Japan and Me

Japan and Me

Prof. Dr. W.F. Vande Walle
KU Leuven
Faculty of Arts
Research Department of Language and Area Studies


Between Kawabata Yasunari and Ôe Kenzaburô

‘Japan and me’! This brief inevitably reminds me of the title of Kawabata Yasunari’s acceptance speech in Stockholm, pronounced when the novelist was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968. The address, which the author completed only on the day of the award ceremony, and bears the title Utsukushii Nihon no watashi (translated by the Japanologist Edward Seidensticker as Japan, The Beautiful, and Myself), is a highly-strung paean to a particular body of traditional Japanese elite culture. It runs the gamut of Japan’s central literary tradition, including Dôgen Kigen (1200-1253), Myôe Shônin (1173-1232), Lady Murasaki’s Genji monogatari and the poet and Zen monk Ryôkan (1758-1831). Kawabata makes an attempt at explaining Japanese aesthetic sensibility, in what I believe to be a deliberate effort to highlight the uniqueness of Japanese culture, setting Japanese culture off in its fundamental premises from Western culture, at the same time catering to the then prevalent commonplace image Japanese culture projected in the West: i.e. that of a culture impregnated by notions and values rooted in Zen Buddhism.

In many respects 1968 was a pivotal year, even though no one would have been aware of it at the time. Among many other things, it was the year in which post-war Japan for the first time registered a positive foreign trade balance. In the following quarter century, the world witnessed the spectacular growth of Japan into an economic power, flooding the world markets with its products, eliciting in the process much admiration and hostility.

In 1994 Ôe Kenzaburô became the second Japanese author to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. By that time Japan’s economic growth had tapered off, its real estate bubble had burst and the country had entered what has since become known as the lost decade. The two Nobel prizes thus mark the beginning and the end of a spectacular phase in Japan’s post-war history. In an intentionally critical quip at Kawabata’s speech, Ôe chose as title for his acceptance speech Aimai-na Nihon no watashi (translated by Ôe as Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself). If Kawabata had wanted to highlight the unique qualities and beauty of Japan’s culture, Ôe was clearly intent on setting himself apart from Kawabata and voiced some serious reservations about his own culture. In the Japanese version of the speech, Ôe uses the word aimai, transcribing it as ambiguous in katakana.

When in 2000 I received the Japan Foundation Special Prize, one of my fellow awardees was the Korean scholar, professor Chi Myong-kwan, director of the Institute of Japanese Studies, the Hallym Academy of Sciences. He was one of two recipients of the Japan Foundation Grand Prize, a prize crowning a lifetime achievement. In his acceptance speech Prof. Chi, not surprisingly for a Korean, talked about his ambivalent feelings towards Japan. I found the word ‘ambivalent’ a better choice than Ôe Kenzaburô’s ‘ambiguous.’ My own acceptance speech equally dealt with Japanese culture, but the point I personally wanted to make was the need to cherish cultural diversity in an increasingly globalized world, where much lip service is being paid to diversity, but where in actual fact a powerful dynamic of engulfing uniformity is at work. Since my speech was implicitly a plea for the study of Japanese language and culture, somehow implying their unique and irreplaceable value, I was probably more on the side of Kawabata than on that of Ôe. Incidentally, Kawabata addressed the Swedish Academy in Japanese, a language choice about which Ôe had apparently some reservations, since he himself chose English for his delivery.

The feeling of ambiguity or ambivalence informing Ôe’s and Prof. Chi’s attitude and view of Japanese culture is obviously related to the vagaries and aberrations it allegedly has led Japan into before and during the Second World War. For Ôe, this ambiguous orientation has driven Japan to become an aggressor, and in times when it has not, it has conversely been responsible for the country’s isolation from other Asian countries. Although my personal assessment has always been that traditional Japanese culture can only have been guilty by association rather than by evil intent, nevertheless, the arguments of Ôe and Chi do resonate with my own reading of history. The difference of our views lies rather in the identification of the causes than in the evaluation of the consequences.



Chequered beauty

In all cultures and societies, there is a lot to marvel about and a lot to deplore, both in their history and in their present state. Japan is no exception to that. I have often thought that Japan is the best thing that happened to me, and I still feel that way. That does in no way detract from the fact that there is much that has not lived up to my initial expectations. As an adolescent I cherished a notion of Orientalist scholarship in the vein of the great Orientalist scholars of the past, who combined study, exploration and adventure. However, little adventure has been forthcoming. The typical mix of scholarship and exploration embodied by such great scholars as Aurel Stein (1862-1943), Sven Hedin (1865-1952), Giuseppe Tucci (1894-1984) and Mario Maraini (1912-2004), is obviously a thing of the past. Yet, of explorations there has been an abundant store, in every nook and corner of the archipelago, not to mention the non-tangible realm of culture in its many aspects. Present-day scholarship can only thrive in academic circles. Another case of mild disappointment has been the physical beauty of Japan. This is certainly true for Japan’s natural beauty, into which industrial development and demographic expansion have made huge inroads during the last half-century. It also holds for man-made beauties such as Japan’s traditional cityscape. When I first arrived in Kyoto and looked down upon the rooftops of the city from the train window, I was disappointed. They looked rather colourless and drab. However, when I think of it now, it was heaven then. Most of the roofs were low and black, actually typical of the traditional buildings, whereas the present cityscape is riddled with non-descript whitish, semi-high rise buildings, while the traditional houses such as the machiya, so typical of Kyoto, are dwindling by the day.



