Home In-Depth Feature Power of History on Modern European and Japanese Culture

Power of History on Modern European and Japanese Culture


By Ron Lewis | April 18th, 2017

All ideals, even the most utopian, have history for their base. History’s power is the power of any substantial thing: it may attract or it may repel, but it can never be ignored.

History to the Europeans

Youth in Europe are heirs of a civilization where thought and feeling, faith and reason, were inseparable allies. Quickened by a revelation, the revelation of God become man, this civilization grew in unlikely ways and uttered thoughts never uttered before. Man was free absolutely; each man was his brother, be he slave or be he enemy; and the life of each man was to unfold not in a cycle but in linear time. This is what used to go by the name of Christendom; we now call it Western Civilization.

In the latter centuries of this civilization, freedom has become inscribed in purely natural and civil rights; equality has been transformed into egalitarianism, which aims to remove all distinctions; and linear time gives birth to dreams of unlimited progress and material improvement. It might be shocking, then, for me to claim that the most conspicuous trait of modern youth is their apathy.

Two Traits

Let’s take two examples: some say that European youth are increasingly indifferent to politics, and others state that many youth have no desire to marry. Notice the importance placed on political involvement and the value placed on marriage, both of which are ingrained in European thought.

But notice also the shift in our understanding of those two concepts. Plato taught that political involvement, the goal of which is justice, first requires a man to have a well-ordered soul, established by the knowledge of what is objectively good. Unfortunately, this moral sense is being lost, and youth are, consciously or not, more likely to reflect the view of Hobbes on the one hand or Rousseau on the other: politics is either about gaining brute power because man is naturally selfish, or it’s about clearing a way for the natural goodness of man to thrive.

For some, the view of Rousseau is what’s behind so many youths encouraging what were formerly taboos. But when youth take the Hobbesian view, apathy results; the goal in life is not a virtuous life but personal satisfaction, and personal satisfaction can only go so far.

Marriage, elevated by the Catholic Church to a sacrament, or an outward sign of God’s grace, was fused with something familiar to all today: the elevation of romantic love in the Middle Ages. Fusion of the two has always been precarious – from Tristan and Iseult to Abelard and Héloïse, affairs ruled the day – but both traditions had an idea of the importance of self-sacrifice. With the loss of the sacramental view, though, the exalted feeling that we encounter in romantic love – at least, as it’s portrayed in novels and Hollywood movies – become thin and unconvincing. Marriage is no longer seen even as a convenience; cohabitation grants a youth companionship and sexual pleasure with less responsibility.

History to the Japanese

If European youth strive to break free with a burst of individualism but find only emptiness, it seems that Japanese youth find the same thing, but without that burst.

In many ways, Japanese youth are more “in touch” with history than Westerners, who have since abandoned classical education; schools continue to pass down an orthodox literary canon, teach students to read ancient Chinese poetry, and encourage arts like music, calligraphy, and flower arrangement. Traditional culture lives on in seasonal festivals and Buddhist commemorations for the dead, though their relation to the deepest part of man can be ambiguous. It’s important to remember that Buddhism and Shinto are non-dogmatic; this is why there’s relatively little pressure to break free of whatever influence they exert. Yet we encounter again and again that famous desire for conformity in so many lesser things like dress, speech, academic excellence, choice of career, etc. Perhaps this is a remnant of Shinto’s merging of personal identity with a nation’s manifest destiny: the very notion that produced the kamikaze pilot. As the old Japanese proverb goes, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”

The Famous Conformity

As the struggling Japanese economy resists against the Western economic model and its valuing of competitiveness and individualism, youth keenly feel the pressure of globalization and have also learned not to expect much recompense for adapting to this trend. This seemingly natural modesty in Japanese youth has led to a crisis of withdrawal from any opportunities to study abroad, work abroad, and, in general, take risks. There’s also the sub-group of youth who, out of shame for being failures in society, remain isolated indoors.

It’s well known by now that the Japanese population is aging: birth rates are at an all-time low, and almost half of young men and women say they are not interested in a relationship. This is not merely due to work pressure or the increasing ability of women to support themselves; youth are apparently too galled by the discrepancy between their romantic ideals and reality. Many even dismiss the idea of romantic love as Western nonsense, preferring to fantasize through anime and dating simulation games. In this, we might say that youth are merely conforming to the pattern of a materialist society, building up the illusion of possession and control when, in fact, the commodities possess and control them.

The Power of History

In the case of European youth, it was essential that I talk more about the history of ideas than actual behaviors since we in the West are more familiar with the latter. Behavior among Japanese youth is less familiar, but I think that their malaise is easier to grasp once we understand our own. There’s only a difference in degree between indifference to marriage and indifference to any relationship whatsoever, as the two arguably stand and fall together. Being involved in politics or having a good job: the zeal or apathy that attends either of these must, first and last, reflect a sense of purpose.

What satisfies? To answer this, you must have some ideal, and it will necessarily be based in history. Modernity, a European movement only a few centuries old – Hobbes and Rousseau are just two of its architects – has drawn its boundaries and formed its ideals. Postwar Japan has largely followed suit. History can inspire, console, guide. Today, the power of history seems to lie in its ability to repel the individualist and numb the conformist. Even those of us who are saddened by these trends: are we immune from either effect?

Questions, Comments, or Suggestions? Email me at ron.lewis@thenewsreflection.com

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