity (Nosaka 1997, Kang 2008). Moreover, I believe that the inertia behind this stasis will not be budged as long as the Meiji cosmology maintains its privileged position of ideological political centrality. Any proposal for national revitalization coming from the Japanese establishment that does not take this into account will fail to accomplish anything beyond a rearrangement of the same old ultimately shallow and unconvincing postwar cultural window dressing.


A personal meditation on the “metaphysical malaise” of desymbolized postwar Japan

One afternoon in 2003, approximately one year into an ethnographic study of Japanese survivors of the wartime Kamikaze Corps that eventually became my book Blossoms in the Wind: Human Legacies of the Kamikaze (2005), I was reading a slim but engaging volume on modern day Japanese culture by film critic Donald Richie titled The Image Factory (2003). As is usually the case with Richie’s work, much of the book is comprised of observations of the many absurdities and oddities of Japan today, replete with the expected riffs on hikikomori, kosupure, pachinko, etc., all written with the author’s characteristic “Quirky Old Japan Hand” mixture of acid wit, vast expertise, and sharp eye for capturing the unique pathos of modern day life in our mutual adopted home country. However, toward the end of the book, I came upon a passage that literally took my breath away – not because it revealed something to me I had never thought of before, but rather, because it encapsulated so perfectly something I had been thinking about for a very long time.

In a single paragraph of brutal candor, Richie verbalized a certain metaphysical malaise in the Japanese condition that I had been vaguely aware of since arriving in the country in 1987. Outside of the jeremiads and diatribes of right-wing pundits, this metaphysical malaise (or lacuna, as I have referred to it above) is generally kept politely hidden – like an embarrassing family secret jealously protected – although I had caught many glimpses and snippets of it here and there during my long years in Japan, most often and vividly in the sake-lubricated lamentations of older Japanese men (especially those old enough to remember life when the Meiji cosmology was still vibrant and functional). Moreover, it explained the grievously conflicted belief systems (i.e., torn between lingering loyalty to the Meiji cosmology vs. necessary adjustments to the undeniable realities of the postwar present) I had observed to more or less of a degree among virtually all of the Japanese war veteran subjects of my ethnographic project. My subjects had gradually revealed their lingering emotional turmoil over the collapse of the Meiji cosmology to me over our months and years of acquaintance with displays ranging from self-deprecating humor and passive resignation on some occasions, to painful and unrestrained expressions of profound grief, humiliation, and snarling hinekuri resentment on others. But it was not until I encountered Richie’s passage – which is worth quoting at length here – that I could really grasp the “pathology”, if you will, of this “metaphysical malaise”:


Richie:  “In the decades following the war Japan has vastly improved in all ways but one. No substitute has ever been discovered for the certainty that this people enjoyed until the summer of 1945…Japan suffered a trauma that might be compared to that of the individual believer who suddenly finds himself an atheist. Japan lost its god, and the hole left by a vanished deity remains. The loss was not the emperor, a deity suddenly lost through his precipitate humanization. It was, however, everything for which he and his whole ordered, pre-war empire had stood. It was certainty itself that was lost. And this is something that the new post-war world could not replace”(120-121).


Richie’s words haunted me for months (they still do today), becoming a central theme in my book about kamikaze survivors. But even as I was finishing writing the book, I realized that these words had, in the end, really left me with far more questions than answers. What, I wondered, does it mean for a culture to “lose its god”? What would be the psychological effect on someone who had been existentially cradled by a robust (even if eventually proved false) cosmological “certainty” in the early phases of his/her life, then be forced to live the remainder of that life bereft of that certainty? What multigenerational ramifications would be involved for a culture that loses “certainty itself”? How could such a culture provide its constituents with the “necessary illusion” of literal and/or symbolic immortality human beings in any culture need to maintain existential and psychological equanimity (Williams 1983: 221)?

Arriving as I did at the peak of the Bubble Era of the Japanese economy, it seemed to me at the time that the primary modern Japanese cultural solution to the existential issues of its constituents was to bang incessantly on the drum of the gaman/gambaru “nobility of suffering” Japanese cultural trope that psychologist George De Vos has termed “moral masochism” (1973). As far as I could tell, this cultural strategy appeared to function primarily by keeping its constituents so busy and exhausted all the time that they had neither the time nor the mental energy to expend consciously brooding over their postmodern angst. I am sure that this “quick and dirty” method of existential dread suppression will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has spent any portion of their life in military uniform.

During these days of my earliest first-hand experiences of Japanese culture, I was also aware of a secondary and somewhat more consciously ideological network of existential support. This was to be found lingering amidst the mass-produced, commercial, self-indulgent and even self-reverential immersion in kitschy cultural nostalgia I seemed to see every time I turned on the TV or opened a magazine or newspaper here or walked through a public space. This second, more consciously ideological support network seemed to be based on: 1) what Peter Dale (1986) termed “the myth of Japanese uniqueness” (which Freud would have recognized as a supreme example of his concept of “the narcissism of minor differences”); and 2) the illusion of cultural-historical continuity, homogeneity and connectedness provided by simple celebrations of “Japaneseness” for its own sake. Coming under the latter category would be the daily mass media fare of endless re-hashings of oddly self-Orientalizing cultural nostalgia tropes like samurai dramas, travel shows searching out “unspoiled pockets” of pristine natsukashii rural Japaneseness. More recently, a new trope in this rhetorical genre has been the (at least what I experience as) profoundly forlorn nostalgia boom for postwar Shōwa Era Japan (cf. Harootunian, Yoda et al 2006). Recent Japanese discourse along these lines often seek to evoke comforting Camelot-like nostalgic sentimentality even over the plastic kitsch-fest of the Osaka International Expo of 1970 – an event I actually see instead as iconic of the very postwar desymbolization crisis that is the topic of this paper. Recently, a somewhat bizarre variant of the Shōwa nostalgia genre is the so-called kōjō kengaku (“factory tour”) boom, which is characterized by sentimental waxings over the rusting hulks of 1950s-1970s industrial plant – reassuring iconography, it is assumed, of the last era in living memory when the majority of the residents of this archipelago experienced a (relatively) compelling sense of collective purpose (even as the hero-systems that sustained their existential equilibrium thusly poisoned their bodies with smog and mercury and assaulted their physical senses with some of the ugliest urban and suburban landscapes in the economically developed world).

