Naturalized in Japan

Yoshinori Kobayashi
Asuka Shinsha, 2011

Yoshirin’s goal here was to interview six foreigners who became Japanese citizens, to ask them what they find so special about Japan, and what direction they hope Japan will take in the future. Obviously he picked people who immigrated to Japan as a political decision and not for mere social reasons. The book is intellectually strong because all of his guests already understand the importance of Japan’s self-identity and its role in the world. Rather than ranting about the need to destroy Japan, as some less socialized and more hate-filled expats do, they discuss how they would strengthen it.

However, while reading the book I realized that it could have been stronger if he added to this mix some ordinary folks who got Japanese wives and are contributing to the gene pool. After all, Japan’s self-identity is determined by its people, so how can we ensure that allegiance to Japan is preserved for children of mixed ethnicity, as Yoshirin hopes it will be for those of Ainu and Burakumin descent? Ordinary expats may be uneducated about Japanese history and how society functions, and would disturb the book’s structure, but through exposure to much greater minds we might get them to open up about their own experiences and hopes.

I will focus on the interview with Bill Totten, since he’s the sole representative of the Anglo-Saxon race. The other interviewees are two Chinese, a Taiwanese, a Tibetan, and a Zainichi Korean, who discuss issues in their own countries that I have little grounds to comment on, but many of the ideas Bill discusses, both on the American and Japanese sides, are things I’ve researched and thought about myself, and the way he orders them into a coherent whole made me consider how I arrange them in my own head. In general, I found the talk rather inspiring, and I wish my Japanese was good enough that I could take it in fully.

Yoshirin opens by informing us that unlike the other interviewees, Bill’s spoken Japanese was rough and lacked fluency, and he had to correct it. There are plenty of smart white expats who never achieve fluency; I worry that I may find myself among them in the future, and certainly I recognized some of my own grammatical simplicity in Bill’s language. I think this is due to the richness of readily available Western media, which can often supply us with news about Japan and even advanced research into Japanese history and culture. If we interact too much in English, we risk missing out on the equal richness and complexity of Japanese society. Anyway, Bill seems to agree with me on that theoretical point, and his Japanese was good enough to have a dynamic conversation with Yoshirin, which is much more than I can say of my own.

Bill starts the interview by telling Yoshirin that he just got back from Yasukuni Shrine, which obviously shows an intimate familiarity with his work, but which struck me as a bit of brown-nosing. He then added that he had been hoping his daughter would name his grandson Hideki Tōjō and has nicknamed the kid Hideki regardless, which is funny, but in a political interview goes beyond brown-nosing and into the bizarre. Anyway, Bill continues by explaining the widely and quickly recognized “usefulness” of 9/11 for creating new surveillance powers for the U.S. government, as well as institutions like the No Fly List which he apparently believes himself to be on.

This is actually a kind of murky point. Bill refers to himself as “banned” from America; if he were indeed on the No Fly List, he would be banned for writing a few books which championed Japan’s economic policies and political identity over America’s, which earned him some criticism but are certainly no grounds for expulsion. However, what he actually says is that his bags are searched whenever he takes a flight in America, which means he is on the selectee list, not the No Fly List. Anyway, it’s well known that people are added to both these lists due to political reasons as well as honest mistakes, so let’s move on.

They next discuss the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement. Yoshirin states in no uncertain terms that Japan, which puts high tariffs on rice in order to protect its millions of smallholders, would be damaged by a FTA. Bill agrees, but points out that people’s opinions on the issue are dictated by the mass media, which serves as a form of “mind control”. He then interjects a fact which is not widely known: NAFTA eliminated import quotas which had prevented Mexico from being flooded with subsidized American corn, and also outlawed land controls which guaranteed no-rent land to smallholders. As a result of this as well as other economic factors, smallholders were priced out and stampeded over the border to become sharecroppers with no legal rights. Before NAFTA, Mexico imported 2% of its corn; now it imports 50%. Bill jokes that TPP could cause Japanese people to swim across the Pacific to America.

The economic growth caused by NAFTA has indeed slowly stemmed this flow of immigration in the past few months. Better paying jobs are giving Mexicans access to cars, cameras, computers, and other benefits of industrial civilization. But let’s look at the big picture here. These material benefits which I enjoy, and which my country is now sharing with Mexicans, are incredibly unsustainable. Efforts to make them sustainable failed in the 1970s. Both Mexicans and I should be double-checking what this society does, so that our happy lives don’t destroy the Earth for our grandchildren. We shouldn’t have to bankrupt farmers or tear up mountainsides just for our immediate gratification. The founders of Panasonic and Omron planned hundreds of years into the future, Bill notes; today, businesses focus only on the next quarter’s profits.

This is where I expected this book to shine, but it did not. I thought Yoshirin would ask about, or Bill would volunteer, personal experiences in Japan that helped him grow his understanding of the meaning of culture and human society. Every culture has its own areas of success and failure. America throws out huge amounts of trash, ranging from hazardous waste to edible food, both at home and at work without a second thought; we invented recycling in the 70s, but there is no economic incentive for it, so most of the population ignores it. Meanwhile, in Japan, recycling and sorting trash is basically mandatory, since throwing out recyclable trash at home costs you good money. But thousands of convenience stores eat the cost as a business expense and waste megatons of food. A smart person coming from another country to Japan can easily see how Japanese culture improves on the culture they took for granted at home, and how their own holistic perspective might suggest improvements for Japan. Together, people like Yoshirin and Bill can build a better Japanese society.

