Chapters 10-11

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Japanese Society and Culture in Perspective

Chapters 10-11

(Scroll down for Chapter 11: "From shibumi to super brands- The lost values of Showa")

10. Text of Hans Brinckmann's speech to introduce his book, The Magatama Doodle - One Man's Affair with Japan,
1950-2004
, at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, Tokyo, 15 February 2005.

- - - - - - -

Before launching into my remarks, I would like to invite you to an 8-minute slide show. I took these pictures in Japan during the years covered by the book, 1950-1974, so they are mostly in 'gorgeous black and white'. I think these shots of mid-Showa will help set the mood for what follows, and give you a flavour of the kind of environment in which my narrative is rooted.

*

So there you are -- images of a bygone era that ended long before personal computers, mobile phones, cheap flights, Starbucks and McDonalds. An era now - in Japan at least - the subject of a wave of nostalgia that clearly idealizes the sober living conditions and hard work of that high growth period, when life's purposes were clearly delineated, meals were eaten from low chabudai tables on the tatami mats, and most families comprised three generations living together.

Although my book was written recently, it is very much about that period, set in that period, and I dare say largely reflecting the mindset of that period. My mindset at least - for many of the experiences and reactions to my environment as related in these pages are still vividly alive in my memory, like insects caught in amber. This is particularly true of the first part of this 3-part book, the period between my 18th and 24th birthdays, when I was an impressionable young man trying to make his way without the comforts of family in what was still a struggling and rather exotic country.

I know this is not the first effort by a man from the West to describe the intimate details of his discovery of Japan - and it won't be the last. For some reason this country gets under your skin once you have exposed yourself to its conflicting, endearing, irritating, puzzling, and utterly fascinating ways.

One might well ask: why this continuing fascination with Japan, a country that after all traded its distinctive culture and splendid isolation long ago for the security of a hybrid existence, somewhere halfway between Asia and Europe, or should I say America? Why this ever-expanding library of non-specialist books on a country that even Premier Nakasone in a New Year's article last month called 'part of the West' - though he certainly should know better?

It's hardly its scenery, granted that it is still ravishing - in parts. Or the hot springs. Let alone the geisha - though Americans especially never give up romanticising them long after they have become an anachronism.

The phenomenon is all the more remarkable when you consider that in everyday terms to the rest of the world 'Japan' stands mostly for cars, computers, cameras and - oh yes - anime. Not the stuff to make you wax lyrical. And yet, wherever you go you will find people, intelligent, educated, creative people, the young and the no-so-young, turning dreamy at the mere mention of Japan. Not businessmen, normally. The rest.

My wife and I have lived on four continents, and it is the same everywhere, though perhaps more so in say Holland or England or Australia than in the US.

Take my niece, a choreographer. She has integrated Japan into her Amsterdam lifestyle and professional imagery.

My sister, a child psychologist, has introduced Endo Shusaku and other Japanese novelists to her Arnhem book circle and is slowly gearing up for a second extended visit to Japan.

Daniel, my London computer guru who studied literature has been saving up for a trip to Japan for years.

And anyone anywhere remotely connected to the creative or performing arts has woven Japan into their consciousness.

It seems to me that rather than the physical, exotic attributes of Japan - the temples or fast railways or tearooms or matsuri - it is the intangible side that is the main source of this fascination. Not Mt Fuji but the idea of Mt Fuji. Its spirit if you will. Dazai Osamu, in writing about Hirosaki in his native Tsugaru in Aomori Prefecture, said:

Here resides the soul of the Tsugaru people. I can definitely sense it, but to show my readers what it is, or what shape it takes, is more than I am capable of, and this troubles me beyond words. It is utterly infuriating.

When he was asked by a magazine to write 'some words for his homeland, Tsugaru' he wrote: I love thee, I hate thee.

It figures, doesn't it? Oh I don't mean Tsugaru - but the dualism. That in essence is what my book is about. Life's dualism.

To me Japan with its incurably split character - half Asian half Western, loving and hating both parts - is a metaphor for this essential dualism that so many experience personally. It is this very dualism that has kept my affair with Japan going all these years. As I wrote in my Epilogue:

I feel attracted and repelled by Japan in roughly equal measure. To me this unchanging paradox, this tension between opposites, is a source of energy rather than discouragement. It has always been the motor of my unflagging interest in the country.

(In case you wonder: I wrote this well before I read Dazai's book).

It has been 55 years since I set foot in Japan. Groceries were wrapped in newspapers then, and envelopes turned inside out for re-use. Toyoko had to get up early not just to prepare breakfast, but also my bento - even my boss brought sandwiches to the office! All suits were dark blue, all cars black, and all male heads gleaming with pomade. Young women wore skirts and high heels on weekend outings in the hills. Air conditioning was in its infancy, so summer heat had to be endured with the help of shaved ice, electric fans and cool starched yukata.

At year's end we pounded our own mochi, and the transition to the New Year was not marked by a frantic count-down towards midnight but by listening to the 108 strokes of the joya-no-kane, which eased you slowly over the threshold, without noting the precise moment of the year-change. Setsubun, the day in the beginning of February that marks the end of the cold season in the old calendar, was observed seriously, with many households closing up early after driving out the demons with help of several handfuls of beans. When as a young bachelor in Kobe I arrived home late one Setsubun, I found the gate to my lodgings barred and my landlady loath to open up lest the devils she and her husband had just chased out sneak back again in my wake.

But the book is not merely a nostalgia trip. It gets harder-edged as you read on.

The Magatama Doodle is divided into three parts, each roughly covering a period of eight years.

Part I ('The Wooing') covers the period of my arrival in American-occupied Japan in 1950 aged 18 until my mi-ai introduction to my future wife, Toyoko, then still a student of Japanese literature. I am told it reads like a Bildungsroman, revealing as it does a young man's search for meaning and identity in a strange land. There are chapters on the mood in the country during the US Occupation, the Kobe nightclubs, my fling with Zen, and my involvement with Kyoto bohemians. Among much more.

First excerpt. This is taken from the beginning of the book. The year is 1950. Aged 18, freshly arrived in Kobe from a 4-months stint at my bank's Singapore branch, I had just moved in with an older bank colleague, referred to as A. in the book, in a rented wing of a traditional Japanese house in Tarumi, Kobe.

I was charged with the duty of lighting the single kerosene stove half an hour before breakfast, so that it would have time to heat the room. I was to bear a full half share of the rent and of all expenses, the tally of which he would keep. Seeing my doubtful look he assured me that considering all the educating and training he would provide it was a bargain indeed.

While A. was complaining about the stacks of office work he alone had to bring home with him, I learned to keep the charcoal glowing in the large aubergine-glazed brazier our landlady brought us on returning home, to keep our hands warm before we got the kerosene heater going. She was a fine lady with a chiselled face fallen on hard times. She wore her greying hair tied in a bun, and was never seen in anything but sober kimonos in blue and grey hues. She was of firm but considerate disposition. She moved about the spacious rooms with dignity and barely a hush.

