Thursday, 4 August 2011

Hangenpatsu, Kimigayo and idyllic talk in Tokyo

A few days ago, I went to Osaka to take part in the demonstration against nuclear power ("Natsu Datsu-Gen-Patsu sound-demo").

One thing that surprised me was the participation of young people in black robes who looked like Buddhist priests. First I thought: no way they can be real priests. After all, they had fancy-looking straw hats - except of one of them, a muscular sunburned fellow with a Hanshin Tigers towel tied around his head. Some had sneakers instead of the customary zôri sandals. I complimented them for their nice outfit and asked why they had dressed up like that. "It's because we are priests", they answered. It turned out that they belonged to the Ôtani-ha of Jôdo Shinshû (True Pure Land Buddhism).

As the demonstration started, the air was rattled by the hard sound of a bongo drum and the priests picked up their black and white flags (nobori). With the text "We take our refuge in Amitabha Buddha" (Namu Amida Butsu), they nicely and incongruously complemented the "Hasta la victoria siempre" of the Che banner further ahead. Many participants were carrying sunflowers, the new symbol of the anti-nuclear power movement. The priests had placards on their backs with images of the Buddha and texts in the Osaka dialect like "Watashira mo iikagen okoru de" (We're angry too).

"We too are angry" (picture borrowed from the blog Raita M no nikki)
Perhaps it's only one of my own private idiosyncrasies, but in so-called "sound demos" I always enjoy the live music - drums, saxophones, or any instrument really - best and try to walk as close to it as possible. The priests had brought various things from their temples which they used as instruments. One of them made a sharp penetrating sound with a metal bell in the shape of a bowl (o-rin) and another had what looked like a small mokugyo (a wooden instrument in the shape of a fish).

As we approached Namba, near the end of the demonstration, I got my second surprise when the DJ started to play Kimigayo, the controversial national anthem. As far as I could see, nobody protested. Maybe it was only in my imagination, but the entire demonstration seemed to grow quiet, as if in deference. It felt a bit like a sports event. Although I had felt stupid when I asked the priests why they were dressed like priests, I think I felt even more stupid walking along with the demonstration to the solemn tunes of the anthem and wondering why I was participating in this spectacle.

I later found a participant report ("Afugan Iraku Kitachôsen to Nihon") that mentions that the anthem was accompanied by a change of slogans, something which I hadn't noticed from where I was walking. The new slogans included "We are neither right nor left, just ordinary citizens", "Please, participate in the demonstration regardless of whether you are right or left" and "Let us sing Kimigayo in a normal way, without being coerced". As the blog author points out, the intention behind the arrangers is easy to sympathize with. Surely, the entire citizenry are victims when a nuclear accident occurs.

However, if the intention was that everybody should be able to participate regardless of ideological conviction, then why on earth play the Kimigayo at all?

What I think needs to be said clearly is that the idea that a national anthem is "neutral" and stands above politics is a delusion. My intention is not to single out the Kimigayo in particular, despite its controversial status. The same can be said about any anthem. If I had participated in a demonstration in Sweden, and the organizers had suddenly decided to play the Swedish anthem, I for one would certainly have refused to walk along. Playing a national anthem is divisive - just as divisive as playing an overtly "leftist" or "rightist" song - for the reason that nationalism is itself an ideology, propagated for political reasons by political actors in all modern states.

My intention today is not to criticize nationalism - although that is an ideology I detest. What I want to point out is simply that the idea of trying to use nationalist symbols to reach out beyond ideological barriers is unworkable.

Not only does it seem insensitive towards the Korean or Taiwanese participants in the demonstration. Doesn't it also seem like an almost intentional affront against those on the left who have long fought against the ordinances forcing teachers to stand in fron of the Hinomaru-flag and sing the Kimigayo in school? Such an ordinance was in fact passed by the Osaka Prefectural Assembly on June 3, less than two months ago.

Maybe it's time for a brief digression into the history of ideas here. As I said, my intention is not to single out Kimigayo as worse than any other anthem. Looking specifically at the Japanese context, however, it's possible to trace back the idea of Kimigayo's "neutrality" to the distinction between the kokutai (national body) and seitai (political body), with the former standing for the nation organically united under the emperor while the latter stood for the institutions of politics, such as parties, assemblies or govenments (I recommend this piece by John Brownlee for a brief history of the idea of kokutai from the Meiji era onwards). Using this ideology, it became perfectly logical for nationalist zealots in prewar Japan to assassinate prime ministers and other politicians in the name of the emperor, hoping to "dispel the clouds" that had hidden the imperial sun.

The ideology was also expressed in the official prewar doctrine that Shintô was not a religion - a doctrine that sounds like a funny curiosity today but which had real political import, since it meant that citizens and colonized subjects could be forced to participate in emperor worship without violating the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Meiji constitution. Although so-called "State Shintô" was abolished after the war (and Shintô is today officially regarded as religion), I don't think it is farfetched to claim that the ideas behind it still live on in the widespread "common sense" that nationalism is not a political ideology. It is on the basis of this "common sense" that teachers are today forced to resign if they refuse to sing the Kimigayo or stand in front of the Hinomaru flag. An obvious continuity exists behind such events today and the famous incident in 1891 when the Christian Uchimura Kanzô was fired as a teacher after refusing to bow to the portrait of emperor Meiji and the Imperial Rescript on Educaction.

Korean schoolchildren worshipping at a Shinto shrine. Freedom of religion?
The effect of portraying things like anthems or flags as "non-political" or "non-ideological" is to marginalize dissent and rob it of legitimacy. After all, if these act of standing, singing or bowing are essentially non-political acts, how could they possibly go against the political or religious convictions of anybody who's in his right mind? And if they do, surely those oddballs must be somehow so "different" from to rest of us reasonable, mainstream citizens that we don't need to pay much attention to them?

But let me end by shifting subject. The last three days we've spent in Tokyo, and, oh how idyllic it has been. My heart goes out to everyone we've met there. Some day, perhaps, I'll write more about the places we visited - Asakusa, Kanda, the countryside in Saitama, and peaceful Enoaru Café, the best café in Tokyo.

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