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North Korea is taking on the world, and we have no choice but to respond.

Nuclear Showdown (2005) is journalist Gordon G. Chang’s conclusion to his contribution to the study of North Korea as a East Asian and global crisis.

It was Chang’s chapter on Japan and the abduction issue that first caught my eye. I found the book as I flicked around the shelves of my local store and immediately I knew I had to buy it. I picked up the 2007 Arrow edition, which includes a new foreword addressing the October 2006 nuclear test.

Chang eases you into the book and takes you along a wandering argument that climaxes with an acknowledgement of the dangerous times in which we live. He is even-handed and incisive throughout, even if his somewhat flowery prose may grate at times. He writes well, although whoever decided to forego conventional footnoting for the bizarre system employed might need rounding up and shooting: finding the relevant comments and references is a pain in the ass.

Chang’s conception of North Korea is of a regime fighting to stay alive as capitalism wells up at the grassroots-level. Chang criticises the US for being to soft on North Korea’s past transgressions, such as the capture of the USS Pueblo in 1968, and for not negotiating and controlling North Korea’s nuclear rise in a consistent and firm manner. He also criticises America’s over-generosity to China who should now look to become a responsible world citizen by reining in its client state, or preferably abandoning it altogether. He criticises South Korea, particularly former Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, for sustaining a fragile regime that relying on foreign aid for its survival while snubbing market reform as a result of the brewing bottom-up revolution.

On the issue of Japan, Chang is sympathetic to the country’s more immediate concern of attack: the pressing threat posed by North Korea acts more strongly on Japan than the US. He also notes the overwhelmingly political nature of the abduction issue and its emotional underpinnings. Japan is most at risk from a North Korean nuke, and as a result it is struggling to stay confined to the bounds of the constitution imposed upon it by the American post-War authorities. Despite that, it must: a Japanese bomb would create a whole new arms race and set of global tensions.

It is to this tension that Chang so skilfully leads the reader. For him, the North Korean problem highlights the challenge posed to the global hegemon, the US. Chang finds WWII to be apogee of US power, and from then on it has been relatively weakened as the destroyed nations around it have rebuilt. He is not implying that the US is by any means facing the end of its history, but rather that it has a chance to solidify its position.

Chang believes that the US should reinvigorate the non-proliferation norms and regime by carrying out what it committed to in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: the destruction of its nuclear stockpile. Chang suggests that even a wholesale, yet incomplete, dismantling of the US arsenal would show the state’s good intentions to the currently less-than-impressed non-nuclear powers. “The American president can give the order to eliminate all life on this planet several times over. If he decides to reduce his arsenal so that he can kill everybody only once, are his constituents any less safe?”

Chang is encouraging the US to take the bold step to make an example of North Korea. By unilaterally reducing its nuclear stockpile it will show its commitment to a non-nuclear future. He also encourages the US to be tough on North Korea in the Six-Party Talks and place all the issues on the table: from human rights to counterfeiting. By doing so, the Chinese and South Koreans will be forced to take sides (all the while under pressure from the international community to take the most reasonable side, that of the US). Ultimately, however, Chang believes that the US should be prepared to make an example of North Korea by committing itself to a possible use of force. “But if there ever were a reason to go to war, it is to save the nonproliferation treat and the global arms control regime. No other justification for conflict comes close.”

Chang’s argument is bold in and of itself. He is pessimistic for our future, and quite rightly so. At the moment, his work is still relevant. In the three years since Nuclear Showdown was first published, little progress has been made. Whether one accepts his conclusions is down to the individual, but the claims presented are well-linked and researched and show a broad understanding of the North Korean crisis in the context of global security.

Maybe our struggle with [Kim] is not the clash of good and evil, as some would have it, but it is at the very least a fight to preserve the liberal international system that has been responsible for so much global progress.

I really enjoyed a (not so) recent post by Ampontan: Logos, pathos, and Japanese politics. I would really like to get my hands on a copy of Koizumi Seiken—Patosu no Shusho wa Nani wo Kaeta no ka? (the subject of the book review which sparked Ampontan’s post), although at this stage it would be little more than extra weight on my shelf.

My research area came from my understanding of the abduction issue as emotion overcoming reason, and thus it was with a happy sigh that I managed to read something addressing these two aspects of politics in the context of Japan… a sigh because I wish I had been able to read something like this sooner.