Another key element of this “commodified cultural nostalgia” omnipresent in Japanese semiotic space today is the conspicuously ironic use of “traditional” and Edo Period (i.e., pre-Meiji desymbolization crisis)-evocative cultural signifiers in print and broadcast visual advertising copy. This very “postmodern”-flavored commercial usage of traditional cultural signifiers tends to vary in stance between unabashed self-reverence and self-parodying kitsch – and is perhaps at its most postmodern and hip when it can express both stances simultaneously.

But are these celebrations of Japaneseness a form of triumphalist cultural exclusivism, as so many critics of the Nihonjinron genre have charged over the years (Dale 1986, Van Wolferen 1989, Befu 2001)? Or are they more akin to camouflage – something to paper over and keep people’s minds off the very postwar “loss of certainty” Richie has identified?  Perhaps both of these functions are not mutually exclusive, and might even actually constitute one and the same cultural/psychological defense mechanism.

I have long suspected that the “celebrations of Japaneseness”/”commodified cultural nostalgia” angle must have a particular appeal for older Japanese (either consciously or unconsciously) confronted with two mutually reinforcing negative trains of thought: 1) the specter of the supposedly timeless Japanese cultural project to which they have contributed their whole lives now framed as faltering under the unstoppable forces of globalization – a message which is pounded into their minds by Japanese mass media day in and day out;[2] and 2) the unwelcome reality of their own rapidly approaching individual mortality. It seems a natural enough reaction in such a predicament to desire some conservative cultural champion to appear magically and, in William F. Buckley’s famous phrase, “stand astride history and yell ‘Stop!’” (citation needed). Perhaps one of the secrets of Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintarō’s electoral successes over the years is that he is the most visible Japanese today willing to take such a romantic hero-like stance in public, regularly bellowing reactionary opinions about the state of Japan and Japanese culture today that many of the governor’s compatriots apparently harbor in their hearts but are afraid to utter themselves.

Moreover, the “mortality salience” (Greenberg et al 1986) issues both generated by and, in turn, motivating and sustaining such discourse must no doubt be particularly relevant for those Japanese – certainly a substantial majority in today’s Japan – who are unable to avail themselves of the additional existential support of more robust religious faith as part of their psychological arsenal in their double-edged confrontation with the specter of a (possibly) faltering cultural project and (indubitably and inexorably) impending personal mortality. What, after all, are all those “culture centers” and kōminkan full of retirees taking up bonsai, tea ceremony, nagauta singing or buyō dancing if not facilities for the provision of some measure, however modest, of palliative existential reassurance – places where people can gather to be comforted by the idea of their culture surviving their own individual mortality with a reassuring catalogue of recognizable cultural signifiers and identity markers still in place? Such an arrangement might not afford the rock hard existential security – the literal immortality – of a belief in an afterlife in the “Heaven” or “Paradise” of other cultures’ unfalsifiable “revealed” religions, but it can nevertheless provide its patrons with a tepid sort of consolation prize symbolic immortality that is, after all, ostensibly better than having no faith in anything at all as one contemplates one’s own personal mortality.

But what is the broken postwar incarnation of the Meiji cosmology doing for young Japanese people? Can a cosmology bereft of more heroically transcendent claims to cosmic connection and significance – in other words, one bereft of a more compelling formulation of symbolic immortality – be vigorous enough to provide the younger constituents of Japanese culture with a sense of purpose in life and hopes and dreams for the future? From my personal perspective in dealing with Japanese young people (especially males) on a daily basis, it seems that they have precious little access to any cosmology more heroically compelling than video games, manga fantasies, online chat rooms, mindless consumerism, and exam-cramming for a now virtually non-existent job market. Under the circumstances, is there any wonder that so many of them seem to be tuning out, turning off, and dropping out of society, preferring the bleak sanctuary of their broadband-connected bedrooms rather than facing the world beyond their doorsteps? Is there any wonder the national birthrate is plummeting to all time lows? Who can be blamed for not bubbling over with enthusiasm at the prospect of bringing into the world new constituents of a cosmological project whose predominant milieu seemed to be one giant, mass repository for the mothball storage of the cultural signifiers and artifacts of a defunct cosmology – a national milieu that historian Harry Harootunian has recently termed “a vast theme park of bad cultural memory” (2009: 108)? I would like to think that this lack of youth engagement with the ongoing fortunes of the national project constitutes a passive-aggressive rejection of the Meiji cosmology on their part, rather than a complete loss of hope in their culture – or even in life itself. But I cannot say this is so with any confidence.



In recent years, I have been thinking a lot about Freud’s concept of libidinal economy in the context of Japan’s present impoverished cosmological condition. In Freud’s understanding of the self, “libido” – the life force behind not only sexual drive but also our greater natural organismic urge to self-expansiveness under which our reproductive drive is subsumed – is modeled somewhat like the hydraulics and thermodynamics of live steam in a closed network of pipes. When the pressure of the “steam” builds up beyond the ability of the “pipe network” to safely contain it, the “steam” must be “blown off” – action which in the organismic case corresponds to the expenditure of libidinal energy in the service of both reproductive and, in turn, destructive urges. But this “steam energy” is not a constant; it has a half-life, and it can be frittered away or, ultimately, it can just dissipate and die out on its own.

Regarding the condition of Japanese culture today from the standpoint of Freud’s libidinal economy model, it would appear that what we are looking at is a pipe system with decidedly low steam pressure. But the potential energy of this system has not been depleted through expenditure toward any cultural “organismic self-expansiveness”. Rather, it seems more the case that the “steam” has just fizzled, leaked away or recondensed into liquid water through a process of mature, melancholy, almost mellow cultural disenchantment that since 1945 has seen the Japanese cosmology abdicate any claim to ultimate truths about the human condition. Instead, outside of the well-regulated physical routines of their jobs and daily lives, the constituents of postwar Japanese culture seem to have been left to their own devices to carve some sense of transcendent meaning out of their existences (an existential vacuum skillfully exploited by the Japanese mass media and the primary beneficiaries of the Japanese consumer economy). There will be no culturally provided cosmological certainty “from on high” forthcoming as long as the defunct Meiji cosmology remains in place.

