Politics, No.6  Jun. 2, 2011


Major incidents named after a date

The day that the Great East Japan Earthquake struck has come to be called 3/11. I don’t know who first started referring to the incident in this way. Is it an association with 9/11? If so, what is the association?

I can still see the cover of the September 13 issue of The Economist, published in London, which was issued immediately after the September 11 attacks. The phrase “The day the world changed” appears on a photo of The World Trade Center in New York, which is issuing columns of smoke. That definition of September 11 by the magazine, which is widely read by intellectuals around the world, has entered into common use. Influenced by the discussion of those who read The Economist, people have come to share an awareness that the world did indeed change on that day.

The phrase “3/11,” I guess, is based on a similar awareness. It is an awareness of a discontinuity. It is a sad awareness that everything was disconnected and changed at that time. But it is also a desire that things should be disconnected.

Looking back on modern history, a number of major events have been named after their dates. An attempted coup d’騁at by a radical ultranationalist faction of the Imperial Japanese Army is the 2-26 Incident. A massive anti-Japanese demonstration in colonial Korea in 1919 is the 3-1 Independence Movement. The end of World War II is 8-15. July Fourth synonymous with American Independence and Le Quatorze Juillet with The French Revolution are to the same effect. Perhaps we can conclude that those incidents are referred to by the numbers due to a general awareness that things changed on those dates.

I would like to discuss what sort of awareness of discontinuity and what sort of change in thinking occurred after 9/11 ten years ago in the United States, and what will likely occur after 3/11 in Japan.

Before that, I am going to discuss 8-15, which before 3/11 was the greatest crossroads in Japanese history.

Maruyama Masao and Kawabata Yasunari

8-15, this is the date, the day on which World War II ended. The Asia-Pacific War was over. Japan changed radically from that point onwards. We refer to the end of the war by the date, 8-15, to demarcate history.

In legal terms, calling 8-15 the date of the end of the war is somewhat controversial. Japan accepted the Potsdam Declaration, in which the Allied Forces, including the United Kingdom and the United States, demanded its surrender, on August 14, 1945. The representatives of Japan signed the Instruments of Surrender on board the battleship USS Missouri on September 2. However, in the minds of the Japanese, the turning point came with the broadcast of the voice of Emperor Hirohito on a bright blue summer’s day.

Periods in modern history are not necessarily identical to institutional changes. Rather, some images and language have strong impacts on people through major media events, which create awareness of a paradigm shift, or a discontinuity. The broadcasting of the voice of Emperor Hirohito was a media event that made people understand that a paradigm shift had taken place.

That paradigm shift in the public perception that was triggered by the broadcast of the voice of the Emperor became reality in the form of changes that actually happened afterwards, including the promulgation of the Constitution of Japan. More important were changes in people’s thinking as a result of the society-wide effect of discussions among intellectuals.

The representative intellectual who considered 8-.15 a day of discontinuity was Maruyama Masao. In a famous essay titled “The Logic and Psychology of Ultranationalism,” he strongly criticized the regime before the war and wrote, “8-.15 was the day when Japanese militarism ended and the day when the national polity lost its absoluteness and left its destiny in the hands of the Japanese people, who had become free and independent for the first time.” Is Maruyama correct? His argument that the national polity lost its absoluteness is partly right. However, that really can be said to be his hope. He must have thought that it should be that way.

Other people did not think so. One of the leading figures is Kobayashi Hideo. Asked about his attitude during the war at a discussion meeting held some time after the war was over, Kobayashi said, “Because I am ignorant, I do not reflect on the war. Let smart people reflect deeply on the war.” He seemed defiant, but as he explained later, he preferred his thinking to be consistent, resulting in continuity.

Kobayashi was confrontational, while other people refused discontinuity silently and pledged themselves to continuity. Kawabata Yasunari is a typical example.

When the writer Shimaki Kensaku passed away at a hospital in Kamakura on the evening of August 17, two days after the end of the war, Kawabata accompanied his body, which was carried to his home on a stretcher on the same day. In a eulogy he said, “Considering myself as a dead person, I will not write a line about anything other than the sorrowful beauty of Japan.”

Two years and five months later, Kawabata lost Yokomitsu Riichi, who had been a close ally for 25 years. “Your bones were also broken when the country was defeated. I will live after your death with Japanese mountains and rivers as my soul,” Kawabata said in his eulogy. That was the same sober determination as shown when Shimaki passed away.