Yet there was in her quiet manner nothing obsequious, rather an accomplished roundness, a refined understanding of sound and form. When she placed the teacups on their small lacquered saucers, which she then set on the low ebony table - never bending down but squatting first to maintain an agreeable posture - the soft clicks caressed the gathering dusk hanging in layers between the shoji screens, like painted fingernails touching a champagne glass. And when she poured the tea brewed from roasted leaves, her head at a slight angle, one hand holding the lid, the fragrant steam rising up through the still cold air had something plaintive about it, reminding me of straw burning on Dutch autumn fields. My mother had never poured tea that way, and the sharp clacks of porcelain cups and silver spoons hitting porcelain saucers back in Holland had not permitted unspoken sadness to linger in the shadows.

Bathing provided another taste of the Japanese aesthetic. A. refused to be 'boiled like a lobster' and borrowed some American friend's shower on a regular basis. But I responded readily to the landlady's daily call - heard just before dinnertime when all homecoming Japanese men soak away the day's stress in the hot tub -- that the water had reached 'just the right temperature'.

The tub was a goemon-buro, a cast-iron cauldron like those used to cook missionaries in Africa, set in a smoothly polished cement jacket, and heated from below by a wood fire. The fire was tended from the adjoining stoke-space, which, together with the tub-room and a small dressing area, comprised the separate cedar-and-tile bathhouse. A round plank, held in place by notches in the iron, protected the feet from direct contact with the hot metal, but one had to avoid touching the sides.

Part II ('The Winning') begins with a brief account of our marriage in 1959 and the rather hostile reception my Nagoya-born wife meets in our Kansai neighbourhood, including an attempt by a witch masquerading as a housekeeper to get rid of her. It comments on the challenges to Japan's fledgling democracy from the far Left and Right, the problems posed by industrial pollution, and the consequences for my bank of the rise of Southeast Asian nationalism, culminating in a take-over by an American bank. There is an episode about a confrontation with the yakuza underworld that had a rather poignant conclusion. But most of all this part of the book reflects the exuberant mood of Japan's phenomenal growth into a major economic power, as exemplified by the Olympic euphoria, and the arrival of new makes of cars on the market.

Second excerpt. Set in 1962, shortly after I had been transferred from Osaka to take charge of my bank's Tokyo branch.

Our rented house in Tokyo's Nishi-Ochiai district was designed by Antonin Raymond, who had come to Japan in the late 1910s as Frank Lloyd Wright's close associate to build the Imperial Hotel. We found a traditional gardener to take care of our little paradise. He was Kensuke, formerly employed by aristocratic families and also for some time by Fujita Tsuguji, a painter who acquired fame in Paris in the 1920s as Leonard Foujita.

The man looked every inch a holdover from the Meiji era, with his long, thin kiseru tobacco pipe smoked in a squatting - and chatting - position, his old indigo happi coat (with some noble family's crest still in evidence) and his quiet contemplation of the quirks and wonders of nature. Toyoko enjoyed talking to him, and one day he gave her one of Fujita's small ink paintings. Once, very early in the season, he spotted a kijibato (eastern turtledove) high up in a cedar. 'Never saw them this early' he mumbled, and got me to take a photograph of it with a telephoto lens. He sent the shot to the Asahi newspaper in the hope they would print it with an appropriate caption 'first sighting - spring is here' or something. I do not believe they did.

Another man we saw regularly was Machida, our electric contractor. One of his customers was Honda Soichiro, the car maker, who had recently built a large, modern house surrounded by a high, white-painted concrete wall on a modest plot of land around the corner from where we lived. Machida had supplied Mr. Honda's air-conditioning and audio and video installation, including a TV suspended from the ceiling of his bedroom. Here, Machida reported, Mr. Honda did his daily floor exercises while studying English with the help of a television language course.

The first mini family car I spotted did not come from Honda though, but from Mazda. In spite of its tiny size, it had four doors and a proper though narrow backseat. One of our neighbours used such a little Mazda as official transportation. He had it fitted out with the white seat covers and rear window lace curtains de rigueur for chauffeur driven cars. Each morning his driver could be seen waiting for his boss, using the time to dust the spanking new little vehicle with two large (and expensive) feather dusters until it shone. The boss had developed a special skill to insert his lanky frame into the minuscule conveyance, the driver protecting his honourable head from hitting the low doorframe. Witnessing these acrobatics my driver smiled patronisingly, dismissing the Mazda as a toy. Which did not deter him from asking my permission to buy a second feather duster with which to caress his beloved Nissan Cedric. Wielding two feather dusters was apparently a kind of status symbol among professional chauffeurs.

Part III ('The Waning') covers the period 1967 to my departure in 1974. As my understanding of Japan grew so did my realisation that I would never fit in. Inevitably I began to notice the country's less attractive aspects. While being no more sympathetic than before to the attempts of Westerners to convert the Japanese to their ways of thinking, I could see why they were tempted to try.

Third excerpt. This excerpt describes my state of mind shortly after I had informed my bosses that I was leaving the bank, and Japan - and banking - for an uncertain future in Britain. I was having second thoughts. As always, the duality of things left me no peace.

I became shamelessly sentimental over the good times the country had given me ever since I arrived in Tokyo in November 1950, and some of which I have recounted in these pages. The brief escapes to far-off hot springs, the moss-covered stones in temple gardens, the din of cicadas and cooling breezes on a hot summer day, the yell of the roast-potato vendor on cold winter nights, the routine exchange of greetings and visits with friends and neighbours - they had been as much part of my daily life as they had been of my Japanese neighbours and co-workers.

And there were less easily explainable things, such as the prevailing acceptance of life-as-it-is, and the innately good manners, which went far beyond mere etiquette to embrace the seemingly universal effort to avoid hurting the feelings of others. The ongoing attempt to try and resolve matters without abrasive confrontation and conflict was a particularly laudable virtue, as was the avoidance of stressing one's own importance, rights, wealth or cleverness. How hard one tried to practice modesty, and to make amends when feathers had been inadvertently ruffled! The pursuit of wa was indeed this society's supreme goal and virtue. Of course there were bullies and creeps and bastards like everywhere else, and women could be shrill and meddling. But they fell foul of the norm and did not represent the national character.

How could I ever adapt to the harsher tones and indifference of European urban society? Why in the name of Mount Fuji was I replacing what had protected and nurtured me for the doubtful stimulations of a more outspoken "individualist' environment?

Then I remembered the suffocating effect of excessive nurture, my growing impatience with group thinking and the endemic beating-about-the-bush. I remembered the ubiquitous pecking order of rank and position, the web of lifelong, inescapable obligations and counter-obligations that overlay this society like a wet blanket. I reminded myself that people trained from birth in the discipline of selflessness and deference to seniors fail to add colour and excitement to life. In their noble quest for harmony they lose the spark that only conflict and the courage to break the mould can bring.

