Commentary Magazine


Intellectuals, Japanese-Style

Over Japan in the last years of the American occupation there hung an air of breathless expectancy. People had kept quiet for a few years during the war, when it had been unwise to speak, and they had kept politely quiet during the years of the occupation too, while the Americans were teaching them to be democratic. They had worn an air of eager attention as they had learned their lesson. But what were they all going to say when the Americans left, these unquestionably intelligent people who had looked for so long as if they had all manner of interesting things to say? When the San Francisco Treaty came and they all started talking, they all said very much the same thing, and it was ghastly.

The effect was as of seeing ourselves parodied. We who were young in those days had been formed by the New Deal, and it had made us suspicious of the arrangements effected by our elders, whose laissez-faire had about it the look of greedy irresponsibility. The great assumption from which we made our departure was that men are greedy and must be restrained by other men. Among the subsidiary assumptions was that men behave most irresponsibly in societies in which they are least restrained by other men. In other words: Americans do the most awful things.

Now here were all these Japanese saying just that; and it was all wrong. The greater premise for them too was that an earlier generation had arranged things badly, and the lesser was that the American model was the one to be avoided. How it should have become so with all those nice Americans around teaching the democratic lesson is a curious problem. It may have been because the Americans were such a presence and their hypocrisy showed; and one was not without a suspicion that the essential harmlessness of the Americans had something to do with the matter. America and American institutions could be criticized with impunity. In any event, the lesser assumption was allowed to run away with things, and so the effect was as of seeing one’s own assumptions gone mad. We had associated laissez-faire, another word for “capitalism,” never very clearly defined, with irresponsibility. The Japanese intellectuals associated it with war. Although we had had our Nye Committee establishing a bond between war and profit, the difference in tone between the Japanese view and our own was emphatic enough to make us see that that was not what we really wished to be talking about at all.

I myself was quickly transformed into a patriot. Everything was so simple for these people. War was for them the great evil, and the origins of war were in capitalism. Peace, on the other hand, was socialism, which resided over there behind the Kremlin walls and (why, the very name proclaimed the fact) the Gate of Heavenly Peace. As the scales fell away and it became apparent to us that the pursuit of profit is not the only thing people are up to and other things can be far uglier, the effort to claw the scales from the eyes of others was maddening. There were so many intellectual assemblies I wanted to stand up in the middle of and cry out: “Have you not eyes to see?” Once or twice I did, and was administered a soothing potion and a patient smile. If people did not already know that Americans can be naively impulsive, they did then.

Having held their peace for so long, Japanese intellectuals set about putting the world and history retroactively into order. The fact that the order was so clear and simple might have alerted them to the fact that it was not very realistic; but reality had been lost sight of, or had ceased to matter. Was there trouble in Berlin the other day? Yes, there was trouble in Berlin the other day, and its source was the recalcitrance of the Americans. Have the endeavors of the Czechs to push politically westward been frustrated? Yes, it is ever so with the endeavors of the Czechs, and that is because they are victims of Madison Avenue deceit, a thing of which we and we may say it with some emphasis, will never be victims.

When something that seemed indisputably good came from American hands, it suffered from the disability of its origins, and would have been better if it had come from peaceful socialist hands. This was especially true in the case of peace itself. Instead of thanking John Foster Dulles for an early and generous peace treaty (the prime minister did, but he was notoriously unintellectual), the intellectuals screamed their denunciation of a treaty that did not also include the Russians. It will be remembered that George F. Kennan was quietly murmuring his support for a treaty that included the Russians even as the Japanese intellectuals were screaming theirs, and certainly it could be argued that an overall settlement, including also a settlement in Korea, would have been better for us all. What made the position of the intellectuals seem so dreamy and unreal, however, was the fact that the recalcitrance clearly lay on the side of the Russians. The devices proposed for overcoming it seemed every bit as dreamy, for they showed utter confusion as to its origins. Someone actually proposed the division of Japan. The division of Austria, the strongly intuitive and very elusive argument seemed to go, had been for Stalin a demonstration that the higher interests of peace and socialism lay elsewhere. Very well then, give him Hokkaido, and see if the same thing might not be demonstrated a second time. It is doubtful that Kennan ever thought of Dulles as his principal adversary, the man whose contrariness was the principal source of the trouble. The Japanese intellectual did, however, and his solution was to deal stronger and ever stronger cards to Stalin. Give it a try, give it a try, one wanted to cry out in exasperation. There might then have been the pleasure of a Korean solution, so to speak. The Koreans have preserved their cultural identity over the centuries by being very difficult people, and the company of Japanese intellectuals might just possibly have demonstrated to Stalin that the higher interests of socialism did indeed lie elsewhere. He might have seen that he would rather have them on our side than his.

