Monday 25 November 2013

You Better Not Cry

Japanese lawmaker Taro Yamamoto got himself into a bit of hot water not so long ago, following the most ill-advised letter since the Children’s Television Workshop’s dalliance with Cyrillic in 1983 as part of a well-intentioned but ultimately disastrous attempt to ease Cold War tensions between East and West (“One! One Mother Russia! AHA HA HA HA!”).

He gave it to the emperor, you see, and this is Not To Be Done. Because his highness is above it all; all that dirty grubby business of politics and bickering and squabble and, y’know, how people live their lives and shit.

It’ll perhaps come as little surprise to you that I’m a republican. Not in the Fox News, Tea Party, Keep ‘em out and string ‘em high American incarnation of the word, mark you. I am slightly but firmly to the left of the political centre. The opposition to my republicanism aren’t Democrats but monarchists. It’s 2013, and living in (and indeed coming from) a country that still chooses it’s head of state based on whose descendents were more ruthlessly and murderously Machiavellian a few centuries past is, frankly, embarrassing.

Not that this is a particular cause I’ll be heading to the barricades over any time soon. Kings and queens serve a purpose, I guess; most countries with extant monarchies have many more obviously pressing issues that need addressing, and a quick glance around the world is enough to tell you that more supposedly egalitarian methods of selection aren’t exactly guarantees of suitability. There’s something to be said for having a figurehead who can rise above it all, who can transcend politics and embody the immutable and inviolate traditions of the nation.

Traditional British pastimes.

Except, of course, that nation-states are anything but immutable and inviolate. The modern nation state is an entirely political entity, so the notion of a Head of State who’s above politics is as untenable as the notion of a general who’s above violence.

That’s not a random choice of simile on my part either. Prior to 1945 state-building worked pretty much like this: the ruling elites of one vaguely unified group of people would notice that their neighbours weren’t quite as strong as them, and so co-opt their land, resources, and population either through force or negotiation (backed up by the threat of force); they would then notice the same thing about another set of neighbours and the process would repeat until either a) they extended too far from their original core that the periphery proved too hard or costly to control, or b) they met another similarly powerful group expanding in the other direction, at which point there’d be a bit of a squabble about exact boundaries and then things might settle down. For a while.

Post-1945 things work in much the same way, except that, as a result of the whole core-periphery-overextension thing you also had option c) whereby the European powers decided the best way to go about dismantling their empires was by drawing a lot of random straight lines on a world map, thus directly contributing to decades of peace in the Middle East and West Africa. Good job guys!

But then I owe my entire knowledge of geopolitical
history to CIV, so what do I know?

War is, of course, the ultimate political act (‘The Last Argument of Kings’ and all that). So to argue that any Head of State, let alone one who owes his position to the politicking and intrigue of generations of predecessors, is ‘above politics’ is demonstrable bullshit. The state is political, and so as the embodiment of the state they too, surely, must be political themselves. Claiming otherwise is just another of the tactics by which people are conned into believing that certain purposefully constructed institutions are ‘natural’ and inevitable, when they are actually built and maintained for the benefit of a privileged few.

You can’t have your letter and read it, or something. If your Head of State owes his position to politics (as all heads of state must), then he might as well get his hands dirty. So good on you, Mr Yamamoto, though I can’t help feeling that you might have been better off sending your letter to Santa Claus; he’s just as much of an artificial construct, but he wouldn’t have thrown it back in your face and you might, at least, have got a mince pie for your troubles.

It's going to be a long, cold winter.


  1. I hope you meant mince pie, not 'mice pie'. England's not that poor yet.

    You can well guess what I think of elites, but I will spell it out: surrender your privileges or take this blindfold and line up along the wall, if you please. Besides family and cowardice, despair of success and despair for success, is what keeps me off the barricades: revolutions tend to go tits up either through failure or a success that isn't.

    I once thought rebellion failed in the way that Camus argued in 'The Rebel': essentially, it turns on itself through a lack of limits. However, I think we have misidentified the enemy in all political systems, and this is why even the most nobly designed have failed: sociopaths.

  2. Although, one interesting thing about the Yamamoto letter is the number of Japanese who have told me they disagree with his action not because of the legal ins and out of the constitution, but rather because the Emporer is a god. I thought that that thinking ended in 1945, which when expressed, warrants a nudge-nudge, wink-wink response.

    1. How old where these people generally? I can understand it for older people who were brought up with it before the war. Troublingly, in my limited experience it's the older guys who are most anti-war and anti-monarchy, because they can remember just how shit it really was. It's the younger twats who buy into all this nationalism bullshit that are really pushing the agenda.

      Regardless, if he really is a god, isn't giving him a letter just a very tangible form of prayer? I'd have thought that would be a good thing?

    2. My experience is the same. Met several older guys who knew the cost of war: Miyazaki Hayao's generation. Middle aged and younger Japanese, I cannot prevaricate, are on the whole as dumb as posts when it comes to Japan's history and its place in the world.

      They always were, as joining WWII against an enemy who could float sixteen boats in the time they could float one, against which they could not project force to its mainland, and contrary to Japanese expectations had never sued for peace but rather taken every opportunity, fortuitous or falsified, to belligerently expand its influence. Yamamoto, Japan's military genius in that war told them his navy would be nullified in six months. A good prediction. Even he hit the wrong targets at Pearl: destroying docking facilities and fuel depots would have delayed American retaliation longer, though not for much longer (never mind the carriers that just happened to be at sea...).

      Americans, British and yes, even my Canadian compatriots can be as idiotic, but we have not had our mainland carpet-bombed and nuked! If that has taught you nothing, alas. Yes Japan, continue bickering with South Korea over a few stupid rocks and ignore the Sinitic elephant in the middle of the room.

    3. Kamo, Mr. Razor, I agree with you both. In my experiences it has also been the case that the much older generation have been way more liberal on these issues because of personal experience, and that just as in the cases of Abe et al, it is those born after the war who view Japanese fascist history through rose tinted spectacles. However, I feel that especially since the island dispute has flared up, Japanese under 30 are beggining to buy into this petty recidivist nationalism on a level I find sickeningly dangerous for a society that generally has little understanding of the world outside of very little that the immature Japanese media gives them. It's very much a 'children and matches' scenario.

    4. It's terrifying just how much some of my students parrot the news, and then give me a look kind of expecting praise for being up to date on serious stuff. I'm sure I was no more discerning at their age, but it does make you realise how insidious all this propaganda can be. Children with matches indeed.

  3. So I have been considering looking for work in Tokyo lately, and now this comes along and reminds me of why I left Japan in the first place.
    Oh well, it's no better or worse than the crap going on here, I guess.

  4. I could only think of how utterly ridiculous this was when I first read about it, though I tried to think of how it might be perceived as a brilliant move in the fucked up way that people reason things out here, but in the end, I can't think of it as anything else but a douche move...