And I remembered the double standards. A general banking license issued to my bank, but with a verbal 'gentleman's agreement' requiring us to abstain from most forms of banking. The 'liberalisation' of imports of foreign goods emasculated by underhand measures designed to keep imports out. The refusal of large banks and companies (with whom I did business) to hire 'contaminated' young men educated abroad, while losing no opportunity to pick foreigners' brains on every subject under the sun. The muted and civilised but nevertheless deep-seated bias against foreign cultures and people, veiled by exquisite manners and generous treatment of visitors.

And I remembered Tanaka's handshake.

No, I thought. It's time to go.

*

Fourth excerpt. I will end by reading to you the opening paragraphs of the Epilogue, written last year.

I am back. After thirty years I am once again living in Tokyo.

I just returned from a third futile attempt to find certain computer peripherals and other essential machinery for the house with English-language instructions. But while the typical user's guide in Europe comes in five or ten languages, here even US or European brand products only provide owner manuals in Japanese. I will have to bring my rusty Japanese reading ability up to speed.

At a crossing I waited along with a dozen other pedestrians for the agonisingly slow lights to change, even though there was no traffic at all through the narrow street. In London only German tourists would have been so obedient. And Japanese, of course. At first I rebelled against this blind deference to invisible bureaucrats, but after a few months in Tokyo I have fallen in line. The long waits, I have discovered, are opportunities to reflect and meditate.

The wintry air in my quiet neighbourhood is redolent with the aroma of burning gingko leaves and pine needles. High up in a pine tree I spot two gardeners engaged in meticulous epilation. A gaggle of gawky uniformed schoolgirls momentarily fill the street with their preoccupied chatter, their white socks faddishly drooping. An older lady in kimono hurries by, clutching a package wrapped in a furoshiki. Three young businessmen in dark blue suits eagerly accompany an executive type lecturing them on some tactic or other as they walk along. They regularly nod their heads.

It all feels strangely familiar.

Glossary

Chabudai - low dining table

Tatami - straw floor mats

Anime -- film and television animation

Matsuri - - shrine festivals

Yukata -- cotton summer kimono

Mochi - pounded rice cakes

joya-no-kane - the ringing of temple bells

on New Year's Eve

goemon-buro - cast-iron tub

yakuza - gangsters

kiseru - long, thin tobacco pipe

happi - short cotton coat

wa - harmony; peace

gingko - tall tree with fan-shaped leaves

furoshiki - wrapping cloth

Question Time, following Mr. Brinckmann's presentation.

MC [Hans van der Lugt, Correspondent, NRC Handelsblad and former President, FCCJ]. Thank you very much. Next Ms. Mizoguchi [the book's translator] wants to say a few words about the translation project.

Hiromi Mizoguchi: The work of this translation did not come from a publisher. I met Hans at a lecture about Japanese archaeology given by my husband at The Japan Society in London. Toyoko-san was very much interested in my husband's talk, and she came to us after the lecture. That was the beginning of our friendship. We made a few trips together down to south England, and Hans told us the story of his life in Japan back in the 1950s and 1960s - before I was born. He also showed me the draft of his early chapters - he was just beginning to write the memoirs. I was mesmerized by his story as well as by his writing style, and I asked if I could translate it into Japanese. I am a Japanese, but I found some words and customs described in his story utterly unheard of, so sometimes I had to look them up or ask Hans 'what do you mean?' I have been curious about one thing, Hans: Why did you decide to write your memoirs now rather than 10 or 20 years ago?

A. The easy answer is of course that I am in the slow but inevitable process of turning into a fossil, so I thought before it is too late I better commit all this to paper. But indeed, why now?

I think the impetus came from two people to whom I talked about my time in Japan because they showed some interest - just as I did to you and your husband. One was a Dutchman, a friend of mind, not such an old friend, for then he would have known about these stories as they occurred, but this was 5, 6 years ago and he said 'why don't you write it down!' The other was a young Japanese whose name I do not remember, but who was sitting next to me on a flight to Tokyo, and he claimed to be absolutely fascinated by the stories I told him during that long flight in order to kill time. He said: 'I have always been fascinated by that period of our history', as if we were talking about the Kamakura Shogunate or something, or.....No-no, he said, I mean the Showa Period! Of course he too had not been born at the time I lived in Japan, so he said: Why don't you write it all down!

I hope I can reach him with this book, because I have remembered what he said, and what my Dutch friend suggested, and I have done it.

I think perhaps the other reason is that I have never really given up on Japan and that in recent years I have become interested in what is going on here now. I have written a number of articles for Hans van der Lugt's newspaper as well as for another one in Holland. Not recently though, I have been too busy with this book. Many of these articles were opinion pieces that had to do with Japan.

But I also wanted to write about Japan today, or Japan from now on. And to do that I needed a point of reference: my own. I had to lay the past to rest before trying to tackle the present.

MC. Thank you. Good question. Now we move to questions from the floor. Before starting I would like to tell you that later on a paper will be distributed with small imprints of the pictures [shown earlier as a slide show], and also Hans' web address ...and can we see those pictures on the website? [HB: no, not yet, but there is a lot of other stuff on the website which some may find interesting] …… Now questions from the floor……Gebhard.

Q. Gebhard Hielscher, freelance, from Germany. Listening to your manuscript I was wondering why you had ever been a banker? [laughter] Why not a writer? Such beautiful text, such marvellous wording, such marvellous observations. You would have been a literary man from the start I wouldn't have been surprised. Question: you said when you were leaving your bank it was for another sort of open future not really knowing what to do. Have you made up your mind to become an author? Is that your new identity?

A. Oh - I hope finally my ambition is falling into place and merging with my identity. It is a very personal question, but I am happy to answer it. In fact there is a little about it in the book. The truth is that I wanted to be a writer, probably always have been one. When I was about 13 I published my own magazine, typed on an old Remington in about 10 copies with carbon sheets. My father contributed articles, and my sister, and the neighbours, and I wrote some myself, but when I was ready to make the jump my father persuaded me that it was a bad idea because there is no money in it. Now mind you I suppose that is still so to some extent for some writers today but we are talking about 1948, 49 in Holland, it was post-war, gloomy, the Cold War had started, the winters were cold, there wasn't enough fuel - it was kind of miserable, and lots of Dutchmen were emigrating to South America, California, to other warm climes. So he persuaded me to join a bank. He said: 'Stay with the bank for 5 or 6 years and then you can still make up your mind. Get some experience, earn some money, see something of the world.' So I joined a Dutch bank with operations in the Far East. And I ended up in Singapore and then in Japan.

Have I found my identity? I think so. In fact, I left banking twice, once in 1974 to what was an uncertain future, but really to write. For two years I wrote quite a bit of fiction and some non-fiction. It's still unpublished, maybe finally I will get to it, but I ran out of money, and I didn't want my wife to become destitute, so someone scouted me, remarkably, after 2 years, and said come and work for us, which I did. I had another fairly good period after that, ending up in New York and actually having a good time, but always under stress - not only because of the management side, but because of that conflict, you know - not really wanting to be a banker. I think in the blurb it refers to me as a reluctant banker, which is exactly what I was. I think the reluctance is gone now - because I am no longer a banker.