Representing Japan?

If you are introduced as a specialist of Japan, people in Europe tend to perceive you as somehow representing Japan, or being an unofficial spokesman for Japan. They voice some of their criticisms of Japanese society of policies against me as if I can somehow convey them to the decision makers. A case in point that is often targeted for criticism is the maintenance of the death penalty. By sticking to this fundamentally inhumane form of extreme punishment, Japan finds itself in unsavoury company, including many dictatorial regimes. What is particularly dismaying is the fact that there is not even a majority in favour of abolition. Although Japanese are not a deeply religious people, Buddhist ethics are a fundamental component of Japan’s ethical fabric, and since non-violence (ahimsâ) is one of the basic tenets of Buddhism, one would expect a deeply rooted reluctance towards legal killing. Sure enough, a number of Justice Ministers, including Sugiura Seiken, a follower of Pure Land Buddhism, have refrained from signing death warrants. Japan does indeed have its number of abolitionists, but they are still far outnumbered by the retentionists. Moreover, convicts on death row are not considered prisoners, have fewer rights than other convicts, and are treated harsher than other inmates. Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835-1901) wrote sternly about the Western propensity for meting out the death sentence on religious grounds. To quote his Oboegaki: “The English immigrated to America, where they drafted laws and organised a society, all based on religion. In particular the laws of Connecticut stipulate that whoever believes in anything else but God will be punished by death. Even in their religious worship Westerners are violent.”

Legal violence has to be reduced to a minimum for another reason as well. One would expect Japan to be in favour of abolition, in view of the social propensity for security, anzen and risk avoidance. Capital punishment always holds the inherent risk of miscarriage of justice, of killing an innocent, of committing an irreparable act.

In Japan things change faster than anywhere else, fads and vogues come and go at dazzling speed, and yet some things never change. According to Ôe, democracy is one of the moral props on which Japan’s post-war rebirth is predicated. The media often point out that Japan is not a particularly vibrant democracy. Japan’s polls are marred by exceptionally high abstention rates. For a country with such high level of literacy, this political apathy is strange and detrimental to its future. It is one of the reasons why Japanese society performs the necessary changes so slowly and erratically.

While I would subscribe to some of Ôe’s criticisms of Japan’s internal policies and social regime, I do not endorse his viewpoint that Japan must refrain from engaging in any collective security actions for the keeping and restoration of peace in various parts of the world. The status-quo in the East-Asian region is coming increasingly under pressure. The country finds itself in an increasingly competitive and assertive regional environment, and it has to do something to respond to these new challenges. Japan’s pacifism has sadly enough failed to create a great following among other nations. Many praise its pacifist constitution, but few nations if any have thus far followed suit. The Ukrainian crisis has reminded us of the sobering truth that well-equipped armies do not easily yield to pacifist discourse. Armies are more apt to show self-restraint in the face of a credible deterrence. If Japan is to maintain stability and security in this environment, it will have to rely on the deterrence provided by the US or by a combination of allied support and its own defence capability.

These are some of the most controversial issues people often confront me with, but it is obvious that even a Japanologist has no scientific explanation to any of the issues they raise.



The scholarly community

I consider the two years and a half I spent in Kyoto thanks to a Monbushô scholarship as the happiest period of my life. My stay enabled me to explore the various aspects of Japanese culture to my heart’s content. I enjoyed the privilege of meeting many outstanding scholars, and learning from them in various ways, including their lessons and seminars, but also less formal ways of exchange. The wealth and breadth of their knowledge and understanding of the myriad aspects of the great East-Asian traditions filled me with admiration and formed a great incentive for me. They represented a type of scholarship that has somehow faded since. They were modern versions of the bunjin (literatus), eminently at home in the primary sources, widely-read, great philologists and astute historians, but not keen on following trendy theories. By the scope of their intellectual grasp, as scholars they were at home in their culture and as humans and citizens they felt at home in it. I often envied them for the luxury they enjoyed in being able to engross themselves in this one culture, while I was forced to divide my attention over several cultures and destined to remain shallow in all of them.

Typical of the scholars in those days was the fact that many of them were smokers. In the seventies and eighties of the last century, smoking was still a habit many an intellectual or artist deemed part of the intellectual and artistic lifestyle. Equally typical was that many of them liked a good drink. Regular outings where they had a go at sake or other spirited beverages were part and parcel of the routine of scholarly life. I always believed that this habit had a venerable pedigree, going back to the ancient Chinese poets, who in so many of their poems testify to the inseparable link between poetry, friendship and wine. On those sorties to restaurants and bars the Japanese scholars would usually refrain from sallying forth into all too technical scholarly discussions. Much of the time was taken up by small talk, and increasingly so as the evening progressed and the sake kept flowing.