A reader familiar with postwar Japanese economic history might at this point be thinking “Well what about the kōdō keizai seichōki (“period of rapid economic growth” from 1955 to 1973) and the rocket sled economy of the Bubble Era? What about all those years when Ezra Vogel was telling us about “Japan as Number One”? What were those, if not great exertions of cultural libinal energy – great cultural manifestations of collective effort that put to shame even the self-expansive prowess of Imperial Era Japan? To such questions, I would answer that these were not “exertions” of cultural energy. Rather, they were evasions and denials; evasions of the culture’s unfinished “grief work” over the effective death of the Meiji cosmology and the subsequent cultural loss of existential certainty after 1945, and denials that Japanese culture and national subjectivity – in their postwar incarnations – need any functioning cosmology at all. But in the end, these evasions and denials have provided no cultural solutions to the existential issues faced by the constituents of Japanese culture today – people in need of existential equanimity just as much as humans anywhere are. The Meiji cosmology is both there and not there, sitting atop Japanese subjectivity today like a bitter old Dowager on her throne long past what should have been her natural lifespan (which should have ended in 1945) – and long past her usefulness (which did end in 1945), no longer able to generate cathexis-levels of loyalty in its constituents (certainly not its younger ones). The continued existence of this essentially libidinally dead cosmology has various implications for both current and future possible formulations of Japanese national subjectivity. For example, what historian David Williams has called Japan’s postwar “evasion of sovereignty” (2006) – an evasion which, as I have already argued, is unavoidable as long as the recognizable symbolic framework of the Meiji cosmology remains in place – will continue for the foreseeable future to severely constrain the range of Japan’s interactional possibilities in the community of other cultures/nations. I believe the ramifications here are particularly salient regarding Japanese national security policy; not even the most optimistic Japanese patriot today – certainly not one involved at present in the planning of national security policy – harbors even in his/her wildest dreams the expectation that the current formulation of Japanese national subjectivity could ever see this country – and this culture – mobilizing for war again, marching its young men off to die with brass bands and banzai cheers. Despite the most earnestly embraced fantasies of right-wing Japanese pundits today, the possibility of the Meiji cosmology ever being revalorized to the point where it could compel its constituents to such levels of devotion and self-sacrifice is effectively zero.

But then, I do not think that we necessarily have to regard this as an entirely negative development. As the constituents of a culture that in its recent history has experienced coming very close to being destroyed by its own cosmology, the Japanese people since August 1945 have perhaps been more painfully aware than anyone else of the existential conundrum posed by our survival as a species hanging on the Damoclean thread of the ability of 1) nuclear weapons and 2) cosmologies which valorize the pursuit of warfare as a means of securing symbolic immortality coexisting on this small planet. Ironically, conservative pundit Fujiwara Masahiko may be right; Japanese culture may just end up saving humanity from itself after all (Fujiwara 2006). Japan’s horrific experiences of August 1945 can sound a warning tocsin for all of us that our species has outgrown the violence-validating traditional formulations of cosmology we have depended on for our existential equanimity in fundamentally unchanged structure and function probably since the dawn of humanity, when our first existentially-challenged hominid ancestor realized that killing someone else can be a very effective way of making oneself feel heroic and immortal when one does not have any more compelling narratives to do the same existential trick. Considering that humanity no longer has the luxury of continuing to indulge such existential naiveté, maybe it would behoove all of us – not just the Japanese – to experience some “desymbolization crisis” of our own and bid farewell to cosmologies capable of compelling us to kill and die over. I believe that our descendents will have a much better chance of seeing the 22nd century if we can follow modern Japanese culture’s lead in making the mature commitment to learning to live with higher levels of existential uncertainty than our species has been accustomed to tolerating until now.



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[1] Several major cultural cosmologies adjusted to accommodate Marxism–Leninism during the 20th century have been notable exceptions to this.

[2] Of late, I have increasingly come to think that the incessant nature of this “cultural tocsin-sounding” is actually counterproductive, sowing more dismay and resignation among its audience than it motivates them to vigilant cultural defense.



Arudou Debito February 28 at 8:42am
Well done, Bucky. Thanks for summarizing what I needed to know about the cosmology of cultures and the denials of death in less than 500 pages. Your paper read like one of those “mythology” episodes of X-Files, where you really had to concentrate to see where this was going, but the payoff was there all along.

Two comments:


1) Not enough time was spent on how the cosmology is not only inclusive and demanding of acolytes, but exclusive as well, demanding those acolytes not only adhere to certain beliefs, but also that they be of a certain blood. The resurgence I am feeling of Japanese be actual wajin in order to expect any benefits of the system (something I recently experienced when I was denied my sabbatical. Again. Despite having more than three times the workplace seniority of the person who did get it, and the added kicker of him lying about his letters of invitation) has always been a particular tenet of the system (from academic apartheid on down). This will doom the system in the end, as the best religions expand and cross borders, and as the Japanese economy and society goes to seed and collapses upon itself.

2) I felt you were trying to be a little too hopeful at the end. The need for cosmology in a society is very well taken. How the lack of one is making Japan act all funny for decades now is also well taken. A society losing its god is a very important point. But I don’t see it as a possibly useful alternative to cavemen hitting each other on the head to feel immortal. I see it, now that I’m really browned off at all the broken promises over the years simply on racial grounds, as an illness, not a template. I don’t think Japan is on the road to finding its way out of this existential uncertainty. I think other societies are doing a far better job shedding the need for a belief in a divinity and finding out, through encouraging individual choice, personal empowerment, and self-actualization, that it is possible for people psychologically, and not necessarily socially psychologically, to discover what they believe is their order and role in the universe without the need for national-goal-manipulated crutches. In sum, Japan is not a template. It is a society that is rotting from the inside out because individuals are being trained, even more so now than even in the Bubble Era, that the system is more important than the individual and nothing can or should change that; for the sake of national identity, knuckle under. The difference is that there is no longer a financial benefit even to back that up. So the system promises nothing except stability — although not mental stability. That is the fundamental promise of a social cosmology. In that sense, Japan’s permutation of existentialism is the biggest broken promise around. We know because we have been outside the fishbowl.


28 comments on “M.G. “Bucky” Sheftall academic paper on “Shattered Gods” and the dying mythology of “Japaneseness”

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    Debito, having actually read 53 of the sources cited in Sheftall’s thesis, I am impressed with the way he has articulated what I have been feeling for a long time. Japan has been papering over the social cracks following the loss of it’s ‘god’, and that explains it’s inability (refusal?) to address the social changes required to prevent Japan’s terminal decay.
    Yours points, especially #2 are accurate. In the west we have been striving for self-realization and actualization in the absence of a god-headed cosmology to absolve us of social responsibility. Our system has faults and is not perfect, but the Japanese model spells only doom. I believe that the Japanese would prefer a pure-blooded Wagnarian ‘Gotterdamerung’ finale, than accept the need for real, meaningful change.
    And that is why Japan has no meaningful future.

