Today's date:
Fall 2009/Winter 2010

Borrowed Surfaces

Shuichi Kato, who died in 2008, was one of Japan’s leading social critics and author of the definitive three-volume study, A History of Japanese Literature, and Form, Style and Tradition.

In July, 1987, we met twice to discuss what he regarded as “Japan’s empty core,” first overlooking the Zen garden at the American Club in Tokyo, then at the Hotel Danieli in Venice where he was working on a documentary about the rise of the West.

I’ve retitled this interview “borrowed surfaces,” a phrase used by Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, to describe how Japan has adopted the forms of the West, but not the essence, as Kato so well describes in his comments.

Nathan Gardels | The United States 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 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 periods. Consequently, the “here and now” has an autonomous importance without reference to the past or the future.

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 conceptions of space. In America, the 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 caries 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 toward 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 that transcend the concrete reality of the group has not been widespread in Japan.

Japanese perceptions of time and space are clearly reflected in the arts. A typical 17th-century Japanese haiku, which catches the impression of a single instant, illustrates this aesthetic of the present moment:

Penetrating the rocks
The sounds of cicada.

Similarly, Kabuki theater, which is composed of acts with independent meanings that 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 that 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 postmodernism, the latest evolution of Western thought. Postmodern style is disconnected from the coherent structure offered by the past. Postmodernism means “deconstruction” from a grand narrative or the comprehensive interpretation of history. Postmodern man exists without a center or a transcendent meaning.

From this perspective, the Japanese conception of time and space has always been “postmodern.”

Kato | That is completely true. That’s why I am against the imported postmodernism 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 it does in the West. And without a confrontation with the past, postmodernism is a rather hollow revolt.

Gardels | This Japanese way of seeing reality and organizing behavior fundamentally differs from the West’s. Karel van Wolferen, the author of The Enigma of Japanese Power, has labeled this difference “the crucial factor,” by which he means the absence of universally valid principles that apply across all circumstances. Therefore, Japan is a nation that can’t be trusted to play by the rules in an interdependent world.

Others have seen the same phenomenon not as a problem but Japan’s positive strength, as the genius of reconciliation—an admirable flexibility and pragmatism that allows accommodation to all circumstances, including interdependence. What’s the truth?

Kato | Well, these things are two sides of the same coin. The Japanese are flexible and always prepared to compromise and adapt. This is the positive side. Negatively, they act without principle or adherence to any absolute standard. They are fundamentally opportunistic, and the value system, especially with respect to outsiders, is completely relativistic.

In practical terms, one cannot separate the positive from the negative. They are part of an inseparable phenomenon rooted in the groupism that emerged from the long history of Japanese isolation and essentially monoracial village life. Additionally, while the West stresses the absolute value of the individual, the Confucian influence in Japan stresses the value of inter-human relationships.

With such vastly different takes on reality, it is not surprising that the problem of cultural communication is so great that someone like van Wolferen could consider Japan incompatible with the international community. However, it is not often considered by Western observers that this communication problem also exists among different groups of insiders in Japan as well.

Even in Japan, real communication is confined to restricted areas: one’s own family, group of contacts, or immediate work place. Outside these restricted areas there is a refusal to communicate.

Politeness is one form of refusal. The famous Japanese politeness is actually a very sophisticated psychological barrier; it admits no emotion, no conflict, no debate—and, though very polite, it is just empty, pointless words, voices signifying nothing. It is a mask of communication.

Gardels | In the West, of course, both in personal and public discourse, there is plenty of conflict, impoliteness, divisiveness and debate—at the extreme, even religious wars and Cold Wars based on ideological principles. We are individuals who profess belief in absolute values. The kind of compromise, adaptability or flexibility one sees in Japan would carry with it in the individualistic West a strong scent of humiliation and defeat. What are the cultural roots of these attitudes?

In the West, ethnically diverse individuals are linked by absolute values that apply universally. In Japan, the monoracial group is linked by blood to the emperor, while the polytheistic Shinto roots temper conflict among “gods” or contradictory ideas.

Kato | I don’t know if I would call it polytheism; I rather prefer to see it as an absence of absolute authority. I know that Professor Takeshi Umehara and others have looked to monotheism, rooted in the Judaic tradition of belief in a single angry God, as the basis for aggression and conflict in the West. By contrast, polytheism is supposed to be relatively pacific. The historical facts just don’t bear this out.

In practical terms, some monotheistic nations, such as Sweden or Switzerland, have been pacific, while polytheistic societies, such as ancient Greece, ancient Egypt, ancient Rome—not to speak of polytheistic Mongolia under Genghis Kahn—have been extraordinarily aggressive.

