Nihon no jisatsu (“Japan’s Suicide”) is quite an evocative title. Few writings have foreseen the pathology that Japan would suffer in the 21th century as accurately as this. This article written by Group 1984, an anonymous group of conservative intellectuals in Japan, was published in the February 1975 edition of the monthly literary magazine Bungeishunju.
It argues that Japan should learn lessons from the experience of the Romans, who at a time were industrious but grew absorbed in consumption and asserted their rights so strongly that they forgot their obligations, and ultimately vanished from history in exchange for prosperity. The cautionary words seeking an example from history drew a strong response in Japanese society at that time. It is said that the late Toshio Doko, then chairman of the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren), widely distributed copies of the article.
Some decades later, the Asahi Shimbun mentioned “Japan’s Suicide” in its editorial titled “Taking Responsibility for Future Society” (by Wakamiya Yoshibumi) in the morning edition on January 10, 2012, seeing the financial collapse as becoming a real possibility for Japan. The fact that the Asahi Shimbun, which holds a different position in the “fourth estate,” agreed with the argument published in Bungeishunju 40 years prior shows how deeply and widely the crises covering Japan are shared among intellectuals in various circles in Japan.
The essential feature of the article lay in its claim that all cultures would be ruined by an internal societal breakdown, rather than by attacks from the outside. It said that the fall of culture that had once prospered was due to its suicide through the collapse and internal breakdown of society and that the cause was not natural disasters or invasion by foreign enemies, but decay within its residents. This indication is actually not novel for those who study history, yet the article became increasingly convincing because of its adept approach at identifying phenomena in ancient history with the pathology from which modern society suffers and its skillful nomenclature. For example, the article used superb rhetoric, such as assigning the term “mass socialization state” to the phenomenon of Rome’s continuously ballooning population triggered by the inflow of people seeking prosperity, which caused the collapse of small communities that had prided themselves on solid cohesiveness. It also used the term “civil minimum” for the substance of bailouts and security demanded by citizens who became proletariat as a result of losing land in the Punic Wars, and were economically ruined.
It was also brilliant in trying to explain inflation and the epidemic of egoism in Rome using the couplet panem et circenses (bread and circus) from Juvenalis in ancient Rome, who is known for his Satvarae (satiric poetry book). The couplet means that politicians give those who do not work “bread” to gain support and popularity from the civilian public, which had excess time to look for “circus” to kill its boredom when it should have been working.
Thus, Group 1984 warned that the self-destruction process that took hold in Rome could be repeated in Japan’s history; that is, the process beginning with prosperity at the heart of a world state, going through indulgence and falling in return for affluence, the collapse of communities and the emergence of the mass socialization state, the civil minimum of panem et circenses, increasing social welfare costs, inflation and the devitalization of the people (Romans), the flood of egoism and false egalitarianism, and culminating in social disarray.
What was important in the writers’ discussions was their consideration of the real danger of a fall. They pointed out that the Japanese had lost their ability to recognize crises and tests due to the extreme egalitarianism and denial of an elite consciousness. They also warned that the Japanese had become unable to see the overall picture and their long-term future since their habit of looking at parts and short-term profits had impaired their creativity and constructive thought that would otherwise be used to tackle such crises and tests.
Group 1984 did not use the word “leadership,” but it labeled as populism attributes of politicians in modern Japan such as absence of leadership and lack of a broad perspective and comprehensive power (which I mention in my recent book Leadership [Shincho Shinsho]), and the qualities of a considerable number of Diet members, children of this mass socialization, who only provided panem et circenses to the people, using attractive prose such as “from the standpoint of civil people” and “for the sake of the public”.
The article listed lessons Japan should learn from the fall of culture and which are still worth heeding even today. Above all, it is correct in its indication that if the Japanese public seeks narrow-minded selfish interests to the point of being unable to control their egos, economic society will self-destruct. The fiscal crisis and national moral hazard in Greece and Italy at the present are just two examples of this. In addition, a society excessively dependent on public welfare with the public lacking a spirit of independence and self-respect has no alternative but to fall to ruin together with the nation. Though an increase in Japanese and foreign residents who have lost the incentive to work, seeking welfare benefits rather than the minimum wage, is a matter of serious concern, the public lacks a sense of crisis. Also in Japan, where the word “elite” is denied and repelled with self-deprecation, it appears that the noblesse oblige by which the elite takes responsibility has already been completely lost.
Not only politicians, but too many scholars and teachers also devalue their social roles by fawning upon and pandering to citizens and students. Such types do not hesitate to make groundless compromises and kowtow to juniors and those of the opposite sex. There is no way these younger people who are not trained or disciplined can launch into the international community, and, at best, they can only be satisfied with fighting over a small pie in the narrow domestic job market. They will lament over the situation in which they cannot find work, feel resent and hostility against society, and degrade to a state in which they only dump their gripes on the government.
The pathology of the post-war Japanese to lost sight of values and the overall picture for exceeding material desire and self-interest is now affecting those in the 21st century more seriously than predicted by Group 1984. Who are these Japanese who remain looking for bread and circus without any concept of obligation and service even now, when financial ruin is imminent? The reemergence of quality intellects capable of tackling these questions in the theory of civilization has never been more greatly desired.
Translated from “21 seiki no ‘pan to saakasu’ ni koshite — Ryoshitsuna chi no saigen wo (Countering Panem et Circenses in the 21st Century — For the Reemergence of Quality Intellect)”,’Bungeishunju, March 2012, pp. 118-119. (Courtesy of Bungeishunju Ltd.)