  • the yamato dynasty says:

    (something I recently experienced when I was denied my sabbatical. Again. Despite having more than three times the workplace seniority of the person who did get it, and the added kicker of him lying about his letters of invitation) has always been a particular tenet of the system (from academic apartheid on down)

    I can’t believe those racist fools turned you down for another sabbatical. Wasn’t the main reason they denied you your last request that it was in Japan? Well this one was in Canada – what was their excuse this time? Or did they come right out and say if you were Yamato you would have gotten the sabbatical but you’re just a Caucasian.

    You’ve gotten 2 great research opportunities in as many years, surely with the University cutting your pay you would be making more as an independent researcher? You have the answer to your problem on your Blacklist Page – Unfortunately, employment rights are not merely granted–they have to be claimed in a system which has institutionalized discrimination since Meiji times (click here for substantiation). Only if you, the prospective employees, vote with your feet, applying solely to those universities which offer the best opportunities, will things change.

    I mean why would you, such a well known, recognized, and admired human rights activist, remain at a school that is showing such obvious racism? You should quit and either become a full time researcher or if you want to continue teaching I’m sure a far better school in Tokyo (where you could do so much more good than being stuck off in the relative backwater of Hokkaido) will recognize the prestige having someone with your name recognition in the human rights world and publication record would bring to their institution.

    — They offered no excuse, or reason. All I got was a note saying “fusaitaku”. When I had the vice dean (who was not present at the hearings due to a business trip) look into it, I eventually heard that the reason was that I “had not contributed enough to the school” (not credible, given that I publish more than just about anyone there and my kenkyuuhi, calculated by an algorithm every year based upon last year’s research, went up significantly). I’ll tell the whole story of this at a later date.

  • “No matter how much of a wrongdoer, no matter how evil, a Japanese subject may have been, when once he has taken his stand on the field of battle, all his past sins are entirely atoned for and they become as nothing.”

    This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Japanese culture.

    — Unpack this thought, please. Further one-liners like these will not be approved.

  • Very interesting read. I have to go back are reread it several times. What can really get me stressed is when some Japanese become almost fanatical when facing anything from “the outside” Koko wa nihon! and this makes us unique so what you have to offer must be modified. This bizarre behavior has driven me batty more than a few times. As far as your sabbatical denial, Ive had similar things done to me. In my case they didnt want me to be “above” anybody else, so request for a liscense or whatnot was always denied, where other Japanese in the company got whatever they wanted. Ive accepted that my place as a gaijin in Japan will always be in a non managerial role unless a NJ will decide differently, or make my own business. The only good thing about Japan is the pay, relatively good job security if you can find a job and perhaps skills, (only compared to other Asian countries) also if you can find that job.

    — I’m not sure even the pay is all that great anymore. But we’re getting off track.

  • An interesting article, and one that is very well written. However I have a few problems with it. The first is Sheftall’s dodge of the Bubble period, or more accurately, the years from 1970 to 1995, as the formation of a new “post-Meiji” cosmology. Even if high growth was a denial, it is one that he seems to think was accepted as a kind of mass-psychological phenomenon. Many of the scholars he quotes, for example Berger and Luckman, would not necessarily see this as a problem in terms of identity (or cosmology) construction per se. I certainly don’t think that 1970-1995 Japan, with all its evocations of the valiant salaryman and technological prowess was an attempt to establish the claim that national identity/cosmology didn’t really matter, as Sheftall seems to think.

    Second, and this is another problem with arguments that posit some sort of construction of social reality:
    Sheftall’s essay really only focuses on “formal” Japanese culture to the point that it neglects alternative views that are integral to society and that may serve as loci for the creation of a positive identity once the cosmology (if indeed it does exist) falters. Where for example do the counterculture figures, and even in some cases, mainstream Japanese thinkers fit in here? Maruyama Masao has essentially argued in the immediate postwar what Sheftall has written – that there was a complete revolution (from feudalism to authoritarianism) in Japan at the beginning of the Meiji period and then an incomplete one (an aborted revolution from authoritarianism to democracy) after the war. Maruyama and liberals on one hand and the SPJ and other socialists on the other who, at least in words, advocated a more “conventional” communist revolution, provided significant resistance to Japanese authorities to the extent that those authorities had to consider their views in the formation of policy. Most of these people clearly did not buy in to the idea of a Meiji cosmology in the postwar period. Yet, aren’t they part of the Japanese cultural milieu? They have had some sort of political impact, so why not?

    Sheftall cites people like Maruyama, but only in order to critique what he sees as the Japanese cosmology, not as someone who formulated aspects of Japanese identity himself. In other words, he misses the point that the act of offering positive alternatives to the postwar order that took shape in Japan (or, if you like, Meiji cosmology) is as “Japanese” as to support it. In my opinion, Sheftall’s essay therefore often presents as totalizing a view of Japanese culture as many of the works he tries to criticize.

  • As an amateur Ernest Becker enthusiast, I have to say this is the article I have been waiting for. I have commented before on how I thought the hikikomori phenomena is a product of not so much death denial as much illusion of life, the desire to only expose oneself to the heroic and romantic. That to the extent a hero system does exist in Japan, it seems largely populated with fictional characters from video games and anime, something a human being can not rationally aspire to be. But I have not made myself familiar enough with Japanese culture or history to have anything but the most shallow context for these thoughts. Thank you for publishing this article.

  • “No matter how much of a wrongdoer, no matter how evil, a Japanese subject may have been, when once he has taken his stand on the field of battle, all his past sins are entirely atoned for and they become as nothing.”

    >This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Japanese culture.

    I’d say that’s a pretty good assessment of the Meiji Cosmology right there, Ken. And that is why its effect on Japan was — and continues to be — so toxic.

  • >I certainly don’t think that 1970-1995 Japan, with all its evocations of the valiant salaryman and technological prowess was an attempt to establish the claim that national identity/cosmology didn’t really matter, as Sheftall seems to think.