Q. Sam Jameson, freelance. I have a fairly good memory but the details are somewhat sketchy of the rare experiences you had in the bank, because it became a Chicago bank and at the time Yamaichi and Sanyo Special Steel went bankrupt and the First National Bank of Chicago cut all of its credit lines to Japan off and the Minister of Finance of Japan made a personal phone call to the president of the FNBC urging him not to do that. Japan needed the money desperately to finance its industrialization. And Continental Bank, your bank, picked up all of the lines of credit FNBC dropped, and the rep of the FNBC who was from a Scandinavian background ....[HB: Ollie Lindstedt....] that's right....He resigned from his bank in protest. Could you give us a little more detail on that?

A. Well, there was no conspiracy... I think it was excellent timing for Continental, because under US law American banks could not have branches outside their own state and depending on the state law they might or might not have branches in their own state. In the case of Illinois it was a unit banking system, so Continental, which was quite a large bank, could not even have branches in their own city - just the one building, the head office, and they awash with money, most of it was invested in government bonds. So they were looking for a way to expand. The only way they could do that was internationally. They started a small branch in London, and then next came Japan where they cleverly bought the branches of the Dutch bank, not because they were interested in the business we were doing - we were doing business with Indian traders, Chinese exporters and some odd types here and there, making a little money, some $100,000 a year - but they wanted to have the license, and they negotiated with the government here to issue them a license in place of the one given up by the Dutch bank. It was not a license transfer mind you - it was one minus, one plus. The other Chicago bank didn't have a branch here at the time, just a rep office. So the loans given by that bank were all out of Chicago, directly to Japan, therefore no yen loans, they could only make dollar loans.

But what you say is right: they cut their lines at the moment we were coming in and Continental had practically zero exposure to Japan so we were lucky and we picked up on much of that business. But the problem was not to find business in Japan, the problem was to get head office approval to make loans to Japan, because Japan was still at that time considered a somewhat ……interesting risk. I mean not everyone was convinced that it was going to be the 2nd largest economy in the world. It was still growing, it was woefully short of capital, every company was deep in debt, and there were really no reliable balance sheets to be had, I don't mean to say they were unreliable but they didn't meet international auditing standards, that sort of thing. So you had to have a certain faith in this country to make loans, and for that you needed a guy on the spot, and I happened to be that guy and of course I had all the faith necessary, and I kept saying 'It is all right'…… so mostly based on that CINB went ahead and we built up our business here. It took several years before another branch bank was approved here…… the next one was Morgan Guaranty, 4 or 5 years later.

Q. [follow on] I also understand that when some years later Continental itself was threatened with bankruptcy…… were you still with the bank at that time?

A. No.

Q. Are you familiar though with what happened at the time? I understand the Japanese helped the bank survive.

A. The Japanese helped the bank? [yes] I don't know that. And anyway it would have been inadequate I suppose, because after all the bank had to be bailed out as you know by the Security and Exchange Commission and eventually it was bought by Bank of America.

Q. My name is [Shijuro] Ogata, another reluctant banker [laughter]. [HB, holding up a book: here is Mr. Ogata's latest book……]

Yes-yes, but first of all, let me say thank you not only for mentioning my name in your book, but even for including me in the acknowledgements. I didn't contribute anything at all except…… I enjoy my friendship with you. My question is: when you worked as an active foreign banker the Japanese economy and also the Japanese banking community was growing. But when you came back, the Japanese economy is bigger but the Japanese banking community is definitely shrinking. And in many other respects in my view as an old man, I think Japan is getting worse rather than better. What is your view? Perhaps you have already…… but not all of us have read your book, so what changes have you found after 30 years, and is it better or worse, as far as Japan and particularly the Japanese banking community is concerned, and if so, what are the reasons in your view.

A. That's a big question, Mr. Ogata. I hinted in the Epilogue of my book that that is something that I would like to try and address from my own personal perspective - not in an academic fashion, but as a generalist. But it needs a separate book. There was a part four to this book, which tried to deal with that huge question. And it is in that context that you and I had some interesting discussions and you gave me the benefit of your opinions. They are not in this book, but they will be - perhaps disguised - in the next book once I get around to finishing it. [Q. from the floor: is Mizoguchi-san going to translate that too?] O yes - I have already warned her. But I won't let myself off the hook just like that, since you asked the question. There is no simple answer, of course, but I would say that the end of the cocoon existence of Japan has made for both exhilarating new possibilities as well as for exposure to the cold winds affecting those who are not prepared to meet that new era. Some of the young people do not quite understand what is expected of them because they are not given such clear goals as their parents and grandparents were given. Many of them know they don't want to follow in their elders' footsteps, but they do not necessarily know what they want instead. Foreign travel? A little business of their own? Perhaps they will be freeters [free-lance manual workers] for a while until they figure out what they want to do, but they spell hope for the future. For many of them life is a transition between the predictable, placid life of the past to the turbulence of an unknown future - like a sailor going round the southern tip of South America, through Strait Magellan, from the Pacific to the Atlantic. It's very rough.

But the business community has already largely adjusted to the changed environment, to globalisation, to the almost complete disappearance of protectionism, which lasted for very long, perhaps too long. So I am not particularly concerned about them. It's an open market, some will do well, others won't - but obviously the large corporations know exactly what they are doing. They won't need my opinion about that.

But in other areas - academia, for example, is to some extent still stuck in the old rigid structures. I hear for instance from students I have interviewed in groups partly with Hiromi and partly with Dr Anna Murayama who is here, and who introduced me to groups in the Kansai, that open debate in high schools and universities - I am talking about undergraduates - is not really encouraged. Or it is superficially encouraged, but when it comes down to a hard expression of views, then they are being criticized afterwards, because it is taken as a personal matter. Those made to defend a certain positions that are unpopular become unpopular themselves even though their performance may have been brilliant.

So there are these problems. I think education still needs a lot of adjustments in fostering true independence of mind and engaging in debate and taking responsibility for yourself instead of expecting some kind of group ethic to take care of you. [Q, What about bankers?] Bankers? I suppose Japanese bankers by now must have learned how to analyse risk. In my days I am not sure if they did. It was mostly a matter of lending to well-known names and therefore you didn't need to worry about it. But I think those times have changed. Bankers will always survive somehow because…… they are necessary.

Q. Jiro Sugiyama. Personal friend of Hans. I think you are multi-lingual. In what language do you think when you write a book?

A. In English. I do sometimes look up a word - from the Dutch. Because every language has its own convenient nook, where you can express yourself better for certain things - where certain expressions fit better. But when I write or talk it is all in English.

Q. [Sugiyama] When I read your book I get the sense that the author is neither English nor Japanese nor Dutch - it is a very interesting aspect, and I don't know if you are aware of that.

A. No, you are the first to point that out. But I suppose there is a certain truth in it. I've been accused of being a chameleon. I suppose I am rather rootless. I have lived on 4 continents, there is a bit of me in England, a lot of me in Japan, and still quite a bit in Holland. I am comfortable in each of these places, even in the US, in spite of certain aspects of their politics nowadays that make me a little hesitant to go there……

Q. [Sugiyama] When you write for Dutch papers, do you think in Dutch?

A. Yes - but then I often have to look up Dutch words - from the English. [laughter].

Q. My name is Luciana Ghizzoni. I am from Italy. I worked for 9 months in an Italian bank, after high school, and I had enough - after 9 months - and went back to university. What I want to ask you is: the title of the book. What does it mean?

