Japan from the inside out

That was then–this is now

Posted by ampontan on Friday, January 19, 2007

People often forget the head-snapping speed with which Japan has rocketed into the modern age. Still flickering within the memories of living people is a way of life that would be inconceivable for younger people today.

Nowhere is this shown more conclusively than in this brief interview (registration required) of the married couple Heizaburo and Reiko Kawaguchi, 84 and 81, from Kobe. They were subjects for the Japan Times column, Words to Live By, which presents in bite-sized pieces the life lessons people have learned through their experiences.


The facts of everyday life during the Kawaguchis’ youth seem just as fantastic today as tales of knights-errant and ladies in waiting. The Kawaguchis both think that o-miai, or arranged marriage meetings, were a good system—it worked for them, after all—and Reiko suggests that parents pick the best mates for their children.

When describing how the war accelerated the trend toward modernization in Japan, they explain how they were able to meet three times before their marriage and signal their own willingness to marry by exchanging fans. Before the war, young couples whose marriages were arranged could only meet once, and the expression of their willingness to marry was the prerogative of their parents.

Even more astonishing is their description of Japanese attitudes during the war. Here’s Reiko’s recollection:

During the war, crazy things seemed normal. Our school was converted into a factory to produce airplane wings out of cloth, like the material that tents are made of. To make the cloth more durable, we painted it with boiled konnyaku, a devil’s tongue starch. Now it seems clear that such toy planes were doomed, but back then we believed they could fly high.

Heizaburo adds:

People can be made to believe anything. Japanese made fu-sen bakudan, or balloon bombs, out of washi paper, glued together with potato starch, and used the jet stream to float them across the Pacific Ocean. An even more incredible and tragic invention was fukuryu, an ocean kamikaze diver unit that tried to attack U.S. ships with mines attached to bamboo sticks.

Note that Reiko said, “During the war, crazy things seemed normal.” People their age often express these sentiments in mass media interviews. As one woman put it in another article I read (in Japanese), “I know it seems impossible now, but that’s how people thought in those days.”

It might be a good idea to keep these reminiscences in mind whenever you see today’s yellow journalists trying to generate cheap emotionalism by trotting out the hobgoblin of a resurgence in Japanese nationalistic sentiments. The Japanese do have more pride in themselves these days—a natural consequence of the overwhelmingly successful reconstruction of their country from scratch over the past half-century—but the militarism of Imperial Japan and the conditions that created it have disappeared forever.

This would be especially important to remember for the man and woman in the street in China and South Korea, where some demagogues cynically manipulate anti-Japanese sentiment and indulge in fear-mongering for domestic objectives, despite being fully aware that modern Japan bears no resemblance to the bogeyman they project on the screen of popular imagination.

The subjects of the Words to Live By interviews, incidentally, cover a wide range of people. One recent subject was Fumihito Tanaka, the first Japanese to make a profession out of teaching people how to project themselves for photos or interviews. Says Tanaka:

Even a sick person like me — an abused, manic-depressed gay man on pills — can be useful to healthy, gorgeous, famous people. Imagine what you can do if you put your mind to it.

As hard as it is for younger Japanese today to imagine the Japan of the Kawaguchis’ youth, it surely would have been even harder for the people of that era to conceive of a future Japan in which a man like Tanaka would be successful.

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