Thursday, June 08, 2006

Paradoxes of the oriental mind

Think It Over

Paradoxes of the oriental mind

By M.S.N. Menon

Inscrutable—that is what the West says of the Eastern mind. More so of the Japanese and Chinese mind.

Buddhism turned the Indian into a man of peace; but it turned the Samurai (Japanese) into a man of war. Paradox? Yes. There is something in Japan that we are yet to understand.

In 1543, a Portuguese ship came up blazing its guns. The Japanese copied it, adapted it and improved it. The Portuguese never again took to their adventures in Japanese waters.

In 1549 the Jesuit priest Francis Xavier came to save the Japanese from their alleged pagan spirits. The Japanese asked him: Where was your Christian God all these years? Didn’t He know of our existence? In 1636 Japan banned Christianity. Today 40 per cent of the Japanese population are Christians! And Japan is an associate member of the Whiteman’s club!

It is said that Japan has been a closed country for centuries. America forced it open in early 19th century. In a hundred years or so, Japan learned all that there was to learn from the West. What was more, Japan defeated Russia in 1904, annexed Korea, set up a Directorate over Manchukuo (China), carried out a massacre in Peking, attacked Pearl Harbour and, finally, occupied much of Asia during the Second World War. Asia was terrified. Europe and America were stunned.

The atomic devastation was unprecedented.

Did this great tragedy compel Japan to a new way of life? Not entirely.

Here was an island nation, which was living in constant dread of instant death and devastation from volcanoes and earthquakes, with little resource of its own. It should have become a nation of peaceful philosophers. But it became a militaristic nation. It drew out of Zen Buddhism (of all things) the cult of the Samurai—a military way of life!

They call Japan “God’s country” in all seriousness, worship the Emperor as divine and have a religion (Shintoism).

How can one know this country and its people? We can have no ready answers. And we have not yet given much thought to this, either. But we must. Japan is important for us as long as China’s intentions remain an enigma.

America tried to convert Japan into a Western style democracy. The success is superficial. The mind of Japan was and is beyond the reach of America.

The world was fascinated by the Japanese work culture. But, remember, it was this same work culture that produced the suicide bombers during the Second World War and the men who were ready to do harakiri.

Foreign journalists and academics are still kept at a distance. They are never allowed to have a free run of the country as in America. It is not easy to break this cultural barrier.

Japan may not have a censorship system. But it has a way of filtering the news for local and foreign consumption. And it has a strict screening system for foreign teachers. The idea is to prevent the foreign teachers from having long-term intimacy with the Japanese people and the subjects they are supposed to teach.

Few students go to Japan today to do research for the same reason. So, Japan gets its research done abroad through endowments. Thus, the MIT had 14 Japanese endowments at one time. Few countries “pick the brains” of the world as assiduously as the Japanese.

The Japanese are secretive by nature. Thus, they do not talk of their atrocities during the Second World War, nor do they allow these to be part of their text books. Frank discussion is, therefore, almost difficult to have.

It is said that Japan is sympathetic to India’s nuclear programme in view of the common threat from China. What are the facts? Japan has done everything to block India’s nuclear programme, but it remains mute about China’s programme. Inscrutable? Worse.

But worst of all is the paradox that while Japan used to live larger-than-life (to wit, its Kabuki dance form and the Samurai cult), today the emphasis is on the miniaturisation of life. Where will it take Japan? It is difficult to say.


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