Looking beneath Japan’s Westernized surface, Berman finds a submerged psychic and cultural stratum, which contains some possible antidotes to the consumerist and individualist fevers that have driven the US to delirium.
Neurotic Beauty: An Outsider Looks at Japan by Morris Berman. Water Street Press, 501 pages, $27.50.
By George Scialabba
Cross-cultural comparisons are thrilling but perilous. Pronouncing authoritatively about one culture is difficult enough; running the gauntlet of two communities of academic specialists is a daunting prospect. Fortunately, Morris Berman is intrepid.
Most historians would be content to have written one deeply researched and interpretively wide-ranging trilogy on a large and important subject. Berman has written two: one on alternative forms of consciousness and spirituality (The Re-enchantment of the World, Coming to Our Senses, Wandering God) and one on the decline of American civilization (The Twilight of American Culture, Dark Ages America, Why America Failed). The second trilogy, a grimly fascinating inventory of the pathologies of contemporary America and an unsparing portrait of American history and national character, is a masterpiece. Unsurprisingly (considering how self-critical and historically informed most Americans are), it was not well received. At interludes while writing his grand historical syntheses, Berman has also produced fiction, poetry, a memoir, and a volume of essays.
He has returned to the grand scale and the prophetic mode in Neurotic Beauty. Even the most pessimistic of prophets cannot help looking for hopeful signs. Berman ended his “American decline” trilogy on a despairing note. Four centuries of relentless territorial expansion and manic economic growth have left American resources exhausted and American society in a state of befuddled anomie. And it seemed as if the rest of the world had been so thoroughly Americanized that there was little chance of escaping a global collapse and a subsequent Dark Age, this one probably resembling dystopian science fiction rather than medieval torpor.
Like many other jaded Westerners, Berman turned toward the East, searching not so much, however, for interior solace as for glimpses of a viable human future. Looking beneath Japan’s Westernized surface, he finds a submerged psychic and cultural stratum, which contains some possible antidotes to the consumerist and individualist fevers that have driven the US to delirium.
According to Berman, Japanese culture has two sources, both external. In the 6th century, itinerant Chinese and Korean monks brought Buddhism to Japan, thereby opening the country to large-scale importation of Chinese culture. There was little Japanese culture—in fact, no written language or legal system—before that time, and Japanese literature and institutions remained imitative of Chinese exemplars for many centuries.
It was a peaceful and prosperous society, even if isolated. This did not protect it, however, from the second great event in Japanese history: the arrival of the American fleet under Admiral Perry in 1853. With supreme arrogance, Perry informed the Japanese that if they did not open their country to trade with the West, he would bomb their capital. The Japanese submitted, but so intense was their humiliation that the country’s leaders embarked on a crash course of military and industrial development, to catch up with the Western imperialists.
The Western imperialists did not, of course, look kindly on this ambition. The resulting competition for markets and resources led to war in the Pacific, which ended with an even greater trauma for Japan. The Japanese reacted, as before, by imitating their conquerors, once again to the point of outstripping them, at least by some measures.
Today, though, as Berman demonstrated at great length in his “American decline” trilogy, their conquerors are looking less and less worth imitating. Japan is still a country of bullet trains and elegant skyscrapers, as well as the world’s largest net creditor, with a higher average standard of living than the United States. But resistance to Western modernity is growing. Not only have prominent Japanese literary figures, like the aristocratic Yukio Mishima and Japan’s first Nobel Prize winner, Yasunari Kawabata, carried their protests over the erosion of the country’s cultural traditions to the point of ritual suicide, but an astonishing number of young adults—around a million, by some estimates—have in effect seceded from the society and economy, withdrawing with their books and video games into a bedroom of their parents’ house and not emerging for years at a time. These hikikomori, or “recluses,” one sociologist writes, are an “utterly rational indictment” of Japanese society, which offers them 80-hour workweeks at meaningless jobs, usually with long commutes. The fate of many of those who accept the 80-hour week is a stern warning: Japan’s suicide rate is twice that of the US.