He quotes from the review:

(Professor Uchiyama) discusses the advantages and disadvantages of a strong prime minister who frequently resorted to pathos (passions, sentiment) and top-down methods of governing. […] But the author points out the dangers of Koizumi’s incorporation of pathos into politics, which was symbolic of his approach of stripping logos (reason and language) from politics, thereby weakening the logic of responsibility.

Ampontan then suggests that logos has been the preferred political mode in postwar Japan. It is also my preferred mode of politics and the very reason I wanted to take the Japanese government to task for its handling of the abduction issue in light of the very real nuclear threat posed by North Korea. He writes:

After their defeat in the war, perhaps the Japanese developed an antipathy to the use of emotional political appeals as they applied themselves to studying and incorporating the principles of liberal democracy.

This didn’t sit very well with my gut feelings about the abduction issue, although Ampontan’s later comments settle that impression somewhat:

That is not to say that Japanese are not susceptible to pathos; the public were enthusiastic patrons of the Koizumi Theater. It’s just that pathos does not always mix well with politics here.

I had held the view that Koizumi’s conduct regarding the abduction issue was calculated, controlled, and ultimately correct. If he pandered to the Kazokukai and Suukukai, it was in a fashion that kept the politicians largely in control. Certainly when contrasted with the handling by Abe Shinzo which was an absolute barrage on the public sensibilities, arguably stretching their energy in the issue past its point of elasticity. We all know of ‘aid fatigue’, the public’s over-exposure to aid campaigns (particularly in the age of LiveAid); well, I would argue that the Japanese public has suffered ‘abduction fatigue’.

Ampontan sums up my feelings quite well:

Mr. Koizumi used emotional appeals to sway the electorate, but he was an adroit, skillful politician with an engaging personality. In contrast, Mr. Abe lacked political skills, and his personality, while not unpleasant, tended toward the bland businesslike demeanor Japanese expect from men at work.

Every society suffers from hot-button issues, the kind of issues that are used to rally the electorate and identify opponents. The abduction issue, perhaps similarly with its public anti-nuclear principles, are one of Japan’s.

Koizumi used the abduction issue to bring the electorate behind him in 2002 and 2004 (in the latter case so successfully that even the victims’ families could not stand against him). He showed a calculation that Abe just couldn’t wield as a result of being the issue’s champion. Whereas Koizumi could reel the abduction issue’s advocates, Abe simply allowed them to run rampant. It is my feeling that Abe did more for the abduction issue as Koizumi’s Chief Cabinet Secretary than he could have ever had done as Prime Minister.

Finally, the media were a crucial part of the abduction issue’s growth and strength. They helped popularise the issue through the broadcasting of a ‘vicarious trauma’, as Hyung-gu Lynn wrote in Vicarious traumas: television and public opinion in Japan’s North Korea policy’. Ampontan’s comments on the role of pathos in the media are spot on:

Ideals as these, however, must confront the reality that people consume politics through television, and that the demands of television are intrinsically pathos-based and seek the dramatic rather than the sober and the serious.

From this he concludes that pathos is with Japanese politics until the end. I quite agree, although Fukuda’s stance on the issue appears to have brought back some much needed logos. Time will tell how much of that sticks.

The Fortean Times has been a guilty pleasure of mine for some time, although during my Masters I stopped reading magazines and concentrated on my security reading. As a result, since I finished my course I’ve been playing catch up.

While reading about the links between conspiracy theories and Fortean thinking (FT223), or rather the epistemological considerations of appreciating conspiracy theories, I came across the following passage that made me stop and think:

Conspiracy thinking is mythological (or ‘magical’) thinking. Martin S Day has observed that “scientifically, [a myth] cannot be proved” and neither can it be “properly reconciled with phenomenological facts”, elaborating on Hans Georg Gadamer’s judgement that “the only good definition of myth is that myth neither requires nor includes any possible verification outside of itself”.

This struck a minor chord with my own research.

I have always considered the Japanese response to the abduction issue, in its 2004-6 form (at the height of the Yokota Megumi story), to be somewhat irrational, emotionally governed, and to some extent dogmatic.

During the course of my research, I came to see the Yokota Megumi story as a national narrative. Every nation has such stories to some extent. I daresay that the Madeline McCann story in my own country, plus the Soham murders among others, are such a narrative. They appear to bind the nation together in condemnation of a state or group, taking over the headlines: bad news coming good. Indeed, 9/11 ultimately falls into this category.

