"Occidentalism" by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit (The Penguin Press, 2004)

Sunday, June 05 2005 @ 12:47 PM JST

Contributed by: Y.Yamamoto

On May 23 visiting China's Deputy Prime Minister Wu Yi abruptly cut short her itinerary here canceling the planned meeting with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Afterward China's foreign ministry spokesman Kong Quan cited, as the reason for the last-minute cancellation, unrepentant Koizumi's remarks that had hinted he had no intention to refrain in the future from his annual visit to Yasukuni Shrine where 2.5 million war dead as well as 14 "Class A" war criminals are enshrined.

Back on May 16, the Prime Minister reportedly defended his pathological obsession with the Shrine even by quoting Confucius. He said: "The Chinese often criticize me of paying homage to the souls of the dead including those of Class A war criminals. But isn't it Confucius who preached, 'Condemn the offense, but pity the offender"? This really rubbed Hu Jintao the wrong way.

The China's uncompromising stance toward the Yasukuni "issue" has been paying off thus far. According to the May 30 issue of the Asahi Shimbun, in the most recent poll conducted by the most pro-Beijing daily, 49% of the respondents disapproved Koizumi's Shrine visit, while 39% of the pollees still supported him on this "issue." Even Yasuhiro Nakasone, former Prime Minister (1982 - 1987) known for his right-leaning ideological stance, has started trying to dissuade his distant successor Koizumi from revisiting the Shrine. The old one, himself, visited the Shrine in his official capacity in 1985 but he went there never again in deference to China.

On the other hand, an increasing number of Japanophile journalists and literati in the West have started to insist they see the emergence of a strong Japan in the PM's morbid stubbornness over the false issue. For instance, the February 7 issue of the International Herald Tribune carried a commentary by James Brooke, Tokyo correspondent for the New York Times. In the analytical report titled "Japan thinks about making waves against China," Brooke quoted Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan, as saying, "This is a Japan that doesn't flinch any more," as if the primary source of concern to both countries was the PM's Yasukuni visits, not the ongoing dispute over where to draw the demarcation line in the potentially natural gas-rich area of the East China Sea.

These complimentary remarks are way off the mark because one of the real issues facing both nations is the very fact that Yasukuni is not at issue at all, despite all the fuss the local news media have made over the Wu Yi's sudden departure.

As I argued in my previous book review in which I gave a 5-star rating to Ryu Murakami's "Hanto-wo Ideyo," the Japanese media are also at fault because they are untiringly misleading their Western counterparts into these delusive notions.

It was against this backdrop that I read "Occidentalism" co-authored by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit. To me Ian Buruma was primarily the author of "Inventing Japan 1853-1964" and the name Avishai Margalit of the "Schulman" Professor of Philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem had meant practically nothing.

In this book, they exquisitely define Occidentalism as "the worst aspects of its counterpart, Orientalism." They go on to say, "Its bigotry simply turns the Orientalist view upside down."

My way of saying this would be: The two isms are mirroring each other. Because they are seeing their own image in each other, they always harbor ambivalent feelings, even with their loathing sometimes directed to themselves. The mixed feelings between aching yearning and inflammable hatred often lead to desire for self-destruction.

That's why the co-authors repeatedly talk about the "death cult" of all times. They are quite informative in pointing out the death cult in modern days even dates back to 1914 when the German army launched a series of suicide attacks on the British in Flanders. In those battles, more than 145,000 young volunteers from patriotic organizations in Germany died for their delusive cause. Of course their inheritors included millions of Japan's war dead, the kamikaze pilots in particular, and Islam fundamentalist martyrs.

If anything, Buruma and Margalit just forgot to mention the A-bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 60 years ago. You cannot deny the 1945 apocalypses were nothing but a mass suicide for keeping intact the national polity based on the imperial system, although it would constitute an unforgivable sin of blasphemy if you dared to say such a thing in this country even today.

Based on their definition of the word "Occidentalism", they discuss all extreme forms of it, from Adolf Hitler's, to the wartime Japan's, to Mao Zedong's, to Pol Pot's, to Mullah Omar's, and to Osama bin Laden's. Since there are different historical, cultural and religious background behind each of these insane atrocities, the co-authors even trace back to the ancient city of Babylon in their quest for the root cause.

Although they may be overdoing it when they insist the fight launched by "country" against "town" is the common denominator for Occidentalism in any form and at any time, their story about Mao Zedong's perverse yearning for urban life is quite intriguing. They think Mao's marriage to the Shanghai movie starlet is a good case in point.

Buruma and Margalit make it clear from the beginning that the purpose of writing this book is "neither to gather ammunition in a global 'war against terrorism' nor to demonize the current enemies of the West." They add: "Our aim is rather to understand what drives Occidentalism, and to show that today's suicide bombers and holy warriors don't suffer from some unique pathology." (The citation is from the first chapter titled "War against the West.") That's why they stop short of giving us specific prescriptions for today's terror-ridden world in their final chapter titled "Seeds of Revolution."

