The Tariff of Time
Shuichi Kato is Japan's leading social critic and author of the definitive three-volume study, A History of Japanese Literature and Form, Style and Tradition.
NPQ Editor Nathan Gardels spoke with him recently about the deep cultural differences between the world's strongest trading partners - the United States and Japan.
Nathan Gardels - The US and Japanese economies may be the most intertwined of any in history. We drive the same cars, watch the same VCRs and fly in the same airplanes. Yet, our conceptions of time and space differ radically.
How do you see these differences between our two cultures?
Shuichi Kato - The American conception of time comes from the Judeo-Christian heritage of the West, in particular the Old Testament. Time is structured with a beginning, Genesis, and an end. It is an unfolding story given meaning by a transcendent God, progressing along a straight line from the past into the future without repetition. Time advances from the familiar past to a new and unfamiliar moment. In the Exodus, a choice is made to leave slavery behind and continue forward to a new, clearly defined goal, The Promised Land. Once the choice is taken, "history" is made. The moment of decision doesn't come again,
In the Japanese tradition, time has no beginning and no end, only infinity
and repetition. Time is a succession of events extending from the present.
The whole continuous thread of history is not broken down into parts and
Defined only by the present moment and the vague mists of infinity, time does not lend itself to structure. No master story has been authored by a transcendent being, or traced in a grand, comprehensive theory. Eschatology - a theological doctrine about death, judgment and resurrection - doesn't exist. There is also no conception that "history" is made by the human decision to move from the past to a promised land. "The flow of events is beyond influence" goes one Japanese saying. "The past is past" and "tomorrow blows tomorrow's winds" are others.
These differences between Japan and America in the perception of time are reinforced by the conception of space. America's basic cultural pattern is individualism. America is the initiative of individuals from many cultural backgrounds, building a nation in a vast and open continent. This initiative in a vast space accounts for the aggressive personal style of Americans as well as their openness to others. The American quality of initiative also carries further the Western notion of history-making. Rather than adapt to the environment, Americans try to change the environment.
In Japan, individuals don't exist. They are absorbed by the group. The basic cultural pattern of groupism originated in the enclosed village communities of this ancient, crowded island. The group is insular and closed to the outside. There are sharply different attitudes towards insiders and outsiders, and little openness between them. Personal style is reserved and adaptive. When an individual conflicts with the group, the resolution is for the individual to adapt, not for the group to change. That's the famous Japanese consensus. And by extension, the group adapts to the environment and doesn't take the initiative to change it.
The Japanese emphasis on groupism and the concrete here and now, so unlike the Western emphasis on the individual and on abstract and comprehensive systems of thought, explains the paucity of utopian ideas in the Japanese tradition. Thus, a belief in religious or ideological systems which transcend the concrete reality of the group has not been widespread in Japan.
Kamakura Buddhism, which arose in the 13th Century, was an exception to the general rule of Japanese thought. Kamakura Buddhism denied worldly benefits and emphasized the role of a transcendental absolute, such as Satori in Zen. But the Zen sect became secularized during the Muromachi period, breaking down into two major components - aesthetics and practical ethics. Zen did not give rise to suiboku painting and the tea ceremony, as is commonly believed; it simply became those things. By the beginning of the Tokugawa period, three centuries after the birth of Kamakura Buddhism, it was completely secularized.
These Japanese perceptions of time and space are clearly reflected in the am. A typical 17th Century Japanese haiku, which catches the impression of a single instant, illustrates this aesthetic of the present moment:
Similarly, kabuki theatre, which is composed of acts with independent meaningsthat are only weakly related to each other, relies on immediate sensitivities. Japanese music is not constructed as a single, continuous work, but arises from each separate moment and the relationship between tones and pauses.
The qualities of the concrete here and now and groupism can also be seen in the Japanese language. Sentence structure begins with a phrase which modifies the noun and then ends with a verb; it begins with the details and builds into the whole. Almost all Japanese prose is broken into small, limited sections without consideration for the whole structure.
In everyday speech, personal pronouns are frequently omitted from conversation. Whether the subject of the sentence is mentioned or not depends entirely on the situation in which the speaker and listener find themselves, revealing the limited ability of the Japanese language to transcend particular, concrete situations. Consequently, more emphasis is placed on the spoken word than the written word. The universal validity of written statements is not trusted.
Gardels - The Japanese world-view from ancient times seems like post-modernism, the latest evolution of Western thought. Postmodern style is disconnected from the coherent structure offered by tradition. Post-modernism means "de-construction" from a grand narrative or the comprehensive interpretation of history. Post-modern man exists without a center or a transcendent meaning.
From this perspective, the Japanese conception of time and space has always been "post-modem."
Kato - That is completely true. That's why I am against the imported post-modernism in Japan. I consider it very superficial. Postmodernism is a reaction against the rational system of Western modernity. It is a form of confrontation with the past. But the past doesn't exist in the same way in Japan as in the West. And without a confrontation with the past, postmodernism is a rather hollow revolt.
Gardels - Unlike most societies that have a very long past, Japan does not seem weighed down by its history. What is the secret of this genius of reconciliation between the past and the future?
