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"Shikata ga nai"


Japanese in their Culture, We in our Corporatism 

This recent month started out on a poignant note.  On the front page of its Sunday, October 8, "Insight" section, the San Francisco Chronicle featured a column by Harold Gilliam.  Its headline writer missed entirely the gentle note of rue threading this writing, while getting its facts correct in titling it "UC Berkeley has adopted a pecuniary state of mind:  Marketplace demands outweigh sense, conscience or strong values."

Gilliam's column shows him, apparently an elderly man, conducting a private walking tour for himself, perusing a number of meditations, on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley.  I have to admit myself as being, like Gilliam, I think, nearly an elderly man – in a few weeks I turn sixty – though the evidence from his perambulations suggests him just a few years preceding me in chronological time and savored roots in previous eras.  Gilliam loves this Berkeley campus.  He notes the intentionally-designed location of its towered campanile atop a central hill looking over the academic buildings clustered around old Strawberry Creek, down farther west to where Berkeley the town abuts San Francisco Bay, and off to the more distant vista of the Golden Gate and its distant tableau of Bay, mountains, ocean, and sky. 

Mainly, however, Gilliam indulges himself in thoughts on the contrasts among the architectural styles of this venerable old state university.  The older buildings he recalls from his earlier years here – his text seems to place these years as the early 1960s, just before Vietnam, civil rights, and a coming-of-age of rock'n'roll and the baby boom culture blew everything up.  Before this, in what I suppose Gilliam's era, the early '60s, men still largely wore hats – all classes of men fit to different styles, from fedoras and bowlers for suited businessmen, to berets for artists, from Stetsons and ten gallon hats for ranch hands to caps for farmers.  Women who went to town wore gloves for shopping.  On American college campuses, for the previous hundred years and more, resonant styles in architecture prevailed.  People mixed in very different cultures then – styles signified by hats, by gloves, by buildings.  But in the sylvan, landscaped campuses the buildings all announced by their columns, peristyles, pediments, domes, arches, towers, oriels, and proscenia that all present were being imbued with the richest, oldest, mixed veins of Classical values, Renaissance humanism, and Enlightenment ideals.

Gilliam recalls these days, this culture that ended as the '60s passed, by looking at the Berkeley campus contrasts of its newer buildings.  They don't at all serve the old culture.  By their styles of being abstracted, windowless, or windowed only in relentlessly rectangular repetitions, they ring true, he says, only for what he terms the marketplace culture we have instead today.  They serve only the depersonalized rungs and soulless competitions of the flow chart, cubicle-minded, specialist niche bureaucracies all university personnel without exception today inhabit and fairly mindlessly serve.

One clue to this change in cultures:  names.  Gilliam can recall the names of men who lived in the old culture – as if people in very different ways mattered then.  He's thinking of the university architect John Galen Howard, whose classical designs for Wheeler Hall, the campanile, and other campus buildings all explicitly conveyed the memoried, memorialized obligations humanism says we all have as people – or used to have – to wide varieties of predecessors.  Gilliam can also recall the two most longtime presidents of UC Berkeley – Robert Gordon Sproul and Clark Kerr.  He remembers these two for their humanistic priorities for academe, in hugely inverse contrast to the corporate types who came after them, after the culture had changed entirely.

Gilliam, in meditating on the change in university presidents, of course has in mind this recent year's San Francisco Chronicle reporting on the University of California current administrators, and their peers in the California State University system, all doling out huge sums of money to themselves.  By both open and hidden sources of revenue, these administrators have assiduously been dedicated to cushioning themselves – with extra pay and bonuses for them and further invented funds for their offices, homes, and travel.  They have also been dedicated to inducing those academics to their campuses who in turn can garner and administer the millions and billions of research dollars from government and our biggest nuclear, medical/pharmaceutical, electronic/military, and chemical/agribusiness industries.  Like the soulless new architecture Gilliam sees, these new priorities for bureaucratically channeled specializations and entitlements eclipse the much older imaginations of Howard, Sproul, and Kerr.  Famously, when the latter two as presidents were offered raises and affiliation with the leading businesses of their time, they both turned down any cut-in with those emerging monied and marketplace priorities.

Harold Gilliam sounded the old note in his Chronicle column, and though the headline-writing editors missed the plangency of his writing, they got exactly its key facts.  Gilliam could stand against a culture serving mainly corporate values.  He knows the marketplace has "no values other than the dollar.  And conscience . . . comes not from [this] but from the values we absorb from our culture, including respect and consideration for others."

Respecting others?  Very funny – as we know our triumphal specialization culture always presents itself by the ways its niches and departments exclude all not in them. 

Shikata ga nai

Later, in the middle of the recent month, I happened to tune in to one of the local affiliates of National Public Radio here in San Francisco.  Its host, Michael Krasny, was interviewing a local writer, Michael Zielenziger.  He, too, has lived some years in the Bay area.  He, too, has published something recently – thus the interview on Krasny's KQED Forum program.  Zielenziger had lived many years in Japan, and while he was there he began learning some things about how the Japanese, living simultaneously in two cultures, have great difficulty in translating themselves from one to the other.  Thus his new book, Shutting Out the Sun:  How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation.