However, with the Yokota story, we are unlikely to find her alive, or find her real remains (if indeed the tests performed on the ashes provided by North Korea are correct). The story is unlikely to be resolved.

I am beginning to believe that the abduction issue might be penetrating Japanese national mythology, much like how the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is now an inherent part of the Japanese nation, or how constant victimisation figures in Korean and Chinese self-image.

This current mode of thought suggests to me that an effective way of studying the abduction issue would be to examine it as a narrative. This is something that I wish to do but cannot at this moment as a result of a lack of language skills and opportunity. However, it is a thought that I will ruminate on.

I touched upon this in my previous post, but I want to expand on the issue of the abduction issue acting as justification for a more active Japanese security policy.

In the event of a North Korean nuclear attack, incredible numbers of the Japanese populace will no doubt perish. But it is still only a potential tragedy and is yet to overly worry ordinary Japanese citizens. […] For them, nuclear weapon development by North Korea is more or less a technical, abstract topic. The Japanese public is, however, strongly sympathetic [on the abduction issue] because the abductees are no different from the average Japanese who has neither a strong affiliation with any political organizations nor close relations with North Korea.

Nakatsuji, K. (2004). Prime Minister in Command: Koizumi and the Abduction Question. Korea Review of International Studies , 7 (1), 35-46: p. 36.

This quote, to me, is the ultimate expression of the role of the abduction issue: giving an abstract risk a human face. It is, as Lynn Hyung-gu describes in ‘Vicarious Traumas: Television and Public Opinion in Japan’s North Korea Policy’ (Pacific Affairs, 79 (3), 2006, Fall), a national trauma, a narrative of drama highlighting the victimhood of the Japanese nation. It was unjustifiable and abhorrent for North Korea to snatch these young (and in some cases, not so young) men and women from their families, friends, lives and countries. No-one can argue that fact. It makes North Korea seem practically criminal, a reasonable assumption.

A gander at the Cabinet Office surveys on issues of foreign affairs demonstrates the popular appeal of the abduction issue when compared to the more ‘abstract’ missile and nuclear issues. In the surveys, Japanese citizens are asked to state the issues which concern them regarding a range of areas, however the one of interest right now is obviously responses regarding North Korea. I have compiled the responses from 2000 to 2007 (minus the missing data from 2001) to demonstrate the appeal of the abduction issue when compared to the nuclear and missile issues. Please click on the thumbnail to view the chart.

The abduction is shown to figure strongly in the Japanese mindset. The nuclear issue is shown to be rising after the second nuclear crisis in 2000 and the political fallout at the start of the Bush administration’s tenure in the United States and the tougher line held by then-newly elected Koizumi. In 2006, respondents polled in the same month as the North Korean nuclear test and a couple of months after the Taepodong-2 test still more frequently listed the abduction issue (86.7%) as a concern when compared to the nuclear issue (79.5%). The missile issue also figures strongly (the three issues dominate the list of issues, consistently in top three except for in 2000 where the nuclear issue had yet to fully emerge). However, the chart does not show the priorities of the respondents, i.e. which they are more concerned by.

The Japanese populace is saturated with knowledge of the abduction issue, a human drama that tugs at ones heartstrings. It got that way due to the tireless campaigns of the Kazokukai (Association of the Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea [AFVKN]) and Sukuukai (National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea [NARKN]) and the spectacle of Koizumi’s visit to Pyongyang in 2002 which resulted in the return of Soga Hitomi, the Hasuikes and Chimuras. It was at the Pyongyang Summit that one man positioned himself at the heart of the issue: Abe Shinzo. He won the adoration of the families for suggesting that Koizumi not to sign the Pyongyang Declaration, insisting that the Prime Minister extract an apology from Kim Jong-il and subsequently not return the surviving abductees to a fate in North Korea (Edström, B. (2007). The Success of a Successor: Abe Shinzo and Japan’s Foreign Policy. Silk Road Studies Program. Washington, DC/Uppsala, Sweden: Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, p. 8 / Pilling, D. (2006, September 16-17). The son also rises. Financial Times Weekend , pp. W1-W2.).

Abe shaped the growth of the issue, helping to globalise the appeal of the civil society movement. His support for the issue was a crucial part of his rise to the position of Chief Cabinet Secretary and then to the Prime Minister’s office. His short-lived tenure as Prime Minister started off with a flurry of activity regarding the abduction issue: he invited the Kazokukai to his office (something Koizumi had never done, preferring to keep them at arm’s length) and then created a cabinet-level body called the Headquarters of the Abduction Issue, consisting of the entire cabinet and headed by himself (why this was institutionalised is uncertain, presumably it could have just remained as a recurring feature of cabinet meetings). Furthermore, the nuclear test allowed Abe to stretch some economic muscle and impose sanctions on North Korea, something that he and the families had been calling for for a long time.

