Walter Hamilton. Credulity and formalism: Abbott’s twin challenges in Japan.

Apr 1, 2014

A prominent Japanese historian once likened the psychology of wartime Japan to a ‘madhouse’ in which the public became capable of believing anything. Another who lived through those years noted how formalism––keeping up appearances long after a cause has ceased to have any meaning––suited a nation unable to change with the times. Credulity and formalism remain powerful elements in Japanese culture, regardless of the fact that the population is highly educated and, these days, formal barriers to the free flow of information are low. Recently we have witnessed extraordinary examples of this phenomenon. As Tony Abbott prepares for his first official visit to that country as prime minister next month, it is worth reflecting on the Japanese state of mind.

The instinct driving an elderly mother to hand over her life savings on the strength of a telephone call might appear to have little to do with international affairs, and yet her credulity fits within the larger picture. Japanese call them ‘ore, ore’ (‘it’s me, it’s me’) scams, in which a con artist pretending over the phone to be a relative of the elderly victim pleads distress and solicits money. Despite public warnings and police campaigns, this and similar forms of extortion netted criminals an estimated 12.8 billion yen ($140 million) in 2012. Though it might be hard to prove the Japanese are the most credulous people on earth, evidence points to a strong predisposition to believe what they are told.

Take, for example, the supposedly deaf composer described as Japan’s ‘new Beethoven’ and given the imprimatur of the national broadcaster, NHK, in a documentary broadcast last year entitled Melody of the Soul. The man was neither deaf nor did he compose the works for which he was feted (they were written by somebody else). The journalists and many others who dealt with him had grounds aplenty to doubt his story, but nobody dared challenge the myth. It wasn’t until the real composer, fed up with his paltry reward, threatened to blow the whistle that the truth was revealed last month.

This episode was followed soon after by another––in the field of science. The story initially presented to the public again proved irresistible: an attractive, 30-year-old female biologist had led a team of researchers to discover a way to create stem cells, opening a simple and ethical way to the cure of all sorts of ailments. Her youth, her sex, and the fact that she worked at a comparatively unknown (to the lay observer) institution added glamour to what was hailed as a far-reaching discovery. National pride oozed from the saturation media coverage. When it became known that, during her experiments, the superstar scientist wore a Japanese cooking apron, or kappogi, in preference to a lab coat, sales of the traditional garment skyrocketed. She might be a modern girl, but her heart was in the right place.

The stem-cell heroine is now in virtual hiding. The research papers she co-authored have been called into question on several grounds, prompting an inquiry. Though the mistakes uncovered so far have not been branded deliberate deceptions, clearly the public had been too ready to believe in miracles. As the backlash builds, there is a tendency to vilify (‘immature, sloppy’ research, her boss now calls it) what was previously adored.

Where Tony Abbott comes into the discussion is not, of course, in relation to the specifics of these episodes, but rather what they might indicate about the psychology of present-day Japan. There seems to be a strong, pent-up craving for miracles: redemption miracles, artistic miracles, medical miracles and, in the shape of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, economic and political miracles. It would be dangerous for Abbott, and Australia, to indulge in similar wishful thinking about the bilateral relationship. Japan is not out of the woods, economically, and relations with its nearest neighbours, currently as bad as they have ever been since the war, show little sign of improving. To ignore, play down or set aside these major conditioning factors in our two-way relationship would pander to the Japanese weakness for credulity and formalism.

What Japan needs right now is a cold shower: a reality check, a return to earth. Tokyo’s recent decision not to review the 1993 government apology on wartime ‘comfort women’ might, at first glance, appear to be the start of a healthy sobering up. But Abe’s explanation, that ‘we must be humble regarding history’, is not necessarily what it seems. Given the government’s direct hand in textbook screening, just one example of its current ideological offensive, his further comment that ‘issues regarding history should not be politicised or made diplomatic issues’ is hardly ingenuous or helpful. If Abbott ever intended broaching the issue that lies at the heart of Japan’s poisonous relations with China and South Korea (and recent media reports suggest he does not), he has been warned off even before he gets to Tokyo.

History and diplomacy cannot be separated on a whim, no matter how much certain politicians might find it convenient to do so. The formalism of humility without candour and sincerity, the credulity of a diplomacy built upon a refusal to fully face up to the past: these are manifestations of the same blind spot exploited by conmen, ‘deaf geniuses’ and headline-grabbing scientists. Tony Abbott needs to go to Japan with his eyes wide open and not take the line of least resistance to Abe’s unsustainable worldview.


Walter Hamilton reported from Japan for eleven years.

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