"America floats between modernity & collapse": What Japan can teach the U.S. about averting disaster

Historian Morris Berman tells Salon about the striking social and historical contrast between the two world powers

Published June 21, 2015 9:58AM (EDT)

Barack Obama and Shinzo Abe             (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
Barack Obama and Shinzo Abe (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Morris Berman, American historian, cultural theorist, and sociologist, is a starry eyed realist whose grim forecast of American demise makes him alone even in leftist circles. In the brilliant trilogy of books on American decline -- "Twilight of American Culture," "Dark Ages of America," and "Why America Failed" -- he surveys the political dysfunction, economic disrepair and cultural decay of modern America. Unlike most social critics, he does not end his analysis with a perfunctory prescription for revolution. Such optimistic talk, Berman makes clear, is the delusional noise of sounding brass and tinkling cymbals.

After chronicling America’s birth as a “nation of hustlers,” and exhaustively mapping its mutation into a vicious playground for the rich and prison for the poor, Berman has turned his eyes and pen to the East. His new book, "Neurotic Beauty: An Outsider Looks at Japan," is a bracing, fascinating and challenging exploration of Japanese culture, politics, and ethics. The product of a lifelong fascination for Berman, "Neurotic Beauty" not only examines Japanese history and contemporary culture, but also the relationship between Japan and America, the conflict between individualism and collectivism, craft traditions alternative to consumer capitalism, and the possibility that Japan might emerge as a “post-capitalist” model for economics and politics.

I recently had the pleasure and privilege of interviewing Berman about his book, and his forecast for Japan and America.

You have a diverse range of high quality work – everything from historical investigations to collections of poetry – but you’ve spent most of your recent years chronicling and exploring American decline. Why did you decide, at this point, to write a major study of Japan?

It’s the same with all my books: They decide me rather than the reverse. In other words, for me writing comes about because of some visceral impulse, a deep motivation that impels me in a particular direction, rather than because of some random “intellectual interest.” As I explain in the introduction to "Neurotic Beauty," my first awareness of Japan came at age 16, when my high school English teacher, for some reason I can’t recall, was discussing Japanese sword making. He explained that the craft tradition in Japan had a strong spiritual dimension; that the sword maker would fast and pray for three days before beginning the work; and that (I can’t remember if he used these exact words) the final product was the expression of that inner process.

As a teenager living in the go-go capitalism of the postwar era, where everyone was excited about tail fins and frozen foods, I found this Japanese tradition speaking for a whole other realm of existence. I was transfixed, and over the years maintained an interest in Japanese art and even wrote about Japanese culture—short bits and pieces—on occasion. But my schedule was such that I never had time to devote myself to a more comprehensive study of the country, until about four years ago, when I finished my "American Empire" trilogy and was finally free to go back to age 16, so to speak, and explore that early romantic impulse. In doing so, I had to examine the dark side of Japanese history as well, of course—I’m no longer 16—but the project had by then taken on a larger dimension, including issues such as the Rape of Nanjing, the bombing of Hiroshima, the nature of the Japanese economy, and so on. I wound up traveling to Japan twice, in 2012 and 2014, interviewing a number of craftspeople and otaku—“nerds”—and soaking up the ethos of the nation as best I could. I’m no Japan expert, to be sure—I can’t read the language, for example—but I think that overall, the final result is a stimulating read, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to explore this fascinating world.

Japan has a craft tradition, an embrace of emptiness, and a willingness to confront death and suffering that you convincingly argue compose the best parts of Japanese culture. Why are these features so important, and what problems manifest in America for lacking them?

"Neurotic Beauty" is a study of Japan rather than of the U.S., but the truth is that ever since the two nations collided in Commodore Perry’s fateful arrival in Tokyo Bay in 1853, it has been difficult to avoid comparisons, to discuss one without discussing the other. The most dramatic case of this, in terms of postwar American scholarship, at least, is Ruth Benedict’s brilliant study, "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword," which explicitly discussed Japan as being “not-U.S.” In many ways, Japan comes out on top in that essay, which was probably a shock to American readers in the wake of our victory in the Pacific. The book sold a few thousand copies in America and a few million in Japan, probably because as an anthropologist, Benedict understood that victory or not, Japan’s strengths were our weaknesses, culturally speaking.