Kato - A world-view which centers on the group and does not include transcendental values implies that accepting the new does not require discarding the old. The confrontation between past and future involves changing an abstract conception of reality and ethical codes to conform with the new realities of the concrete situation. In the absence of such abstraction, there is no change in principle, only continuous adaptation without confrontation. For this reason, Japan has never had the religious wars of Christian and Islamic civilizations. In China, too, they have tended to destroy the old when they chose the new.
The Japanese world-view has also enabled us to adapt foreign ideas and methods to indigenous ways, from Sung Confucianism at the time of Tokugawa to American mass-manufacturing methods in the 20th Century.
This practical flexibility has been the secret of Japan's ability to modernize without a crisis of cultural integrity. Today, we produce the most futuristic high-tech products and still have an emperor.
Where is the center? What are the absolute values? In the words of Fukian Fabian's 16th Century polemic against secularized Buddhism, where is the "lord who punishes evil and thus preserves morality"?
Kato - There is no absolute value relating to outsiders. Inside the group there is very much a certain state of mind where it is considered morally good to be pure-minded and not egoistic. The Japanese word for this from the Tokugawa period is makoto In English it is sometimes translated as "sincerity," but that is inexact. Sincerity is not a purely subjective attitude, but is related to what is done in the outside world. I might say you were sincere if you promised to do something and carried it out. Makoto is different. Whatever you do is acceptable if it is done with a pure inner sense of truthfulness.
During the Meiji Reforms, the word makakoto appeared in the slogans and on the flags of both the Loyalists and counter-Loyalists. Even though these groups were killing each other, their members were popular heroes. It didn't matter what they stood for. What mattered was their passionate renunciation of egoism and the preparedness to sacrifice for the group and their idea.
Ethical behavior towards outsiders is based on a different criterion. The largest insider group for Japanese is the nation of Japan. For us, the whole human race is divided into two subcategories - the Japanese and the non-Japanese Unfortunately, most Japanese don't have much sympathy for non-Japanese who may be suffering. Hiroshima evoked deep sympathy because it was the Japanese who were hurt. But, to take only one example, the lack of reaction to the Vietnamese boat people along our borders was appalling. Japanese today aren't much interested in any country that doesn't produce oil or buy Japanese cars.
The Export Surplus of American Culture
Kato - American culture is the first mass culture in human history that has crossed beyond its national boundaries. In the past, high culture has of course been exported by Germany, France or England. Shakespeare crossed the English Channel, but British popular culture, perhaps with the exception of the Beatles who played -an American form of music, has never even crossed the Dover Strait.
There are three reasons for the appeal of American mass culture in the world. First, America has been a world empire for the last 40 years. The cultural influence of the Soviet Union, by contrast, has been limited. Outside Eastern Europe it is practically zero. But the whole world is concerned with the United States.
Second, as distinct from the British empire which preceded it, America dominated the world in the first age of mass media, particularly television.
Third, American popular culture is the only culture which has been created
and accepted by a multiethnic population. Inside its boundaries, the US
is already a world culture. To the extent that popular culture has been
exported from anywhere, it has come to America in the physical embodiment
of the immigrant
The rest of the world sees the extraordinary originality and creative genius of the American people. In this century, the Americans have created things that never before existed! American films created a whole new form which imitated nothing from previous cultural achievement. While old culture struggled with stagnation, America invented jazz and rock and roll.
The popular cultures in most of the world are not at all creative, but long-standing and heavy with tradition. In America, two individuals can meet and create something. Nothing stands in the way of a new departure.
Gardels - Will the appeal of American mass culture outlive the end of empire?
Kato - As long as the creativity of America continues, then I think its mass culture will dominate. On this planet, it is hard to see where else the "culture of the new" that so appeals to the world could arise.
Gardels - Japan, meanwhile, is bounding along, wrestling economic leadership from the United States. Yet, critics charge that artistically, it has become a leveled wasteland.
Do you agree?
Kato - In the postwar period, Japan produced good literature up until the 1960s. Especially in the 1950s as we rebuilt, there was a sense of openness and possibility. Individual writers explored alternative paths for Japan's future. But in the 1960s, the whole society became geared to technology and money. GNP became our sole purpose. The new writers only talk about trifles; everyone knows the only important thing is the stock market.
Now, the future of Japan is closed, fixed like concrete in boringly unanimous consensus. The imagination dulls because there are no alternatives.
The Pathos of Autumn
How does the nobility of failure cope with Japan's economic success?
Kato - The Japanese deeply admire people who have tremendous ability and enormous possibility, but who have been forced to fail by an unfortunate environment. There is great sympathy for the person who fails not because of his own fault or weakness, but because of fate. One such tragic hero, the military commander Nogi Maresuke, won a brilliant victory at Port Arthur in the Russo-Japanese War, but failed in later battles and finally committed suicide on the day the Emperor Meiji died in 1912.
Gardels - Is the admiration of noble failure linked to an expectation of failure, a belief that success can't go on? Once before in this century Japan was strong and successful, but it all came to ashes.
Kato - A popular interpretation of history, appearing in much of our literature, is that decline always follows the height of success. Rise and fall are always repeated. The four seasons are central to the Japanese imagination, but Autumn is particularly important. In the West, it is the symbol of harvest as well as decay. In Japan, Autumn only symbolizes decay. After the vitality and exuberance of Summer, Autumn is a sad season in which all the leaves fall. As long ago as the loth Century, we can find Japanese poets lamenting the "pathos of the Autumn moon."