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It was very sobering to see how people who were so intelligent—that undeniable fact cannot be stated too often—and whose business should have been the pursuit of truth could be so indefatigable in pursuing patent untruths. To blame the United States for all the unpleasantness in the world, even if there had been vast quantities of evidence to support such a notion, would have been among the least promising of departures in the search for a way to avoid future unpleasantness, for it proposed as a modest beginning that the United States and its works disappear. All this view of things could offer was a series of unlikely conclusions to highly prejudiced conditions: if the United States were to cease supporting this and that government, the Soviet Union would cease trying to overthrow it; if it were not for those truculent South Koreans and their American allies, the North Koreans would be happy to stay at home and build dams; if there were no American presence here and there and everywhere, there would be no need for an answering presence. If the Americans would but lie down, why then the Russians would be gracious.

But even this statement of the case does not do justice to its neatness. The solutions to all the problems were really semantic, the neatest of all solutions. Imperialism, war, and capitalism were the same thing. Peace, anti-imperialism, and socialism were the same thing. Capitalism pushed out in its maritime way to create empires, but when a great metropolitan center in North China or Eastern Europe pushed overland to subjugate alien peoples, it was not and could not be imperialism, because the heart of the matter, there in the fastness of North China and Eastern Europe, was socialist.

We Americans in Japan laughed when, in the early 1960′s, the vigorous new Kennedy administration sent out a vigorous new ambassador to resume what he called an interrupted dialogue with the Japanese Left. We knew that there could be no dialogue unless he apologized for everything, in which case it would have to be a pretty craven sort of dialogue. In fact there was none, though there were exchanges of a sort. No one was persuaded, and so the exchanges, the whole point of which should have been to try to persuade someone of something, specifically, the Japanese intellectual of certain dangers which he quite refused to admit, were pointless. The twain proceeded down parallel lines and did not meet.

Not all the intellectuals were alike even in those days, but the ones who refrained from mouthing the orthodox formulas and solutions were in a small minority. There was an establishment of the Left, and it dominated the newspapers and magazines. When an editor made bold to carry an article by a representative of the minority, he had to apologize to the orthodox congregation. Making plans for the day of wrath, when the congregation would have its way and utter peace and socialism would descend over the land, one had no trouble at all drawing up lists of those who would be saved. But the number was small, of those who had spoken out against the great terrestrial empires as well as the maritime empires; who had been prepared to discuss ways of improving treaty relations with the United States, instead of blithely asking that they cease to exist; who could see provocation and intransigence emerging from the peaceful socialist camp. The vast majority of the intellectuals of the establishment were so busy agreeing with one another, redoing the same familiar recipes for the same magazines, that they had lost track of reality. By easy stages, agreeing with itself every step of the way, the intellectual establishment had worked itself into uncompromising and somewhat transcendental dogma.

Far too many of one’s youthful days were wasted in anger. To those who remarked regretfully upon their inability to read Japanese, and enviously upon the rich harvest of understanding which a knowledge of the language must provide, the proper answer was that they did not know how lucky they were. They did not know what an inexhaustible supply of drivel it was that one curled up with when one curled up with the monthly magazines. So much of it was so patently untruthful and even so absurd that it was not worth getting angry over. Now, years later, the anger seems a deplorable waste, cutting in so grievously on one’s supply of days. The intellectuals went on muttering mystic formulas to one another and changed nothing; and so they did not matter, and should not have been allowed to provoke anger.

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There is a way in which they did and do matter, however. Though much given to grand formulations about the nature of the universe and man’s place therein, the Japanese are a down-to-earth, methodical people when the question before them is what to do next. The prescription’s of the intellectuals did not give promise of working to much effect of any sort, and so they were not followed. In ever rarer isolation, they went on contriving new prescriptions for one another. A deplorable result is that Japan is today without a parliamentary opposition that anyone takes seriously. The conservatives seem destined to rule for a very long time, perhaps forever, if they can keep their factions together and avoid hubris. The conservative party is really a coalition, and it faces the classic problem of coalitions, how to give its several factions due access to the till. Computers happily project lines into the future, holding to be inevitable the eventual emergence of a disgruntled urban populace that will throw the rascals out; but it is all like the old puzzle of proceeding half the distance to the goal and never arriving. Each advance of the opposition in the direction of power creates in the public a new awareness of how very silly the opposition really is, and so the goal recedes into the distance. What the public wants, said a canny political observer recently, is an opposition to enter protest votes for. Such an opposition is by definition perpetual.

Many are happy enough with this situation, which has produced a series of faceless, harmless prime ministers (the man who said in the New York Times recently that the personality cult has been more of a problem in Japan than in China quite outdid himself in intellectual whimsy); but in others it produces explosive exasperation, and the corrupting effect of unchallenged power seems undeniable. It is useless to vote for one of the opposition parties, and so what can one do but explode? It is useless because none of them provides a moderate alternative, changing this but leaving that alone, repairing a balance without turning everything on its head. Most of all it is useless to vote for the Grand Old Party of the establishment of the Left, the Socialist party of Japan. For the Socialists everything must change before anything can change, and this is not what the electorate has in mind. A party with interesting thoughts about land prices, the most pressing of all problems for the resident of the megalopolis, might be worth listening to, but not a party for which revolution is a prerequisite to reform. The Grand Old Party will be out in the cold for a very long time, perhaps forever, and we must be satisfied with such morsels of reform as the conservatives deign to hand out from time to time; and for this state of affairs the Japanese intellectuals and their faulty diagnoses and formulations are in very large measure responsible.

In not every respect have they seemed unique, however. Coming back across the Pacific from time to time, one found something that looked very similar. The revisionists had taken over in America, and they too seemed to have lost sight of something very important, the fact that back there at the beginning of it all there had been a real enemy. Yet there did seem to be something peculiarly tenacious about the refusal of the Japanese intellectual to admit patent contradiction for what it was. Many of us had been stubborn too. We were not quick to master the teachings of Orwell and the great purges. The invasion of Hungary still left a possibility of placing the socialist paradise in the remote future, and seeing these setbacks as the eggs that must be broken for the omelette. Khrushchev’s revelations could be given the same treatment: there were these little aberrations, but the road to paradise went that way all the same. But when the Chinese started calling the Russians imperialists it was clear that something was wrong. From one of the great centers of peace and socialism there came radiating a force which could not, unless the second center was suffering from delusions so considerable as to be a denial of itself, be other than aggressive and imperialist. If terrestrial imperialism was possible and could reach out from the fastnesses of socialism, then the world must cease to be a place of clear distinctions. Right and wrong became much harder to define, and there must be an element of the latter in at least one of the two great socialist centers, and who then could be sure that there was not an element of the former in the land of capitalism?