In their closing sentences they remain so vague as to say: "We cannot afford to close our societies as a defense against those who have closed theirs. For then we would all become Occidentalists, and there would be nothing left to defend." They leave it there for the readers to apply the theory, as it is outlined in this book, to the specific and the most imminent concern of themselves.

From our point of view, the most imminent and relevant sub-issue is the ongoing feud between China and Japan. Since the 1930s, or even 1890s, the Sino-Japanese relations have never been ones between two Eastern nations. Neither have they been relations between the East legitimately represented by China and the West falsely represented by Japan.

Instead the relations between the two Asian countries have been those between two Occidentalist nations, one lagging behind the other.

In the second chapter titled "The Occidental City," they write: "This alternative route to modernity [without undermining the native culture and religion] was also tried in Egypt, Iraq [under the Hussein's regime,] North Korea, Ethiopia, Cuba, China, Vietnam, and many other places." And it failed." (Emphasis mine.)

They did not include Japan in this list. In another chapter ("War against the West") they argue: "This history (of Occidentalism) does not have clearly defined geographical boundaries. Occidentalism can flourish anywhere. Japan, which was once a hotbed of murderous Occidentalism, is now in the camp of its targets."

Having been a reader of Buruma's "Inventing Japan," my interpretation of the above reference to Japan is that they are just trying to be nice with us, perhaps in honor of our toothless, and spineless, pacifism. I wouldn't use the past tense because Japan, too, failed in its Occidentalist aspiration to "overcome the West." And how can you emancipate yourself from the Occidentalist views until you actually overcome the West?

Obviously Japan and China are in different stages of the refractory disease called Occidentalism, but their breeds of Occidentalism have only slightly different flavors in them. That is in part because the formula of the Japan's Occidentalism during the period from 1867 through 1945 had its origin in the Chinese formula of the 19th century, as had been the case with many other things.

In the second chapter "Occidental City" Buruma and Margalit writes:
"The nineteenth-century Chinese establishment scholars found an ingenious formula: Western knowledge for practical matters, such as weaponry, Chinese learning for spiritual and moral affairs. This formula was later adopted by the Japanese as well."

And apparently, now it was Japan's turn to re-export the Japanized version of the same formula to the communist China under Deng Xiaoping. For one thing, "The Chinese government wants the benefits of information technology without the ideas it makes available to all."

It's for that reason that I assume the two nations share basically the same breed of Occidentalism though they are perhaps in slightly different stages of it. Despite the co-authors' use of the past tense when mentioning Japan as a hotbed, both countries have yet to get over the potentially murderous Occidentalism.

There are only three options, proven workable thus far, for an Occidentalist nation to go for, in order to get over the situation to be characterized by its bent for "cross-contamination" (coined word by the co-authors):
1) Successfully destroy the West, which can be the mirror image of the East,
2) Successfully destroy the East, possibly including one's own self, or
3) Reverse the past evolution back to the state of the ape.

The Japanese, not having particularly outgoing disposition, now seem to have chosen the third option because it's only apes that fall for a "decoy issue" such as the PM's Yasukuni visits. But that doesn't guarantee that we are irreversibly becoming too harmless a people to go for more belligerent options in the foreseeable future. And as seismologists say, the longer the period between quakes, the more destructive the ultimate calamity.

You can't totally rule out the likelihood that some day relatively well-educated Japanese youths willingly go for option 1) or 2), e.g., by volunteering for a suicide mission to die for the emperor "like (falling) cherry blossoms or shattering crystal." (Quote from the chapter titled "Heroes and Merchants".)

But judging from the recent indications here, I think the tale Ryu Murakami is telling in his "Hanto-wo Ideyo" is a much more likely scenario, i.e., Japan will stay with option 3) above whereas China will ultimately resort to option 2), while somehow being able to avoid taking a course to self-destruction, which would lead to the collapse of the communist China.

If I were to make this scenario more visualizable by fleshing it out, the following might be it:
- By the end of this decade Japan will have gone bankrupt, financially and otherwise.
- In the U.S. the Democrats win the 2008 election.
- The new U.S. administration adopts an appeasement policy toward China and North Korea.
- North Korea, too, is on the brink of bankruptcy, and Kim Jong Il seeks asylum in China. Beijing grants him an entry permission.
- Discontented elements inside the North Korean military press the fallen tyrant to approve their plan to invade the Japan's island of Kyushu. Kim gives them the green light on the condition that they be disguised as rebel troops.
- China and the U.S. give a tacit nod to them in order to be able to localize the unavoidable conflict in this region.
- The entire spectators attending a ballgame at the Yahoo Dome turn into a horde of 30,000 zombies in a matter of minutes when a small commando unit announces through the intercom that the ballpark has been seized.

The TokyoFreePress, however, considers its primary mission is to do its best to closely examine the pathological behavior, based on the mythological obsession, of this ostensibly secular nation, so that it can find a fourth option with which to minimize the magnitude of the quake, even though the chances are remote for the TFP to be able to contribute to that end.

But for now, in the light of the predeclared objective of the book, I cannot but say:
Hat off to Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit for putting the today's most relevant issue in the broadest possible perspective, and in the entire context of history of mankind, while carefully avoiding overgeneralization and excessive extrapolation.

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