Los Angeles Times Magazine, May 3, 1992, Sunday

Japanese Quixotes:
For Every Action of the Crowd there is an Opposite -- If Unequal -- Reaction: Four Tales rrom the Front Lines of Individualism in the Land Of Conformity


It is morning rush hour in the labyrinthine central concourse of Tokyo Station. Hordes of men and women are hustling -- some of them sprinting -- to color-coded, numbered stairways, racing to make transfers on the jampacked rail lines that fan out across this megalopolis. They jostle and bump, enrapt in the rhythm of their deployment to offices, shops and factories. Conjure up Grand Central Station to the fifth magnitude but with none of the distemper of the New Yorker. Picture a docile, disciplined work force seemingly mobilized for an economic war. Then extrapolate the image to include all of Tokyo's thriving rail hubs. The nation thunders with purposeful, synchronized footwork at the start of each working day.

The blur of humanity is faceless. Each person seems to have abandoned his or her identity, chameleon-like, and adopted an anonymous shell. Color the men in somber blues and dark grays and slick their hair down in parted collegiate cuts. Dress the "office ladies" in cookie-cutter designer fashions; their hair will have to be long and straight, with an obligatory curl in the bangs. No one pauses to make eye contact, and the bustling crowd is eerily voiceless -- without time, or reason, to speak out amid the torrent of strangers.

Now imagine some stubborn individual walking alone, directly against the force of that crowd rushing for its train. Because, incredibly, someone always does. He collides and dodges and slices small eddies in the current, getting swallowed and disgorged, plodding a determined course on the path of greatest resistance. His intense effort leaves a small, momentary ripple in the sea of bodies.

The swarm of commuters, and the intrepid few who move against the tide, portray the essence of one of the most curious dynamics of Japanese life: For every action by the unthinking crowd, there is an opposite -- if pitifully unequal -- reaction by a feisty iconoclast or a cluster of souls who do not wish to go with the flow.

Perhaps the most enduring stereotype in Japanese society is the monolithic cult of conformity, where the cardinal virtues of harmony and consensus sometimes border ominously on thought control. The Japanese have a saying that describes the collective impulse to enforce their homogeneity, which they recite with a smile of chagrin: Deru kugi wa utareru -- "The nail that sticks up gets pounded down."

Yet the nails keep protruding. Indeed, the flip side of Japan's conformism is a little-known tradition of die-hard resistance. The unorthodox individual is even a minor cultural icon in Japan. The most famous anti-hero in literature is Yoshitsune, a brilliant 12th-Century general who was persecuted ruthlessly by his jealous elder brother, the warlord Yoritomo, and ultimately crushed -- an archetypal tale of quashing a threat to the status quo, read by children and acted out in Kabuki drama today. Similarly, in history, a dissident samurai scholar named Shoin Yoshida was martyred at the hands of the last shogun after his ideas became the seeds for the Meiji Restoration, a 19th-Century insurrection against the shogunate that installed the Emperor as constitutional monarch. Yoshida is now quietly enshrined in his provincial hometown of Hagi, on the Japan Sea coast.

Immediate victory always seems to elude Japan's underdogs and heretics. Most are co-opted by the powerful psychology of the group, some are banished or simply forgotten, a few create a ripple effect. But whatever their impact, Japan's mavericks are a necessary counterbalance to the conformity they resist. Their dissenting voices may be futile, but they play an essential role.

"If nobody uses the freedom of expression, which is guaranteed by law, it becomes a dead letter," says Shuichi Kato, an authority on Japanese postwar thought. "This is a society of conformism, and if you swim with the current, you always have freedom of expression, especially if you have importance and power. But it's the minority opinion that is most important in true freedom of expression, and in Japan there are too many people who have no means of expressing their opinions. Those atomized individuals in the faceless crowd, they'd disappear if (others) didn't speak out, because they can't speak out themselves."

