Under the cherry blossoms trees in the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo. Photo: Getty
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To be Japanese today is to negotiate the conflicting dreams of east and west

It’s not surprising that alienation is a persistent theme in much of the country’s fiction.

Parade 
Shuichi Yoshida
Harvill Secker, 230pp, £12.99

Just So Happens 
Fumio Obata
Jonathan Cape, 160pp, £16.99

My grandpa was on the outskirts of Hiro­shima when the bomb fell on 6 August 1945. He walked through the city as it burned and fled by boat, having witnessed scenes of destruction and death that are hardly imaginable to me. But when the war ended, he loved the music of Bing Crosby and took his family to church for Christmas, not for religious reasons but for the romance of all things western.

Imperial Japan had fallen, replaced by a capitalist dream seemingly magicked into reality by American New Dealers. High schools were set up on the US model; industry shifted towards technology. As the money started to flow in, some, including the film-maker Yasujiro Ozu, mourned the passing of a more traditional culture. In Tokyo Story (1953), the aspirational bustle of young Japanese is shown to be a betrayal of older values. Similarly, Shusaku Endo’s novel When I Whistle (1974) tells the story of a war veteran’s emotional estrangement from his son, a doctor, who puts success in his career above family: the dereliction of a duty sacred to the national imagination.

To be Japanese today is to negotiate the conflicting dreams of east and west. Old-fashioned reserve and collectivism jostle with assertiveness and individualism. Visit Tokyo as a foreigner and much of it feels unreal: the sheet glass, air-conditioning and underground shopping districts alongside the Shinto shrines, street-food vendors and coin-bearing good luck cats. Perhaps it seems unreal to the Japanese, too. The country has worked hard to modernise – and to “modernise” has often meant to “westernise”. The homeland has become a strange place.

It’s not surprising, then, that alienation is a persistent theme in much of the country’s fiction. Shuichi Yoshida’s debut novel, Parade (2002), newly translated into English, is a curious entry into the canon of Japanese anomie literature. Unlike, say, Taichi Yamada’s In Search of a Distant Voice (1986), which follows an immigration officer’s attempts to track down a woman with whom he may have a telepathic link, Parade shows us a world where disconnection has become a paralysing norm. The characters here are not interested in interpersonal bonds, tele­pathic or otherwise.

The five twentysomething protagonists – flatmates “playing at being friends”, as the male prostitute Satoru describes them – make vague attempts at intimacy but are happy to float along, cut off from the mess of meaningful relationships. Ryosuke is a university student pursuing a mentor’s girlfriend. Kotomi is involved with an actor who occasionally calls her up for hotel dates. Mirai is a hardened drinker; she haunts the Tokyo gay scene, where she encounters Satoru and takes him under her wing. Finally, there is Naoki, the professional of the group, who doles out elder-brotherly advice when he isn’t out jogging or at his office.

The novel’s set-up evokes a sitcom – there is constant banter between the flatmates and their stories are woven together – but Koto captures the dynamic when she cheerily compares their home to an “online chat room”, whose users are “free to come in or out at any time”. To these shallow lives, Yoshida slowly introduces the threat of violence. Ryosuke begins to suspect that a neighbour is running a brothel; police officers knock on the door, warning of a prowler who has been assaulting women in the area.

Mirai first suspects Satoru but the perpetrator could be any of them, or none. Parade’s chilling denouement is all the more disturbing because the first 200 or so pages are committed to exploring the trivialities of city life – choosing which movie to rent, which takeaway meal to get for dinner. Imagine if Friends had ended with the revelation that Chandler was a psychopath – and that Joey, Monica, Ross, Phoebe and Rachel weren’t bothered by it. Yoshida locates horror less in violence than in the kind of atomisation that would permit it.

Out of the ashes: a funeral scene in "Just So Happens"

Fumio Obata’s graphic novel Just So Happens also addresses the impediments to real connection in modern Japan. Like me, Yumiko is a first-generation immigrant living in London. After over a decade here, she feels anglicised and increasingly cut off from the cultural rituals of her birthplace. When her father dies in a hiking accident, she flies home to attend his funeral.

Though rich in detail, Obata’s crisp drawing invites the reader to skip from panel to panel. It works best when it’s at its most documentary: a fireworks festival is captured in all its noisy wonder, as is Yumiko’s escape to a Shinto shrine where she witnesses a rehearsal by Noh actors. Noh becomes a motif for “codifying human forms” – a formalising of human feeling which, though “exquisite”, is ultimately restrictive. “I don’t want to be a part of your stupid play any longer,” says Yumiko to a masked actor in a dream, having decided that her life doesn’t fit into the conservatism of old Japan.

Maybe the Japanese – even those at home – will relate to Obata’s expat and her struggle to find an authentic world-view. Tradition will always be there but, for generations, the tug of a more western lifestyle has been equally compelling. Together, the books seem to suggest that we should pick a side or find a compromise between the two. Let one cancel out the other and Yoshida’s dystopia will surely follow. 

Yo Zushi’s new album “It Never Entered My Mind” will be released by Eidola Records in July

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

PHOTO: ROBERTO RICCIUTI/GETTY IMAGES
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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist