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Modern Times

March 2014

  • Andrew Hunter

Art and Evolution

“The past makes its appearance again, with all its mingled dreams and aspirations, the delicate tarnish of falsehood left undisturbed upon its silver.”

from Runaway Horses (Mishima)

Yukio Mishima rose to prominence in the late 1940s. Mystical nationalism, the virtues of the Imperial Japanese Army and the idealisation of the samurai spirit were themes that connected Mishima’s novels, plays and short stories. Although the prodigiously gifted Mishima was thrice nominated for a Nobel Prize for literature, his political views were widely ridiculed during his lifetime. In 1970, Mishima committed ritual suicide after a failed coup d’état. He was 45.

Mishima was not the only Japanese novelist to use his art form in defence of an ideology that was discredited following the Pacific War. Shintaro Ishihara, a close friend and contemporary of Mishima’s, started his career as a novelist but subsequently entered politics. Ishihara, now the leader of the second largest political party in the National Diet, continues to write prolifically. His most recent offering is entitled The Poison of Peace.

It is deeply troubling that Mishima is today promoted as a national literary hero. New editions of his works feature prominently in every bookstore in Japan. The novel is not, however, the only popular expression of revisionist or xenophobic nationalism. Many serials of wildly popular manga comics focussed on Japan’s role in the Pacific War, which take extraordinary liberties with the facts, have also become wildly popular. The thinking conveyed through these popular artistic forms echoes a disquieting reality: ultra-nationalists have returned to a position of influence in modern Japan.

Reports of violence targeted at ethnic minorities in Japan increased dramatically last year. The Zaitokukai, a far-right organisation, have become increasingly active, staging protests in front of schools attended by ethnic-Korean students. During this period, the government has adopted a more confrontational foreign policy vis-à-vis China and the Koreas. Last December, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe further inflamed tensions in the region when he visited the Yasukuni Shrine, where convicted war criminals are buried among the 2.5 million Japanese soldiers.

Over thirty million people died in the second Sino-Japanese War alone. Nationalism should have been long since interred by its actions. Although thoroughly rejected following Pacific War and subsequent American-led Allied occupation, its dull pulse was kept constant in dark corners of Japanese society. Shadowy, financed and well-connected ultranationalist organisations remained active throughout the post-war period. The novel provided an avenue for nationalism as a philosophical or ideological expression.

The art of the novel is an exploration of the potential of man – both good and bad. In literature, as in politics, words are important because they endure. But if the novel can play a role returning ultra-nationalism into a viable political expression in Japan, it can also provide a path to resistance, helping to turn the tide of insularity and fear. With a rich potential to influence comes great responsibility.

Haruki Murakami is Japan’s best-selling novelist. Although frequently criticised by the literary establishment in Japan, he has received international acclaim and a number of awards for his literary work. Murakami has also been an outspoken critic of the insidious creep of nationalism. In late 2012, he warned politicians of the dangers of drinking the ”cheap liquor” of nationalism.

Unfortunately, Murakami has yet to use his novels to explore the potential for a positive, inclusive future for Japan and for its role in the region. Murakami seems intent on escaping the Japanese condition, rather than shaping it. Now, more than ever, progressive artists need to have the courage to use their considerable influence to propose an alternative to the narrow conservatism to which the world increasingly appears captive. Writers and other artists need to commit anew to the exploration of humanity’s potential for good.

This is as relevant to Australia as it is to Japan. Artists have a powerful role to play if we are to help avoid the resurrection of a politics that proved devastating in the past. Former Australian Prime Minister, Paul Keating, recently reflected: “I always thought the arts were central to a country, central to a society, holding up a mirror to itself, celebrating itself.” The arts can also help shape the future.

In Australia, music perhaps provides the most potent avenue through which to encourage a change in cultural attitudes. Which Australian musician will have the courage today to stand up and offer an alternative voice to the diet of dehumanising language and half-truths the Australian people are fed in respect to the detention of asylum seekers? Are we destined to feel “the delicate tarnish of falsehood left undisturbed upon” the silver of our national conscience?

Popular cultural expressions such as literature, film, animation, music, even sport, have the potential to reverse the recent restoration of intolerance, insularity and fear. The arts have a profound potential for positive intercultural exchange and evolutionary progress, if only those who value peace and harmony grasp the potential of brush, pen and voice.

Andrew Hunter is the National Chair of Australian Fabians.




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