Who are the Quixotic dreamers, the would-be agents of change in contemporary Japan? They are writers, entrepreneurs, priests and ordinary citizens. They agitate against government projects that trash the environment; they argue against tradition and for women's rights. A maverick former prosecutor champions small investors in the unpoliced and corrupt Tokyo stock trade. Another crusader, tired of incessant noise, wants to turn off the ubiquitous loudspeakers that blare patronizing instructions on railway platforms.

What follows are four stories from the front lines of Japanese quixotism, from a realm where individuals tilt bravely at windmills. These four have little in common except for a stubborn streak of persistence and a refusal to be pounded down. Each knows the odds of success are terrible; each holds onto the belief that he or she might be the one whose struggle becomes a catalyst for change, a force that shifts, in inches, the powerful flow of the Japanese current.

THE GODFATHER OF JAPANESE QUIXOTISM IS A DIMINUTIVE, dignified historian named Saburo Ienaga, who is renowned for his 27-year war of litigation against the powerful and ultraconservative Ministry of Education. His aim is to thwart the government's attempts at whitewashing Japanese history. One would never guess this courteous and shy man in horn-rimmed glasses is the scourge of the Establishment, from the Education Ministry to the courts to the perennially ruling Liberal Democratic Party (which, it should be noted, is neither liberal nor democratic).

In 1952, Ienaga, who is now 79, wrote a popular high school history textbook that engaged in some straight talk about Japanese aggression and military atrocities during World War II, topics that conservatives have long targeted for selective amnesia. The textbook was published uncensored that year, but in later editions, the mandarins of the Education Ministry forced Ienaga, through a system of pre-publication textbook certification, to make hundreds of changes and deletions. A section debunking the notion that the Emperor was a direct descendant of a god was omitted. The adjective "reckless" was stricken from a broad characterization of Japan's role in the Pacific war. Perhaps the most notorious example was when revisionist bureaucrats forced him to rephrase Japan's "invasion" of China as a mere "advance," raising vociferous diplomatic protests from Beijing.

Since 1965, Ienaga has filed three lawsuits against the ministry, claiming the textbook screening system -- which dates back to 1886 -- deprives him of due process and violates constitutional guarantees of free speech and academic freedom. He has been fighting in court ever since, serving as a beacon of hope for a growing number of writers, professors and artists who fear that the rise of historical revisionism may make it impossible for Japan to face its past honestly.

"I was raised on the kind of history textbook where the Imperial genealogy went back to Amaterasu, the sun goddess. Supposedly, Japanese history all began with the gods," says Ienaga, sharing a cup of tea in the cozy library of his home in northern Tokyo. "But I had a bitter awakening when I learned the truth was different. I want to spare future generations of our children from this same kind of deception by the same kind of authoritarian bureaucrats. I myself have deep regrets I wasn't able to resist the tyranny before the war. That's why I'm trying to do what I can to prevent it from happening again."

His conservative foes dismiss Ienaga as a radical leftist whose vocabulary betrays a streak of Marxism, but he and his supporters insist that the textbook crusade is fueled by principles of academic integrity, not a political or ideological agenda. "If you had to put an 'ism' label on me, it would have to be 'liberalism,' " says Ienaga, professor emeritus at the Tokyo University of Education. He is the author of dozens of books, including the classic "The Pacific War," which was translated into English. "My ideology is to protect the constitution, and to defend my conscience as a scholar."

Ienaga has been joined in his battle by the National League to Support the School Textbook Screening Suit, which claims 27,000 members and supports Ienaga's team of 30 volunteer lawyers. Since 1965, he has scored one small victory: A lower court in 1989 ruled that the government had abused its power in forcing him to rewrite an obscure passage about 19th-Century political intrigue. It awarded Ienaga $700 in damages. The same court, however, ruled that the Education Ministry's edict to rewrite a description of the Rape of Nanjing was justifiable.

