Tragic Japan

Tragic Japan September 8, 2014

R. Taggart Murphy has been writing on Japanese politics, business and economics for a long time, but the rest of the world has lost interest. What fascinates, he says, is Japanese culture – the fashions, the anime, the weirdness of a country where you can pay 7000 yen to be mothered by an attractive young woman for an hour.

Murphy’s Japan and the Shackles of the Past is an effort to show how the business and economic challenges of Japan are connected to its exotic culture. He wants to”integrate my thinking on Japan’s politics and economics with precisely the historical and cultural issues that seemed to continue to interest people.”

Japan does, he suggests, hold some lessons for the rest of the world, but they aren’t the obvious concerns about tax rates and labor and efficiency. They have more to do with cultural habits. “What do you do, for example, when women stop having babies?” is a question that Japan, and much of the developed world with it, needs to ask. What happens when young men stop wanting families? How does Japan face its past squarely, and break through national mythologies, when the country’s sense of itself is still wrapped in its own mythologies? Murphy admits he doesn’t have answers to all his questions, but he hopes he has made progress in posing the right questions.

What is attractive about Japan, he claims, is the Japanese acceptance of the world as it is. This gives them a delight in small things that other peoples ignore, and it means that the Japanese are willing to take on any task, even if it doesn’t seem worth doing, and to do it well. Japanese ritualize everyday encounters, and by ritualizing invest small moments with deep meaning.

Murphy thinks that “much of modern Japanese history is a tragedy,” but it’s a tragedy that arises from the very same outlook and mentality that makes Japan so attractive and fascinating to outsiders. The willingness of Japanese to accept whatever comes means that they genuinely see themselves as victims of circumstance. Their willingness to accept everything comes out in a willingness to accept contradictions, even a self-deceptive facility for ignoring contradiction.

Here, Murphy argues, is one Japanese lesson about what not to do: “in the rest of the world, ruling elites have become more Japanese in at least this one crucial respect: learning to live with the constant presence of contradiction while perfecting the mental gymnastics necessary to deceive oneself about motive while still acting on that motive.”

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