Embracing the crisis

We love symmetry, don't we?

We love symmetry, don’t we?


One of the common themes of any society is the feeling of nostalgia for a past superior to the present, a “golden age” of peace, happiness and bliss. In the Christian world view, this age lasts until a time tellingly coined the “Fall of Man”. Having sinned by eating from the Tree of Knowledge, man is thus chastised by God:

Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return. [1]

Changing perspectives, we learn with Freud that this feeling of “discontent” with the present is connected with the concept of “civilization”, but it appears persuasive only because of our inherent inability to imagine the past.

It is contended that much of the blame for our misery lies with what we call our civilization, and that we should be far happier if we were to abandon it and revert to primitive conditions.

[…] It seems certain we do not feel comfortable in our present civilization, but it is very hard to form a judgment as to whether and to what extent people of an earlier age felt happier, and what part their cultural conditions played in the matter. [2]

For all of our history, we have shown a strong preference to define who we are through negative referral, i.e. “We are NOT the Other” [3], the Others are barbarians, the Others are pagans, the Others are primitive…

The technical term for this way of talking about “who we are” is “identity discourse”, and people have fun imagining what the American, the Russian or the French are prone to do on a deserted island.

Against this backdrop, it is interesting to note the Japanese version of Identity Discourse, which can be summed up under the banner of

“Japan has gone bad” (nihon ga dame ni natta 日本がダメになった)

This paradigm is used to describe the economic crisis of the 1980s [4] but seems to be something which can be equally applied in the political [5], the social [6], the educational [7] and the legal [8] realms.

So what does this word dame (駄目 which I translated as “bad”) actually mean in Japanese?

Dame (駄目 Pack-horse Eye) indicates a “no man’s land” in the game known as go (囲碁 igo Enclosure-Stones), a place belonging neither to US nor to THEM;

the individual components of the word are not easy to explain as they have multiple meanings, but picture the back of the pack-horse and its spine, which constitutes a boundary (Eye-slit) where any load you place is bound to fall down, which does not benefit either side.

By extension, dame can be applied to people deemed anti-social (through their disregard of whatever rules), or things that no longer work as they were meant to.

At its extreme, dame (駄目) can be equated with a taboo through its prohibiting nature, something which I’m sure you are aware of if you’ve ever visited Japan and asked if you could possibly do something against the rules.

In this case, however, the conflict is not between US and THEM situated in a spatial dimension, but between WE (Japanese people of a golden age) and THEY (Japanese people of today), hence it can be seen as an opposition manifested in the temporal dimension.

Moreover, the Other is no longer construable as the Enemy (although, this may occur in extreme cases and would result in anger directed at the self, with may help explain Japan’s high rate of suicide etc.) and this aspect led me to coin it as a crisis discourse, one where the sense of urgency exists, but finds no easy outlet, so we’ll just go on complaining.

You may be wondering  about its widespread acceptance and its remarkable longevity, but this is fairly easy to explain.

Japan’s post-World War II political stance is one based on the concept of peace and renunciation of the military potential for self-defense.

This, of course, implies a shying away from the ever-present temptation of constructing an Other (which can then be developed into an Enemy).

Essentially, this “peace ideology” is the perfect breeding ground for an impersonal crisis discourse.

By contrast, American foreign policy has been permanently busying itself with an Enemy, be it the Soviet Union, Iran, Iraq, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Panama, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Syria, El Salvador, Guatemala, Chile, communists, terrorists…

In the current globalization driven world, a feeling of permanent crisis is perhaps unavoidable, which may become apparent to ordinary Japanese who are able to shake off those elements of Nihonjin-ron (日本人論 Sun-Rooted People Theory) which insist on the uniqueness of the Japanese race even in its negative forms.

[1] Genesis 3:17-19

[2] Freud, S. (2004). Civilization and its Discontents. London: Penguin Books. (Original work published in 1930)

[3] Harle, V. (2000). The Enemy with a Thousand Faces: The Tradition of the Other in Western Political Thought and History. Westport CT: Praeger Publisher

[4] 王増祥. (1999). おとなしすぎる日本人:誰が日本をダメにしたのか. 浩気社

[5] 井沢 元彦. (2004). 逆説のニッポン歴史観―日本をダメにした『戦後民主主義』の正体. 小学館文庫

[6] 村上龍. (2003). 会社人間の死と再生―ダメな会社と心中しないための戦略とは?-. 扶桑社

[7] 三沢直子. (2004). 子どもたちはなぜ、9歳で成長が止まるのか―日本の『男性社会』が子供をダメにした!? 実業之日本社

[8] 小掘桂一郎. (1996). 再検証―東京裁判―日本を駄目にした出発点. PHP研究所

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