Ienaga's lawsuits are a striking anomaly in a country where the government restricts the number of lawyers to discourage litigation, where tort suits are a rarity. This is a land without a product liability law, and most citizens would not think of seeking legal redress for injustices or personal damages. "Lots of people would go to court to clear their name of false criminal charges," says Yamato Kobayashi, director of Ienaga's support group. "But it's extremely rare for someone to fight so long for his principles."

Ienaga is humble about his accomplishments. "I think I may have stopped the textbook screening system from getting really horrible, but that's about it. I don't think I've been able to turn the tide, or reform anything," he confides. "But this textbook controversy is like a bone in the throat of the Education Ministry. As long as the fight continues, they'll be constrained from doing whatever they like." PERHAPS ONE OF THE MOST ENDURING MYTHS ABOUT postwar Japan is that it has attained its heady success because of the strength and efficiency of a free-market economy, the kind extolled by Adam Smith and enshrined in the model of democracy established by the Allies when they set out to rebuild a war-torn Free World. But American Occupation authorities had no inkling of how deeply rooted the power of the Japanese bureaucracy would remain.

Even now, in the 1990s, the bureaucrats keep their not-so-invisible hands on the wheels of industry, commerce and finance, guiding the economy in the name of harmony and order. They have sweeping, informal powers to prevent bankruptcies, arrange cartels, channel technological development and protect industries through non-tariff barriers. Even officials of the Fair Trade Commission, the watchdog agency created by the Occupation to enforce Japan's anti-monopoly law, say that government must protect society against "excess competition" and "confusion in the marketplace." That generally means a raw deal for consumers and a comfortable, nurturing haven for the vested interests of corporate Japan.

In such an environment of capitalist central planning, consider the tale of Taiji Sato, a former amateur boxing champion and pugnacious entrepreneur, who has inscribed on his business card: "The man who was the first to import and liberalize gasoline in Japan." Well, the claim is not completely inaccurate -- he was the first to try, until the proverbial nail was pounded down.

Sato, a beefy man in a crew cut, tilts casually back in his chair at his spotless office in Sagamihara, a suburb of Tokyo, and recalls how he took on the mighty Ministry of International Trade and Industry, which, among other things, controls petroleum import licenses. His battle began with a plan to break the monopoly on oil refining by importing his own gasoline. His scheme was simple free-market enterprise: to sell the gas at his chain of 20 Lions Petroleum discount filling stations at prices far lower than those allowed by the government-protected oil industry.

In late 1984, Sato caused an uproar when he attempted to import 780,000 gallons of high-octane gasoline from Singapore, not technically violating the law but breaking all precedents. MITI cracked down, forcing him to unload his first shipment under the classification of "naphtha" -- so as not to set a dangerous precedent -- and sell it to a major domestic oil company, Nihon Sekiyu, at a break-even price. Sato's second and third attempts were squashed when his financing mysteriously unraveled. He was rocking the oil tanker, and the banks did not want to be involved.

"All I wanted to do was bring in cheaper gasoline to Japanese consumers, who pay the highest prices in the world and have no choice in the matter," says a bitter Sato, 39, exaggerating only a little: Gasoline here costs the equivalent of about $3.25 a gallon. "I also wanted to conduct free enterprise in a competitive environment, without the control of bureaucratic administrative guidance.

"Nobody outside Japan understands what is going on here. We don't have rule of law in this country. Politicians don't run Japan, and neither do the presidents of corporations. It's the bureaucrats," says Sato, a graduate of a junior college who started his career at age 20 selling real estate.

When Sato's hopeless quest was reported abroad, it attracted attention and prompted gai-atsu or "external pressure," to reform what was clearly an example of a closed market. The result was a new petroleum law that allows the importation of refined gasoline, but only with a MITI permit -- opening the market to cheaper gasoline but giving the bureaucrats discretion to control who does the importing. Licenses went only to the major oil companies, excluding Sato and other small entrepreneurs. "They were able to tell the international community that they opened Japan to imported gasoline, but they put strict limits on who could do the importing, and that defeats the whole purpose," Sato says. "Are the major oil companies, with their vested interests, going to pass the savings on to consumers?"

