An Ordeal of Civility


Japan’s ordeal is to find a way of projecting its internal cultural values (of civility and deference) onto people outside Japan. Its failure to do so is something Japan shares with many other democratic nations which seem unable to project national cultural values onto the international stage, no matter how celebrated they are at home.

The USA’s current failure to project freedom and democracy abroad is a good example.

On a more internal level, Australia seems unable to extend social justice to its Indigenous people, its underclass, or to refugees. And Israel seems unable to relate to Palestinians in a lawful, wise or humane way.

These thoughts also arise in relation to such issues as war reparations. Germany has made extensive apologies and has an on-going public debate about its fascist era. It has paid extensive reparations to the victims of Nazism. Can Japan atone for the atrocities of its armies under state Shintoism in a way that satisfies its regional neighbours, the nations it occupied in World War II?

Those neighbours, especially China and Korea, see Japan’s failure to adequately acknowledge its inhumanity during World War II as a major issue. Japan seems bewildered.

Actions are still being brought in Japanese courts by former slave labourers and female sex slaves, but these actions are rarely successful. Some apologies have been made, and judges are sometimes reported as regretting that they cannot find in favour of applicants, citing statutes of limitations and treaties as resolving or barring further claims arising from World War II and its predecessor conflicts.

But visits by the current Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi , and other political leaders to shrines commemorating the war dead, including senior government and military figures convicted and executed after World War II as war criminals, are said to be private religious matters of no concern to foreigners.

As a result of this impassivity, the Chinese Government will facilitate compensation claims in its own courts and Japanese property in China will be at risk, as the survivors of Japanese atrocities seek justice.

To try to understand the Japanese, consider the landscape they have created.

Japan ‘s muted grey cities stretch interminably. Seemingly trackless small roads cut through the layer cake of well-made houses and low buildings. The conurbation stretches as far as the eye can see. Punctuated, surprisingly, by small-scale rice and vegetable fields cultivated by hand, or with toy-like tractors and trucks where one city melds into another.

Winter rice field “ Nara City

Urban buildings are mostly single- or double-storied. Any taller ones are usually only five or six storeys, save for the occasional very tall buildings seen in the distance.

Buildings are closely packed houses on every sliver of land, in odd triangular places, between road and rail, river and pond. Town houses in cul-de-sacs, next to fields. New roads running up to them. Sometimes a larger house on a block raised above the last few fields. A farm house often contemporary with a newish car parked outside.

Very occasionally, a litter of discarded farm equipment. And only once, a small wrecker’s yard which resembled the profligate profusion of junked vehicles and equipment that litters home paddocks or the outskirts of Australian towns.

Cars are square and box-like. Uncannily like the buildings, they rest in handkerchief-sized parking lots and drive sedately around model-train-set cities.

The grey urban order of the plains gives way to a more disordered and traditional habitation in towns and hamlets. Rivers run down valleys and rail lines run next to them. Long tunnels connect the inhabited valleys in the mountains. Towns and hamlets creep down the rivers and across river flats and peter out as they climb up misty, bamboo-covered slopes.

At the railway stations there’s a profusion of sweets on sale. Bright boxes with exquisite wrappings.

At the larger stations there are many stalls selling confectionery made of subtly flavoured soy dough and coated with flavoured powdery sugar. Regional specialties feature sesame, cinnamon, lemon, orange and chocolate, and lots more. There are logs of lemon and lime dough shot through with nuts and red beans and coated in fine chocolate and caramel.

Travellers buy these confections for their friends and colleagues as gifts and mementoes — a gesture to those who weren’t lucky enough to have had a holiday.

Japanese people seem to have manners to the nth degree. Extraordinarily courteous and polite.

Two acts of disinterested courtesy: the man who helped us find a supermarket. He approached us on the street and asked if we needed help, as we were wandering about tired and confused, after a long day travelling to and from Hiroshima. He showed us where the supermarket was and then helped us locate the items we required in it.

The other: the manager of the Youth Hostel who picked us up by car after we arrived at a remote station after dark, and who also drove us to a distant station early one morning when public transport wasn’t available.

Brief visits to a country may not be an adequate basis on which to judge it. Nevertheless, if it were not for the marked difference between what cultures say to themselves, and what their States do to others, it would be harder to reconcile Japan’s difficulty in acknowledging and atoning for the cruelties of its imperial past, with the apparent civility of its people.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.