To be more specific, America doesn’t really have much of a craft tradition, except in a decorative sense. You can see examples of this at the Met in New York, of course, and they are very beautiful; but these were not the pots and pans of daily life, as was the case in Japan. Recent research has shown that economically speaking, crafts did not amount to much in the early United States; mass production was already underway by the 1820s. Even today, Tokyo has about 10,000 potters who make a living from their work. I doubt New York has even 500. The result is that beauty is a major aspect of Japanese culture—some would say the number one aspect. America, by contrast, is heavily utilitarian, and aesthetically impoverished as a result.

Of course, modern Japan has “gone American” in a big way, no doubt about it, especially in terms of the consumerist frenzy that characterizes the United States. After the War, Japanese youth was more interested in buying plastic wastebaskets than hand-woven ones, and in drinking Coca-Cola than green tea. Yet the themes you raise in your question—the craft tradition, the embrace of emptiness, and the awareness of death and impermanence—remain firmly embedded in the Japanese psyche. All three of these aspects of Japanese psychology formed the crux of that Tom Cruise film of 2003, "The Last Samurai," a romanticized version of the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877. The Japanese response to that film was remarkable, consisting of a huge emotional outpouring on talk shows, blogs, and other media that effectively said: “This is us, this is the real Japan.” (Benedict redux, one might call it.) It suggested that Gen. MacArthur notwithstanding, the Americanization of Japan was only skin deep. And that is because the craft tradition, the philosophy of emptiness (think of karate, for example: the empty hand that has enormous power), and mono no aware—the melancholy awareness of the impermanence of human life—go back thousands of years. As someone once said, with reference to the Japanese, scratch a sarariman (businessman) and you find a samurai. (This is probably a romanticization as well, but not without a grain of truth.)

American culture doesn’t possess this form of gravitas. Scratch an American businessman and you find... a businessman. By and large, Americans aren’t very complex; what you see is what you get. As I argue in "Why America Failed," the dominant culture in the U.S. has always been spiritually thin, consisting in little more than the American Dream (which is, after all, primarily a dream of materialistic success). Thus the frenzy for consumer goods and “undigested tech-shit,” as Ursula Le Guin puts it, is what America is about; and as this dream unravels, the U.S. doesn’t have much to fall back on. Which accounts for much of the hysteria and superficiality—and brutality, I might add—that characterizes America today.

(One friend recently wrote me that he went to a multiplex to see "Selma" on Martin Luther King Day this year, and was in line with four other people; while across the hall, "American Sniper" was mobbed. This probably says it all.)

"Neurotic Beauty" makes it clear that the story isn’t as simple as America staining Japanese purity. One of the most vexing conflicts of modernity is the struggle between individuality and communal involvement and investment. How does one retain one’s own individuality while also belonging to a community committed to a larger good than one own self-interest? America and Japan, in many respects, employ entirely opposite methods in negotiating this dilemma. How does Japan’s insistence on sublimating the individual create problems? Also, how do you find a balance in this struggle? It seems that after chronicling the poison of individualism, but also confronting the flaws of collectivism, you are in a good position to offer insight.

The real insight here is the work of Ernest Becker, specifically his tour de force, "The Denial of Death." Becker’s exploration of the dialectical tension between the individual and the community has never been surpassed; and from my own point of view, America and Japan are the archetypes, the polar opposites, of that tension. Quite honestly, it could be the major issue of our time, with no easy solution in sight. There is a payoff, and a dark side, to either end of this spectrum, and the U.S. and Japan display this dualism in spades. Group psychology, consensus, is the great strength of Japanese culture, lending coherence to their way of life. Yet it was precisely this psychology that led to their involvement in the Pacific War, and in more recent times, the disaster at Fukushima. And, one might argue, the Aum Shinrikyo cult, which released sarin gas in the Tokyo metro in 1995. As Haruki Murakami shows in his book "Underground," joining Aum Shinrikyo was a way for Japanese people who were fed up with the dead-end conformity of Japanese life to seemingly escape that trap… only to fall into another one.