It must be granted, to the credit of the Japanese intellectuals, that they were not wholly insensitive to these difficulties. A hush fell over the landscape, and circulation figures showed that the magazines for which the intellectuals of the establishment wrote no longer commanded the audiences they once had. The congregation had dwindled. Ironically, this development came in Japan at just about the time when the New Left and revisionism were taking over in the United States. There was a twilight hour, as the United States seemed to be entering a darkness from which Japan was emerging, when the intellectual mood of Japan seemed the more promising of the two. The shock of the Sino-Soviet split had been enough to make the Japanese intellectual establishment look back in some disarray at the apparent facts from which the delusion had sprung. In America, on the other hand, one overwhelming fact seemed by way of producing great delusions: the United States had become involved in an ugly war. The reasons for that war must also be ugly. Those who said that there had been real enemies, back there at the beginning of it all, lied. Those who argued that there had been at least a possibility of doing good in Vietnam became ugly, immoral Americans.

But it was difficult to establish statistics and solid facts to accord with the hush that fell over the Japanese landscape. The effect upon the Grand Old Party was the next thing, the very next thing, indeed, to nil. One sensed a certain disarray in the ranks of the intellectuals, but there were not many signs of apostasy, conversions to the view that America might just possibly be right from time to time. Some of the intellectuals looked to the one socialist center for the truth, some looked to the other, and some managed to pretend, particularly in the higher reaches of the party bureaucracy, that socialism still spoke with one voice. The semantic solution to the problems of the world still applied. It was still possible, by virtue of being a socialist, to be near the fountainhead of self-evident truth. It was possible, for instance, to espouse the Chinese cause in the curious matter of “hegemony” and pretend that it had no reference to the Russians. “Hegemony” was something which the Chinese were against, and they demanded that the Japanese be against it too, by inserting an anti-hegemony clause into the peace treaty under negotiation between the two countries. The Chinese have not, in the matter of hegemony, the slightest doubt in naming targets and adversaries: they are latter-day Monroes, and they wish the Russians to stay out of their hemisphere.

Some of the reasons for the stubbornness of the illusions are not hard to see, and not uniquely Japanese. There is the fact that, once stuck with a story, a person feels compelled to stand by it. A socialism uncertainly rooted in fact from the outset can be made to seem rooted, after a fashion, even when the process of deracination is far advanced, and for the self-respect of the faithful it must be made so to seem, for a while yet. Then there is the fact that money and prestige are involved. Someone who has won prominence as a propagandist for peace and socialism cannot turn against these synonymous causes without risking loss of income and esteem. These are lures to intellectuals the whole world over; but the losses are greater, as the rewards have been greater, and not many intellectuals anywhere have headed such adoring congregations as some of these Japanese. Then there is a fondness for lost causes, likely to be somewhat exaggerated in Japan, and, closely akin to it, a fondness for highly abstract causes. Here the Japanese quite outdo themselves, as if to compensate and apologize for the national pragmatism. Socialism has been something to fight for because it was not adequately fought for some scores of years ago, when there was another chance; and the fight can be endlessly rewarding, and merely endless, because it is safe and orthodox, and its abstractness means that it can never be wholly discredited. Peace and socialism may blur and waver from time to time, but to cease believing in them is like ceasing to believe in virtue. No one is more righteous than a pragmatist turned moralist, or more resourceful in making the sanctions fit every situation.

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Carried thus far, the matter begins to take on a very Japanese look once more. When a cause is pursued so tenaciously, and contradictions apparent to a child can be overlooked, and the all too apparent failure of a god is not enough to require that new gods be sought, then it comes to seem that faith itself is more important than the object of faith, the wardenship of the compass more important than the direction the compass points. We are back to a very ancient way of doing things. We are back, indeed, to the “Way” itself, to the cult of steadfastness and sincerity, making of an intense dedication to principle something more important than any principle. As one watches the modern intellectual pursue his Way even as the medieval warrior pursued his, one has a wistful sense of having been evicted from or refused admission to the club. It is the Japanese thing which the rest of us do not do. It brings the Japanese Left and Right together in their own freemasonry. Not by accident did Yukio Mishima have the most extremely virtuous of his characters in pursuit of something known as “purity,” and not by accident was the culminating act of Mishima’s own life, his suicide, one which defies classification as of the Right or of the Left, and brings together, apostles all of sincerity, the student who beats out the brains of his colleagues because they will not see virtue precisely as he sees it, and the suburban mother who refuses to chide such sincerity, and even, one has reason to suspect from having talked to him, the police detective who has been called in to do something about it. Class and ideology are surmounted by this dedication to sincerity.