Abe was also part of a loose group of LDP Diet members that were more willing to move towards what Abe termed ‘a beautiful country’ (utsukushii kuni). Central to this was the instilling of patriotic pride and the return of Japan to being a ‘normal’ country (i.e. revision/removal of Article 9 of the so-called ‘Peace Constitution’). Like those of his ilk, and perhaps sensibly, Abe has been said to have an ‘inherent suspicion of China‘. Despite the moderation with which he treated China during his time as Prime Minister, it is this suspicion that causes problems.

As Christopher Hughes wrote in a paper presented at a conference in Swansea (The Domestic and International Dimensions of Security on the Korean Peninsula), there are a number of layers to the threat posed by North Korea. Certainly, there is the ‘existential military threat’ posed by North Korea’s increasing missile and nuclear arms, but also there is the ‘domestic security threat’ that breeds mistrust of the zainichi chosenjin (North Korean residents in Japan), the ‘alliance political-military threat’ which threatens the stability of the US-Japanese relationship (this is an issue I will cover in a later post), and finally, and crucial, the ‘pretext military threat’.

Hughes wrote that ‘North Korea has come to fill the position of serving as the prime public legitimisation for nearly all major changes in its security policy’. When those in power have a suspicion of rising China, it is thus probable that North Korea is being used as a pretext to prepare Japan for the probable strategic trajectory of collision with the rising power. It is often left publicly unsaid, but privately, it seems, concern regarding China’s rise runs rife. This is the context in which the abduction issue is manipulated.

The abduction issue is thus one of the justifications for using North Korea as a pretext to prepare for China. It produces energetic support, and so the issue is kept alive. Hope for the supposed dead or missing (depending on whose side you subscribe to) is kept alive. Considering that there has been no real progress since the ‘return’ of the abductee’s children to Japan in 2004, there has been a surprising amount of coverage of the issue.

The issue operates within a climate of insecurity. Continually pushing the abduction issue forwards incites outrage, while fear is generated and manipulated by the multiple other issues, namely the existential and domestic threats. Thus the abduction issue is not directly part of a politics of fear, but instead promotes the insecurities and fears surrounding the nuclear and missile issues by virtue of being linked to the same target. It colours the threat perception of the Japanese people making them predisposed to believing that North Korea is criminal or irrational, a threat by virtue of it being evil and willing to attempt anything. All the while, China hawks in the LDP are benefiting from the outcomes: an increased awareness of the need for defence, and the subsequent all-threat nature of procurements and policy changes.

As a result of the multi-layered North Korean threat, Japan seems more willing to increase its military power, in terms of both hardware and legislation. The MSDF and Air Self-Defence Force have gained more offensive capabilities, considering the purchase of Tomahawk cruise missiles and precision guided munitions, both of which could be used against a North Korean ballistic missile launch (Hughes, 2007). Meanwhile, Japan has boosted its intelligence capabilities, launching a series of optical and radar imagery satellites under the remit of the Cabinet Information and Research Office, increased intelligence activities in the Public Security Intelligence Agency, and greater integration of military intelligence under the Defence Intelligence Headquarters (Choi, S.-J. (2004). The North Korean factor in the improvement of Japanese intelligence capability. The Pacific Review, 17 (3), 369-397). Each move is dual-use, as open to use against North Korea as against China, and ultimately, that is the point.

The abduction issue has been (ab)used a security framing tool. It is linked to a range of bilateral issues by nature or design and these other issues benefit from the public’s outrage towards the abduction issue. The appeal of this to politicians is clear in the widespread concern expressed by the public in the Cabinet surveys. The abduction issue provides the means to act on North Korea’s nuclear threat through sanctions and military build-up. The abduction issue has become a tool of choice for pushing through regional security policies. It is a pretext and a frame that immediately lends a leader trust. One danger for the issue itself is its continuing use risks pushing the public towards apathy, but then again, memories seem to die hard in East Asia.

Notes: I admit, this is tenuous in places, but this is the point of my blogging here, I can refine and reshape my understanding of the issue according to my active research and thoughts. Furthermore, while writing this post I realised something that I had since forgotten from writing my dissertation: this is a politics of outrage too… So I have changed the subtitle of the blog accordingly.

