Buruma on the End of Postwar Illusions

Finally, here is the somber epilogue in Ian Buruma’s book Inventing Japan: 1853-1964 (Modern Library Chronicles, 2003).

In front of Shinjuku station, the favored spot in the 1960s of student demos and theatrical “happenings,” I watched people toss peanuts at a crude caricature of Tanaka Kakuei, the disgraced former prime minister [and father of PM Koizumi’s first foreign minister]. “Peanuts” was the term used by middlemen who collected cash from the Lockheed Corporation to be distributed among Japanese politicians, including Tanaka, in exchange for landing an aircraft deal. The main broker was Kodama Yoshio, the wartime racketeer who was in prison with Kishi Nobusuke. When news of this latest scandal broke, a young porno movie actor crashed his light plane into the Lockheed office in Tokyo as an act of protest against capitalist corruption. He wore the uniform of a kamikaze fighter. His last words were “Long live the emperor!” Thus does farce echo the tragedies of history….

In terms of brute financial power, however, Tanaka’s legacy was a fantastic success. In the 1980s, Tokyo yuppies ate gold leaf. With a prime piece of Japanese real estate, you could have bought yourself a small country [Hawai‘i, for instance]….

Yet there was a sense among many Japanese of something missing in their rich and increasingly ugly country. It was not for nothing that the leaders of Aum Shinrikyo, the quasi-Buddhist cult, which tried to commit mass murder in 1995 by spreading sarin gas in the Tokyo subways, were men and women of the highest education. Many of them were scientists or trained for the technocratic bureaucracy. They were the heirs of the Ikeda deal, and in the absence of political responsibility for the here and now, they filled their heads with murderous spiritual utopianism. The group aimed for a huge conflagration, a spectacular destruction of what they saw as a meaningless society. A wonderful new world would rise from the ashes of postwar affluence….

Two years after the Gulf War, the LDP, racked by more corruption scandals and the defection of some powerful politicians, lost an election. For a short while, it looked as though the LDP System might come to an end….

It turned out to be another false dawn. The electoral changes did not go far enough to make a difference….

Yet something did change, not through political will, but through economic circumstances: The great bonanza ended in a massive stock market crash. Real estate prices tumbled, banks went under, and the Japanese bubble quickly seemed as fantastic in retrospect as tulip mania in seventeenth-century Amsterdam. Japanese triumphalists and Western alarmists were stunned into uncharacteristic silence. This did not bring down the LDP System, to be sure, but it more or less killed people’s trust in it. The bureaucratic elite lost much of its prestige. From trusted and safe guarantors of stability and growth, they came to be seen as arrogant blunderers out of touch with reality. The LDP still rules, but faute de mieux, and no longer alone. It has to share its power with other parties, such as the Komeito, linked to a right-wing Buddhist organization. And for the first time since the 1950s, even the highly educated salarymen in the senior ranks of large corporations can no longer be sure of a lifetime job. You see them in libraries, coffee shops, and railway stations, men in neat blue suits reading newspapers, pretending to work, but in fact cast adrift in a society that is slowly unraveling. The economic crash has not made many Japanese destitute, not yet. Fifty years of high-speed growth created huge reserves of wealth. But the Ikeda deal is over….

I am writing in Tokyo, in the early spring of 2002. And I think of the number of times in the last few weeks when Japanese told me, in all seriousness, that they wished the black ships would come round once again, to unblock the political system. Only foreign pressure, they say, can cut the knots that tether this insular society to the old ways that no longer function. I can see what they mean, but I look forward, nonetheless, to the day when Japanese free themselves and can finally bid the black ships farewell, because they no longer need them.

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