But as a Japanese colleague of mine at the University of Tokyo said to me, American individualism is really a “dependent individualism.” Or, one might argue, a sham. Sure, Americans are super-individualistic… except that they all seem to think the same thoughts, in the same way, and within a very narrow spectrum of opinion. And when they are fed up with the American emphasis (read: pathology) of the Clint Eastwood way of being in the world, they wind up in cults such as “est” or Scientology. (The recent movie by Alex Gibney, "Going Clear," does a good job of showing how mindless and robotic the cult of Scientology really is).

What Becker shows quite clearly is that this dilemma is an ontological one, not an intellectual one. I think back to the academic frenzy over postmodernism that gripped American universities in the '70s, for example, and how someone like Jacques Derrida was lionized when he crossed the pond to give some lectures. And what was deconstruction about, in the last analysis? Nothing, really; emptiness, but not in the Japanese sense of the term. To answer your question about balance: as long as human beings are terrified of the Void, they will be prey to groupism as well as to “dependent individualism.” I suspect we are going to be out of balance for a long time to come.

One of the many strengths of "Neurotic Beauty" is that you provide unique analysis of important issues. For example, your take on America’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki breaks new ground. How did the cultural conflict between America and Japan help lead to that nightmare?

My contribution to the debate as to what led to the dropping of the atomic bomb seems obvious, at least to me; the problem is, no American historian I know of has argued this thesis. Which is that it finally comes down to a difference in mentalité, as French historians put it—the world view, the mental spaces—of the two nations. Unless you see this, you can’t really solve the problem of why the bomb got dropped. (It’s possible that Japanese historians did solve it, however; I can’t say, since I don’t read Japanese.)

The standard American version is that it was done to save (American) lives—millions of lives, supposedly. This turns out to be pure hogwash: U.S. military estimates of the cost of an invasion of Honshu and Kyushu prior to August 6, 1945, were at most 46,000 G.I.’s.  The “millions of lives” argument (Truman actually pegged it at half a million, in his memoirs; the figure began to mysteriously multiply after that) was little more than postwar spin, to promote the (American) development of nuclear power and a nuclear arsenal, and also to rationalize/justify what was clearly a war crime. The so-called revisionist argument of Gar Alperovitz ("Atomic Diplomacy," 1965) that it was done to send a message to the Soviet Union, is much better, but finally incomplete; it leaves the Japanese side  of the equation out of the story, as Ian Buruma has pointed out.

But once you couple the American worship of technology (which I discuss in chapter 4 of "Neurotic Beauty," as well as in chapter 3 of "Why America Failed") with the fundamental American outlook that things are and should be simple, black and white, and then bring all that face-to-face with the deeply ingrained tendency toward group thinking among the Japanese—so deep that the Supreme War Council was still debating the proposed terms of surrender after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima—you get a hopeless situation. And since, within the context of this difference in mentalité, one side had the power and the other didn’t, the outcome was inevitable.

To conclude the book, you speculate and hope that Japan could emerge as a post-capitalist model for the world. It might work out a no-growth economy, and reignite its craft and communal traditions. You are not alone in this assessment, as your book cites other historians and social theorists who make the same prediction. Takamitsu Sawa, president of Shiga University, recently wrote in the Japan Times that Japan has “serious inequalities” that are “not being recognized by politicians, business leaders, civil servants or ordinary citizens.” How do you put these contradictions together, and how do you explain Japanese problems of demographics – a Japanese government study suggests that soon half the population will be senior citizens – and large groups of young men just dropping out of society? Given these problems, why does your analysis of Japan’s future differ from your analysis of America’s?

Ah, well, my suggestion that Japan might be the leading edge in the global disintegration of capitalism, and in the rise of a new post-capitalist socioeconomic formation, really lies in the realm of speculation; but as you point out, I’m hardly alone in speculating this way. Historically speaking, how does massive change come about? I’m talking about change in the category of the collapse of the Roman Empire, or of the feudal system in Europe. These are not matters of revolution, or radical social activism—which American “progressives” are, in my opinion, foolishly caught up in. (Any revolution that might occur on American soil now will surely come from the right, not the left.)

