Japan and Its Complicated Relationship With the West

Arab News

Japan and Its Complicated Relationship With the West

 by Manuel L. Quezon III

Ian Buruma concludes his slim but valuable book, “Inventing Japan: From Empire to Economic Miracle,” with two paragraphs pregnant with meaning. In discussing present-day Japan, he observes that as far back as the 1950s, when the wounds of defeat were still fresh, a novelist Ishihara Shintaro (who rose to become governor of Tokyo) expressed the view that Japan had fought a just war, and that it was “high time for postwar Japan to cut its umbilical cord with Washington and resume its position as the dominant power in Asia.” Buruma then moves on to the pregnant paragraphs:

“This (Ishahara’s challenge), too, may be only so much bluster, an expression of frustration, and the lingering humiliation of wartime defeat. But it is not only people of his own generation who respond to Ishihara’s emotional nationalism. It appeals to young people, too, the result, I think, of an intellectual culture stunted by the dogmas of the Left and the Right. It is also the result of a political establishment that deliberately stifled public debate by opting for a monomaniacal concentration on economic growth. And it is the result of an infantile dependency on the United States. Until these problems are solved, the postwar will not be over.”

And thus, Buruma ends his book with this paragraph: “But how to resolve them? This is where the story goes back to the beginning, to the time when Japan first confronted the force of the West, the time when, in the opinion of some, the long war with the West began…I think of the number of times…when Japanese told me, in all seriousness, that they wish the black ships (of Commodore Perry in 1853, which opened Japan to the modern world) would come round once again, to unblock the political system. Only foreign pressure, they say, can cut the knots that tether this insular society to the old ways that no longer function. I can see what they mean, but I look forward, nonetheless, to the day when Japanese free themselves and can finally bid the black ships farewell, because they no longer need them.”

I use the term pregnant with meaning, because in attempting to present the sobering reality of modern day Japan, Buruma distills the alternating feelings of loathing and admiration that fills the non-Western world in dealing with the West. The terrorism of today is merely the most extreme form of this loathing and admiration, as dissected in a recent BBC documentary which examines the kind of Islamic fundamentalism that allows its members to commit crimes such as drug dealing, smoking, drinking, and so on, if it’s necessary to further the aims of terrorism. The drug dealer recruited to help in the Madrid bombings is a perfect example of this. The collapse of the Iranian monarchy, represents a more traditional face, keeping within the borders of a particular state, the political manifestation of religious questions.

The more common manifestation of Buruma’s observation about the Japanese, is the question of nationalism versus modernity in the rest of the developing world (or the “Global South,” as it’s now fashionably known). If Japan and Germany had to be defeated to be modernized, the developing world had to end its colonial status, in order to begin modernizing. The problem has been that modernizing involves becoming more like the West, which leads to an identity crisis: In being Westernized, does a country then become even more of a colony than it ever was?

In 1997, I visited Seoul, South Korea, where a passionate debate had been going on, as to whether the City Hall, built by the Japanese, should be retained or demolished. By then, of course, South Korea was already an industrial and technological power; it seemed odd, and rather quaint, to discover that the South Koreans were still grappling with issues connected to their having been a Japanese colony. But once you notice one such manifestation of the colonial past, you begin to see others. There is the decision, for example, of the South Korean people to discard their Chinese-based writing system, in favor of an alphabet indigenously conceived centuries ago, and revived only over the past 40 to 50 years. The struggle for identity, it seems, never ends.

The web is quite tangled, indeed, my own country, the Philippines, has, officially, decided to ignore the anniversary of the end of World War II, while other nations such as Japan, China, the Koreas and even the United States, are pausing to reflect on the legacy of that global conflict. Like the Chinese and Koreans, the Filipinos were the victims of Japanese aggression; unlike them, we were allies of the United States. And yet all continue to have mixed feelings about both Japan, either former ally or conqueror, and the United States, current or former ally, and economic threat.

It seems so odd that sixty years after World War II, the United States, and even its Western allies, still remain the measure of so many things, whether it be business, government, technology or the fashions adopted by the young.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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