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Culture and Development

A Japanese Observation and Reflection

Minoru Kasai

The atomic bomb in Hiroshima was a decisive moment in history which indicated that man could finally destroy the whole world. Destruction of the whole world is no longer a daydream. It is not an abstract question which has nothing to do with the meaning of life, but raises questions of despair, endurance, hope and prayers for the wounded survivors caused by the destructive power of the atomic bomb.

My friend, a Zen master, has to live with this problem because his wife had to go through the hell-like experience of Hiroshima. She manages daily tasks as a wife and a mother, but she continuously suffers from pains and anxieties for children who may be hereditarily and socially affected. Ibuse Masuji, a famous Japanese novelist who died a few years back, left a touching story, Black Rains. It is a story of a young girl who suffered in Hiroshima and died in spite of all possible efforts by her family. The basic tone of the story is implicitly prayers. One of the specific features of this story is that nature is a part of suffering reality as if every stone and leaf has a hidden message.


Death and life are a part of the Great Nature.

Being aware of this, my heart is serene and filled with joy.

This is one of the last poems of Miss Tatsuko Sasaki, who died at the age of 29 because of the world-famous Minamata disaster of industrial pollution. She was ill in bed for 15 years. It was a vegetative life because she could not move by herself without others’ help. She left many poems, though she had barely finished her junior high school. Recently a collection of her poems was published with a note by the editor, sharing her reflections on Sasaki’s poems in which her compassionate gentleness and consideration to others are revealed: father, mother, brothers, sisters, neighbours, children, cats, insects, moon, stars. She is touched by the irreplaceable meaning and value of life in all these in spite of the pain of her illness. Strangely, she does not complain about her destiny. Because of this, probably, there is transparency in her poems so that the deep peace of the running stream, the quiet earth, the glowing air, the shining stars, the songs of the birds and the standing trees is echoing in and through her poems. Yet the scars of Minamata pollution still remain because of the ceaseless sufferings of the patients and the earth affected by industrial pollution.

Japan, the Beautiful and Myself

This is the title of Kawabata Yasunari’s Nobel Prize Speech (1968). Sasaki’s poems remind one of Kawabata’s speech and especially the poems quoted in it. The following is one of them:

What shall be my legacy?

The blossoms of spring

The cuckoo in the hills

The leaves of autumn.

This is the deathbed poem of the monk Ryokan (1758-1831). According to Kawabata, this poem conveys the essence of Japan and Japanese culture. The following poem, by the monk Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen in Japan (1200-1253) with the title ‘Innate Spirit’, echoes also the essence of Japan according to Kawabata:

In the spring, cherry blossoms,

In the summer the cuckoo,

In the autumn the moon, and in winter

the snow, clear, cold.

What is the essence of Japan? According to Kawabata, it is the emotion of old Japan, the heart of a religious faith in which there are hidden remarkable gentleness and compassion. It is strong fellow feelings.

The following poems of the monk Myoe (1173-1232) express fellow feeling and comradeship:

My heart shines, a pure expanse of light;

And no doubt the moon will think the light its own.

Opening my eyes from my meditation, I saw the moon in the dawn, lighting the window. In a dark place myself. I felt as if my own heart were glowing with light which seemed to be that of the moon.

This explains the occasion of the poem and at the same time it reveals deep communion and intimacy with the moon in silence. Myoe can never be lost in the darkness, for wherever he goes there will be light for one step more from within and without in his mystical experience.

Kawabata ended his life by committing suicide.

Japan, the Ambiguous and Myself

This is the title of Oe Kenzaburo’s Nobel Prize Speech (1994). He thinks Japan, the beautiful, no longer exists in contemporary Japan. He finds himself alienated from the mystical experiences of the Buddhist monks and their sense of beauty and cannot identify himself with it because Kawabata’s Japan, the Beautiful and Myself isolates itself from the reality of Japan.

Then, what is the reality of Japan? Oe introduces Natsume Soseki, the greatest novelist in modern Japan, as the one who has observed the reality of modern Japan. Natsume speaks his view through Daisuke, the main figure of And Then (Sorekara), published in 1909. Daisuke was quite blunt in expressing his criticism of Japanese society.

The point is, Japan can’t get along without borrowing from the West . . . . But it poses as a first-class power. And it’s straining to join the ranks of the first-class powers. That’s why, in every direction, it puts up the facade of a first class power . . . . And see, the consequences are reflected in each of us as individuals. A people so oppressed by the West have no mental leisure, they can’t do anything worthwhile. They get an education that’s stripped to the bare bones, and they’re driven with their noses to the grindstone until they’re dizzy — that’s why they all end up with nervous breakdowns . . . . Unfortunately, exhaustion of the spirit and deterioration of the body come hand-in-hand. And that’s not all. The decline of morality has set in too. Look where you will in this country, you won’t find one square inch of brightness. It’s all pitch black.

Contemporary society, in which no human being could have contact with another without feeling contemptuous, constituted what Daisuke called the decadence of the twentieth century. The life appetites, which had suddenly swollen of late, exerted extreme pressure on the instinct for morality and threatened its collapse . . . . And finally, he understood that the striking growth of the life appetites was, in effect, a tidal wave that had swept from European shores.

Natsume was prophetic in his judgement of Japan past and present. Oe identifies his understanding of the reality of Japan with Natsume’s critical understanding of Japan:

Still, modernization continued with the post-war reconstruction and the subsequent period of rapid economic growth; but these have, in effect, led to a deeper kind of decline, a state of outright spiritual poverty. In this sense, Soseki was correct, frighteningly correct.