Sato also claims the insiders in the oil industry subsequently tried to cut off his access to traditional stocks of discount gasoline refined in Japan. But Sato has made some clever adaptations to survive. For example, attempts last year to call the telephone number Sato used frequently in 1985 were answered by a company identifying itself as Sunrise Oil, and officials there said they had never heard of Lions Petroleum or Taiji Sato. The mystery later dissolved when Sato unfolded a convoluted cardboard corporate chart with a dozen or so colored company logos, one of which is Sunrise Oil, a franchise Sato owns.

"I was blacklisted, and once you're blacklisted you can't get access to discount gasoline. So I made dummy companies to protect our supply," he says. "If I didn't do that, I would have been ruined. As it is, I'm already ostracized."

Sato is not suffering financially. He has expanded his network of gasoline stations to more than 100 nationwide, a little empire grossing upward of $230 million a year. Sato once toyed with the idea of importing inexpensive California rice to sell at his gas stations, testing the government's quasi-religious ban on foreign rice. Again his plan was squelched.

He now runs a boxing gymnasium on the first floor of his home, quietly operates his gasoline franchises and lately has diversified into a lucrative new business -- a nationwide chain of karaoke bars. "It's a lot more profitable than selling gasoline," he says. "We're thinking about tearing down some of the service stations and building more bars."

HISTORY MAY REMEMBER 1989 as Japan's year of the hopeless cause: That was when Japanese women, under the inspirational leadership of Socialist Party Chairwoman Takako Doi, rose up in outrage to challenge the political order. The stodgy Liberal Democrats lost control of the upper house of Parliament in a stunning pink revolt that brought an infusion of women voters into opposition camps. Later in the year, the public recriminations of a scorned geisha brought down Prime Minister Sosuke Uno, not necessarily because he kept a mistress, but because he allegedly mistreated her. Suddenly, sex scandals were in vogue and interjected into politics as never before -- genuinely radical stuff for this culture of male supremacy.

But alas, women are not only Japan's most wasted resource, they are an entire class of protruding nails, and they got pummeled. The media championed their cause for a brief honeymoon, only to dismiss it, denigrate it and all but forget it when the acid test for control of the powerful lower house came the following year. Japanese voters chose to preserve the conservative political order that has brought prosperity -- and put a chokehold on democracy through one-party rule -- since 1955. Doi, a constitutional scholar who might have one day become prime minister, has since been discarded as party head by its male power brokers, who apparently saw no further need for a token woman leader. The agenda for women is now in limbo.

But as the women's movement retreats, Mizuho Fukushima, a feisty 36-year-old human-rights lawyer, is charging ahead, making waves in Japan's male-dominated pond of jurisprudence. She helped introduce the concept of sexual harassment to the Japanese public by translating American articles on the subject, then became a leading advocate against sexual abuses in the workplace. She also helped found a shelter for battered women in Tokyo, Help, which reaches out to exploited women from Southeast Asia who have been brought illegally to Japan as prostitutes.

Fukushima's pet cause is her effort to reform the government's family registration system, which prohibits women from legally using their maiden names after marriage. She believes the law symbolizes how Japanese women are deprived of their individuality, and is leading a lobbying campaign to revise it. She is also challenging the law in court on behalf of a university professor forced to adopt her husband's surname.

Fukushima, the mother of a 6-year-old daughter, chose not to marry her "partner," a law school colleague and the father of her child, so she could keep her legal name, and identity. "Marriage is a gloomy concept to me, and I find the family registration system personally offensive," Fukushima says. "Besides, I didn't want to see myself as someone's bride."

