Japan: The continuing saga

Opinions - March 1st, 2002
Robert J. Collins

by Robert J. Collins

Story thus far: The first Emperor, descending from the sun via the Korean peninsula, stepped out of the golden canoe and creat­ed the empire. He named the immediate area “Tokyo,” but before anyone noticed, his dyslexic scribe put up signs reading “Kyoto.” (“It can’t be helped,” the Emperor said to the cowering scribe. He thought about it for a moment, then pulled out a sword and cut the man’s head off. “It does piss me off, however.”)

As we saw, the first years were rough. Plans had been to make cranberries the staple crop. When that didn’t work, it took several generations of backbreaking labor going up and down those trees try­ing to get the coconuts to grow big­ger than golf balls. It didn’t work either. When someone hit upon rice as a good idea, everyone cele­brated with made-up festivals and fancy masks. (And golf course con­struction began.)

We chronicled the difficulties the new empire had with the indigenous population. The origi­nal people had curly blond hair, blue eyes and spoke something that sounded to sensitive Japanese ears like Welsh in Kansai and Polish in Kanto. These people had the curi­ous habit of eating food that had been exposed to the flames of fire, but burying their dead without exposing them to the flames of fire. After a lot of nasty encounters— which, frankly, sickened me to write about—the indigenous pop­ulation sort of… faded away.

Several technological advances developed, as we noted, and not a minute too soon. The significance of the second chopstick seems so obvious to us today that one won­ders why no one thought of it before. Trying to eat with one stick—balancing those little grains of rice on just one… well, you know—seems so futile now, but, of course, we have the advantage of hindsight regarding that second stick.

And the mirror technology. No wonder mirrors are found in the ancient tombs of royalty. To be able to see oneself by holding a device in front of the face is almost magical. No more worries about whether or not the black stuff on the teeth is evenly distributed. And think about being able to use mir­rors to see around corners… into forbidden places. No more holes in the shoji.

And speaking of seeing into forbidden places, Lady Murosaki wrote the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji. She chronicled court life by seeing around corners and into the rooms of whispers, treachery and promise. More sex than Beowulf, anyway—all those whispers, treachery and promise.

We saw the rocky periods of war and strife as Hideyoshi and then the Tokugawas ripped out opposition, separated old clans, banned foreigners and in great baths of blood more or less united the country. While this was going on, the Emperial Gods were consigned to their palaces where they had eight or ten generations of time to contemplate each individual rock in their rock gardens. Rocky periods, indeed.

Through default born of inat­tention, Emperor Meiji grabbed control from the fading Tokugawas and moved the capitol to Edo. (“This time,” he said to the 939th generation descendant of the origi­nal scribe, “we’ll stick with the name ‘Kyoto’ for this new place.” Unfortunately dyslexia tends to run in families and that scribe’s headless body hung for months on the old Hanzomon gate near today s subway station.)

Scholars and researchers sent abroad by Meiji came back with clever little tricks and toys for pos­sible integration into the more advanced Japanese way of life— things like knives and forks, steam engines, photography, an observa­tion that buildings could be constructed of things other than paper and wood, automobiles, electricity and tempura. When that was all established, it was time for war.

We pointed out that Japan had been lucky in that its victory over Russia early in the last centu­ry, and its subsequent advances into China, were barely noticed by people keeping track of these things—even the attackees. It was not unlike a flea conquering an elephant—beachheads had been established but… so what?

It was when the sneak attack on Hong Kong went wrong that all hell broke loose. Our story raised some issues at the time, but independent research is moving toward confirming the following record of remarks in Tojo’s cabinet:

“I most humbly report that things went slightly… wrong.”

“What went wrong? Out with it, man.”

“The planes bombed a place called ‘Pearl Harbor’.”

“What’s wrong with that? It must be close to Hong Kong.”

“The planes got… lost. Pearl Harbor is in… Hawaii.”

(The response to this is gar­bled, however most scholars agree that “Holy shit” was probably the utterance at the time.)

The post-war Occupation was a learning period for all sides— Japan accepted any and all help from former foes, re-built itself, and then purchased great portions of the nation with whom it had just battled. Japan’s management abilities were clearly the most efficient and effective in the world. People wrote books about the Japanese juggernaut—even Week­ender columnists.

Then the you-know-what, fueled by unrealistic land prices, popped. (“Shit hit the fan” for those also tired of this “burst bub­ble” phrase.) Now Japan is strug­gling. And sweeping into town is the Untied States President, George W. Bush, giving advice. We resume the story:

“I have looked Koizumi in the eye and I can tell he is a good man. I told him he has to clean up the banking mess and he agreed.”

Prime Minister Koizumi smiles and brushes a lock of stiff hair from the side of his head. The hair springs back to its origi­nal position.

“And I told him he reminds me of another Japanese hero. Ichiro can hit anything thrown at him.”

Koizumi smiles again, even hints at a blush, and again tackles the hair.

Bush closes with comments about weapons of mass destruc­tion and an evil axis.

LDP members stand up and warm up with curve balls, sinkers, sliders and off-speed pitches for the giddily happy Prime Minister of Japan.