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Once Again, Japan Must Rise to Redefine Itself

THE most important political topic in Japan this week is whether or not a reform bill drastically changing the country's election system will be passed. Japan's economy is in deep crisis, and relations with the United States face an impasse. Until the reform bill is passed - the deadline is Jan. 29 - Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa cannot really cope with either issue.

But having made an overly optimistic prediction about passage two weeks ago, I dare not repeat it. So, while reminding readers of the importance of what is about to happen on the political front, I would like to consider a subject that goes to the heart of what being Japanese in this day and age is all about.

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The political and economic problems that beset Japanese society are symptoms of a deeper malaise. For the first time since their defeat in World War II, the Japanese are in search of their collective soul.

What is at the core of that soul? Is it Eastern, or Western, or a mixture of both? What are Japan's values? Are they absolute or relative?

Much has been written on this subject, going all the way back to these islanders' mid-19th century emergence from feudal isolation into the modern world. But the question of immediate relevance is whether or not there is something at Japan's core that rejects the outside world, that refuses to assimilate itself into the mainstream of mankind.

American trade officials, surveying the frustrating course of talks with Tokyo, ask themselves that question. So do Europeans. As to whether or not the core of Japan's soul is Eastern or Western, there is no unanimity even among Japan's closest Asian neighbors.

In a controversial article, ``The Clash of Civilizations,'' in Foreign Affairs magazine last year, Samuel Huntington placed Japan in a category by itself - separate from the Confucian culture of China as well as from the Western countries.

My own view is this: There is not and never has been an undiluted Japanese soul. Most analysts agree that the Japanese consciousness of today is the result of several bursts of intense interaction with the outside world, interspersed with centuries-long intervals of relative isolation, during which what had been taken in haste was digested at leisure and turned into Japan's own. In this way Buddhism and Confucianism have been in Japan for well over 1,000 years, while Western science and civilization came in a century and a half ago.

The soul of Japan is made up of many elements: the love and worship of nature that goes back, some would say, to before the arrival of the Japanese on these islands; the Buddhism that brought ideas of heaven, hell, and good works to Japan; the Confucianism that teaches proper relationships between parents and children, rulers and the ruled; the flood of ideas from the West that brought the notion of absolute values and absolute truth and cast a new light on relations between the individual and society. A dictionary's worth of new words had to be coined to define these ideas - words such as subjective and objective, religion, democracy, freedom, the individual, society.

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Compared with this inflow, few new words entered Japanese after defeat in World War II and occupation by American troops - unprecedented events for these people. A new constitution was proclaimed, women got the vote, and democracy and individual freedoms became the new buzzwords. But the terms themselves were not new.

I submit that the weight of evidence shows that the Japanese, in their mental makeup, have been open to influences coming from outside; they have striven to make them their own. Amane Nishi, one of the early Westernizers, recognized from his first exposure to Western works of philosophy and social science that here was a radically new way of thinking, one based on values and not merely on human relationships, as in Confucianism.

Then why the malaise, the soul-searching, of today? I can think of two reasons: First, material progress has been so rapid since World War II that the mentality, the soul, has been unable to keep pace. Second, today's demand is not for the Japanese to adapt themselves successfully to societies overseas, but rather to welcome into their own society practices and patterns of behavior that are unfamiliar and even offensive.

For instance, Americans, and many Japanese, call for deregulation - freeing both local and foreign businesspeople from bureaucratic controls. That would certainly enliven the economy, but it would also intensify competition. That runs counter to the Japanese desire for harmony, to avoid open conflict. Will the Japanese soul tolerate such behavior?

My answer is that it must and it will. One cannot have a democratic society without conflict. One cannot have creativity - a much desired value - without strong arguments over the truth. And in the process the Japanese soul is redefined.

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