Changing Eras and Emperors: A Tribute to Modern Japan

These days in Japan, the attention of most people has been riveted on the historic abdication of one emperor and the ascension to the throne of a new one, whose reign inaugurates the Reiwa era, by the imperial calendar.  This occasion seems appropriate for expressing appreciation for the character of Japanese people and their achievements as a nation.  I am an American citizen but have spent more than 30 years in this country and often reflect on how fortunate I am to be able to live here.

This appreciation has not at all been dampened by consideration of unpleasant facts about past national wrongdoing.  Without a doubt, there have been dark periods in Japanese history, such as the period leading up to World War II.  During that interlude, a "holy war" ideology (not the one we are very familiar with nowadays) violently supplanted democratic government and inflicted much harm.  Few in Japan want a return to those days.

Multitudes all over the world are attracted by Japanese comic books, animation, and other pop culture icons.  Others are fascinated by traditional elements like ninja warriors and haiku poetry.  My perspective is different.  In my view, the most attractive aspects of the Japanese are qualities like gratitude, civility, and respect for tradition.

To begin with, the Japanese are generally very grateful people.  Thankfully, an entitlement mentality does not yet pervade Japanese society.  If one is congratulated or thanked in Japan, the appropriate response is often to say "okagesama de," which means something like "it is only thanks to you/everyone."  Boastfulness and self-glorifying behavior are usually frowned upon.

Foreigners, including Americans, also experience this kind of gratitude from people.  In view of the devastation brought on Japan by the American military during World War II, it would not be surprising if there were widespread, deep-rooted resentment toward the U.S., but this is generally not the case.  The opposite is true.

In Sapporo, the city where I live, there are monuments in various places to Americans and other Westerners who helped modernize and advance Japanese education, agriculture, and industry, such as statues of William S. Clark, who started Sapporo Agricultural College in the nineteenth century, the origin of present-day Hokkaido University.  His parting words to his students — "Boys, be ambitious!" — are legendary throughout Japan.  Likewise, a museum in Sapporo commemorates Edwin Dun, an American rancher who came to Hokkaido to develop livestock farming.  Even in small towns here, one often finds replicas of the Statue of Liberty and American flags on display.  In the town of Kutchan, I once encountered a laundry named "America."

Along with this, Christianity is generally appreciated, since its influence helped to remedy some of the feudalistic features of Japanese society, including the low status of women.  Education for women in Japan was pioneered mostly by missionaries and Japanese Christians.  My own university began as a girls' school, started by nineteenth-century American missionary Sarah Smith.  Many Japanese would be surprised to find out that Western feminists often blame Christianity for oppressing women, since the opposite has been Japan's experience.  However, the number of Christian believers in Japan is small.

Though they are often open to ethical reforms, Japanese people value tradition and are basically conservative in outlook.  As Scruton observes in England: An Elegy, royal families provide a symbolic link to the past, and Japan's imperial family has also performed that role.  There has been nothing akin to the Cultural Revolution in communist China, when many of the young, at the instigation of Mao Zedong, went on a rampage against the "Four Olds" (old ideas, customs, culture, and habits), abusing their elders and destroying many objects associated with China's past.  The new imperial name, "Reiwa," comes from an ancient collection of Japanese poetry.  In regard to the era name, the current prime minister expressed his hope that Japanese culture and tradition will be passed down to future generations.

Finally, there is the well known civility of Japanese people, still intact though somewhat eroded by social media and other influences.  The Japanese tend to make a practice of showing consideration for the feelings, social standing, and reputations of others.  Generally speaking, the worst offenders against good manners in Japan come from the minority of political ideologues, delinquents, and criminals.  I need not fear that Japanese university students will try to mob me if I say something in class they disagree with.  They even make a point of personally thanking me for my teaching efforts.

It is sad to note that gratitude, civility, and respect for tradition used to be more widespread in places like North America and Europe before left-leaning educators, entertainers, activists, politicians, and journalists got to work "fundamentally transforming" things.  My hope and prayer is that most Japanese people will continue to capitalize on their strengths and resist the voices advocating unhealthy changes.

Bruce W. Davidson is a professor at Hokusei Gakuen University in Sapporo, Japan and a contributor to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia.

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