A. Thank you. I was wondering if someone was going to ask me that. To make things easier, I will just quote the short paragraph from the introduction of the book that answers that particular question.

'The title of the book, The Magatama Doodle, refers to a habit I noticed early on among some Japanese men in authority: that of doodling imaginary comma-like figures on some handy surface, whenever they were confronted with a question they preferred not to answer, or pressed for a decision they wanted to avoid taking. The doodles reminded me of magatama, comma-shaped precious stones found in prehistoric tombs. Though the meaning or function of magatama is still a matter of speculation, their 'tentative' shape and ancient lineage seemed an appropriate symbol for one of the book's recurring themes: that a deeply conservative ethos lies at the root of both Japan's distinctive culture and the evident rigidity of its political and social structure.'

MC: I guess this answers it perfectly. More questions……

Q. My name is Ryu Voelkel. I am a photojournalist. I would like to know why you decided to come back to Japan after 30 years. I myself have not actually lived here for the past 15 years. My father is German, my mother Japanese. I am really quite hesitant to have come back here because of the way Japan is at this point. It is not the right place for me to live. I find everything too comfortable in Japan. Everything is actually catered for you. And I was wondering the exact reason for your coming back to Japan at this time. Or should I buy your book first and read it? [laughter]

A. Yes is the answer. [laughter] Well, it is complex, but I felt that I could not really publish this book - even though it is about a past period - without getting the flavour of Japan today, and also to verify some of the things I remembered., and the best place to do that is Japan. Many of the things I could check through the Internet or my own intermittent journals and notes I kept. (I did not really keep a proper journal - some people have thought I must have kept a journal because there is so much detail. I didn't, but sometimes I did for a few weeks, a month, and then I gave up again, for years!) But nevertheless I felt I should come back. That is the main reason - I wanted to finish this book. And also to work on the next book, which definitely requires some residence in Japan. To me visiting, living out of a suitcase, even for a few weeks or months at a time, is not the same as unpacking and getting involved with your neighbours and street life and buying your groceries, and watching TV and all that. That gives you the flavour of what's going on. That's the main reason I suppose.

Q. My name is Yuase. I was born 1949, so your time matches my period. Recently Americans occupied Iraq. The same thing happened 60 years ago in Japan. My parents' way of thinking is quite different from our generation. Our generation educated just after the US occupation was completely different from the old generation's thinking. I imagine when you came to Japan in 1950 the people you met were people born before the war, educated in the Japanese way of thinking. The people you meet today are mostly my generation. My question is: when you were in Japan 30 years ago, what made the Japanese Japanese? Did you find some principle or element to make Japanese different from Dutch or Americans, and does the same element still exist now in Japan - or has Japan completely changed? I hope I make myself clear.

A. Yes, your question in clear. It is a very hard question - it touches on the whole issue of Nihonjin-ron perhaps - the theory or the attempt at establishing the theory that there is something unique about the Japanese race. Both foreigners and Japanese have tried to find that unique element, to isolate and describe it. But I am personally not a believer in that. Every country is in a way unique - I mean, Holland has 17 million inhabitants, it is not a large country, it is bordered by other countries - not isolated by water the way Japan is. And yet, there is something really Dutch about the Dutch. Don't ask me to describe it - you know it when you see it. It's not just the language, not the accent, not just the way they eat, but it's the mind-set, it's a complex of factors.

No doubt the same exists with regard to the Japanese. It would have been less true if Japan were land-locked instead of surrounded by sea, but given the fact that it is an island nation it is more pronounced in its difference from other countries. How did I experience it? I found great structure in Japan, impressive systemic structure in the way companies were run, neighbourhoods were organized, government was constituted. I found not much room for improvisation, for deviation from the norm. Things were organized perfectly, particularly in one given organization, although the inter-linking between the various units was generally poor. I found not much of a grand scheme of things. You can see that in the way the cities have developed. There hasn't been much overall urban planning it seems - though perhaps there is now, in Tokyo. Many neighbourhoods simply built all the buildings they wanted, and somehow they got approval, and even if you wanted to build a hideous building next to a fine one, that was all right. You don't see that in London or Amsterdam - there is more of an overall scheme. So - a strange mixture of great planning in terms of a given almost paternalistic unit, a corporation perhaps or a university, but much less so on the national or municipal scale.

And now? I think some of this is in a phase of transition. There are many experiments being tried. Are the Japanese different today from what they were 30 years ago? Well, I think there is a fundamental element that has not changed. There is great cohesion still, and yes, there is still today a marked consciousness of Japaneseness. I suppose that's the way it should be. But that, again is linked to an ongoing and rather puzzling interest in how others view Japan. That seems to suggest that the self-confidence that comes from really tackling your own problems and not always depending on others' opinions or directions, is not yet fully developed. Once that is fully developed this whole preoccupation with 'who are we, Japanese?' should slowly disappear.

Again, getting back to Holland, people are not really ever wondering 'who are we, the Dutch?' They might well do so, sometimes - but they don't! And remember, we are a mongrel nation, with a very mixed population. There are elements from the Frisians, the Germans, the South, from Indonesia and Surinam and Turkey - but it all hangs together somehow. I know we have been having rather serious problems recently but they have to do more with excessive immigration over a very short period of time, and not enough assimilation. But right up until then - I don't know if Hans [the MC] agrees with this - we have not been particularly worried about our national identity - we just do what we want to do and it's more or less all right. You don't need to define yourself as a member of a nation in order to function properly. I would hope that at some point Japan would reach the same stage.

MC: I haven't been back to Holland for two years now, but what I read from far away it seems perhaps Holland is more paranoid about its identity today than Japan is.

Q. My name is Yuko Oana. I'm not a reluctant banker - I was a most willing banker. I want to ask you one thing. When we were together in New York and you were the Chairman of the Institute of Foreign Bankers there and I represented Daiichi-Kangyo Bank, you introduced us to a Japanese card came you invented - so you are not only a banker and writer and photographer, but a dreamer too. What happened to your card game of Japanese calligraphy?

A. Ah - that game that I simply called 'Kanji' - it's not been published because there are a few quirks in the rules that have to be worked out. In fact I have shown the game to Hiromi Mizoguchi, but we have not tried it out yet. It consists of 120 cards each with one kanji character on it, and matching cards with the English translation. It's supposed to be a game to help you learn the basic 120 kanji. The problem is that people who already know those kanji have an unfair advantage. But I'll try and sort out the problem somehow.

Q. My name is Tetsuya Ohashi. I have known Hans and Toyoko-san since I was born - in 1962. I have been following your life, sort of. You were the first foreigner I got to know. I also worked in Holland for 3 years, with Tokyo Mitsubishi Bank - just got back in fact. And also, I married a non-Japanese like Toyoko-san. My wife is Hong Kong Chinese. She is always complaining about Japan. If she were here tonight, she would ask the same question that I want to ask: can you offer any tips for making a successful cross-cultural marriage for a long time?