I would say that the thoughts of discontinuity and continuity, represented by Maruyama and Kawabata respectively, were in conflict in the discourse after 8-.15.

Something similar occurred in the United States after 9/11. I assume a similar situation will occur in Japan after the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Collapse of the myth of safety

The two World Trade Center buildings were reduced to smoking rubble in the wake of the attacks on 9/11. The intense images shared simultaneously by people through the media compelled Americans to radically change the paradigm in which they thought. It generated an awareness of discontinuity. What kind of paradigm shift and discontinuity was it?

First, the myth of safety collapsed.

Mainland United States had experienced its first serious direct attack since the War of 1812 (1812 to 1814) shortly after the country declared independence. In that war, Washington, D.C. was invaded, and the presidential residence was burned to the ground. Fort McHenry in Baltimore withstood a heavy naval bombardment. “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the poem that has become the national anthem of the United States, was inspired by the bombardment. The United States was still in its infancy.

The attack on Pearl Harbor was the first serious attack on the United States in its modern form. However, since Hawaii was an incorporated territory and a group of islands thousands of kilometers away from the mainland, people on the mainland, particularly those on the East Coast, might not have felt that the homeland had been attacked.

And so the 9/11 attacks can be said to be the first serious attack on the mainland of the United States since the nation was in its infancy. Moreover, buildings that had been a symbol of New York’s central role in the economy were destroyed, as was part of the Pentagon, the center of national defense in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., itself the center of political power.

The commercial airplane that crashed in a rural area in Pennsylvania after passengers resisted the terrorists was believed to be aiming for the U.S. Capitol Building or the White House as their target options. The attacks were directed at the heart of U.S. political and economic strength, and 3,000 people were killed. (In the immediate wake of the attacks, the figure was believed to be 6,000.)

The mainland of the United States had escaped serious attacks in World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War (which the United States lost) and the Cold War, in which the United States was exposed to the fear of nuclear war. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, America had won the Cold War and had no rivals. It had the same overwhelming advantage it enjoyed immediately after World War II. The mood of the country was relaxed, permitting it to become embroiled in the Clinton sex scandal.

The essay of David Brooks (then a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, now a columnist for the New York Times) titled “A Return to National Greatness” (March 1997) best describes the situation in the United States. “But now, on the verge of the 21st century, Americans have discarded their pursuit of national greatness in just about every particular,” he lamented. “Our official culture disdains the idea that history is a story of progress unfolding. We think it naive….Instead, history is something of a chaos; cultures bubble about in a relativistic stew.”

He said that although America enjoyed greater world dominance than Americans a century earlier could ever have imagined, Americans had almost none of the same sense of global purpose. The major common purpose of the President and Congress in 1997 was balancing the budget. A government that failed to offer any vigorous vision merely fed public cynicism and disenchantment.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks struck the United States as it was relaxed and dozing in the myth of safety. It was like the Pearl Harbor attack, which woke up the United States from its isolationism. In a sense, the impact of 9/11 was even stronger.

Brooks was glad that the mood of the sleeping power had changed drastically after 9/11. “I feel upbeat because the country seems to be a better place than it was a month ago. I feel guilty about it because I should be feeling pain and horror and anger about the recent events,” he said, in another piece of writing.

He was glad because he is a “conservative” writer who advocated a return to national greatness. He sought discontinuity in social trends. After the crisis, the general public felt a strong awareness of unity (nationalism), symbolized by the ubiquitous Stars and Stripes, and the fear that their lives were in danger at any time from terrorism. A paradigm shift from security to insecurity had occurred.

This is when I was assigned to Washington, D.C. for the second time. When I arrived there about ten months after 9/11, anticipating war against Iraq, I saw an America that I had never seen before, with the city fortified against possible terrorist attacks and people frightened at the sight of Arabs. I felt a discontinuity. The United States seemed to have been placed on a new type of war footing since 9/11.

Senior government officials spoke openly in media about fears of nuclear terrorism, and there were strange incidents which looked like bioterrorism attacks. The optimism of the Americans was seemingly being consumed.

Talking about America

In these circumstances, I saw power that quietly rejected discontinuity and sought to make things permanent.

There was a booklet, an anthology of short essays about America, edited by the State Department, the counterpart of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. I heard that the booklet was edited based on the idea of a diplomat, who was also a writer. Prefaced with “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” a poem about links among generations of common people in Leaves of Grass, a poetry collection of Walt Whitman, the booklet collected short essays of novelists, poets and literary critics on what ‘America’ meant to them, what ‘America’ was in their own mind.

