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Yokohama: My kind of town?

When I was a financial manager at the Japanese subsidiary of a Zurich-based trading company, we were swimming in the pool of red ink in the wake of the burst of the bubble economy of the early-1990s. We said we couldn't afford the office rent any more even though real estate prices in Tokyo had also taken a tumble. Fortunately, though, our parent company owned some real estate in Yokohama which two shrewd Swiss merchants had somehow chiseled out of the Tokugawa Shogunate government when they were setting up the company there in 1865 to deal mainly in silk products. Although the book value of the old loot had long been fixed at a nominal Swiss Franc 1.00, or less than two-thirds of today's one Euro (we called it a memorandum account), they thought it was not the right time to sell it. So they decided to erect an office building on one of the pieces of land, the closest one to the port, to rent out to their Japanese subsidiary. That's how I was brought to Yokohama, from Tokyo where I was born. After I left the Swiss company, I decided to stay on in this port city.

Yokohama is the capital of Kanagawa Prefecture inhabited by 3.6 million people. At the beginning, I didn't love to live there because it looked just yet another Japanese megalopolis. The finances of the municipal government are chronically ill because of the enormous personnel costs involved in retaining redundant manpower and collusive relationships with its contractors. Throughout the year, its civil engineering contractors are getting paid with taxpayer's money just for digging holes in the streets, taking a peek into them, and filling them up.


Even worse, Yokohama is one of the centers of sexual abuse and slavery in Japan. The prefectural and municipal police here have cozier relations with yakuza mobsters than in any other city of the nation. The corrupt alliance between them is giving their human-trafficking and drug-peddling rackets a distinctively Japanese feature of highly institutionalized and subtly legitimatized business. Thousands of young wounded souls are being exploited, sexually or otherwise, there at the bottom of what I call the "Chain of Oppression." Most of them are badly suffering from various types of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, and are going through a stage of PTSD which some psychiatrists call the "re-victimization" phase.

According to experts, PTSD-sufferers in this phase are extremely susceptible to developing an irresistible urge to re-experience something that has remained unsettled deep inside since an earlier stage of their life. It looks as though they are just resonating with the national disease Japan contracted in the mid-19th century.

In short, the quality of life here isn't any higher than anywhere else in the nation. Obviously these are the downside of my life in the port city. But recently I have found myself gradually becoming hooked on it in a funny way. Among other things I love the faint scent wafting in the sea breeze, here and there in the streets, because it's reminiscent of these unfulfilled promises from 1854 and 1945 still lingering on there. The air filled with a lot of "what-ifs" really tastes bitter-sweet.

In fact Japan's pre-modern and modern history is filled with a lot of mea culpa. Of course I do know it's counterproductive to talk too much about what-ifs. These days, though, I sometimes feel entitled to indulge in looking back on bygone days. Perhaps that's because the society we are living in now looks terminally ill, and is even on the blink of a total collapse.

The following are some of these retrospections over what took place, and what didn't, in this neighborhood in the last 150 years:

What-if's about 1854

On February 13, 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry visited Yokohama for the second time to force the Tokugawa Shogunate to open up this country which had been secluded from the rest of the world since the early-17th century. On March 31 Perry succeeded in having an unequal treaty called the Convention of Kanagawa signed by the representative of the Tokugawa government. Fourteen years later, the feudal regime was toppled and the "Meiji" (rule by enlightenment) government took over.

Recently an intellectual American friend of mine, Jean Miyake Downey, a lawyer, sociologist and web journalist, said to me she was wondering what would have become of this nation if Japan hadn't complied with the Perry's demand. This is a good question that only an intelligent person could have asked.

My answer was like this: "Had it not been for the opening-up and subsequent Meiji Restoration, Japan must have been conquered by a colonialist nation." And what would have been the consequence of the colonialization resulting from noncompliance? Our parents and grandparents, millions of them, wouldn't have needed to commit suicide en masse in the 1940s for the absurd cause of preserving the national polity centered around the imperial institution. Our ancestors might have fought an independence war or two, as well as civil wars, but in any case that many of their lives wouldn't have been lost.

In the aftermath of the calls at the port of Yokohama by the Perry's black ships (so called because they were made of iron), the Japanese were left with a certain type of PTSD, something to be called Post-Blackship Stress Disorder. The most distinctive symptom of this refractory mental illness is ambivalent feelings toward Westerners between wistful yearning and seething resentment. And yet, as is always true with a psychogenic disorder, the sufferers of PBSSD have the tendency to repeat the same folly, over and over -- quickly swallowing any unreasonable demand imposed by the West with utmost niceness, with their sense of resentment toward the Westerners, as well as themselves, refueled each time they comply. Usually PBSSD-sufferers are very good at burying their negative feelings in foreigners' presence, but every once in a while they let them explode, in a Pearl Harbor way or otherwise.