    Bob, with all due respect, I’m afraid you’ve misread me. And I must take responsbility for this, as obviously, I was not clear enough about explaining what I had to say. I see the national hero-system of 1970-1995 period (after the 1955-1970 “rubble-clearing” national hero-system had run its course) as being one that pretty much every native resident of The Archipelago was on board with, regardless of whether the tears they still shed over the war were because they had LOST, or because the thing had been fought in the first place (and yes, I see Japanese of those years as basically broken down into those two types). But in both cases, this hero-system was still a DENIAL: in the first case, it was a denial that the Meiji Cosmology had actually endured any significant damage; if you’ll remember, at the time, military and samurai metaphors were in great vogue, and it was all too easy, if one wanted to, to approach the legacy of the war with a comforting “Well, we’ll get’em next time…And the way we’re going, it looks like we already are!” attitude. In other words, war fought with T-bills and favorable deficits instead of with kamikaze planes and banzai charges. The latter case, on the other hand, was a denial along the lines of “War? WHAT war? We’re just peace-loving born businessmen who live to trade and prosper — no one really believed all that ‘Emperor as God’ stuff during the Imperial Era — We were just afraid that if we didn’t say so the Kempeitai or the Tokko Police would arrest us.” In other words, the first type of denial — shall we call it the “Governor Ishihara supporter” type? — was (and still is) in the form of “minimization” of acknowledged damage to the cosmology, while the second type was (and still is) a form of denial that shifts the blame for the catastrophe onto the purportedly ignored “ideologues” of the Meiji Cosmology — an apologetic tactic that is further bolstered by a sort of “sour grapes” claim along the lines of “Ahh, we never believed that stuff in the frist place”.

    Does what I originally wrote make more sense now, Bob, with this clarification?

    p.s. Don’t read too much into the Maruyama citation — this probably would be better formatted as a “cf” citation, so please consider it as such.

  • @ Debito,

    perhaps this belongs on another thread, and Ill make this the last comment on it if its ok for you-

    Ive traveled extensively throughout Asia. For some jobs, the pay I have found in Japan to be the highest (excluding Aus and NZ) You must remember that in SE Asia, the Chinese will hire a Thai, Myamar, Filipino, Indonesian etc to do a skilled job, but pay is horrible. An expat package is the way to go, but those are for managerial positions. A network admin in HK or Singapore pays ok, but probably more in Japan due to the fact that they pay according to age. If an unexperienced 20 years old and 40 years old man enter the same company, the 40 years old man will always make double or more. Other Asian countries never do this, least I havent seen it. Profitable Japanese companies offer a bonus, and pay transportation where in other countries they squeeze you. The trade off is that in Japan, they expect “obligation” which equals consensus which usually means misery, where other places you can grow then move up/out, thus the high turn over in Singapore etc. I prefer the western style myself, but do like level of pay here, if I can manage to stomach the isolation/alienation and perpetual gaijin syndrome. Hopes this clears up my position…

  • “Japan suffered a trauma that might be compared to that of the individual believer who suddenly finds himself an atheist. ” How inappropriate is this… someone who clearly must be a believer asserting that there is some loss in becoming an atheist, as if a realization of the truth is anything but a expansionary experience. This also relates to the Japanese, think about the new generations who will not be limited by that sort of all-encompassing belief system that would in part limit their range of experience on this earth. When speaking to my intellectual, scientific minded Japanese(he himself would never refer to himself as this, he’s just a human being in his eyes; the viewpoint that comes from long, motivated scientific studies) friend(yes, friend as in I’ve only as far found one, but I’ve yet to live in Japan(until SEP/OCT when I’ll move)), when speaking to this friend, he has no problems seeing the whole Meiji Cosmology as it is referred to here, as nothing more than a variant of a personality cult akin to the modern day D.P.R.K. . Just my two cents coming closer to an observable, verifiable understanding of reality is greatly preferable to a limited experience of the theist, and I expect the culturally aware, reasonable Japanese feels much the same way about not being imposed or having been freed from the Imperial worldview.

    P.S.< When I get to Japan, I'll definitely come to one of your lectures and show some love, I'll also be picking up the Newcomer's Handbook as soon as I touch down. Gotta show my support for anybody who's trying to bring people together, keep at it Arudou!

  • My word, what great reading for a Sunday morning. I’d like to see more counter-arguments at least for further enlightenment, on this site.

    Some key issues regarding the effects on us, NJ, is that the Homusho in particular have wedded themselves to an antediluvian attitude regarding race and mysticism- the de facto racism of the Koseki system and the idea of a Japanese kokumin, a Yamato race and its special and unique characteristics, and the real, deep spiritual rejection of individuality over group harmony, as highlighted by “Jim.”

    At heart the deep-rooted nativism that seems to be lurking in all power relationships regarding authority, just leads to a whole series of ills at the coal face. If Japan at the top ever wakes up and realizes that it IS special and different, but no more special and different than other cultures, and looses its addiction to a mystical Meji cosmology that, in its heart, was a top-down creation to control the country, create national myths and gird the nation for imperialism, then the country can move forward- the foundation of of a “nationalist orthodoxy” (Ken Pyle, Japan Rising). What Pyle and other mainstream IR specialists don’t do, because the are not sociologists or cultural anthropologists, is make the connection to the Meiji mythology. I truly think that in discussing IR policy, this link needs to to be added into IR analysis. Or perhaps it is. I’d like to know.

    A bit of a tangent, but please bear with me: I have the idea that a key learning point was missed when ASEAN threw out Japan’s bid to become a permanent member of the UNSEC. It could have been a real turning point.

    Until that point, Japanese policy makers had thought that they had bought the votes of ASEAN through years of ODA and technology exchange, setting up production networks, building infrastructure, etc. A cynical point of view, and perhaps a trivialization of a very complex situation, but one that has some meaning to this argument. In Japan’s dealings with its neighbors, the implicit racism and cultural exclusivity (we are Asians, like you, but we are superior and special, follow us) finds its roots after the first World War, when Japan applied to become a de facto honorary “white man” as a fully-fledged local imperial power, joining the major European powers. They were thrown out then, and the horrible and deep-seated racism, and comments coming out of European leaders about the hideousness of Japanese interbreeding with Europeans, left a scar.
    But Japan seemed wedded to its idea of being culturally, racially, morally superior to other nations.

    Even the post-war WWII MOFA-formulated idea of Japan as the leading goose in a flock of geese harked back to the idea of Japan’s idea of being some sort of divinely appointed leader in Asia, harking back to the racist and nationalist heart of this Meiji mythology. So when ASEAN more or less said, “we’ll take your money, your technology, your ODA and your factories, but you can stuff the idea of being our divinely appointed leader and stuff it up your Yamato ass” (which, crudely, is what happened) it should have been a wake-up call. The fact that it wasn’t shows how deep the malaise is and how pernicious the mythologies concocted remain, IMO.

