Los Angeles Times
Magazine, May 3, 1992, Sunday
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
By KARL SCHOENBERGER
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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.