Yet Fukushima does not view herself as a firebrand feminist. After attending elite Tokyo University, she was one of the small number of women to pass the rigorous entrance examination for the state-run Legal Training and Research Institute. The only gate to a law career in Japan, the institute graduated about 500 lawyers, prosecutors and judges annually until the quota was raised to 750 after American pressure to liberalize the legal services market. After finishing her training, Fukushima went job hunting at Tokyo's major law firms, only to be told that female applicants need not apply.

She relates this in a soft, breathless tone, speaking rapidly but without betraying a trace of anger in her voice. The situation has improved in recent years for women in the law, she adds, and she says that sexism has not hindered her on her non-traditional career path as a women's advocate: "The kind of work I'm doing is actually easy for a woman to do," Fukushima says, "because no one has ever done it before."

THE PICTURE OF DISSONANCE IN JAPAN WOULD NOT BE COMPLETE WITHOUT a look at the ritual protest of the lunatic fringe. In any society -- but even more so in Japan -- going against the grain can be such an emotionally charged experience that protesters may be fanatically consumed by the righteousness of their complaint. For the Japanese, there are too few avenues of compromise, and disputes can quickly become battles of all-or-nothing desperation because the overpowering ethos of consensus allows no room for valid dissent. At times the act of protest becomes the end as well as the means, a lifestyle, as in the violence-prone dispute at Narita International Airport, where a small band of irate farmers, egged on by student radicals, has lived amid barbed wire and watchtowers for decades, successfully blocking runway expansion.

Extremely loud noise is the preferred weapon for the ritual dissident. Ultranationalists parade around downtown Tokyo in sound trucks, blaring ululations of contempt against an array of social evils and leftist conspiracies. The rightists say they need sound trucks because their opinions are blacked out in the press. But the common wisdom is that most of these noisemakers are underworld gangs who harass their targets for a price and will silence their megaphones for a higher price.

The radical left groups are a nuisance, too, waging a violent hate campaign against the Imperial family as well as rival radical left groups. But in recent years, with a few exceptions, their rockets have fizzled and the bombs have exploded harmlessly.

The paramount symbol of the impotence of Japan's modern revolutionaries is Yukio Mishima, one of the most renowned writers of the postwar era, who parlayed his conflicted gift for fiction and theater into the ultimate fantasy: He disemboweled himself -- committing ritual hara-kiri -- in 1970, after making a pathetic appeal to members of the Self-Defense Forces, Japan's euphemistically titled military, to rise up in a right-wing coup d'etat.

Mishima's quirky novels and crisp prose continue to be loved by readers around the world, but the years have been unkind to his political philosophy -- a bizarre advocacy of restoring the Emperor as head of a remilitarized nation. His sensational suicide seems unreal in today's Japan.

Ask the members of the group Issui-kai, however, and they will tell you that Mishima-sensei's teachings have not been forgotten. This organization of about 200 neo-nationalists purports to descend from Mishima's original fascist youth group of the late 1960s, and it is alive and well in 1992. Issui-kai members distinguish themselves from ordinary rightists by using their brains, not just their megaphones, and by drawing initiates from universities rather than from the ranks of the dispossessed.

Indeed, Issui-kai is unique among nationalist fringe groups: It does not extort contributions from politicians or big corporations to survive, thus maintaining its independence and a kind of ethical high ground that allows some fast footwork on the issues. Issui-kai was free, for example, to align itself with leftists to protest China's Tian An Men massacre. Its sound truck was parked next to a band of fasting, peace-praying monks outside Tokyo's Shibuya rail hub last year, denouncing Japan's support for U.S. "imperialism" in the Persian Gulf War. That position was a 180-degree turn on the usual pro-American stance of the postwar far right, and an echo of prewar ultranationalists' anti-U.S. vitriol.

