Annual Newsletter of the Slavic Research Center, Hokkaido University
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English News  No.3 , December 1995
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Essays by Foreign Fellows
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Essays by Foreign Fellows

A Foreign Fellow's Impressions of Japan

by Vojtech Mastny
(Johns Hopkins University, Foreign Visiting Fellow, SRC, 1995-96)

The invitation to the Slavic Research Center was for me the first opportunity to visit Japan. Having heard enough about the Center from colleagues who had been there, I was looking forward to a long stretch of time  that I would be able to devote to research, reading, and writing. But beyond that, I was intrigued by the prospect of getting acquainted with a country that has lately been stirring up so much of contradictory opinion.

So far, my expectations have not been disappointed. The Japanese colleagues  at the Center , surely an exceptional group in their knowledge of the world , have enough experience and sensitivity to know what problems a visiting fellow  is likely to face, and what needs to be done to help him adjust to a very different environment.

In the case of my wife, who as a native Czech much prefers speaking her mother tongue to English, they earned her lasting gratitude by enabling her to communicate with not only one but actually two Japanese scholars, present at the Center, who speak perfect Czech.

In a country famed for its rigid bureaucratic rules, the informality and  flexibility prevailing at the Center are all the more to be appreciated. Being able to come to the office on week-ends whenever one needs and take off for  the country when one feels an urge to take a break on those rare days when the Hokkaido weather appears to be nice and stable makes work both more pleasant and more productive. The amount of socializing is just right to be enjoyable. The custom of common lunches whenever one feels like joining is particularly appealing.

It is well enough known what the two main problems have been: the computers and the library. It seemed to me that at the beginning neither I nor my Japanese hosts quite knew what it is that makes adjustment to computer work in this country so difficult for a Western scholar. Much patience was needed , and shown , and in the end it worked. What the Center has done for me in providing new equipment will benefit future fellows as well.

The library is excellent in Slavic materials but often spotty in regard to more general works on history, political science, and international relations. To remedy the situation, the library staff has been exceptionally forthcoming in meeting sometimes difficult requests by arranging interlibrary loans or purchase new books. There is a wealth of specialized periodicals from Russia and eastern Europe, even dailies; yet the majority of the most influential daily or weekly journals that shape the world opinion (about Japan, too) are missing.

Perhaps my hosts are familiar enough with fellows' usual reactions to the Center and are more curious about their impressions of Japan. I have lived and traveled in many countries, all full of problems , eastern and western Europe,  the United States, India and am fond of making comparisons among them. My usual way is to learn as much as I can from literature, and then travel extensively. Yet this is the first time I have lived abroad for any length of time that I faced an all but insuperable language barrier , which, to my surprise, has been no major handicap.

During our first three months in the country, we traveled more , and with less difficulty , than our Japanese friends tend to think foreigners are capable of doing on their own. Essential was the purchase of a car , expertly arranged through the Center, too. We have seen more of Hokkaido and northern Honshu than any people we know.

Of course one is left to the road atlas and one's own devices as soon as one leaves the protected world of the campus. Yet everywhere the ordinary Japanese go out of their way , literally, in taking a 20-kilometer detour just to make sure that you would not miss the turn , in order to be helpful. Is this fundamental civility of an old cultured people or curiosity of people not used to foreigners? One does not exclude the other, and both certainly help.

Of the pleasures of traveling in Hokkaido, the possibility of witnessing the array of volcanic activities is the most amazing sight to a visitor coming from geologically more stable parts of the world. My wife has compared the "dignified" mountains in Norway , where we spent last summer , with the "exciting" ones in Japan; this must be especially true when they start moving. As a born European fond of walking, and never reconciled with the American habit of moving about mainly on wheels, I have greatly enjoyed hiking on the island. I climbed its highest mountain, Asahi-dake, as well as the warm waterfall Kamuiwakka-no-taki in the Shiretoko National Park , not exactly a promenade having to climb up in old-fashioned sandals through the steep slippery bed of the stream before being rewarded by a rotemburo overlooking the Sea of Okhotsk. May I suggest that this be made an obligatory
excursion for foreign fellows , as well as for the permanent faculty of the Center?