Attacked by terrorists, Americans wondered why they were hated. I guess that the booklet was intended to find solutions, if only a few, to the problem by using the power of culture (“soft power”) instead of force. The booklet transcended the domain of propaganda and brought home the sadness of Americans.

The first essay was a story of the youth of an Arab-American woman poet who was brought up in a small town. The life of an immigrant, a typical 20th-century American, in a typical small town was described. I saw the will to reject the discontinuity of drastic change.

I visited Mecosta, a small, remote village with a population of 400 in Michigan, in the summer of 2003, the year that the Iraq War began. I saw again the family of the late Russell Kirk (1918 to 1994), who played an important role in establishing the conservative intellectual movement after World War II. He had helped my research in his final years. I heard the voice of the conservative grassroots from young scholars gathered there, who denounced the Iraq War as an absurd war. I saw an aspect of America that rejected discontinuity.

The National Story Project, or true-life stories of people from all walks of life, read by writer Paul Auster on the radio, was published as a book immediately after 9/11.

I felt all those things rejected discontinuity and vowed continuity just like the eulogy of Kawabata Yasunari, which said, “I will live after your death with Japanese mountains and rivers as my soul.”

Following the terrorist attacks, major change was imposed on the United States, which in turn created its own radical change by waging war. However, I felt that something had remained the same in the United States.

Japan after 3/11

One of the reasons that the Great East Japan Earthquake is called 3/11, as the terrorist attacks are called 9/11, is the similarity between the shocking images of both incidents: the smoking hulk of the World Trade Center buildings and the carcasses of the Fukushima Daiichi’s No. 1 and No. 3 reactor buildings, destroyed by explosions. I assume that the similarity is one reason for the name for this discontinuity, 3/11.

I could point to a number of similarities between the United States after 9/11 and Japan after 3/11, such as the collapse of the myth of security and a sense of nuclear-related fear. The United States before 9/11 and Japan before 3/11 are also very similar to each other in that politics had been drifting and cultures had been bubbling in a relativistic stew.

Of course, there are significant differences. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks were man-made disasters, the sense of national unity inspired by the crisis was directed toward retaliation. The words of political leaders encouraged the people to retaliate. War rhetoric was often used. A break with the era before 9/11 was declared by the President, for example. At the beginning of the cabinet meeting on the morning of September 12, President Bush said that the situation had changed drastically and that a monumental struggle between good and evil had begun.

The words of Japanese politicians do not have the power to direct the people in the same sense they do in America. However, the people must have strongly sensed a discontinuity, or that the situation had changed, when they listened to Prime Minister Kan Naoto used the phrase “the most challenging crisis since the War” at a press conference on March 13. Some intellectuals used the phrase “after the disaster,” emphasizing a paradigm shift after the earthquake. Some quietly wished for and vowed continuity. Kawashima Shuichi, a folklore scholar based in Kesennuma, who had walked along the Sanriku shoreline and recorded the life of fishermen, lost his mother and home in the tsunami.

“Is this the time to learn from the views of the fishermen who lived along the Sanriku coast, devastated many times by tsunamis, on destiny, life and death, and nature? I can guess only one thing, and that is that fishermen on the Sanriku coast have lived not on the sea but with the sea. They would not be willing to go fishing unless they have an equal relationship with the sea. I would like to support their positive approach to life a little longer,” he wrote in his contribution to Kyodo News on April 20 (emphasis added).His comment is similar to the pledge of Kawabata after the war.

The desire for continuity that made Kawabata pledge to live with mountains and rivers as his soul and made Kawashima say that he wants to support fishermen a little longer was accompanied by their lament about the discontinuity and change in history. The desire for continuity was generated in association with this lament.

In a similar way, the desire for discontinuity seems to hide confidence in continuity. Did Masao Maruyama simply desire a discontinuity? Wasn’t there confidence in something that was permanent when he sought changes after 8-15?

Discontinuity strengthens a desire for continuity, and confidence in continuity makes you support change after discontinuity. There is a dialectical relationship between discontinuity and continuity.

I will continue to think about what kinds of discontinuity and continuity will and should be generated in Japan after 3/11.

Translated from “Shinsai ni-kagetsu no ima kangaeru-bekikoto, 3/11 to 9/11 -‘danzetsu’ no shiko, ‘eizoku’ no ishi-,” Chuo Koron, June 2011, pp.54-59. (Courtesy of Chuo Koron Shinsha) [June 2011]