Another million young adults are unemployed, not in school, and not looking for work. Another 3–4 million are working part-time at dead-end jobs and (mostly) living at home. There is also a disturbing “celibacy syndrome”: a third of Japanese youths between 16–24 say they have no interest in sex; a third of people under 30 have never dated anyone; and fewer than half of all those from 18–34 are in any kind of romantic relationship. In quantitative economic terms, at least compared with the US, Japan is a success. But more and more Japanese feel a deep malaise.
The reason, Berman suggests, is that unlike Americans, the Japanese know that there is more to life than getting and spending. “Japan remembers what it is like to be old, to be quiet, to turn inward,” writes a Japanese academic. The long centuries of isolation and self-sufficiency before the mid-19th-century American irruption are “in the nation’s DNA.” Reading that DNA, and patiently explaining to impatient Americans what it is that the Japanese know, is the aim—and achievement—of Neurotic Beauty.
One thing the Japanese know is nothing; or better, nothingness. As Berman emphasizes, there are two kinds of nothingness, which are actually two different ways of experiencing nothingness. When possessions and sensations—stimuli—are eagerly pursued, they will sometimes be used up or unavailable. The result is negative nothingness, a state of anxious deprivation. But when stimuli are considered distractions and are foresworn, positive nothingness results: a state of pure, concentrated attention or mindfulness. This is the frame of mind in which the Japanese craft masters—sword makers, potters, calligraphers—and athletes—archers, martial artists—have worked. It is also the precondition of enlightenment in Zen Buddhism.
Zen is quintessentially Japanese, Berman writes—for better and worse. The power to concentrate attention is, after all, morally neutral. One can be a mindful pacifist or a mindful militarist. During the 1930s, as Japanese nationalism reached fever pitch, the prestige and techniques of Zen Buddhism were frequently co-opted by the state. Unlike most other religions, Zen lacks an “axial” principle, an objective or transcendental criterion of morality, like the will of God or the dignity of the individual. This has spared Japan the dogmatism of more religious societies and the litigiousness of more liberal ones; but it has left many Japanese with no moral center, no means to withstand group pressure or the tides of history.
This is, Berman points out, at once a strength and a weakness. In emergencies, Japanese typically behave with extraordinary self-restraint and orderliness. (And not just in emergencies: the stampedes that occasionally kill shoppers at big department-store sales in America are inconceivable there.) But initiative (“thinking outside the box” in management-speak) is just as spectacularly lacking; and the conscientious objector, the stubborn moral individualist, is a rare character type in Japan. The nuclear disaster at Fukushima offers a poignant illustration: workers and residents stayed calm and shared food and shelter freely among themselves; but executives at the Tokyo Electric Power Company covered up to protect their superiors and punished whistleblowers.
Should one admire this distinctive capacity for self-sacrifice and national unity or deplore it as abject conformism? Both, obviously; but a more interesting question is: can a world that has overdosed on assertive individualism and manic consumerism of the American variety learn something useful from Japanese culture? Berman thinks so. Economic austerity is nearly universal today, and may be for quite a while—for that matter, the environment may not survive another epoch of capitalist prosperity. As one Japanologist points out, the country seems to have a “gift for minimalist living.”
American systems and assumptions based on constant growth, wealth and prosperity, many of which are pathologically corrupt, are dying fast. The demands of the new world we live in feel a lot more Japanese—equitable, careful, quiet, and modest.
The Japanese, Berman observes, seem to have attained something like “luxury in austerity,” the elements of which include “aesthetic awareness (the presence of beauty and sensuality in daily life); care, precision, and mindfulness; continuity with the past.” Traditional craft values are incorporated into contemporary industrial design and processes. Berman calls it “archaic modernism.”
For a very long time—perhaps forever—American individualism and the distinctively American dream of limitless abundance must be renounced, or they may prove lethal. Of course the world still needs, and will always need, American ingenuity, tolerance, self-reliance, and our culture’s many other virtues. But a humbler America must now, for the first time, learn another culture’s virtues if the world is to avoid another Dark Ages.
George Scialabba is a contributing editor of The Baffler and the author of What Are Intellectuals Good For? and other books.