Issui-kai's founder and leader, Kunio Suzuki, 48, seems an unlikely inheritor of Mishima's cause. Suzuki claims to be a pacifist and disavows militarism. When he goes on television talk shows he comes across as a shy, self-effacing voice of reason, surprising viewers who expect to see a menacing right-wing boss. The son of a provincial tax bureaucrat and a former graduate student in constitutional studies at prestigious Waseda University, Suzuki cultivates an image as prototype for the interi-uyoku, the "right-wing intelligentsia."

"There are a lot misconceptions about right-wing nationalism in Japan," Suzuki says over a lunch at a Denny's franchise near Waseda. "We're not racist; we don't hate Jews or blacks, and we're not trying to send home all the foreign workers. None of us are advocating taking back Manchuria or fighting the United States again. Ours is a moderate nationalism. We want Japanese to salute the flag, to sing our national anthem, to respect the Emperor and to take a second look at our (U.S.-imposed) constitution. We want the Northern Territories returned to us by the Russians. This is all common-sense stuff."

But the subtext of Suzuki's message is disturbing to those who remember, like Ienaga the historian, the dark days of prewar totalitarianism, when ultranationalists used the semi-divine Emperor as a powerful symbol to manipulate mass psychology and suppress dissent. Suzuki could become a credible voice of revisionism, they fear, and contribute to the erosion of the modest postwar gains in civil liberties.

Yet the balance of opinion in Japan, for now, tilts toward the center, and with that balance goes the weight and the force of the moving crowd. Issui-kai members are suspect in the eyes of the police, not necessarily because of their ideas, as their critics might hope, but because of the radical right's long association with political violence. So they are tagged and kept under surveillance. Suzuki claims he has been evicted by landlords under police pressure a half-dozen times. Issui-kai's offices have been searched frequently by police, which Suzuki regards as political harassment unrelated to any legitimate criminal investigation.

"Japan can be very much like a police state. No matter how hard we try to get our message across, we can't get it out of people's minds that we're not gangsters and we're not political terrorists. We're not even a right-wing group. In my mind, we're still nothing more than a circle of conservative students with a different way of looking at things," he says.

WILL JAPAN EVER REALLY CHANGE, for better or worse, because of its protruding nails? It is hard to imagine individualism triumphing in a country where to be different is to invite suspicion. Children who undergo primary schooling abroad with expatriate parents learn quickly on their return to the Japanese fold that they must stop acting like foreigners or be ostracized. The same holds true for their fathers when they go back to work at the home office. Individual creativity is so squelched by the university system that when Massachusetts Institute of Technology biologist Susumu Tonegawa won the 1987 Nobel Prize for medicine, he remarked that he never could have succeeded in his research had he not left the stifling environment of his native Japan. This ascending great nation, with its miracle economy and its creative and talented people, remains a small village at heart, smothering and harassing -- or banishing -- the individual who stands out.

The prognosis is not good for crusading human rights lawyers, free-speech activists and audacious entrepreneurs, because Japan remains under the spell of a regime of political correctness, to borrow a current U.S. phrase, whose dogma is: Do not make waves. To be sure, there will always be room to accommodate a vociferous opposition in Parliament or gadfly social critics in the media. When it comes down to effecting real change, however, the power of the crowd still swarms all who resist. And that is precisely why Japan's battered Quixotes deserve respect. Someday they may find their own strength in numbers, reaching a critical mass that will shift social currents, if not unleash a revolutionary wave of change.

Karl Schoenberger, a former Times Tokyo correspondent, now covers the Asia-Pacific region for the business section.


 Photos: Eika Aoshima

 ENTREPRENEUR TAIJI SATO: His bid to import gasoline rocked Japan's oil tanker, and, he says, led to a vendetta by major petroleum companies.

 ATTORNEY MIZUHO FUKUSHIMA: She's targeting rules requiring women to take their husband's name. 

POLITICAL ACTIVIST KUNIO SUZUKI: A leader of the right-wing intelligencia, he says police are harassing him

HISTORIAN SABURO IENAGA: Since 1952, he has fought for an accurate account of Japan's role in WW II.