The avoidance of unpleasantness

Bad things do happen in Japan and yet, when they are filtered through the medium of network television news, they don’t seem to be quite so bad. Earthquakes are reported with a calm reassurance, corruption scandals with concern and a sense of disappointment rather than censure, and when a huge sinkhole appeared in the western city of Fukuoka, the story became about the heroic efforts of engineers and construction workers to repair the damage and get the city up and running again.

Television news in Japan likes to accentuate the positive and focus on heart-warming human interest stories. In the autumn of 2016, the Japanese Paralympic team received extensive coverage, not only their success in Rio de Janeiro but their home coming parade and the preparations for the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo. It was a story of striving against impossible odds to achieve glory for oneself and one’s country that played especially well to the Japanese audience.

Suzuki Naoko, the doe-eyed presenter of NHK’s flagship evening news program, News Watch 9, is particularly adept at reassuring viewers that whatever the problem discussed in the broadcast, the Japanese people have the courage and ability to overcome it, and also to gently remind viewers that there many reasons to be cheerful even if you are feeling sad. When there was a spate of traffic accidents involving elderly drivers, including one that killed a small child, Susuki reported the incident with a due gravitas, motherly concern and sympathy for the victim but also for the elderly driver who had been working a long shift and was in a hurry to make his delivery. Later in the broadcast she could effortlessly switch to expressions of admiration for Ohsumi Yoshinori, Japan’s sole Nobel laurate this year, marvel at the red leaves pictured in the weather forecast or giggle in anticipation of the latest action from the Grand Sumo tournament.

Interestingly, when bad things happen in China and Korea, they tend to be reported on Japanese television news and documentaries in a more matter-of-fact manner without any emotional engagement or editorial comment: After all, for Japanese viewers, China and Korea are places where bad things naturally happen.

Japan’s long and troubled relationship with China and Korea is probably the one area where the country’s official story tellers can get into trouble both at home and abroad. The accentuation of the positive in official histories and the reluctance to condemn the actions of the military government during the 1930s and 40s still angers people in China and Korea today, while any attempt to placate China or Korea with historical revisionism is met with hostility from Japan’s small but very vocal band of right-wing nationalists.

Having spent a lot of time living and working in China, I understand the anger felt at Japan’s continued denial of wrongdoing and refusal to really accept responsibility for wartime atrocities. It was made very clear to me within months of arriving in Beijing for the first time in the summer of 1984. One afternoon, a Japanese student was practicing his swordsmanship in the courtyard in front of the foreign students’ dormitory completely oblivious to the hatred burning in the eyes of the elderly caretaker behind him. When I mentioned to the young man that it was rather insensitive to wield a samurai sword in front of someone with keen memories of the war and Japanese occupation, he just looked mystified. In the version of history that he had learned, the Japanese warrior was someone to be admired and emulated not just by Japanese but all Asian peoples.

Today’s Japanese students are hopefully not that naïve but there is still a great deal of educational material out there that presents a highly edited version of history. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is a particularly troubling example. The museum and the surrounding Peace Memorial Park have one resounding theme; that nuclear weapons are abhorrent and we should do everything in our power to eliminate them entirely. Very few people would argue with that, and without doubt, the museum does a very good job of revealing, in forensic detail, the full horror of the atomic bomb. But it is the questions the museum ignores and the important details it leaves out of the narrative that ultimately undermine the message and show once again how difficult it is for Japan to admit fault.

The Atomic Dome in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park

In the museum narrative, the citizens of Hiroshima are victims pure and simple. The museum stresses the number of school children who were killed, horribly burned or irradiated during the bombing but only mentions in passing that they had been mobilized by the military to shore up the city’s defences rather than be evacuated to safety. It mentions that several thousand Koreans, who were “helping with the wartime labour shortage” were also killed in the blast. The Koreans were of course forced labourers rather than just helping out. Tellingly, in a video interview with one of the Korean survivors he mentions that his first concern after the bombing was that the Japanese would blame the Koreans for the explosion, just as they blamed ethnic Koreans for exploiting, even causing, the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923. Hundreds of Koreans were massacred by vigilante mobs in Tokyo at that time.

No mention is made at all of why the Americans dropped the bomb in the first place or why Hiroshima was selected as the target; namely that the city was a major military, industrial and logistical centre, and garrison to around 40,000 troops, most of who were stationed in the command post at Hiroshima Castle, which was obliterated in the explosion. There is no reflection on the long bloody war that led up to the dropping of the atomic bomb and the millions who died in countless other acts of horrific violence. Moreover, it fails to address the fundamental causes of war; nationalism, imperialism and economic greed, and the specific trajectory of Japanese history from the Meji Restoration onwards that made war inevitable.

The museum’s avoidance of difficult questions or unpleasant realities is however understandable in a country where unpleasantness is avoided as a matter of course. Perhaps, it is more surprising that there is a museum or any kind of monument at all. Many people in Hiroshima have argued that the iconic Atomic Dome is an eyesore and an unpleasant memory that should be demolished.

The desire to get rid of the unpleasant or the unacceptable can be seen in many aspects of Japanese society: The importance of cleanliness and bathing, removing unacceptable stains and odours and guarding against disease is perhaps its most obvious manifestation, as is the country’s remarkable toilet technology that ensures all waste is efficiently disposed of and that no residue is left on the user. Likewise, rudeness, invasive questions, angry gestures and other unpleasant social behaviours are constrained, and the memories of unfortunate events are supressed.

Once you have disposed of that which is socially unacceptable, however, you need to replace it or at least mask it with something more pleasant, ideally something warm and sentimental that can fill the void and bring a smile to your face: And this is a task in which Japan really excels at, most notably in its anime and kawaii culture.

Hello Kitty, Pokémon and dozens of other cute and cuddly characters like Kumamon, the official mascot of Kumamoto prefecture (pictured above), are hugely popular, and not just in Japan – suggesting that the desire mask the unpleasant with kitsch is not an exclusively Japanese trait, merely one that is more highly developed in Japan. Many might argue that Hello Kitty and her friends are perfectly harmless cultural icons that bring joy to millions of people, but surely, disguising the socially unacceptable with a veneer of sentimentally rather than tackling social problems head on cannot be healthy in the long-term. On the surface, it may make life easier and more pleasant but, deep down, the problems you wish to flush away are just left to fester.

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