Scholarly gatherings, such as seminars, symposia, workshops, and the like, are invariably concluded with a visit to a restaurant or eatery, where participants enjoy excellent food and down the fare with sake or other spirits. On one such occasion, after the conclusion of a workshop on Zen, I happened to be sitting next to Prof. Tanaka Hiromi, a specialist of Zen history. At one point in the conversation I mentioned that the great scholar Konishi Jin’ichi had been the last Japanese to have had first-hand knowledge of the practice of traditional linked verse (renga). Prof. Tanaka, who had known Konishi personally in his lifetime, was surprised to learn this and said he had never been aware of this side of Konishi. He regretted having missed the chance to learn more about renga from this last direct ‘witness’, especially since he had gone out for a drink with Prof. Konishi on so many occasions. Yet on none of those occasions had Konishi ever mentioned anything about that topic. Tanaka somehow apologetically added that when relaxing with food and drink they were wont to spend most of their time on small talk, and that such serious topics were usually not brought up. Now he regretted having missed this chance. I could not concur more with him. I have often found myself in similar situations with remarkable people, missing in the same way the chance to plumb their depth due to the convivial format of the gathering, which required that we had to enjoy ourselves and avoid any shade of seriousness. Convivial gatherings concluding a seminar, workshop or lecture in Japan are usually very lively, even boisterous. Their western equivalents are usually less exuberant, bathing in an almost subdued mood. There are clearly different ‘rules of engagement’ at play in Japan and the West. I have often wondered if Japanese participants were not put off by the sobriety of the Western conviviality. Compare the dignified Faculty Club in Leuven University with the boisterous sushi restaurants such as Ganko zushi in Japan: the mood and the noise are worlds apart.



The study of Buddhism

As a student my first research topic was Buddhism. Both my MA and PhD dissertation were devoted to the subject. My stint as a Monbushô scholarship recipient was equally devoted to research on Buddhist history. After my return to Belgium and my appointment to the chair of Japanese studies, I had to teach so many different subjects, and I was solicited in so many areas, that I had to put Buddhism on the back-burner. Being based in and operating from Belgium I was often confronted with issues of the relationship between Japan and Europe. As a result my interest was gradually drawn to the history of cultural exchange between Europe and Japan. This was also an easier topic to pursue, because I found more germane primary sources and resources in my vicinity than on Buddhism.

When I was first appointed at the University of Leuven, there were virtually no scholarly books on Japan in the university library, let alone on Japanese Buddhism. Moreover, there was no budget to buy the huge number of books and journals on Buddhism, needed to keep me abreast of the latest developments in the field. So I naturally slid into the field of Japan’s relations with Europe. To that I also added as a complement, Japan’s relations with China, which was a point of interest that somehow naturally followed from the training in Chinese studies I had also had next to that in Japanese Studies. Even though I have thus put Buddhist studies on the back-burner, whenever I take a Buddhist text or read a scholarly essay on Buddhism, I still feel a deep familiarity with the language, the discourse and the way of thinking of these texts. I have always thought that when old I would eventually return to my first scholarly love, and now that I feel old age approaching, I do indeed find renewed joy in engrossing myself in these abstruse texts now and then. I tend to think that, after my retirement, I may have more time to devote and once again genuinely engage in the study of this great scriptural tradition, although one has to be wary of wishful thinking about post-retirement projects.



Understatement and modesty

Since it has become politically incorrect to call any culture or society unique, people have started talking about the “galapagosization” of Japan, which somehow boils down to the same thing, but with a pejorative twist. One such aspect that definitely fits into that frame is the social virtue of modesty. I know of no other culture where modesty is such a social virtue than in Japan. Of course, I do realize that this is a social code, but what the other feels deep inside is of no concern to me, since I cannot fathom it anyway. What matters to me is what my fellow human expresses and how he/she acts, for that I can perceive or observe, that is what impacts on me. I applaud the social virtue of modesty in Japan. That is a value that deserves to be cherished, although in a world where self-effacement is almost a vice and self-promotion, assertiveness and self-aggrandizement is so much the norm, I am worried that this virtue constantly puts Japan at a disadvantage. I have always felt at home in this society, where modesty and self-effacement are considered a virtue, and not a defect, contrary to the West. This may have to do with my own upbringing. I was born and raised in a rural part of the Province of West Flanders. I have never come across another society in the West where bravura, self-promotion and showing off are more frowned upon than the region of my childhood. Since my youth much of West Flanders has wrested itself free from its rural habits and the social virtues of understating one’s importance or one’s predicament have been concomitantly eroded, although they still seem stronger than elsewhere. This attitude and behavioural pattern seem to typify rural societies everywhere. Perhaps it is safe to assume here a historical similarity between Japan and erstwhile rural regions in Belgium. In both cases they were latecomers in embarking upon the industrial revolution, and the concomitant urbanisation, so that rural attitudes and values still linger on in the present generations.