So, there are four possibilities: monotheistic aggressive, monotheistic nonaggressive, polytheistic aggressive and polytheistic nonaggressive. From what we know, in ancient times Japan was not particularly aggressive. However, by the beginning of the 5th century, before the Nara period, it was quite expansive. In the late 16th century, during the Hideyoshi period, again Japan was quite aggressive. And, of course, everyone knows about the Japanese aggression earlier in this century. So, I am not sure the polytheism versus monotheism dichotomy explains much.

There is another dimension of the so-called pacific polytheism that must be considered, namely, the tolerance of different religious beliefs within Japan. While there is tolerance among the Shinto gods—in fact, the Shinto god of fire has the role of mediating between the other gods associated with the forest, sun, different animals, and so on—there was little tolerance for Christianity when it was introduced in the sixteenth century. In fact, the large-scale extermination of foreign and Japanese Christians in the 16th and 17th centuries would be hard to distinguish in empirical terms from a religious war. So, it is nonsense to suggest that Shinto polytheistic acceptance of many gods is equivalent to a mentality of peace and tolerance.

Moreover, Christianity is not merely a matter of an absolute God intolerant of others. What about the internal ideals of Christianity—love and compassion, a merciful God, the sin of selfishness? Those are hardly negative values leading to aggressiveness and war.

Gardels | Yet polytheism is linked to the pragmatic flexibility in the Japanese way, isn’t it?

Kato | I agree—the Shinto belief system, which emphasized adaptation to nature, has molded the Japanese mentality into a pragmatic one. Significantly, the this-worldly nature of Shinto enables the absorption of new elements into the belief system without soiling the purity of a transcendent truth.

At least in the State Shintoism developed after the 8th century, the central god is present in the form of the emperor, but he is inside the group, not beyond it. He is not transcendent like the Islamic or Christian God.

Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, is the major god with which each new emperor must commune in order to carry on as a descendant of the divine lineage. But Amaterasu encompasses everything and thus has no particular principles and imparts no ethical codes. There are no Ten Commandments and no laws that she lays down. There are only loosely organized rites, sometimes animistic, sometimes shamanistic, sometimes having to do with the cult of ancestors.

In State Shintoism, Amaterasu only authorizes the enthronement of a new emperor who is the symbol of the community of Japan. But there is no substance at the center, only a void. The core is empty. And if the core is empty, one can do anything.

Gardels | Thus, all truths are socially constituted “positive right,” as they used to say in the debates about natural law.

Kato | Very much so. Adding the Buddhist influence into all of this, there is also a certain sense in Japan that the West is naïve, even foolish, in its fixation on absolutes and individual differences, which are regarded as ultimately illusory.

Gardels | The spirit of adaptation to nature, rather than its domination, is something else that emerges from the polytheistic disposition of Shinto. Professor Umehara, for example, has argued that Christian monotheism “served to justify the exploitation of nature” because the spirit of domination is inherent in such a belief. While the Shinto polytheist sees mountains and rivers as gods, the monotheist denies this reality and believes in a single transcendent God. He is thus free to exploit nature.

Kato | I think Umehara confuses the destruction of nature with Christian monotheism when it is really a matter of the scientific and industrial revolutions, which put man at the center of the universe.

Gardels | As Ivan Illich has pointed out, the  “death of nature”—and reduction of nature to dead material for manipulation by the will of man—only emerged with the scientific revolution in the 17th century. From Anaxagoras around 400b.c. up through the 16th century, an organic and whole conception of nature in which man was only a part was a constant theme in the West.

Kato | Not only this. The secular, man-centered mentality that accompanied the scientific and industrial revolutions has not, after all, penetrated monotheistic Islam.

Gardels | Nevertheless, is there some remnant from the cultural heritage of Shinto that infuses an ecological consciousness among Japanese? While Japan may be something of an eco-bandit in destroying Malaysian forests, 70 percent of its own forests are intact; it is the most energy efficient, and it has the strictest auto-emission standards of any advanced industrial nation.

Kato | No, I don’t think so. Much of our forests are in very high mountains, and it is uneconomical to go logging there. As a source of wood, it is much cheaper to log in Malaysia or the Amazon. Our flatlands, however, are bereft of forests. In Saitama Prefecture, for example, which is some 80 kilometers outside Tokyo, a new national “park” has been designated. Even though it is a very tiny forest, a fraction of the size of Germany’s Black Forest, so little forest remains on accessible land that we are making these scarce woods into tourist attractions.

Where we do cut trees down in the mountains, it is true, there is always reforesting. But Japan’s flatlands are in disaster, and the sea is very polluted. Generally speaking, Japanese destruction of nature is extraordinary. How can we pretend to love nature? Who loves it? Very few in present-day Japan. Japanese today don’t love trees, they love money!