Politics is not dispassionate, it never will be. Emotion seeps through, however, how can we tell one emotion from another? You cannot necessarily ask the population, as a generalised group, how it feels… polls like that would suffer from a requirement that the subjects be conscious of their feelings.

The biggest difficulty for me, as conversations today have proven, is demonstrating that there is a fear or insecurity separate or linked to political anger. I have four cases in mind: 9/11, the internment of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor, the abduction issue, North Korea in Japan, and China in Japan.

9/11

The tragedy that was 9/11 was, to my mind, the catalyst for heightened anger and fear in American politics (global politics even). The anger is perhaps the most visible element: the intervention into Afghanistan and the outcries of defiance following the attacks. Anger is a normal and healthy response.

Paisley Alert

However, it was also accompanied by an underlying sense of fear which could be tweaked and activated by way of the media. Consider the countless news reports of ‘terrorists’ being arrested in the US and UK. Each report was unlikely to be given a follow-up, despite the fact that a large number of these arrests resulted in no charges. The talk of a possible dirty bomb threat was possibly one of the worst instances of fearmongering post-9/11, particularly when you consider the complete lack of evidence behind the reports.

With these two elements at play, it is difficult to determine which is at work in certain events. Is legislation such as the PATRIOT Act guided by fear of repeat attacks, anger against what has already happened, or (more likely) a mix of both?

Japanese-American Internment

I think that one area where fear is more clearly at play, relative to anger, is in the internment of Japanese-Americans following the attack on Pearl Harbor. They were clearly victims of a fear of fifth-columnism that targeted an entire national/ethnic group. American citizens were deprived of their liberties, showing how fear might overturn the everyday foundations of civil and political soceity to create a state of exception.

The fear was exacerbated by the xenophobic tendencies of the majority at that time. This fear operated societally and governmentally (leading to Executive Order 9066, the instigating order). There was a clear polarisation of ‘us’ and ‘them’ in both domestic and international contexts. While, anger clearly played a role in the military campaigns against the Japanese, it was in the domestic context that fear played its part.

Abduction Issue

Now to the issue I most concern myself with, the political fallout over North Korea’s abductions of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 80s. It is my belief that there is only one major emotion at play here: rage. Despite the title of the blog, I do not believe that the abduction issue has incited fear in Japanese society or politics. I don’t think many people believe that North Korea is still abducting Japanese, nor do many wonder if it could happen to them…

North Korea

… however, I do believe that the threat image of North Korea, more generally, generates fear in Japan. This was the topic of the conversation that generated this post. My friend believes that there is very little fear about North Korea in Japan, and even then, the level of fear received its biggest boost in October 2006 following the nuclear test. I don’t yet know whether I agree or disagree.

In one sense, I disagree because it seems to me that something about the population’s attitude to North Korea is being preyed upon by the Japanese leadership. Here is another problem for researchers: one will find it difficult to find fear in any other sense than retroactive inference. In one paper I read during my research, “Fear No More: Emotion and World Politics” by Emma Hutchison and Roland Bleiker (forthcoming in Review of International Relations), the authors critique the social scientific method as being unsuitable for studying fear, praising, instead, an arts and humanities approach. Certainly, the different standards of inference and logic between the two disciplines makes the choice considerable.

However, at the same time as I disagree, I also do not. When I state that there is a politics of fear in Japan regarding North Korea, I am not presupposing a great deal of fear. Instead I am suggesting that there is a background level of insecurity which is being tapped by the leadership in order to promote certain policies and push certain ideological beliefs. That does no require a large amount of fear, just enough to allow it to be tweaked.

It is also in this case that we might see a possible difference between anger and fear in politics. It might be the case that anger is short-lived (encouraging strong and immediate reactions to events, such as through the imposition of sanctions) whereas fear is continuing (the Taepodong shock in 1998, for instance, exposed the real threat posed by North Korean missiles, one which certainly still exists).

China

Having denied the significance of fear regarding North Korea, my friend then suggested that it was China that generated the most, primarily because it posed a powerful threat. Again, I just cannot be sure at this stage whether I agree or disagree. For me, the crucial issue is that fear of China is not, at this stage, self-justifying. It seems as the elements of the government have chosen to concentrate on the fear generated by the North Korean threat in order to prepare for an eventual confrontation with China. It is the North Korean missile threat that has made Japan more determined to pursue the Theatre Missile Defence system, for instance, and it was North Korea’s intelligence activities in Japanese waters that led to decreased restraints on the use of force by the Japanese Coast Guard. Both are applicable to China, and thus tackling the North Korean threat goes some way towards confronting China.

