Report from Tokyo: Kokosaika and International Japan

Ginza at night, Tokyo, Japan

Ginza at night, Tokyo, Japan

A view of the Imperial Palace, Toko, Japan

A view of the Imperial Palace, Tokyo, Japan

By Robert Israel

Several years ago, during the last days of Emperor Hirohito’s fatal illness, a man in his 50s attempted to swim across the moat that separates Tokyo’s congested business district from the isolated serenity of the Imperial Palace. Claiming he only wanted to comfort the ailing monarch, he was promptly arrested.

When Emperor Hirohito, the last ruler from the tumultuous World War II era, died in 1989, a chapter of Japan’s history closed. While it is true that millions of Japanese citizens traveled to Tokyo from throughout the nation to sign a condolence book expressing sorrow for the death of their beloved Emperor, almost immediately after his passing the nation turned its attentions to other, more pressing matters.

Japan is too immersed in “kokosaika,” or internationalism, to mourn any ruler’s passing for too long. Take a walk through Ginza, the electronic maze of neon that rivals New york City’s Times Square, and you will be overwhelmed by the visual aggressiveness of Japan’s economic prowess. Ginza, although just a few minutes from the Imperial Palace with its ancient moats and walls, is a stark reminder of where Japan’s present and future lies.

Sony’s Media World

Sony Corporation’s Media World bills itself as a “fusion of technology and communication.” Many of the gadgets once dreamed of in Buck Rogers comic strips from the 1950s, or glimpsed in crude form at the New York World’s Fair in the 1960s, have already been realized.

Frank McGee, a native of Concord, NH, takes me on a tour of Media World, demonstrating many of these electronic gadgets with the fascination of a child let loose in a toy store. Although he is fluent in Japanese, works a minimum of 70 hours a week, and lives in Sony’s company-owned dormitory nearby, he says there are many hurdles remaining when it comes to his being accepted by the Japanese men and women he calls his colleagues.

“Initiative takes place at the bottom,” McGee says, “among the salarymen like myself. But authority comes from the top. The management wants you to be ambitious, but not too ambitious, because that it interpreted as subversive, and they’ll form a wagon train around you if you’re too ambitious. they expect company loyalty, and for that they’ll guarantee you life-time employment. But they only give you so much leeway to foreigners working here. I could be working here for 20 years or more and simply put, they will never make me a manager.”

So, why all this talk about kokosaika, of opening Japanese society — and businesses — to transfusions of foreign talent, investment and ideas when the corporate structure remains closed?

“Japanese people feel that by intoning the word kokosaika, by expressing a longing for internationalism, they are achieving it,” says Yoshikazu Sakamoto, a professor at Meiju Gakuin University in Tokyo. “But it doesn’t work that way. One would think that a country that suffered from the only explosions of atomic weapons would take a leading role in urging international disarmament. But that hasn’t happened. There is a reluctance to be outspoken in Japan. Only when the United States exploded a hydrogen bomb in the Bikini Atoll during the 1950s, and it contaminated a fishing boat, did the Japanese people — and the Japanese government — speak out against nuclear weapons. The same is true in the business world. You are expected to do what you are told, to perform well, and to ensure the company succeeds. In return, you will be rewarded. But you have to play by the rules, not challenge those rules.”

Reaction to Japan bashing

Other observers believe that the frequent use of the word kokosaika is in reaction to Japan bashing that has taken place, particularly in the United States.

“We don’t have a philosophy or background to define the changes that are happening due to our economic successes and the criticisms we receive because we are successful,” says Yamumasa Yanagisawa, an editorial writer for the daily newspaper, Asahi Shimbun, in Tokyo. “By using the word ‘internationalism,’ it’s a way of defending ourselves to criticism. When a corporation sells secret technology to the Russians, and we are criticized by the United States, we declare it is our international right to do so.”

Yet when an international disaster occurs, such as when the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant suffered a catastrophic meltdown, the nation was quick to respond and call upon international agencies like the World Health Organization, and other groups, to assist them in assessing the extent of the radioactivity that leaked into the atmosphere.

The city of Hiroshima, site of the first atomic blast, has enlisted international partners in several projects as it continues its ambitious efforts to expand and accommodate its burgeoning citizenry. City planners in Hiroshima, which juts out into the Sea of Japan, are in partnership with firms in Holland to build canals, reclaiming land from the sea much in the same way the Dutch did in their country.

Looking back at 68 years since Victory over Japan was declared, there have been many international efforts aimed at broadening the reach of kokosaika. Much more work remains as Japan grapples with new definitions of what kokosaika means in all aspects of its society.

Robert Israel is the recipient of two writing fellowships to report from Japan: the Hibakusha (atomic bomb survivor) Award and the Japan Newspaper Association Award. He can be reached at Previous versions of this report appeared in the Phoenix New Paper (Providence), and in The Providence Journal-Bulletin.


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