A nation terrorized by gangs of roving youngsters, governed by cryptofascist politicians, mired in me-firstism and ennui. The England of A Clockwork Orange? No, it’s modern Japan.
Just two decades ago, American business analysts held Japan up to be the shining example of an economy and society that worked—and that would soon own everything. That was before the sickening crash-and-burn spiral of the Nikkei index, “a crash that dwarfed ‘Black Monday’ in 1987,” which signaled the end of Japanese affluence. The nation has yet to recover from a decade and more of economic stagnation. Meanwhile, by Nathan’s account, the Japanese are shrouded in gloom, wondering what it means to be Japanese and what it means to live amid technological splendor but spiritual emptiness; they seek answers by consulting the writings of the right-wing crazy Mishima Yukio, who slit his stomach open in 1970 after failing to inspire a military coup d’état. Compounding their woes is an apparent epidemic of bad behavior on the part of the preadolescent and adolescent set, who terrorize schools throughout the land and slay their elders as newspapers print helpful pieces on how to avoid provoking the kids (“keep your eyes averted and never talk back”). It all makes for an awful mess, and if his prose is curiously flat, Nathan (Japanese Studies/Univ. of California, Santa Barbara; Sony: The Private Life, 1999) suggests that still more serious trends are at play: as Japanese question the foundations of their exceptionalist society, many of them increasingly reject Western, postmodern mores. The “changes occurring in the national psyche,” the author warns, thus include “a growing disenchantment with the United States and the gradual discovery of an affinity with the rest of Asia in general and China in particular, which goes beyond economic interests.”
An alarmist treatise, as American analysis of Japan tends to be. But worth considering, especially as the hold of the pro-US government weakens and Chinese power grows.