Conclusion

As it stands all that I am left with is questions. Clearly I need to work on my definitions of fear, and attempt to unpick the links with other emotions. At the same time, I need to work around the limitations posed by the study of said emotions. Finally, I need to conduct some primary research to gauge the threat perceptions and anxieties of the average Japanese citizen. All of this will take time and effort, and I hope this forum will provide an outlet for my energy.

The Great Happiness Space

I know I’m a bit behind on the times, but I just finished watching the fabulous documentary on hosts, The Great Happiness Space (2006). Watch it on Google Video. It looks at life for the hosts and clients of Rakkyo in Osaka. It is very well created, engaging, and grapples with all the right issues.

I’ve always had an interesting in subcultures, and I have been particularly curious about Japan’s mizu shobai (water trade; sex industry, for want of a better description), so this was right up my street. You cannot help but notice the number of clubs around Japan, each attempting to entice customers in with intriguing posters and pushy staff, and furthermore, you cannot help noticing the staff themselves as they slip into clubs on their way to work. People from all walks of life work there, and from my experience there are some nice personalities. For instance, in Nagoya, I got caught out in the rain with a friend and only one umbrella, lost somewhere near Sakae and in desperate need of a decent karaoke club. We asked the nearest group of people (the only ones brave or needy enough to be out in that weather) for directions and they not only helped us out, but also gave us their umbrella to boot. It’s a small gesture, but one that makes a big impression. As we stepped outside of the shelter, it was clear that we’d just been talking to fuzoku who were about to start work at the pink salon that was clearly advertised in the doorway. Anecdotal, I know, but characteristic of this documentary.

It portrays the wide range of relationships in the clubs, host-host and host-client, with all the minutiae in between. The most intriguing question about this arises midway through as we learn of the clients’ professions: fuzoku and hostesses. We are shown their feelings towards their hosts through one-on-one interviews, each with verisimilitude. They describe, and the head host Issei admits that that they are trapped in a vicious cycle. They go to the club because they want the veneer of support and acceptance that the hosts provide, but then they must continue to work in the mizu shobai so that they can have the money to attend these clubs. At the same time, they are becoming addicted to the feelings they have, while at the same time being polygamous both in terms of love and clubs.

The hosts don’t make it any easier. Issei claims that they don’t force the girls to buy the expensive champagne ($250 – $10,000 a bottle), but then we see footage of them doing just that. The incredible amounts of money that are spent are made to seem trivial as the girls recount their feelings for Issei. Are the hosts providing a support mechanism, a place that the girls can go and not be judged, but accepted? Or are they exploiting the girls, trapping them in a cycle of income and expenditure that can only be satisfied in the prostitution industries? The question is unresolved, but what becomes clear is that there are no real illusions on either side. The girls know what they’ll get, and the boys know what they’ll give, but each plays along to get their money’s worth.

We also see the terrible toll on the hosts. Stuck in a moral no-man’s-land, they drink and smoke themselves to death. Some get plagued by guilt as they extract more and more Yen from the girls. They suck it up and keep going, emerging each day into the blinding morning sun and heading to bed for a short sleep before they hit the streets and clean the club for another night of extravagant spending.

Fascinating.

Audition

It has no doubt been noticed by many that there are dark strands permeating Japanese society. I have always struck by the barbarity of a number of murders in Japan, not to say that murders in the UK or USA are any less gruesome. The LA Times reported on this state of affairs in an article today (comments after the break):

Grisly crimes alarming Japan
By Bruce Wallace, Times Staff Writer
May 27, 2007

TOKYO – It’s not so much the news of a 17-year-old boy stabbing his mother to death that has shocked Japan, dominating chatter on tabloid TV for the last two weeks and sending shudders through a nation that prides itself on a low homicide rate.

The greater horror lies with what he did afterward. Having killed his mother as she slept, police say, the boy cut off her arm and head with a saw. Spray-painted her arm white and stuck it in a potted plant. Put her head in a sports bag and carried it with him to an Internet cafe, where he spent two hours watching rap music videos in a private booth.