Saving the environment is one thing upon which both Umehara and I agree, though. We both signed a protest against the construction of a new golf course in Kyoto. The very beauty of Kyoto is linked to its surrounding mountains. They have inspired cultural and religious life in Japan for ages. These wooded mountains are the very core of artistic expression of the Japanese. And some company wants to build a golf course there!

Gardels | Is Japan incompatible with the world, or is it capable of joining the world?

Kato | I think Japan can become internationalized, as it is doing every passing day. But it will not become cosmopolitan for a long time to come, not before the end of the 21st century.

Japan will remain the most insular of all the advanced nations; its insularity is deeply rooted. But this expression of difference should be, and can be, peaceful and cooperative. I don’t think Japan is dangerous or a threat. I also don’t think it is a model for the future.

Gardels | Just as there is anxiety in the world over the reunification of Germany, is there cause for anxiety over the reunification of Japan? By this I mean the reuniting of Japanese nationalism with its financial and technological might.

Kato | I hope not. Yet there has emerged, over the past few years, widespread Japanese nationalistic sentiment. It is more than pride, probably less than chauvinism. Because Japanese cars are good, everything Japanese is good. That’s the logic. Extolling Japan’s cultural roots as superior to those of the dying West, as Umehara does, for example, with his arguments about polytheism and Shinto and the forests, plays into the neonationalist sentiments.

And because everything Japanese is good, a blind eye is turned to the war crimes and oppression of Japan’s past. We speak about the past in vague ways with sophisticated words—the real point being to attenuate our unspeakable wartime ways. For the moment, the neonationalist sentiment has not crystallized into any political platform, despite the goings-on of the likes of Shintaro Ishihara. So far, it remains a diffuse feeling and nothing more.

Gardels | Among the youth as well?

Kato | Well, among the youth, Asian is the fashion. In languages, they are interested in Chinese and Korean, not just English as was true only recently. More and more, they take their travel vacations not to Paris or California, but to Burma and Thailand. It’s a la mode.

Gardels | Do you see parallels between the anti-Western vaunting of Japanese and Asian values by intellectuals such as Umehara now and a similar intellectual current in the prewar day?

Kato | As a matter of fact, yes. In 1942, when we were already in the Pacific war, a very famous symposium of philosophers and intellectuals was organized entitled “Overcoming the Modern Age.” The “Modern Age,” of course, meant Europe and European ways.

The argument then—as the Asian postmodern argument goes now—was that the individualistic West was decadent and in collapse. Thus, the world needed the help of Asia. And what would be the new model for all of humanity? Japan, of course.

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 that 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 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 futuristic high-tech products and still have an emperor.

Group Existentialism

Gardels | It is tempting to suggest that the Japanese world view amounts to a kind of group existentialism, characterized by situational ethics and moral relativism. 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 honest, pure-minded or sincere and not egoistic in one’s actions. Ethical behavior toward outsiders is based on a different criterion. For Japanese, the largest insider group 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. 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 that drifted in the seas around Japan during the late 1970s was appalling. The Japanese aren’t much interested in any country that doesn’t produce oil or buy Japanese cars.

The Export Surplus of American Culture

Gardels | Although America has a large trade deficit with Japan, we have a massive surplus in the export of popular culture, form Mickey Mouse to Madonna. What accounts for the powerful appeal of our mass culture as it is globally diffused through Japanese TVs, stereos and the Walkman?

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 US.

Second, as distinct from the British Empire that preceded it, America dominated the world in the first age of mass media, particularly with television.

Third, American popular culture is the only culture that has been created and accepted by a multiethnic population. Within its own 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 masses. If all of these ethnic groups can inhabit the symbolic realism of the “American Way of Life”—baseball, supermarkets, shopping malls, rock or country music, the car culture, and Disneyland—why not the rest of the world?

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 artistic expression that imitated nothing which had existed in previous cultural achievements. While old culture struggled with stagnation, America invented jazz and rock ‘n’ roll. The popular cultures in most of the world are not at all creative, but longstanding 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 | Critics charge that, artistically, Japan 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 talk only about trifles; everyone knows the only important thing is the stock market. Now, the future of Japan is closed, fixed like a slab of concrete in boringly unanimous consensus. The imagination dulls because there are no alternatives.

The Pathos of Autumn

Gardels | In his book The Nobility of Failure, the British scholar Ivan Morris evokes Japanese heroes of the past who die a “splendid death” by suicide, and thereby display the quality of absolute sincerity that can only be demonstrated on behalf of a lost cause. 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 10th century, we can find Japanese poets lamenting the “pathos of the autumn moon.”