A. I think we have to discuss that subject over a drink. I would say in short: hang in there!

To wrap up, let me read to you the very last few lines dealing with an earlier question 'why did I come back?' What I said in my opening remarks was the serious reason for coming back. The other reason, and here I quote, ""is one of pure personal indulgence: to suspend concern about the sustainability of it all and yield to the refined pleasures of Japanese life - culinary evenings with friends, the café scene, art exhibitions, Noh performances, the poetic byways of Kyoto, that sort of thing. And the simple daily blessing of being part of a safe, civilised, affluent society with a level of shared community values and social cohesion that are all too rare these days. To enjoy Japan, in short. The worries can wait.""

Thank you.

MC: I think those are beautiful lines to end this evening with. Thank you very much. You were once a member of this Club. As a token of our appreciation for tonight, we would like to offer you a one-year honorary membership of this Club. Welcome back!


11. "From shibumi to super-brands: the lost values of Showa' - text of lecture given by Hans Brinckmann for The Japan Society, London, 12 September 2005

 

The Showa era, which ended 16 years ago, has become an object of nostalgia and pride in Japan. It evokes emotions ranging from wistfulness to curiosity. Some of those too young to have personal memories of the period find it evocative of an attractive 'mood' even as they seek to distance themselves from their parents' values in their own life. A faddish popularity of 1960s and 1970s retro fashions is one expression of this fascination.

Showa, of course, is the name of the reign of the last emperor, Hirohito. It began in 1926 with his accession at the age of 25, and ended 63 years later, on 7 January 1989 when he died at the age of 87.

It is said that the sovereign - referred to posthumously as the Emperor Showa - personally chose the name by which his reign was to be known: Showa, 'Enlightened Peace'. Yet one year into his reign the generals took charge of his nation, and for the next eighteen years Japan would be seen as a nation dedicated to war and conquest - not peace.

Perhaps it is for that reason that most Japanese tend to equate the term 'Showa' with the latter two-thirds of the Showa Emperor's long reign, the period after 1945, when his nation embarked belatedly on the road to peaceful progress. That benign image of the era has come to stand for all that was good and decent and secure about Japan before the bursting of the great speculative bubble of the late 1980s confronted its people with new and harsh realities - just about the time that the Showa emperor passed from the scene. It was, in a double sense, the end of an era.

Of course, the cold facts of Showa do not always support the rosy view the current nostalgia suggests. But nostalgia breeds on perception, not facts.

Post-war Showa is remembered with affection for its clear goals, hard work, small pleasures, family cohesion and the sense that life could only get better. It is remembered for three-generations-under-one-roof, streetcars, and wild rivers before they were dammed. Showa was when you ate dinner at low chabudai tables, seated on the tatami, and endured the summer heat in your starched cotton yukata with the help of electric or paper fans and shaved ice, while listening to the shrilling of the cicadas or the chirping of the crickets. For the breadwinner, Sundays on the golf course were his only chance to get away. Holidays were not taken, bonuses saved, not spent. Showa was about dedication and hope.

The ugly side of Showa - air pollution, hideously overcrowded trains, inhumanly long working hours, sub standard housing - is not part of the Showa nostalgia, unless caught in artistic black-and-white photographs. Even the life of the emperor who gave the era its name is not part of it, for Showa is about a mood, not a person.

Perhaps, in the final analysis, the memory of Showa is the memory of youth as that vital period when you discover that beauty can be found in little things, and that friendship and personal effort can yield great rewards. The way youth should be, and mostly was, but in a world awash with gadgets and television and ready-made entertainment so seldom is anymore. The memory of Showa is also about belonging - to a family and an employer and a firm social structure, all for life. That security too has gone.

I was born in the 7th year of Showa, 1932, and landed in Japan in 1950, aged 18, shortly after the start of Benign Showa. In 1953, Emperor Showa passed my office in a boxy limousine. And 36 years later, on the day he died, I was on hand to place my signature 'as an objective witness' in the condolence book at the Imperial Palace.

The following extract from my recently published memoir The Magatama Doodle reflects some of my earliest reactions to Japanese life. I had recently arrived and was working as a management trainee in the Kobe branch of a Dutch bank. I shared a wing of a fine Japanese house with a rather irksome older colleague, referred to as A.

[p. 16/17] While A. was complaining about the stacks of office work he alone had to bring home with him, I learned to keep the charcoal glowing in the aubergine-glazed brazier our landlady brought us on returning home, to keep our hands warm before we got the kerosene heater going. She was a fine lady with a chiselled face fallen on hard times. She wore her greying hair tied in a bun, and was never seen in anything but sober kimonos in blue and grey hues. She was of firm but considerate disposition. She moved about the spacious rooms with dignity and barely a hush.

Yet there was in her quiet manner nothing obsequious, rather an accomplished roundness, a refined understanding of sound and form. When she placed the teacups on their small lacquered saucers, which she then set on the low ebony table - never bending down but squatting first to maintain an agreeable posture - the soft clicks caressed the gathering dusk hanging in layers between the shoji screens, like painted fingernails touching a champagne glass. And when she poured the tea brewed from roasted leaves, her head at a slight angle, one hand holding the lid, the fragrant steam rising up through the still cold air had something plaintive about it, reminding me of straw burning on Dutch autumn fields. My mother had never poured tea that way, and the sharp clacks of porcelain cups and silver spoons hitting porcelain saucers back in Holland had not permitted unspoken sadness to linger in the shadows.

Bathing provided another taste of the Japanese aesthetic. A. refused to be 'boiled like a lobster' and borrowed some American friend's shower on a regular basis. But I responded readily to the landlady's daily call - heard just before dinnertime when all homecoming Japanese men soak away the day's stress in the hot tub - that the water had reached 'just the right temperature'.

The tub was a goemon-buro, a cast-iron cauldron like those used to cook missionaries in Africa, set in a smoothly polished cement jacket, and heated from below by a wood fire. The fire was tended from the adjoining stoke-space, which, together with the tub-room and a small dressing area, comprised the separate cedar-and-tile bathhouse. A round plank, held in place by notches in the iron, protected the feet from direct contact with the hot metal, but one had to avoid touching the sides.

Soaking in this liquid inferno - after washing and dousing one-self while squatting on a cedar grid, to get clean and preheated - proved an almost spiritual experience the intensity of which has not left me after all these years.

I could go on in this vein - actually, the book does, for a while, unashamedly, until it settles into a more mature, less wide-eyed mode, and the reluctant banker that I was turns critical. But instead I want to show you some photographs of Japan dating back to the period I lived there, 1950 to 1974. I took many of them, but the sharper ones are by my good friend and former colleague, Ysbrand Rogge, who quit banking long before me, and became a professional cameraman.

I have arranged the images by subject - 9 key areas, each of which we will examine briefly afterwards to consider what has survived of Showa's values and conditions and achievements, and what has been lost.