If I were to single out two simple, or perhaps not so simple, pleasures of Japanese life, the onsens and the food would rank near the top. Having been
more familiar with the Chinese cuisine , which, together with the French, is of course the best in the world , I have come to appreciate the refined modesty of Japanese cooking. There is a surprising variety, and quality, at all levels, and there is no end to intriguing experimentation that one can do at home as well.

I still hope to learn more about some of the things that have made this country both admired and resented abroad. Having driven Japanese cars for many years, I certainly look forward to seeing some of those marvel factories where they are made. So far, one cannot help being impressed by a city like Sapporo, so much American in appearance but minus the crime and grime. Yet, on a different level, one is astonished when one thinks about how much the educational system invests into teaching a single foreign language , and see  the results! Or, about the awkwardness with which the nation has dealt with its past on the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II.

One advantage of taking a closer look at a foreign people is in getting reassured that none is ten feet tall; with the warts and all, this one is still impressive indeed. But, like the others, it has its problems; the world can rest safe in its diversity.

By eyes of a guest : 5 months in Sapporo

by Nikolai Shmelev
(Institute of Europe, Russian Academy of Sciences,
Foreign Visiting Fellow, SRC, 1995)

An invitation from the Slavic Research Center of the Hokkaido University to come to Sapporo and work as a visiting researcher came just at the right moment for me. Owing to the wonderful conditions for scholarly work, provided for me by the Slavic Research Center (silence, no uninvited phone calls, well-organized everyday life, excellent university library, absolute  benevolence of colleagues and their true readiness to help), I managed to complete my research program.

It is impossible to tell about all my impressions of Japan. The impressions are still too chaotic and multh-colored, and it will take some time to draw a kind of an integral picture. Moreover, I am not inclined to overestimate my abilities to penetrate the internal life of Japan. Usually, each society is closed to strangers, especially such a complicated one as is in Japan, cemented by centuries-old traditions. But anyway, I decided to share with you
some of my impressions.

As everywhere in the world, life in Japan is not easy , but it is difficult in a specific Japanese way. For instance, you can open a newspaper and read that yesterday in one prefecture a gangster shot an undercover policeman by mistake. But next morning, after hearing a radio report that the victim was a policeman, the gangster surrenders to the authorities. Or, another news item: after a violent gang war for zones of criminal influence, the winning criminal group apologizes to the local police (and through it to the whole community) for disturbances, and introduces a new boss of the area. Prosperity and high living standards never come for nothing. They require intensive labor and everyday efforts, and some cause severe psychological and physical shocks from overwork. It is difficult, however, to draw such a conclusion from looking at faces in the streets. They usually look cordial in Japan. But it is easy to understand the strain when looking at commuters in a subway or a railway train.

Maybe this is the only country in the world where whoever gets a seat immediately falls asleep, no matter what time it is , morning, day, or night. Only the high pressure can explain the popularity of "pachinko" among Japanese, or such solid crowds of businessmen in a myriad of drinking spots after work.

In spite of the high level of development of market-based economy in Japan, you can feel absolutely everywhere the invisible but strong regulatory hand of a democratic state. You can feel its role in controlling of growth of living standards and consumer prices. Both living standards and prices are surprisingly high in Japan. The growth rate of these two indicators is really low and seems to be well coordinated by the government with the nation's consent. This is also true when we speak about the degree of the country's  openness, too and about the extent of foreign competition on the domestic
market. In this area, too the government also has a decisive vote. In the end, not market forces but the government establishes the priorities for permanent structural changes in the national economy and the strategy of adapting the  country to the newest tendencies in political and social development and international competition.

In the long term, the role played by Japan both in global and in regional issues will grow. It seems that Japan should find its own place in the modern world as its second economic power, and in the Asia-Pacific region, where the intention of the United States to become the world's top referee becomes more and more visible.