    I think the sense of entitlement and then the idea of being a victim (what I would call a national spoilt child syndrome) here is also tied into the shoddy and tired Meiji cosmology that just needs to be cracked open and exposed and put out to dry.

    I’m very conscious in writing this that I might be very guilty of accusing Japan of not being what I want it to be, and Japan has a perfect right to its mythology, culture, traditions, and so on. Yes, I think so, as long as Japan can “just” get rid of the koseki system and stop its institutionalized racism at the coalface. Tall order, I think….

  • Something thats been gnawing at me for a while is what-in my mind-is the male-dominated aspect of these cosmologies, especially for Japanese women who don`t just want to sit at home making babies or playing the required (for career purposes) trophy housewife taking their husband`s name. And even then there are those who do marry just as either through a lack of other choices, or even a kind of passive rejection in favor of personal satisfaction, hobbies using hubby`s money, etc.

    I kept this at the back of my mind but again it is raised by Bucky`s comment “Hey we re just peace-loving businessmen…”

    My sneaky suspicion is that in this machismo society such myths, or at least the examples given, are all male-spouted ones. Ones that give certain males a sense of worth and security. And then I wonder if this all leads to a higher alienation of Japanese women from the system, only kept in line by media criticism or social/parental pressure when they desert by not marrying,by marrying but not reproducing, by marrying to shut their parents up, by having a career, or by opting out of Japan altogether by marriage to a foreign spouse or other means.

    I`d like to hear other views because it arguably seems national mythologies of the type discussed tend to be, in the main, the obsession of, males. Women were, by nature of the system, excluded from banzai charges or major business decision making.

    Without a doubt, the cosmologies of the Japanese Right are misogynistic. Blinky and his “old women who live after they have lost their reproductive function are useless” comment.

    Sure I ve met my share of Japanese women who would suddenly feel the need to tell me how much they loved their country Japan, but these types were, in the main, twenty years ago. And even Blinky and co. can sometimes produce an ageing token female who “doesn`t understand why a woman would want to keep her own surname after marriage”.

    Just look at the rightists driving the trucks, the activists harrassing resident Koreans at high school, and it is always a bunch of men. Very few, or no, women.

    Hence the low birth_rate? That`a an important part of the “Japan is doomed in the long term” scenario. Japan is not an attractive template for women at all. It hasn`t been for some time.

    This hasn`t been discussed yet.

  • Don’t forget that most of the administrators post war were major components of the pre war system, war criminals who supported the meiji myth, who were placed back in their positions of leadership and power to help repair japan economically and quickly to act as a stepping stone to Korea. That certainly didn’t help the future of Japan any.

  • Mark Hunter says:

    Great article. Maybe I’m missing the primary meaning of cosmology, but I see Japan as having a very intact national identity and a national ethos that is very transparent. If one spends any significant time in a Japanese elementary or, more appropriately, junior high school it can be seen how this national identity / ethos is transmitted; as much through entrenched behaviors and ritualized actions as through the content of academic study. Almost all Japanese people go through this system and the resulting adults who enter society, no matter what happens to them later, have this core set of values / actions / rituals that for all but a very few rebels, stay with them. One could argue, for example, that ‘hikkikomori’ are not deviating from any ethos or cosmology, they are in fact doing what one aspect of their ritualized training allows them to do, namely ignore confronting / dealing with the world – actually quite an acceptable response.

    The other issue I have with the article, and I have great respect for the depth of scholarship and for Bucky, is that the article is coming at the cosmology issue mainly through foreign eyes, even though some of the references are to Japanese scholars.

    All in all, a very good article.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    I have a question for Bucky;

    Given the frequency of use since the global economic crisis (and even more so following the Tohuku disasters), would it be fair to say that ‘Ganbare Nippon!’ is the new ‘Tenno Heika Banzai!’, in that due to it’s everyday overuse now in a Japanese society faced with multiple problems, it is (like it’s war-time counterpart) filling a psychological placebo role for nationalist identity. The Meiji cosmology has needs that are met/served by ‘ganbare nippion’ that would have been served by ‘tenno heika banzai’ were it not for the ‘peace loving Japanese’ identity corner that they have painted themselves into.

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    A very analytical and thought-provoking argument the author makes in the article. I think the author’s thesis on the problem of ‘cosmology’ quite resonates with the scholarly challenge of conceptualizing ideology as unconscious subject. It’s a very touchy issue among western scholars in various disciplines such as English, communication, philosophy, psychology. The crux of the theoretical conundrum is that many theorists identify ideology as airtight determinism in the fashion of imaginary figure or fantasy–rather than unpack its unconscious role as rhetorical agent. Communication scholars Josh Gunn and Shaun Treat(*) engage in this scholarly tendency to scatter around the concept of ideology(describing it as “zombie labor”) and provide a theoretical venue for unpacking it as the unconscious subject through Kenneth Burke’s notion of identification and Althusser’s concept of interpellation. Their study illustrates the effect of pseudo-deterministic concept that haunts us like ghost and renders us to the subject of cultural consumption as if we were behaving like a zombie. I know their study is much more theoretical, and stands apart from the study of Japanese-ness, but I would say Japan’s cultural challenge today is no stranger to us than what they call totalizing determinism as zombie-like obsession.

    *Joshua Gunn and Shaun Treat. “Zombie Trouble: A Propaedeutic on Ideological Subjectification and the Unconscious.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 91 (2005): 144-174.

  • Well, first off, I think Japan is far from alone in having a bankrupt cultural mythos. America is right now struggling through a phase of denial that the “American dream” is dead, which it has been for a long time but which everyone could ignore during bubble periods like the housing bubble period. The Eurozone doesn’t look to healthy either. Japan just got there first.

    Secondly, the Meiji cosmology was particularly bad in that it both promoted bulldozing traditional ways and used the framework of tradition to build something completely different, which has discredited tradition as well. Shinto and Buddhism (in a highly syncretic form) worked in some manner for a very long time, and I don’t think that they are at a disadvantage against Christianity. However, the nature worship aspect of Shinto is hard to put across now because Japan has been so throughly developed – I asked some Japanese schoolkids if they had ever played in the woods and told me “no”, whereas back when I was a child I spent a lot of time playing in the woods (in a suburban area in Texas – I didn’t grow up in a rural area even). Ironically, the nature worship has a major social value, perhaps now more than ever, because human development tends to endanger human life, as we can see from both the pollution diseases of the past and the results of the nuclear energy project in the present at Fukushima. And of course, Buddhism is probably one of the best religions when it comes to dealing with hard times, and Pure Land offers exactly the same sort of salvation as Christianity.