(See attached sampling of the over 100 photographic slides shown at the lecture)

These scenes do bring back memories, don't they? But I suspect that the Showa sentiment goes deeper than, say, the intermittent West-European nostalgia for the 1960s, with its overtones of sexual liberation, psychedelia and student protests. There is a sense in Japan that something precious was lost somewhere along the road to economic superpower status. What is that precious something? Let's find out.

I am just putting the finishing touches to an illustrated book on the subject, but the best we can do here is to cite brief examples of each chosen category. A kind of tasting menu, if you will.

First, then, the landscape. Around mid-Showa most rivers had not been dammed, riverbeds had natural banks, pristine mountain scenery had not been violated by roads and tunnels and retaining walls, and the deciduous forests had not yet been cut and replaced by uniform plantings of cedar which snuffed out wildlife and caused a serious pollen hazard all over the islands. There were lots of flies and mosquitoes and gnats, and therefore plenty of birds and bats as well. Most country roads were still unpaved, leaving houses along them covered with a film of white dust. The small towns and villages still retained their traditional look. - The damage done to the environment can not be undone - though they have started replacing some of the cedar stands with - you guessed it - deciduous trees.

As for the cities, they were messier then, with narrower streets. 'Neighbourhood' was what it was all about. But renewal was in the air. Many excellent pre-war buildings were demolished to make way for high-rise structures. The Olympic legacy in Tokyo was a network of elevated highways, casting the streets below into permanent gloom. In the general building frenzy, still continuing, large segments of Tokyo and other big cities were replaced by spectacular shopping/entertainment/living centres. Apart from the shrines and temples there is little left in the way of architectural patrimony.

The urban population seems to have taken the drastic makeover of their cities in their stride, never openly bemoaning what was lost. After all, when design and technology are not held back by the demands of conservation and sentiment, society may well benefit in terms of comfort and efficiency. And you can always fly to Europe when you feel a craving for crooked streets or chilly old churches.

Every society has its salaried workers, but Japan has its ''salaryman'. The difference is vast. The Showa-vintage Japanese salaryman entered employment straight out of school or college, for life, with one and the same employer. In exchange for his absolute loyalty he could count on steadily increasing pay and position, permanent protection from dismissal and most importantly, the social status of belonging to a prestigious organization. He surrendered virtually all of his waking hours to his employer, and took no holidays. In the evenings and on weekends he had to be available for banqueting, company outings and games of golf. His employer owned his soul.

Such an environment left little room for individual identity, nor was such desired or expected. Loyalty was more prized than the ability to argue logically or to develop ideas that were deemed 'foreign' or too innovative - unless they were concrete product improvements, of course. The system worked extremely well while the country was protected from foreign competition on its home turf. It wasn't easy on the family, who seldom saw their husbands and fathers. Yet, this strange institution, a modern form of bondage, is now seen as an enduring and, yes, cherished symbol of the Showa era. For many feel that it was thanks above all to the exertions of the salaryman that Japan became a world power.

Corporate restructuring over the past decade has changed all that. The career escalator is no longer reliable, as merit-based promotions - and pay - and redundancies have caught on. Foreign interests have taken over many companies, and the promises and threats of 'globalisation' have become everyone's concern. The salaryman Showa-style is not yet declared an endangered species, but I expect the evolving 21st century edition will be very different from his Showa predecessor, and probably be referred to as salaryperson.

Meanwhile, the Showa work ethic that drove the salaryman, also applied to engineers, mechanics and most manual workers, though differently. Constant activity and search for perfection marked their world, as it does today. Where else can you see deliverymen run to and from their vehicle, shop girls that keep smiling while rapidly ringing up your bill, and building crews meticulously reroute the sidewalk so as not to annoy pedestrians? The trains not only run on time, they are also spanking clean inside and out, without a trace of graffiti and with even the windows washed and dried to perfection. Domestic and commercial rubbish collection is organized to a T, and the streets look like they are cleaned all the time.

The perfectionist streak in Japanese society may well prove to be a crucial asset in an increasingly competitive market place. But there is a legitimate concern that excessive emphasis on perfection may also cause excessive stress and inhuman burdens on the labour force, thus creating new risks.

There was in post-war Showa only one serious challenge to authority: the 1960 protest movement aimed at killing the US-Japan Security Treaty. It was organized by a loose coalition of left-wing parties, labour unions and the radical student movement Zengakuren, but also included many middle class office workers and housewives. The movement had a strong ideological element to it, yet the participation of so many ordinary citizens was arguably an indication of the growth of political engagement. But its fiery spirit was driven more by blind passion than by fully informed debate, and it got out of hand. The protest failed, and when the government shifted its priorities to the spreading of wealth, the movement fizzled out and the public became apathetic about politics - though there are recent signs of renewed interest.

If sublimation of hostile instincts towards outsiders is one measure of civilized behaviour, then the way the Japanese have always dealt with their feelings about foreign, especially Western, elements in their midst is indeed most civilized. To be sure, there are frequent instances of subtle discrimination - such as not being regarded as a suitable tenant for an up-market mansion apartment (as happened to me more than once, and quite recently too) - but these are mild compared to the racial slurs and outright violence Japanese and other Asians sometimes have to endure in the West - even in a country supposedly as civilized as Britain. Yes, generous treatment of guests has always been a charming characteristic of Japanese society. Immigrants and permanent residents, however, are a different matter. The aim is still to keep foreigners at arm's length, and treat them as honoured visitors, not as fellow citizens, no matter how long they stay and how well they speak the language. Permanent residency, let alone seeking Japanese citizenship, is generally discouraged.

As in other advanced countries, the declining birth rate is now forcing Japan to increase immigration, and it seems the people have little choice but to get used to that reality, and accept some loss of cultural exclusivity into the bargain. Meanwhile, though, to stem the tide, robot designers are working feverishly to produce intelligent substitutes for all kinds of human workers, from cleaners to receptionists (did you see that pretty one at the Aichi Expo?) to care helpers in old-age homes. They hope to have a good selection of artificial humans available for duty when the crunch comes - in five to ten years' time.

The Japanese never struck me as a particularly religious people - in the way that many Christians and Moslems and Jews practice their religion. The general absence of a missionary zeal among Buddhists and Shintoists and of any public display of cloying, sentimental religiosity or holier-than-thou attitudes was a relief to me. What's more, most Japanese seemed to accept both Buddhism and Shintoism and even - at some schools and weddings - Christianity in their lives, as if they were equal or interchangeable. But perhaps to most Japanese 'religion' is more a matter of tradition than confession or personal quest. Not so different from the present situation in the more secular parts of Europe, you might say.

Yet, religion unarguably has left a deep imprint on Japanese history. Zen in particular was a shaping force in ethics and culture. It impressed me deeply, and for a while during the 1950s I commuted regularly to Kyoto's Tofukuji Temple to absorb some of its lingering spirit. That temple and many others were still full of monks sitting in meditation, but now the tourists outnumber them many times over.