Instead, the discussion gets overbearingly philosophical. Bill suddenly interjects the Old Testament’s command for man to “be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it”. The Old Testament God, he says, authorizes dominion over the Earth for humans, and especially for the humans who can best fulfill God’s commands. Anglo-Saxons, discarding their philosophy of nature, took this to heart and began taking over the Earth to extract things useful for men to it. I regard this intepretation as indubitably true, although this “dominion” reading was not identified as a ecological teaching to be criticized until the 1950s. So far, so good.

What Bill says next, though, is false. He draws a contrast between Christian dominion and what he calls a Ko-Shinto philosophy of coexistence with nature and a Buddhist philosophy of surrendering selfish desires. Buddhist teachings, first, were only ever a luxury in Japan. Some famous medieval Japanese intellectuals, like Kamo no Chōmei and the haiku poet Bashō, took selflessness seriously and surrendered their material things. But this was not popularly adopted, which makes sense; if Japan truly had a strong philosophy of Buddhist selflessness, like Laos or Burma, Westernization simply would not have caught on. The government would have been reduced to harassing people into industrializing their businesses, or more likely, the government would have taken no interest in modernization either, again like Laos or Burma. Instead, even during sakoku [19th century isolation], Western technology was studied intently and reproduced across the country. The real benefit of sakoku was that people were able to study the technics alone, without needing to deal with Westerners personally.

The Ko-Shinto reading is even less accurate. Shrines may have been coexistent with nature as a matter of course in the premodern period, but this was not a conscious teaching and no books were ever written on the subject. If anything, shrines stress that humanity, Japan, and the world are an inheritance; something that has come to us through a complex history, which we may or may not remember, but which has served a purpose of bringing us here. From this basis we can derive the national shinto of the imperial period, in which shrines were created for those who served their country, as well as the spiritual shinto of the modern period, in which shrines teach gratitude for being born and respect for Japan’s heritage. But in the past, no teaching, Buddhist or non-Buddhist, prevented people damming rivers, mining mountains, and paving roads. As long as shrines and Buddhist statues were moved out of the way of the bulldozers, it was spiritually acceptable.

Later on, Bill proclaims that the teaching of ethics, which is currently a sort of muddle in Japan that instructs children to develop selfish desires and attachments, should be returned to this “Ko-Shinto”, which he imagines to be an improvement on imperial period national shinto. Of course, “Ko-Shinto” has never been taught in schools, so the two of them can give whatever meaning they want to that word. Yoshirin is in diplomatic agreement with Bill, but from what I know of Yoshirin’s own writing, I believe the image in his head means something like devoting time to concepts that he considers to have been poorly explained during his own education, namely the Japanese state and the importance of the Emperor. This would not be that far from national shinto. Bill, on the other hand, certainly has some ecological image in his head when he says this, as well as the desire for a stronger moral education that the two of them seem to share.

In any case, as I have been saying, this is a very heady look at Japanese culture. It seems like it comes from books and not interactions with Japanese people. A theoretical future change to ethics classes could change things, but at present Japanese society is, in the Western sense of religion, utterly irreligious. Japanese respect for religious institutions, which may be Buddhist, Shinto, or Christian, does not constitute belief in their supernatural claims. I think while we are free to revere Japanese moral tradition, we should also be looking at what elements of the modern culture we should emphasize– for example, Bill’s statement that he pulled up his tennis court to plant a family vegetable garden, a typical “eco-friendly” idea, does not really scale next to the enormous rice fields run by rural Japanese who often maintain them after going home from their primary jobs. Similarly, an “eco-friendly farmhouse” run by students at my college produced a small amount of veggies for the cafeteria, while experimenting with compost and organic manure, but their tiny 100 square foot veggie plot literally stood on the ruins of the college’s abandoned cattle ranch and agricultural school, a farm which was once over 10,000 square feet in size. The agricultural school was abandoned when the college turned to a more profitable liberal arts program for a bourgeois class created by unsustainable economic growth.

In other words, eco-gardens as a hobby of the rich are a pointlessly small contribution to the human food supply; meaningful farming requires mass scale, and the sort of strong culture to encourage it that Japan still has but is slowly losing. This culture is necessary because lifting tariffs and allowing food to be produced by the free market will put whole nations in danger when the free market inevitably fails to provide. At that point, Japanese urbanites would be driven forcibly back to the rice fields, only to find that they lack the technical knowledge to make enough rice to feed their whole country.

Both Yoshirin and Bill see the slowly approaching danger of globalism and would like a return to something like sakoku, but we can’t just turn back the clock like that. Japan’s neighbors are no longer held back by the rough ocean that allowed sakoku to work, and probably will not be again for centuries and centuries to come. The chief power of the future, as both parties agree, is not America with its friendly face and deceptive message of no-strings prosperity, but China with its hardline policy of orders from the top and obedience from the bottom. It is necessary for Japan to find a middle ground, surrendering 20th century excess without having to surrender its self-identity, freedom, and pride.

Posted: August 25th, 2011 | Book Reviews, Japan, Kokoro 2 Comments »

2 Comments on “Naturalized in Japan”

  1. 1 David said at 7:08 am on September 8th, 2013:

    just because you think someting INDUBITABLY TRUE does not make it so…The bible does speak of “subduing” but it also says in the same sentence “replenishing” This is enough for a smart man like yourself to re-think your views…not to mention the other adjectives which implies taking care of the earth…also, after you subdue something, it has to be managed…
    please do not mistake me for a “fundementalist”….who wishes to defend christianity at any cost…

  2. 2 Avery said at 3:45 am on September 10th, 2013:

    You are right. I should have pointed out that specific Bible quotes, or Confucius quotes or whatever, do not necessarily command an entire culture to go behave in a specific way.