Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

How Japan Must Pity the Land of the Setting Sun

| Apr. 01, 2019

Despite the bitter war they fought in the 1940s, Japan and Britain (my native country) have much in common. Both are archipelagos off the vast Eurasian landmass. Both are among the most densely populated countries in the world. Both were once mighty empires. Both are still quite rich. Both are constitutional monarchies.

Yet while Britain today is in a state of acute political crisis, Japan seems a model of political stability. Is this a matter of personalities — the sad fact that Theresa May is a talentless leader, Shinzo Abe a gifted one? Partly. But there is more to it than that.

The Japanese, crushed in 1945, conceded only a superficial Americanization of their culture and institutions. To a remarkable extent, Japan did not change. It merely jettisoned the hysterical nationalism that had come to the fore in the 1930s. Not only did the Emperor survive, but so did the country’s social elite. They accepted land reform but retained political power.

The continuities of Japanese history are exemplified by Prime Minister Abe’s political pedigree. His great-great-grandfather was a general in the Imperial Japanese Army. His grandfather on his mother’s side was a member of Hideki Tojo’s Cabinet during World War II and prime minister in the late 1950s. His other grandfather was a member of Parliament (and an opponent of Tojo). Abe’s father was Japan’s foreign minister in the 1980s.

But the continuities also manifest themselves in the complex system of manners that governs Japanese social life. Nowhere in the world will you encounter such politeness. After two days in Tokyo last week, my back hurt from bowing, and I had said “Arigatou gozaimasu” (thank you very much) at least a thousand times.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Ferguson, Niall.“How Japan Must Pity the Land of the Setting Sun .” The Boston Globe, April 1, 2019.

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