No: I’m talking about huge, large-scale changes in which a way of life that has existed for, say, 500 years—e.g. capitalism, from 1500 to 2000—is disintegrating because of internal contradictions that it cannot finally stave off. In such context, “bad is good”; to have something like 1 million young men—the so-called hikikomori—rejecting Japanese corporate culture and hiding out in their rooms for up to 15 years, refusing to join society (or the Aum Shinrikyo cult), strikes me as a very powerful statement. Indeed, one of my Japanese friends calls them “the conscience of the nation,” because their very existence serves as a shadow, or mirror, to the dominant corporate/consumerist culture. The same might be said of Japan’s demographic crisis, because as this renders the nation increasingly dysfunctional, especially in economic terms, radical alternatives to the dominant culture will have to be found. Such alternatives are already being explored in Japan, as well as in nations faced with severe austerity programs, such as Spain or Greece.

Of course, as the reelection of Shinzo Abe last December would indicate, the Japanese are not yet ready to chuck neoliberalism; but this too will contribute to an inevitable breakdown. I gave some lectures at the University of Tokyo in April 2014, and one thing I rather impolitely put to my audience (which I could get away with, since I’m an American, i.e. a person without much in the way of social graces), was: How many more Fukushimas do you need before you decide that the economic program of the Liberal Democratic Party, which has no more vision than that of the Republicrat Party in the United States (“growth”), is outright suicidal?

What I’m suggesting, in terms of the difference between Japan and America in this regard, is that while the latter has no craft tradition, or philosophical tradition (beyond pragmatism), or way of being in the world other than hustling and economic expansion, the former has centuries of a very different way of life in its background—one that involved no-growth, homeostatic, “Buddhist” economics. One sees, in contemporary Japan, an endless conflict between East and West, between tradition and modernity; and when modernity fails, as it surely will, the Japanese at least have their traditions to fall back on. America has no such fallback position; it floats, not between tradition and modernity, but between modernity and collapse—which we see all around us today.

What is possible—again, this is just speculation on my part—is that as the American Dream falls apart, which will lead to mass riots and migrations in the U.S., including the imposition of martial law to try and stem the chaos, Japan will shuck off the American dream as a false skin, and draw on its considerable psycho-historical resources so as to move toward a post-capitalist formation. It will not, of course, be a simple reversion to medievality, so to speak; history does not move in circles, Nietzsche notwithstanding. But it will be a recovery of certain aspects of medieval society in a postmodern form: history moving as a helix, a spiral. This, I think, is not an impossible scenario.

In 1978, the Japanese psychoanalyst Shu Kishida declared that the Japanese had become schizophrenic, their minds splintered into an outer “American” part that was keen on modernity and an inner “Japanese” part that rejected that in favor of the integrity of an earlier age. This analysis was, I believe, borne out by the subsequent emotional reaction to "The Last Samurai," to which I referred earlier. The point is that underneath the Americanization of Japan is a much older reality, one that neither Douglas MacArthur nor Walt Disney were able to wash away—a reality that is thousands of years old. The reaction to the Tom Cruise film was no strange aberration; it was rooted in a deeply held alternative value system. In "Neurotic Beauty" I argue that what I call “archaic modernism”—the ability to take something traditional and flip it—judo it, if you will—so as to give it a modern spin, is the core of the Japanese genius, and central to the Japanese outlook on life. The Japanese have done this many times in their history; perhaps, now, they will do it once again.

David Masciotra is the author of "Mellencamp: American Troubadour" (University Press of Kentucky). He has also written for the Atlantic, Washington Post and Los Angeles Review of Books. For more information visit www.davidmasciotra.com.

By David Masciotra

David Masciotra is the author of "Mellencamp: American Troubadour" (University Press of Kentucky) and the forthcoming "Barack Obama: Invisible Man" (Eyewear Publishing).

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America American History History Japan Japanese Culture United States