He then took a taxi to a police station in his town in northern Japan, where he surrendered the head and told the officers, “It didn’t matter who I killed.”

Step by gruesome step, it’s hard to imagine a more grisly crime.

Yet what unsettles many Japanese is that dismembering the body of a slaying victim, known here as barabara jiken or “scattered pieces incidents,” no longer seems like such an aberration. Over the last several months, there has been a series of killings in which the bodies have been cut up or disposed of in sickening ways.

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The article’s primary concern is the navel gazing in Japan over such incidents. David Leheny explores a similar theme in the second chapter of Think Global, Fear Local where he uses the Aum Shinrikyo Sarin gas attack as well as the infamous Seito Sakakibara case in Kobe (where the head of 11-year old Jun Hase was left in front of his school’s gate) to demonstrate that Japan was undergoing a period of self-examination in 1995. He discusses a sense of impending crisis, a tone echoed by the LA Times article.

These theories, based on little more than speculation but amplified by entranced media, have contributed to a sense that a country once bound by tight family and community ties is splintering into something alien.

It is interesting to look at the theories given as to why these grisly murders are occurring:

  • Copycats: Others see a copycat syndrome, pointing to novels such as the 1998 bestseller “Out,” in which a wife kills her abusive husband and then conscripts three female co-workers to help dismember the body for easier disposal.
  • Economic Inequality: … and that the cause is the increasing divide between rich and poor in a society that once prided itself on egalitarianism.
  • Self-Validation: “These recent murders are about self-validation: people murdering someone in order to fulfill an ’empty self,’ ” said Jinsuke Kageyama, a criminal psychologist. “The murderers recover their lost power by killing.”
  • Failure of Social Engineering: Some criminologists argue that socially dysfunctional students go unnoticed in a school system in which docility and acute shyness are regarded as normal.
  • Economic Insecurity: Corporate restructuring that ended the jobs-for-life era also has been cited as a possible cause.
  • Video Games: So too the tunnel vision produced by playing violent video games.
  • Decline of Moral Values: “We are witnessing the deterioration of Japanese society,” lawmaker Tsuneo Suzuki told parliament. “We must stem this appalling destruction of family and community morals.”
  • Popular Culture: “Sure you have Japanese kids who pour themselves into the fantasies of their computers,” said Jimmy Sakoda, 71, a former Los Angeles Police Department homicide investigator who had close ties to Japanese police during his career. “But because of the Internet, these kids are just as likely to be influenced by American movies or rap lyrics as by homegrown stuff.”
  • Beyond Reason: “When someone dismembers a body, that’s total hatred,” Sakoda said. “That’s when killing’s not enough. It’s hate beyond reason.”

So far, so very Daily Mail. Video games, rap music and Hollywood covers the gamut of responses that we get to killings such as those at Virginia Tech or Columbine. Blaming the schools is another common response, as is declining moral values. The reasons I find more unique to Japan, although I’m sure we see them elsewhere, are the economic reasons, the suggestion that a lack of social mobility and job security can produce horrific violence. They are also the least convincing for me.

Wallace is right to recognise ‘that dismembering bodies is neither unique to Japan nor a newly arrived phenomenon‘, but for me, that is besides the point. No-one would doubt that such barbarity isn’t age old, after all, we live in a decidedly less violent era than that of our ancestors thanks to increased social control and engineering. What is most interesting is the supposed reflection by the Japanese as to what these killings say about their society, how Japanese society could produce such people and such actions. This reflexivity grips the collective sense of anxiety that permeates modern society, anxiety that might be exploited through draconian law and shallow populism for other ends.

Why were these killings so grisly? I can’t answer that, I don’t think anyone can, not even the killers themselves. However, some people may choose to draw a link between these killings and the systemic violence in the Japanese school system (remember the hoo-hah about bullying a few months ago?), and there is a case to be made there, for sure.

What does this say about modern Japanese society? I don’t know the answer to that either, except for what I’m told: there is a collective sense of impending catastrophe in some quarters. But hey, that’s not really new is it? There’s always been ‘the end is nigh’ types.

What should be done? Nope, no answer here either. Sorry. Well, okay, for the sake of a conclusion I’ll trot out the usual suspects: better parenting, attentive teachers, and effective policing. Like it or not, there is nothing particularly strange about many of these people, they are just at the extremes of human experience. Some of them made mistakes, some of them were just a bit too passionate, but all of them were human, and each of us has that capacity within us. All it takes is a little conditioning and a breaking point.