The extremes to which it can go are astonishing. It brings a blurring of the distinction between art and life which no amount of persuasion can correct. The purity of that Mishima character, one argues, seeking to persuade, is insane and monstrous not because there are not such people but because Mishima has failed to provide him with adequate motives. We could accept his purity if it were given fictitious justification, made into something believable and acceptable by its own self-sufficient lights, in its own world, if not by ours and in ours. So one might argue, seeking to define the blurring and ask that it be corrected; but the endeavor fails. If the counterpart of that Mishima character actually lives, and most assuredly he does, for we can see him here before us, then the validity of the fictional character is not to be denied its radiant being by our arbitrary, formalistic tests of truth.

That we have him before us is most certainly not to be denied. There the radical students are beating one another’s brains out, almost a score of fatalities already this year. There they were off in the mountains a few years ago, administering the most cruel and inhuman of punishments, casting their comrades out helpless in the cold to starve and freeze to death. There they were in Lod airport, slaughtering all those Puerto Ricans in the cause of Palestinian liberation. They have hijacked and destroyed airplanes, and they have blown up buildings. Beginning in late 1974 the offices and plants of a series of big companies were bombed, and when the culprits were apprehended early this year, they were found to belong to three tiny little bands with very romantic names, the Wolf, the Fang, and the Scorpion. As if to demonstrate their sincerity beyond reasonable doubt, and as if hoping to be apprehended so that their sincerity might be displayed before the world, they had left behind clues, notable among them a magazine describing what they were up to, and evidences of an interest in the continent (the full name of that one little group was Fang of the Continent) which presently found consummation in the bombing of a Korean research institute. Once apprehended, they were very polite, and after an appropriate period of silence, to show that they knew their rights, they commenced confessing, again as if the whole point has been to demonstrate sincerity. They aroused much sympathy high and low. There were cries of indignation in the press, to be sure, but they did not ring quite true, and my own sampling of public opinion, intellectual to taxi driver, suggested that such sincerity was hard to deny and reject. Many a taxi driver offered it as his view that the blue-eyed one from over the sea would never begin to understand these very Japanese happenings.

It really is very Japanese. It amounts to a cult of sincere violence—and in a society remarkable for its conformity and its docile acceptance. The very docility provides a sort of immediate explanation for the cult. There is a great deal wrong with the society so docilely accepted, and the bind into which the establishment of the Left has worked itself is largely responsible. Electoral procedures, thanks to the refusal of the Left to think of partial solutions, offer no alternative to the conservative government which has been there all along and done so little to relieve the frustrations, especially of the urban populace; and so a good bombing now and then lets off steam, and gives a vicarious sense of having done something, even if nothing at all has been changed.

But the strain of violence in this docile society is very old, perhaps the oldest thing of all. A peculiar intensity comes over the taxi driver as he indicates feelings of fellowship with the bombers. It takes him out of reach. He has joined an ancient communion, of those who do not really believe in the evil nature of man. Society is responsible for distortions and misdoings, and things right themselves when a primitive, natural purity is restored. It is the absolute, and when it is at work one defers and declines to pass judgment. There is wonder in the voices of Mishima’s friends as they describe his last months. He withdrew from the more ordinary communion into the communion of the pure, and in the name of purity are committed wondrous acts upon which the courts of man do not pass judgment.

If one would be angry, back in those youthful days, the cult of sincerity might have been the better thing to be angry at, because it was the deeper thing. As the radical Right and the radical Left came nearer and nearer, on the far side of the circle from the point where one thought of oneself as standing, that was what brought them together, doing more than anything to account for the tenacity with which the intellectual clung to his delusions, establishing more than anything the emotional sources of his blindness to obvious contradiction and untruth.

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