    Unfortunately, both sides became effectively tools of the state after the Meiji revolution (even more so than they were before), and so when the state failed the religious system went with it. Of course, Shinto has the dual sides, as there is folk Shinto and there is the use of Shinto to deify the emperor and the “race”. The promotion of state Shinto nearly destroyed all other aspects of Shinto.

    It seems to me that you think traditional culture is “discredited” and now only serves a symbolic purpose, but I think that any attempt to move forward must recognize that past, both good and bad, or you get stuck in loops – like the “confederacy was for states rights” loop of the American South, or the “Japan was better as an empire” loop, which is due to an inability to recognize the truth about the past, it’s reality and the results of the former system. Modernity that simply throws out the past is empty. While you suggest this emptiness has a value towards the end, I think it promotes self-destructive behavior.

  • Shaun O'Dwyer says:

    I was intrigued by Sheftall’s discussion of the function “hero systems” play in legitimating cosmologies. Perhaps there is more flexibility in such systems than he allows: in Germany since at least the late ’60’s, the national hero-system was emptied, then inverted to incorporate those (few!) Germans who resisted Nazi rule as exemplary human beings *and* German patriots, with Hans and Sophie Scholl of the White Rose group heading the list. I’ve heard that even today Sophie Scholl remains a source of great inspiration and identification for young German women. It is difficult to hear such stories being told in contemporary Japan. Having read former Prime Minister Abe’s attempt in his book “Towards a Beautiful Country” to hold up a self-doubting kamikaze pilot as an exemplar for modern Japanese people’s duty to defend their liberty and country, I find myself agreeing with Sheftall that residual State Shinto beliefs constitute a dead weight in the Japanese conservative imagination.

  • “Minus the Japan-specific cultural signifiers, the reader would be forgiven for mistaking Kakehi’s words for quotations from modern day Jihadist recruiting copy”

    Interesting comparision, Ive often thought that some of the behavior I have witnessed from ultra nationalist or other zealots Ive met in Japan follows this jihadist model as well. Ive seen many Japanese work themselves into a hissy over north korea, but, perhaps Im mistaken, I sometimes see comparisions like the mass flag waving at concernts and baseball games here.

    “the Allied Occupation forces allowed its comatose body to retain a central symbolic position in the political domain of postwar national subjectivity, kept alive on a kind of ideological artificial life support system administered in turn by Occupation authorities, conservative Japanese establishment figures and institutions, and even yakuza right-wing underworld elements (Kodama 1951).”

    Very well put. All that effort to defeat Japan, just to let the old guard hijack the leadership all over again. Thev have been running/manipulating things ever since.

    “replacement cosmology” probably had something to do with Ishihara getting relected.

  • @ABC-

    “So when ASEAN more or less said, “we’ll take your money, your technology, your ODA and your factories, but you can stuff the idea of being our divinely appointed leader and stuff it up your Yamato ass” (which, crudely, is what happened) it should have been a wake-up call. The fact that it wasn’t shows how deep the malaise is and how pernicious the mythologies concocted remain, IMO.”

    Japan actually suggested not so long ago of an Asian version of the Euro, but it would be the yen. The mythology must still be in circulation for anybody to suggest such a ludicrious idea.

    — Source please.

  • rather than commenting on the bucky stuff,i think its a disgrace that they tried to fob you off with the fusaitaku stuff.
    is there no appeal system that you can go thru,or failing that take your complaint outside the institution?
    im shocked that you have suffered this after all your contributions to japanese society and your workplace.Hope to hear that this turns out well in the end.Good luck.

    — I did appeal, through university channels. Same conclusion.

  • Wow, thank you for that. I have to say that it took me a while to read it, as my academic brain is still young (and out of practice).

    The core sentiments echoed a lot of what I read in Dogs and Demons, which – while largely a bitter, negative attack on every aspect of Japan – suggested the idea that Japan was traumatised after the second World War. Its core was shaken, its certainty destroyed, like a sheltered child who suddenly has his home broken into and robbed (or worse, but no need to go into detail).

    The thing that you have to be careful with is the comparison to a believer suddenly becoming athiest, the “losing a god” metaphor could spark religious debates and perhaps sound as if a lack of a god is a negative thing. Certainly, I’m sure that there are a few mostly-athiest cultures in existence who seem to be getting along quite happily, although their cosmology could indeed be the replacement.

    It does seem that a lot of athiests (I’d consider myself agnostic, by the way) turn towards science, sometimes almost replacing religion with it. This article made me think… science is a massive drive towards preserving and advancing humanity. We build to leave our footprints in the world; we research to fight disease and prolong human life, to change the world for our ancestors – what is that other than a sense of purpose and immortality? While we may not believe in a spiritual afterlife, we are banding together to become part of something long-lasting.

    It is true… without belief in anything greater than this world, I often find myself obsessing over my “future”, career plans, ways to become notable. To me, the entire of human existence is one big act of ego… the ego which fears, above all else, its own demise. Whether we identify only with our personal ego (whether ambition, ruthless attempts at fame or meglomania), with our culture, our country or with humankind as a whole. What your essay talks about is the way that the Japanese identify with other Japanese, as part of their “Japanness” – meaning that their own footprint doesn’t have to be left, as long as the collective whole which they belong to will be immortal.

    I think, though, that people’s sense of belonging/identity can shift and change. Sometimes we want immortality for ourselves, other times our country/religion/sports team’s will suffice (of course, people have died for causes, surely in the belief that sacrificing their own tree will mean the continued life of the forest). Talking only of Japan’s cosmology might ignore individual differences in beliefs and ideologies… a culture may appear, on the surface, to hold a belief in a certain God or Emperor or in national pride, but what of those who do not buy in to the mainstream thought? Can we truly talk of what “Japan” believes without overlooking a massive amount of variables? I’d like to look at a multitude of other cultures, too. I hear that the Czech Republic is one of the most athiest nations in Europe (although perhaps they instead revel in preservation of their history and national pride) so I’ll let you know.

    In the end, what are the implications? Does humanity need to step up and find a way to cope with the meaningless of existence? Otherwise, it seems that (on either a cultural or individual level) we must seek to delude ourselves, or rather it is a ruling power’s duty to delude its people, in order to avoid falling into the vortex of nihilism. When faced with the choice of giving your people something to live for, or abandoning them to despair and hopelessness, then perhaps you can see why the gaps have been clumsily filled with national pride, nostalgia and Hello Kitty.