But perhaps more importantly, even before Perry came along, the Japanese must have already developed a certain susceptibility to this type of pathological problem. Otherwise Japan wouldn't have complied with the Perry's demand, in the first place, and taken the course it took after 1854. I think at least you can trace the seeds back to the early-17th century, whereas right-wing historians effectively argue that what I think is nothing but a perversely twisted national trait is a uniquely Japnese virtue, and that it dates back as far as to the 7th century before Christ. I have tentatively theorized that you can track it back to the 7th century (A.D., of course), and not beyond, when what I term the "process of cultural saladization" started in a weird way.

What-if's about 1945

On August 30, 1945, General Douglas MacArthur set his foot in style at the Atsugi Airport in Kanagawa Prefecture. Before really settling down at the GHQ (General Headquarters of Allied Powers) in central Tokyo, he set up an interim headquarters in Hotel New Grand (photo at the top) which had narrowly escaped the air-raids on Yokohama. On the morning of September 2, MacArthur left the temporary HQ to attend the surrender ceremonies which took place on board the battleship USS Missouri. The Missouri was anchored almost in the same place as Perry's black ships had been moored 91 years earlier. All the parties present at the ceremonies signed two Instruments of Surrender. Needless to say, an unconditional surrender was what these documents were supposed to be all about.

But in fact, President Harry S. Truman and the general had already decided to leave two key institutions un-dismantled, i.e., the Imperial System and the press clubs. Perhaps they thought the two institutions would be instrumental in governing this nation in place of the Imperial Army. They must have thought, "Why should we reinvent the wheel from scratch?", "We would be able to capitalize on the existing press club system for gagging them from the GHQ," etc. Most importantly, perhaps, MacArthur was worrying about the likelihood that these survivors of the Pacific War, who he thought were all 12 years old, would choose to destroy themselves, before he could reconstruct the nation, if he took these institutions away from them.

In January 1996 some university professors formed a group which called itself the "Society for the Creation of a New History". At that time one of its founders Nobukatsu Fujioka, professor of education at Tokyo University wrote an essay in which he argued that "middle-school students should not be taught about military comfort women," on the pretext that "when American soldiers occupied Sicily in 1943, they inherited the comfort stations that had been operated by the German and Italian military, along with the comfort women who had been working there." (The English translation is borrowed from John Nathan, the author of "Japan Unbound".) So MacArthur was just following the precedent of Sicily. But if the right-wing professor was making a valid point in his silly essay, it should also be interpreted to imply that schoolchildren should not be taught about the "legitimacy" of Japan's imperial institution because, then, "the symbol of national unity", as well as the press clubs, was, and still remains, nothing more than a reusable whorehouse.


We shouldn't belittle what the general did to us during his tenure as the SCAP (Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers). But it is true that since he was sometimes dubbed "the second emperor", he should have exerted his supreme authority to the fullest to scrap everything that had still remained intact there, before hastily getting started with the reconstruction of this nation.

If Perry and his boss Franklin Pierce, the 14th President of the U.S., had a little overdone the arm-twisting, MacArthur and Truman put too little pressure on Japan in deference to these fragile 12-year-olds. But when it comes to historical issues, it makes little sense to insist how the other party should have acted. So, all I have to stress here is, Japan should have insisted on a fair and equal treaty in 1854 if that might have triggered war which led to colonialization, and in 1945, this nation should have expressed its readiness to try to live without an emperor if that might have brought him to the Tribunal. While I am just second-guessing here over what has happened in the past, more important thing is to admit that our ancestors made serious mistakes, and avoid repeating them when another confrontational situation arises in the future.

What's next?

In the above-mentioned book, John Nathan analyzes this black-ship syndrome, but his observation remains very shallow because of his Orientalist slant. An Orientalist is always prone to beautify or oversimplify things that are going on in an Occidentalist nation. That's why the otherwise intriguing book jumps to a vaguely optimistic conclusion that the nation which "has a long history of discovering in the darkest days of its bewilderment a source of renewal" will eventually find its way out of the ongoing crisis. He is simply wrong.

So what's next to come along to the port of Yokohama? Can it be Chinese? Maybe. But my hunch is that no one will follow the footsteps of Commodore Matthew Perry or General Douglas MacArthur any more to force this nation to change. That's how I feel every morning looking over at the horizon from a nearby seaside park.
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