Among families, too, age-old traditions have declined. Where can we still see the annual pounding of the mochi rice cakes in time for New Year's? Or the replacement of fusuma and shoji partitions by light bamboo blinds in summer? Or the throwing of beans to chase out the demons on the eve of Setsubun in early February - not as a silly caper by a gaggle of TV starlets but seriously, out of conviction?

The drift away from tradition has not spared the arts and crafts. Although many of the old arts are still practised with great skill and dedication, their intrinsic connection with everyday life is becoming tenuous. For example, calligraphy, that staple of artful expression that was still avidly practised in personal correspondence only a few decades ago, has been shoved aside by ball pens and computers - though it survives as an elective art for its own sake.

Even ikebana shows the strains. Where once flowers, grasses and branches were the only materials used in the elaborate creations of the Ikenobo School - that standard-bearer of classical ikebana since the 15th century - today one is hard put to find an arrangement that does not prominently feature plastics, metal wire and other non-organic elements. 'Just flowers' is apparently not done these days.

One could see that as welcome proof that even the most ancient of arts is not above modernizing. But ikebana evolved in low-slung, traditional wooden houses. The flowers were placed in alcoves, to be viewed from a squatting position. It was an intimate, quiet process. The guiding philosophy was to use a minimum number of flowers. Today's mixed-material creations, placed on tables, are often lavish and large in size, destined for offices or public spaces. The branches are sometimes daubed with paint and broken or twisted to suit the design. The change represents the drastic shift in overall living patterns, from wafuu to youfuu -- from the Japanese to the Western.

As a consequence, their historical bond with a vanishing lifestyle inevitably leave religions and traditions, arts and crafts increasingly at the mercy of commercial schemes, tourism, loyal followers and tax support for survival.

What does all this spell for the future of the children? The task of shaping malleable young minds must surely be among the noblest and most satisfying of occupations for socially committed men and women. But the Showa teacher's brief was not necessarily to help each child realise its own potential but rather to mould their charges into social particles able to function optimally in a group (for the boys) or in a family (for the girls).

If the children of Showa were less free than today's kids, they were also less exposed to outside distractions and dangers. No mobile phones ringing in their backpacks, no computer games, and - for the teenage girls - no seductive offers to help them supplement their pocket money with indecent activities. Capitalism had not yet targeted the tot-to-teen markets. Children's minds were not distracted by a hunger for super-brand fashion items. Their clothes and shoes were unbranded, functional. School groups on excursion stayed in simple inns, not 4 or 5-star hotels. And though Showa kids may have rebelled against their parents like teenagers everywhere, they did not refuse to pursue a career, or to get married, or to show respect for their elders. Instances of bullying, attacks on teachers and on other children, and absenteeism were rare. The serious social problem of hikikomori (hermit children) was yet to emerge.

All this changed in the 1980s, when there was a sharp increase in all these problem areas, prompting the government to consider educational reform. In the end, not much changed, as the rival factions were unable to agree on a common course. A few years ago the subject was taken up again, this time both to tackle the ever more serious problems of violence and dropping out, and to respond to calls for greater emphasis on creativity and diversity. The results, still in the making, once again seem to be an uneasy compromise between the current right-wing rhetoric favouring a reversion to 'lost values' - not only of post-war Showa, but those discarded at war's end as well - and the no less insistent demand for greater emphasis on the development of individuality.

The liberal lobby argues that instead of returning to 'obedient' patriotic behaviour - symbolized by Tokyo schoolchildren and teachers being required these days to salute the flag and sing the anthem on pain of punishment - it would be far better for the nation's future if children were encouraged to develop their own personal qualities, learn to think for themselves and communicate their thoughts more effectively.

It is my personal belief that patriotism need not be taught as such. In a well-run democracy it should be the natural consequence of a healthy personal self-esteem, which in turn derives from an education that gives comparable weight to the individual and the society in which he has to function.

*

We may conclude, then, that the Showa era has a mixed legacy. Some of its lost values are missed and lamented: the clarity of goals, the social cohesion, the security. Others, like the salaryman's circumscribed life, have been reassessed to suit changed conditions.

But what is that quality we talked about at the outset - that elusive something that was typical of the past, of Showa, and that may have been irretrievably lost? I was referring to shibumi. The word comes from shibu, the astringent juice of the persimmon. Its adjective, shibui embodies the nature of traditional Japanese aesthetics: rough but refined; restrained yet elegant; austere. The noun form, shibumi, implies a deep spiritual quality as well - an aesthetic made into an ideal of feeling and behaviour that was typical of the literati but in a broader sense stood for the ideals - the identity -- of the educated classes as a whole.

One might well wonder why it is that shibumi came to be seen as the essence of Japanese sensitivity and inner accomplishment. After all, Japanese mainstream arts and crafts have never lacked in bright colours and bold design, witness the gorgeous costumes of Noh and Kabuki, the striking patterns and brocades of kimonos and obis, and the boldly painted fusuma doors and room screens. True - there is that exuberant streak in the otherwise restrained national character. Yet most Japanese would agree that shibumi is much more representative of their traditional ideal than those flashy luxuries.

Could it be that vicarious display is the necessary trade-off for repressed behaviour? Ardent expression not by oneself, but by artists commissioned for the purpose, while preserving one's own carefully controlled composure, which is more faithfully served by - and embodied in - the austere shibumi ideal?

Shibumi certainly was my big discovery, sometime during mid-Showa. I thought it was forever. It was not a brand, but it should have been. A comprehensive life-brand.

But it was overwhelmed by other brands - the super brands, mostly. Not literally of course - they are different quantities. But as Western styles of living became the norm and popular taste at all levels swung to the colourful and the extrovert, shibui slowly came to stand for fogeyish, unfashionable, dull. I used to be complemented on my shibui neckties. Now they are called drab.

Shibumi is a lost value, and so far nothing comparable has taken its place. The rampant materialism symbolized by the craze for super brands merely masks the void. There is no ongoing debate about where Japanese society should go. New ideas are suspect; to question is to quibble. Complacency rules the day. And into the empty space has charged the extreme Right with calls not for individualism but for more patriotism and an adamant refusal to come to terms with the past. Already Tokyo's schoolchildren and teachers are required to salute the flag and sing the controversial national anthem, a relic of the days of emperor worship, on pain of punishment if they refuse.

No wonder many of the young are confused and withdrawn. But I am confident this is a passing phase. There is a growing trend among young people in Japan to carve out a life of their own, as individuals, rather than follow in their elders' footsteps - or rely on established social structures. Some set up a small business or work as artisans. Many are involved in volunteer work, often in poor countries. There is no unified philosophy behind these initiatives, but the fact that they occur at all is encouraging and significant.

The legacy of Showa, then, for all its lost values and violated landscapes, is an opportunity for a new generation to fearlessly shape their society away from self-absorption and isolationist instincts, and toward a less secure, more complex and more internationalist future. The talent and means are there in abundance. What is needed is not a reactionary longing for a vanished past, but enlightened national leadership.


© Hans Brinckmann 2005 - 2013

Created: 16 February 2006 ; last updated 6 October 2013

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