  • Bucky, what is “Meiji Cosmology”? Is that a word you created? The only 5 hits on the internet search of the word are all from Debito.org.

    I have never heard of 明治宇宙論 in Japanese. The closest thing I can think of is 皇国史観. Is that what you mean? If so, why did not you use that technical term?

    The mainstream political trends changed a lot during Meiji, Taisho, and early Showa periods. You cannot pack all those ideologies into one “Meiji Cosmology”. Since what you call “Meiji Cosmology” is central to your theses, you need to clearly define what it is.

    — Doesn’t he?

  • This is very interesting concept here,and quite original one. The article itself quite differes from the Japanese academic style of research and arguing.The way I understood it is that this new post-Edo mythological phenomenon comes as an answer to Japanese identity crisis from that period, and I know that the boom in folklore research from that period is also reaction to that identity crisis.I, however, believe that the rapid expansion of the Japanese Empire in Asia is also a factor-a justification for the superior position of the Japanese nation towards its colonies. I remember some presentations by my Asian colleagues in the university, who did research on the education conducted by Japan in its colonies,and all textbooks presented emphasized the superiority of the Japanese in every aspect of life.I think it will be very interesting to compare the “Meiji cosmology” phenomenon with the fascist ideology in Germany and Italy.
    As for the second part, I think the author needs to work little more on it. For example, he uses “I’ve seen some Japanese…” or “I’ve heards some Japanese…” while it should be “A survey conducted on (100,200 or more) Japanese men and women of (specific age group) showed that x percent of them think/do this and that”. Otherwise it sounds like the lady who counted gaijin on the streets.
    Also, the author needs to be more specific and offer more scientific, objective view on some phenomena he picks up as an evidence for his thesis. For example here:”Coming under the latter category would be the daily mass media (…) the economically developed world)” the author offers his personal view, without clarifying why the travel shows, the historucal dramas are ” endless re-hashings of oddly self-Orientalizing cultural nostalgia tropes” and why is EXPO’70 “iconic for the desymbolization” of Japan.He just says it is like that and the reader has to believe him.Or the place where the author calls the kouminnkan and other cultural facilities” facilities for the provision of some measure, however modest, of palliative existential reassurance” and the elderly gather here “to be comforted by the idea of their culture surviving their own individual mortality with a reassuring catalogue of recognizable cultural signifiers and identity markers still in place”- well, in my home country, whose culture, history and cosmology are completely different from Japan’s, elderly also gather and practice traditional arts. There are also parts where he repeats one and the same thing with different words-this makes the article heavy to read. And over all, while the first part is very well written and defended, with well posed,interesting arguments and very convincing, the second part is more like an essay, with lots of subjective and emotional comments, less citations and sources, unconvincing research methodology,and somehow more chaotic and hard to read.
    I don’t know if this has already been published somewhere,but if not, why not try to fix the second part and offer it somewhere for publication? I’m sure the concept of “Meiji cosmology” has a lot to offer for further discussions.

  • @Loverilakkuma

    “… The crux of the theoretical conundrum is that many theorists identify ideology as airtight determinism in the fashion of imaginary figure or fantasy–rather than unpack its unconscious role as rhetorical agent. Communication scholars Josh Gunn and Shaun Treat(*) engage in this scholarly tendency to scatter around the concept of ideology(describing it as “zombie labor”) and provide a theoretical venue for unpacking it as the unconscious subject through Kenneth Burke’s notion of identification and Althusser’s concept of interpellation. Their study illustrates the effect of pseudo-deterministic concept that haunts us like ghost and renders us to the subject of cultural consumption as if we were behaving like a zombie….”

    Well I, for one, barely understand a word of that. (Even after looking up “propaedutic” and “interpellation”.) Would you mind unpacking the jargon a little for us mere mortals, or should I accept my limitations, withdraw, and leave you social psychologists to do your thing? 😉

    — Now now, let’s ask for clarifications a little less sarcastically, please.

  • WanderingDave says:

    And so it goes.

    I think ideological movements are ephemeral things by nature. They have a life span ranging from years to centuries, but they all follow the same course of getting promoted by the right people, growing to popularity because they make the common people feel empowered, motivated, and a part of something much greater than themselves, and ultimately peaking and declining when their promotion and management falls into the wrong hands, and/or they fail to meet the changing needs of the populace. Japan’s Meiji-crafted Emperor cult / state religion was no different.

    But here’s the thing. The circle of life and the wheel in the sky keep on turning. Like the phoenix, new ideological movements and brotherhoods of common faith and shared collective purpose are being forged anew just as quickly as they’re clunking out and getting junked. Most will die out quickly, but a few enduring ones will probably eventually take root and light a fire in people’s hearts for generations. Japan will, and arguably has already in small spurts, begin to grow new myths at the popular level that aim to help the common people overcome their separateness and reconnect with something greater. I think it’s just the way of the world, the nature of ideology, faith, loyalty, and bonding.

    Also, I don’t doubt that what the author describes is a prominent line of thought among modern day people in Japan, and one that a lot of people there relate to. But he just doesn’t have the data to support that’s it’s a unanimous, or even predominant, national state of mind. I must say the article’s argument probably explains a lot of the obsessive focus on the country’s recent history in popular storytelling. I never used to understand why Japanese filmmakers wanted to spend so much time thinking about WWII and the modernization of the country after the Meiji Restoration. It’s kind of similar to the Hollywood obsession with Vietnam. Memories of getting taken down a peg remain raw and in sharp focus for some time, whether it’s personal memories or national memories. And Japan had really never bowed to an outside power in its entire recorded history; the first scar is the most painful.

    Of course this all boils down to one very practical question on most people’s minds reading this: Might the new cosmologies that grow in Japan be ones that decrease the tension between the native population and immigrants and their descendants. I think that remains to be seen, and isn’t really anyone’s call to make, any more than forecasting next year’s weather.

    For the record, I have my own homespun DIY spirituality, and believe that all religious / spiritual / fraternal /political / civic groups and ideologies are human-made tools for reaching towards one common (and largely unknown and unknowable) Source of all being. Some work better at achieving this goal and have fewer negative side effects than others. But they all aim to do the same thing, and I happen to believe that that goal is a valid and attainable one. But I say this just as an aside, to lay my cards on the table. I think my points are just as valid to an ontological naturalist (atheist or agnostic).


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