Now, what is the way out of this reality for Japan? Oe’s view, identical with that of Natsume, is the following:

If Japan is to find a way out of its current predicament — by which I mean its lack of any moral direction — then it must do so by establishing a sense of morality that can be shared with [the world community] but that, for its own purposes, is founded firmly on the traditions of Japan’s premodern period.

But how is it possible? Natsume was pessimistic and fatalistic if Daisuke represents Natsume as indicated in the quoted statement.

Look where you will in the country, you won’t find one square inch of brightness. It’s all pitch black. So what difference would it make, what I said or what I did, me standing all alone in the middle of it?

In this regard, Oe is different from Natsume because he is much more destiny-oriented than Natsume. Oe’s basic position is prayer. He has learnt this from the people of Okinawa, one of the bitterest battlefields in World War II, Hiroshima, and Hikari, his handicapped son. Oe learnt from them not only the reality of suffering but also silence and prayer. Hikari (which means light) spoke intelligible words for the first time at the age of 6 in the forest while Oe was walking with him. He particularly learnt symbiosis with the least and with nature from Hikari. Oe’s prayer is that this coming 21st century will be the century in which Hikari may be able to live as a member of society. But the question still remains, is it possible?

Reflections on Culture and Development

It is certainly a central problem for Japan to reconcile tradition as culture and development as the above observation indicates.

Tradition as culture has been used frequently as a simple contrast to development and as such has taken on almost a pejorative meaning. Traditionalism refers to a situation where one takes the past uncritically as a model for imitation. Thus, nothing new arises from tradition identified with traditionalism. This is a narrow and unhelpful understanding of tradition. Tradition in terms of cultural identity indicates the capacity of a society to maintain continuity, coherence and integrity inspired and sustained by meaning. Tradition certainly involves memory of the past which can make sense of the present and provide a direction for the future. If this understanding of tradition is intelligible, then the picture of a society which has lost tradition being a society left adrift without direction or purpose becomes visible, as Natsume was confronted with.

Development being defined as a response is not a substitute for tradition as the end. It is one of the major functions of tradition to insist on the importance of the ends that are genuinely good in themselves, with which all the great religions and philosophies have been concerned. The slogan ‘Wakon-yosai’ (Japanese spirit and Western science), which seems to show a right relationship between tradition and development and has inspired development in Japan, reveals a problematic and fatal condition of the modern world. In pre-war Japan development began under traditional auspices. It was possible and effective because of a deep respect for tradition among the Japanese. But, in connection with militaristic nationalism, tradition was exploited with the motive of building a nation-state. Subordination, manipulation and exploitation of tradition by excessive nationalism led to policies oppressive within and expansive without and to the tragic ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If tradition is used for ulterior ends as the means, it is deformed and destroyed, as Oe’s ‘Japan, the Ambiguous’ implies.

In post-war Japan, tradition freed from direct state manipulation has surprisingly maintained vitality in spite of loss of state support and has provided some of the moral stimulus to economic development. The spirit of the people, their work ethic, their social discipline, their ability to cooperate, all necessary to economic rationalisation, are rooted in one or another aspect of tradition. However, a crucial problem still remains: Is continuous economic growth compatible with traditional understanding of the ends of life? More precisely, it may be raised as the question: If tradition is being used as the means to economic ends, does the rapidly accelerating economic development undermine the tradition that has provided moral and religious motivation for its success? This is a famous question posed years ago by Max Weber about the Protestant Ethic; the very success of the Protestant Ethic destroys genuine Protestant religiosity. Family life, which cultivated the Japanese spirit, is an obvious casualty. With the trend of losing traditional family life, one wonders how long the work ethic and the social discipline which played such a significant role in Japanese development will be maintained.

Japanese tradition as a part of Asian and world tradition is very old and deep. It contains some of the profoundest reflections on the human condition known to men. It still has much to say about the ends of life. Both the success and the failure of development raise a fundamental question about the meaning of life. This question is not confined to the Japanese but is a universal problem, because the success or failure of development have given man the power to destroy all life on earth. This reminds one of the letter of the Chief of the Dwarmish tribe of 1854 in Seattle to the President of the USA. According to Professor A.K. Saran’s exposition of this letter, the abolition of the sacred reality will inevitably bring the following consequences:

1. ceaseless expansion of commercialisation

2. destruction of nature and man

3. forgotten past and irresponsibility for the future

4. instrumentalisation of religions such as God as a means of success.

The Chief’s prediction is unfortunately and undeniably true of modern life. Self-destruction of the whole world is not simply a daydream.

In this context, it is urgently necessary to hear the voice of tradition. But this is not easy as we have lost sensitivity to its reality because of our development. Tradition in the contemporary situation is simply a residue of the past like museum items and will be erased from the actual scene of life by progress as a historical necessity. This has been demonstrated historically. American native people (red people) are a tragic reminder of the violence of development. It cannot tolerate diversities of unity, but enforces the unity of diversities. However, today, success ideology of development cannot be accepted uncritically unless one is totally uprooted.

Restoration of the sacred reality is Oe’s prayer. This is his shared prayer with the silent victims of Hiroshima through mythical encounters with them. The cries and prayers of the silent victims of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Minamata, the victims of the self-destruction of modernisation, invite us to see the restoration of the sacred reality as the central issue of our day. If their cries and prayers reach us as a call to be sane and be one to participate in the shared history of mankind toward authentic and humane cultures, it will be difficult to erase them. We see this in the midst of the Hiroshima destruction. For the silent victims of Hiroshima, the call to sanity is nothing else but a plea for the establishment of the sacred reality as culture.


Kawabata, Y., 1969, Japan, the Beautiful, and Myself, Tokyo: Kodansha

Miyamoto, K, ed., 1994, Minamata Requiem, Tokyo: Iwanami

Oe, K., 1995, Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself. Tokyo: Kodansha


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