Neurotic Beauty - Looking into Japan

Japan maybe a model for a steady state, sustainable economy built from a society that is grounded in an emptiness from which all creativity flows, a sense of presence towards one another and the natural world, and the celebration of craft. This would be contradistinction to a world adrift in a void from which consumption flows, where we hope to fill the gap by fashioning an endlessly postponed identity wrapped up in things, where we are rarely present because we are always looking over the shoulder of presence to a future that never appears to arrive in any satisfactory shape, and where lasting craft is replaced with built in obsolescence.

Morris Berman in his beautiful and provocative, 'Neurotic Beauty: An Outsider Looks at Japan' admits that it is a big 'maybe' but marshals his evidence with slow building care and on the way gives the reader a fascinating tour through both recent and ancient Japanese history, culture and philosophy.

He begins with the arrival of Commander Perry's 'black ships' that broke open Japan to the modern world from over two hundred years of self-sufficient, sustainable isolation and which set the country on a path of 'catch up' and denial. Catch up because it recognised that unless it changed and adopted Western dress (especially technology and imperial prospects), it too would be swallowed by the swaggering march of Western colonialism: if you cannot elude them, join them! Denial because in the process, Berman argues, the core cultural content or frame of Japan went 'underground' continuing as a way of life but now expressed in a kind schizophrenic duality with the race for progress.

This bifurcation threw up ugly shadows, not least Japan's own colonial record and aggression towards its neighbours, that was highly conflicted - we will mirror whom we imitate (the Western powers) but yet as an Asian power who thinks (with the other side of our mind) that we might lead Asia to liberation from the very same powers we are imitating! Go figure!

I cannot hope to rehearse the complex argumentation here only to say he makes a good case.

At the core Japanese culture reflects the bounty of emptiness, drawing on Buddhist roots, that nothing has value except that it abides in an emergent web of relationships, paying attention to those relationships enables you to craft resilient forms - whether social or physical - in the production of which the ego is minimised and relativised. Those forms are characterised by their being forged by craft, the endless, quiet practice of making; and, thus, the emphasis is on perfecting not production, on quality not quantity, on lasting not consuming. There is a deeply ascetic quality to Japanese life but one that does not despise celebration, gift and beauty.

Much of this has been suppressed by a pursuit of an 'ideal' rooted in the American way but in the last two decades of apparent 'stagnation', it is possibly, and slowly, being unpicked. Mr Abe may be trying to reignite the consumptive way but many Japanese are either revolting (in peculiarly Japanese' ways - taking to their bedrooms and refusing to come out or adopting minimum cost, floating lifestyles) or voting with their feet (by reviving crafts, promoting alternate currencies [and Japan has more of these than any other country] or returning to the land).

None of which make Berman a prophet (nor would he want to be) but all of which invite us to contemplate a society that both in its light and its shadows appears to be wrestling, at a very deep level, with what it might mean to be a society that can actually survive and flourish in a context of reducing consumption and is seeking out alternatives (backed by very powerful spiritual and philosophic traditions) to the fraying path of continuous growth.


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