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. 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). 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, 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 ).
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; 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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 Several major cultural cosmologies adjusted to accommodate Marxism–Leninism during the 20th century have been notable exceptions to this.
 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.
COMMENTS FROM ARUDOU DEBITO AFTER FIRST READING THIS:
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.
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.