Shusaku Endo Considers Japan in the Twentieth Century

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Our Author of the Month for 2017 Shusaku Endo reflects, in this previously-unpublished piece, on how Japan changed as a nation over the course of the twentieth century.

In 1923 I was born in Japan, a country regarded as an island nation by Europe. That year there was a major earthquake in my birthplace, Tokyo, and half the city was burnt down, although I have no memory of this cataclysmic event.

The massive earthquake was a turning point in Japan’s fortunes. Within a few years there was economic depression, and gradually the country was taken over by military rule. By the time I had started at junior high school Japan was waging war on China. Around the time I went to university it was at war with the USA and other nations of the world. The reason for its leaders’ bellicosity was never made clear to its citizens, and we were kept in the dark as to the true nature of our enemies, the democracies of the West. Thus we were compelled to exist in a permanent state of unease throughout the course of the Second World War.

I received Christian baptism as a young boy, and people regarded me as a Japanese attached to a faith from an alien world. Although I was never physically attacked, I spent much of my time at university feeling despised for my religion. For me Japan had become hostile, a nation from which I felt apart, and I was in a permanent state of anxiety wondering how to prepare myself for the day I would have to fight for my country.

These days I realise that many of my fellow students felt the same way as me. When I read the letters and journals written by those young men who, as conscripts, waged war at the front I find that they expressed the same grave doubts about the morality of warfare as I felt during those years, and I feel an ineffable sadness at this discovery.

In truth we could hardly love a homeland that had become politically so aggressive and so insular. It is clear from the journals of the youth forced into military service, including those who would end up as kamikaze pilots, that they did not support Japan’s cause. Many wrote, ‘I am fighting to protect my mother and my sisters.’ They were not fighting for their country.

Our nation was defeated after the ultimate weapon, the atom bomb, was dropped on two cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by the USA. This catastrophic event taught us a number of lessons, the most important of which was the cruelty and suffering war can cause. We learnt the cruelty of warfare from the depth of our being through the mercilessly destructive force of the atom bomb. The Japanese people recognised the contradiction that something human intelligence had created could send humankind to hell.

Japan in the post-war period was impoverished and frequently short of food. I was still at university but enjoying freedom of speech and religion for the first time in my life. I imagine the people of the former communist countries of Western Europe have been appreciating the same sense of liberation since the recent fall of the Berlin Wall. Nevertheless, although we revelled in our newfound freedom of expression, I can’t help feeling that we lost something crucial to our national identity. In confusing traditional ways with the dire consequences of latter-day feudalism and martial aggression, Japan’s population jettisoned customs going back centuries, and consequently much of value was lost in the decades that followed.

This is significant when considering the post-war development of the country. Respect for ancestors and age-old family tradition ebbed away. This may sound strange to Europeans, but altruism has a tendency to dissipate as family bonds and respect for one’s elders diminish. Since Buddhism does not teach moral values in the same way as Christianity does, before the outbreak of war Japanese society benefited from the moral certitudes that centred on the family in a society that highly regarded its ancestors. Once we lost the tradition of respecting our forebears, a more egotistical society developed. After a period of misery and deprivation the Japanese started to find satisfaction in material rather than spiritual things.

I still remember what many Japanese in their twenties replied to the question ‘What is happiness?’ They said it was having a car, a television and a washing machine like the Americans. The lifestyle of the US occupying forces came to represent the good life to young Japanese men and women – although for the most part it was beyond their reach.

Much of Japan’s infrastructure had been damaged or destroyed by war, but a sound education system survived. In order to revive happiness and prosperity for its people the way forward seemed to centre on developing technology and industry as quickly as possible, because there were relatively few fertile plains suitable for significant agricultural growth in such a mountainous country.

Technology and industry became the buzzwords for Japan. To achieve the goal of becoming number one in terms of cutting-edge industrial and technological innovation, the diligent and hard-working people ‘worked like ants’, as Edith Cresson, the current Prime Minister of France, has disparagingly commented. But it was all in pursuit of happiness.

Then, following the disintegration of traditional family values and respect for ancestors, began the separation from the natural world, until then revered by the Japanese. Christian countries have always tried to dominate nature. We, however, had never known how to control nature because we had lived as one with it. We lacked the knowledge to preserve nature in a harmonious way and maintain its integrity as industrialisation proceeded apace. As a result, destruction occurred instead of control. Factories were erected, and vast numbers of houses were built for the growing population. The once beautiful landscape of Japan was transformed into something quite depressing to view.

In pursuit of happiness Japan became an industrial and manufacturing nation, and as a result we lost two irreplaceable props of society: respect for family and ancestors and a reverence for nature. I fervently hope that this will not be replicated in the South-East Asian countries now becoming industrialised in our wake.

Japan became a mass producer of cars and televisions, and its people came to possess them. At the same time it was the first nation to suffer from environmental problems caused by the destruction of nature. Fish disappeared in rivers that used to be pristine, and lakes became dirty. To this day the inhabitants of the industrial city of Minamata suffer the effects of a devastating neurological disease caused by water severely contaminated with mercury by a local chemical factory. And all this from a desire to become happy and prosperous once more.

In the event, morality did not disappear in our society, because a tendency to value one’s living relatives replaced the former tradition of ancestor worship. The new notion of family helped maintain the social order of Japan; as a result today we have fewer incidents of violence or drug misuse compared to other nations in the West. However, many Japanese – especially the younger generation –have a certain emptiness in their soul; something seems to be missing spiritually. In recent years new religions have appeared one after another in our country. These ‘new age’ faiths resemble Buddhism in certain respects but cannot be regarded as true Buddhism. Even so they attract young people, probably to relieve a sense of futility and emptiness in their lives.

The fact that many travel to foreign countries in groups may also be a manifestation of a search for meaning and joy. The younger Japanese especially like to leave home to explore distant lands. They travel round the islands to the south, perhaps because they are looking for contentment there. This wanderlust seems to be the manifestation of an unconscious hope that they will find something they have lost back home.

For myself, although I have travelled widely I could never desert my country. I witnessed the barbarism of war and the immense suffering and loss of life that ensued. I am of the generation that experienced the atrocities of bellicose and nationalistic militarism as well as the humiliation of defeat. In the light of this I understand the sacrifices my compatriots made in the post-war decades to survive and to improve their lot.

Japan has developed a special character in embracing science and technology while maintaining many of its age-old traditions and philosophical ideas. In this it perhaps has unique potential, as its outlook on life could prove invaluable in fusing the philosophies of the Eastern and Western world. Undoubtedly we have learnt much from the West, in terms of culture and civilisation as well as industrial and technological innovation. But there is something of tremendous value in the Oriental way of thinking that could prove meaningful to the rest of the world. It may be that Japan can take a leading role in harmonising these very different traditions of thought.

With thanks to Shusaku Endo’s publishers Peter Owen. Shusaku Endo is the London Review Bookshop’s Author of the Month for January 2017.