Traditional Japanese culture prizes not individuality, but group awareness – family, community, school, or the organization for which one works.  This traditional culture helped Japan greatly to jump into the modern world.  In two or three generations after 1853, when Perry and his "black ships" opened Japan, it quickly copied all that the industrial world had to offer.  It beat a western power, Tsarist Russia, early in the twentieth century, a while after which slow stagnation set in, with a virulent, aggressive nationalism in the decades that followed, arrested only by its cataclysm in WWII.  In the generations after that loss Japan again copied – and again quickly surpassed the rest of the world in all it copied and improved upon.  But stagnation set in again, this time accompanied not by anything aggressive, but by odd variations of personal withdrawal.  Over a million young Japanese have now become "hikikomori," or social isolates:  persons, mostly young men, who shut themselves up in their rooms or homes, and never go out.  Zielenziger presents the testimony of Japan's mental health authorities on this wave of withdrawal, but he also notes that the mental health profession in Japan itself is one area, too, that conspicuously lags behind all international peer countries otherwise also in affluence.  More millions – especially young women – withdraw into trendy, expensive, brand-name consumerism.  They don't marry.  They don't have kids.  Or they marry much later – and fewer have kids.  The national birth rate plunges.

The real problem, Zielenziger argues, is that the Japanese have never learned the most risky, creative parts of individualism.  They have no term for self esteem – but many terms for putting the best face on group-think, for denying oneself.  He has interviewed widely, including one woman, Shizue Kato, the first ever elected to Japanese parliament.  She said of even the best of the Japanese corporate men that "Even now they are trapped and cannot speak their minds," but are, instead, "tangled up in 'shigarami,' vines of obligation" that none can escape.  The best of the old culture has atrophied, become ritual – like the Shinto shrines dutifully visited, the cherry trees annually giving their time-honored brief blooming and scattering.  In meantime the economy stagnates, the birthrate falls, the million "hikikomori" withdraw, and the millions more line up for their Vuitton, Rolex, and Prada.  "We lost our own narrative," concludes Japan's perhaps best-known novelist, Haruki Murakami.  As workaholics too many more millions of business "salarymen" withdraw into their corporate worlds, seldom seeing wives or children.  Many of these men become gropers – so much so on the well-running trains and subways that the national railroads have had to introduce whole trains reserved only for women.  The sons of these men may not become gropers, too, but will likely also become "tangled up in 'shigarami,' vines of obligation."  The daughters by their millions have not only their consumerism to indulge, but also a wide culture of being infantilized – from teenage girls having sex for the fun of it with salarymen who pay ("compensated dating") to older girls, in their twenties, expressing themselves by "kawaii," the multi-layered, multi-pastel, lacy, flounced cult of cuteness and baby dress. 

              I know some Japanese women who live in San Francisco.  They agree with the assessments in Zielenziger's book.  But they also demur in one key aspect:  all love their traditional culture, but this love also entails that they take for granted the ongoing governance of its oldest precepts.  Kyoko Mori discussed this web of cultural entanglements in her 1997 book of essays, Polite Lies.  Mori was raised in Kobe, Japan, but after age 20 lived, married, and pursued her own life in America.  Her Japanese family ties kept her connected to her native land, and over the years she was able to get some perspective on how the most deep-seated Japanese expectations continue to pull at even the most otherwise spunky, independent Japanese women.  Her Polite Lies describes the many instances she has experienced in her native countrymen (and women) "preserving face," avoiding any challenge at any of the web of subtleties Zielenziger calls "field context."  The Japanese have an expression for what they feel as defending, honoring, and acquiescing to the deepest, oldest givens of their culture:  "Shikata ga nai" – "It cannot be helped."

Culture – anyone's – as black hole

Maybe "it cannot be helped":  all the ways we all have all over the world not to see, not to acknowledge, not to connect to "others."  Maybe we're all Japanese – or we're all corporate – it's the same difference for Zielenziger.  He sees the two as mirrored, or back-to-back sides of the same coin for all instances we learn to limit ourselves to any one – or to two, if the corporatist one is dominant, and the traditional one reduces to a relic – however powerfully so – of shibboleths.

Lewis Lapham suggests as much, too, in "Going by the Book," his Notebook column in the Harper's Magazine (November 2006) which came out near the end of this October.  Lapham, like many of us, has been thinking long and hard about the recent systemic failures of American political imagination – failures with their parallels in the grossly incompetent wars we have been waging.  These wars fail, he says, because they hew too much to our culture of corporate conceits, to the one self-perpetuating set of limitations all too evident in our authorities.  For our elites, he feels, all wars, all actions, follow the same self-congratulatory scripts:  "Because the war on terror, like the war on poverty or the war on drugs, is a work of the bureaucratic imagination, the winning of it is a matter of filling out forms, acting professional, addressing the contingencies, adding office staff."

"It cannot be helped"?  If our authorities dwell too exclusively in their flow charts and specialist departmentalism, of course they have already absorbed the sheer frivolity of quoting "others."  They have long-distanced themselves from what now appears as dated gratuitousness and irrelevant ornamentation in those hoary old bas-reliefs and sayings on the old campus buildings.  Getting their sinecures has shed our modern careerists of being willing – much less obligated – to acknowledge outside of their landscape of cubicle imaginations, parking lot sprawl, and big-box architecture on the new Berkeley campus Harold Gilliam rues.

Yes, "it cannot be helped" for those of us who have willy-nilly chosen, like the "hikikomori," to retreat into cultures of safety, to withdraw for our entitlements, and further reduce ourselves as indifferent to the hum of "others" – other cultures within and without us, all so vulnerably human, multiply-connected, but beyond our ken.

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