[Viewpoint]Viewing elephants and JapanAmong the newspapers I read every day for professional purposes is the Financial Times. I don’t read it thoroughly, usually just scanning the paper. But I never fail to read the letters to the editor, which show a variety of readers’ reactions from all over the world to international issues. Although many of them are written by readers from English-speaking countries, readers in South America and Asia also contribute their views to the paper.
The contents of these letters are of very high quality. Sometimes they sharply point out what the journalists or columnists had failed to specify in their articles, or provide up-to-date information not usually available to the public.
Last weekend, the Financial Times carried a letter from Takashi Ito who lives in Tokyo. It was the headline that attracted my attention.
“The Japanese would do well to laugh at themselves a little more,” read the headline on his letter. Mr. Ito ended the missive with a joke that pokes fun at the Japanese. I think it’s worth sharing here.
The G7 countries decided to tackle the issue of elephants so they went to work on the issue. The Americans produced a paper titled “How to Make Money from Elephants.” The Italians wrote about “How to Make Love to Elephants.” The Germans produced six tomes and two large volumes of appendixes titled “A Short Thesis on Elephants.”
The Japanese wrote two books. The titles were... but it may take away some of the fun if I give you the answer in advance.
Mr. Ito wrote his letter after reading an interview in the paper’s regular weekend section, “Lunch with the FT,” in which one of its journalists meets with someone who is in the news over lunch to hear his story. On March 10, the paper invited Masahiko Fujiwara, a Japanese mathematician who teaches at Tokyo’s Ochanomizu university, to its lunch table.
Mr. Fujiwara is the author of “The Dignity of a State,” which became a No. 1 best seller in Japan last year with sales of more than 2 million copies. His book emphasized bushido, the chivalrous samurai code, and mononoaware, or Japan’s unique sensitivity to nature.
Bushido, which was the guiding philosophy of the samurai from the 12th century, values honor above everything else and condemns cowardice as sinful. It was a value system that professed sensitivity to the poor and the weak, benevolence and aloofness toward material wealth. Mononoaware is the Japanese sense of pathos, especially the pursuit of aesthetics expressed the fleeting life of mortal man amid everlasting nature.
They are values unique to the Japanese, according to Mr. Fujiwara, and the dignity of the Japanese state depended on them. As a result of the introduction of Western civilization during the Meiji revolution, however, Japan started to lose its dignity, he said. That was the natural consequence of Western capitalism.
He asserted, therefore, that Japan should restore its dignity by restoring, even at some economic cost, outdated traditional concepts of bushido and mononoaware.
This is necessary for Japan’s survival and deliverance in a world overwhelmed and trapped by materialism, Mr. Fujiwara pointed out in his FT interview.
It is natural, of course, for people in any country to be proud of their culture, tradition and spiritual values. However, they should not become excessive and arrogant.
They should know that other cultures are as valuable as theirs. A dignified country must not inflict an incurable wound on a country weaker than itself. Trying to conceal the mistakes and wrongdoings of the past is not what a dignified country does.
Dignified people admit and apologize for their wrongdoings. In this way, I sincerely wish that Japan will become a country that can maintain its dignity as a state.
Although they are both Japanese, it seems that Mr. Ito and Mr. Fujiwara have very different ways of thinking. Mr. Ito’s letter to the Financial Times called for self-reflection by the Japanese people.
Finally, the punchline to Mr. Ito’s joke: The books written by the Japanese were: “Misunderstandings between Elephants and the Japanese” and “How Elephants View the Japanese.”
*The writer is an editorial writer and traveling correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Bae Myung-bok