In conclusion, I would like to warn the Japanese public against hasty conclusions about further developments in Russia, which is Japan's nearest neighboring country. The transformation of the former Soviet Union, the country with a thousand years of history, is very far from being complete. To tell the truth, such a transformation has not yet taken a definite shape. And with the course of time, even such a disturbance for both sides as the " northern territories issue" could be solved for mutual satisfaction.

Russia and Japan: Two ways of dealing with the tragic potential of culture

Jadwiga Staniszkis
(Institute of Political Studies, Warsaw,
Foreign Visiting Fellow, SRC, 1995-96)

I have always been curious about why so many Japanese intellectuals are fascinated by Russian culture. May be it is so because Russia could be seen as a virtual (possible) reality of Japan.

Both countries contain tragic potential in their cultures due to epistemologically rooted difficulties of a clear-cut identity formation.

In the case of Japan it is an embodment in context. Such ambiguity of one's own status is well expressed in the metaphor of the stone gardens, with drops of water inseparable from ocean but at the same time making difference through disappearing, concentric waves, when falling into it.

Japanese culture was able to conceal its tragic potential with the help of both an agreement on such ambiguity (seen as unavoidable) and a reorientation of attention to context itself. It was done by the culture's stress on meta-norms (balance, harmony), driving thought from oneself to structural thinking. Only rarely in the Japanese culture can one observe moments of a desire to obtain clear-cut identity. It took the form of longing for a " strong shape" imposed from the outside, or Ð its opposite Ð a desire to solve the dilemma of "difference in identity" through the abolition of the difference itself, full embodment ("nothingness") and passivity (the drop exists only in motion).

In the Russian culture the ambivalence of identity is felt in much more acute way because it is presented in terms of an antinomic situation. In such epistemological perspective an "opposite" to oneself is seen also as an appendix to oneself, making possible a completion to "wholeness" treated in this culture as "true" (in Platonian sense) unit of existence. The tragic potential of the Russian culture was elevated even more through the introduction of the moral norm of "becoming." In other words , an obligation of overcoming antinomy or the destruction of the opposite , or full identification with it , in order to accomplish " completeness." However, at the same time the assumption of inreducible, antinomic character of existence was kept. The above cultural contradiction could only be solved through self-destruction. The fight of "good" and "evil" in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment should be seen as an analysis of such self-destruction. With good and evil seen as complementary factors, becoming pure good is not possible. Only full identification with the evil and "wearing it off" to its end would make room for " goodness" inside the limited space of a "wholeness."

In its history Russia tried to reorient the tragic potential of its culture  with the help of ideology. For instance Marxism was perceived as historiozofical interpretation of an antinomic situation (labor and capital as complementary enemies) and as a promise of concealment of this antinomy in communism. What is more, it shifted aggression from self to "class enemy." Such an interpretation only elevated the nihilistic potential of Marxism and cut the Russian intelligentsia from their own culture.

When looking at the situation of Russia described above as being the distorted mirror for Japan, I thought about the opportunism of the Central European Catholic culture. Here the tragic potential of the epistemological duality was cancealed already in the Middle Ages through St. Augustine's reinterpretation of the relationship between "good" and " evil" (with the later seen as an empty place, the "lack of
good"). It was followed by a strong position of the Church as an institution administering "sin" and "sinlessness," which
weakened the drive towards individual "becoming." This led to a culture with a somehow naive faith that a victory of goodness is possible. But , paradoxically , such nˆivet* (not possible in Russia and Japan) made real difference in history.

At the same time in Western Europe (especially in the Netherlands and Germany) culture developed in the direction of a "subject created
Ð reality" (summarized in the Kantian- type philosophy). The stress on individualism and individual responsibility in the world was treated as a method of facing, not , cancealing , the tragic dimension of identity formation.

Russia , on the top of all the other problems facing it , did not stop to explore tragic potential of its culture. After the fall of communism (as a unifying mission) it is coming back to Leontiev's vision of Byzantine identity based on "inter-culture," mediating between West, East and Islam and trying to restore the "whole" out of cultural antinomy. See for instance the recent article Sergei Kortunov, "Natsional'naia sverkh zadacha," Nezavisimaia Gazeta, October 7, 1995.

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