[Viewpoint] Sakamoto Ryoma only lives on TV

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[Viewpoint] Sakamoto Ryoma only lives on TV

“Ryomaden,” last year’s NHK historical drama series, is currently airing on a Korean cable channel and it is enjoying considerable popularity here.

The series is based on Ryotaro Shiba’s historical novel, “Ryoma Moves Ahead.” It is a biography of Sakamoto Ryoma, a visionary in the last days of the Tokugawa shogunate.

Creative fictionalization has been added, but historically, Ryoma has been one of the most attractive historical figures in Japan for his dynamic and rebellious character. Just as Ryoma said in the series, he was a man who “put his life at stake for a new Japan.”

Originally a samurai of a low rank, Ryoma was not well-known until the novel was published. Today, he remains the icon of reform and change in Japan.

Mid and late 19th-century Japan was a period for the hot blooded. I am not talking about exaggerated scenarios and acting.

Young Japanese rose up, demanding changes. As the passion and will converged in one direction, the old shogunate system was destroyed, and the outcome was the Meiji Restoration.

Similarly, Japan’s economic boom in the 1960s and 70s was full of energy and passion. After being defeated in World War II, Japan focused on economic development.

The Japanese consider the Meiji Restoration and economic revival their miracles.

Behind the miracles lie the outstanding characteristics of the Japanese, such as attention to detail, concentration, cooperation, patience and courtesy. These strengths were utilized to attain national goals. The objectives were clear: “Escape Asia and join the West,” become a “Wealthy nation, [with a] strong military” and “Catch up.”

When the grand cause and clear direction are set, the Japanese display unbelievable power. The two miracles were made possible because the energy of the Japanese people hit the sweet spot without losing the momentum.

But what about Japan today? The Japanese seem to be doing their job patiently, quietly and systematically. Since the earthquake and tsunami, all Japanese citizens have been practicing self-discipline, showing a strong sense of community and unity. At this rate, it will just be a matter of time before they overcome the damages from the devastating disaster. A television survey showed that 94.6 percent of the respondents believed that Japan would overcome the damage and recover. Only 2.6 percent were skeptical.

But the general picture has not changed a bit. While reconstruction and radiation control are urgent, the Japanese politicians make shameless arguments over the Dokdo islets and the history textbooks that lay claim to them. Their economy has not yet recovered from their “lost decades.”

Outstanding public order and individual patience is not enough to break the closed boundary. Foreign media praised the Japanese norm of “not causing inconvenience to others,” but it is actually an expression of a very passive culture.

Cooperation and patience are also closed concepts, rules that are made by the Japanese, for the Japanese and among the Japanese.

When Japan invaded neighboring countries in the past, did it never occur to them that they were causing great inconvenience and even pain to others?

The worst-case scenario for Japan is that the current situation becomes routine, accepting the present conditions as a given, giving up hope and patiently enduring the pain.

Unfortunately, the Japanese are inclining toward bitter acceptance. They rave about passionate and aggressive Ryoma on television but act like a passive commoner from the Edo period.

Energy for change is nowhere to be found. The driving force to seek a new road, courageous leadership and a clear sense of direction are not guiding the people. Japan is lost and has no destination.

A national effort is not being brought together to create a greater force, and energy is lost in misguided swings.

The Nihon Keizai Shimbun featured a recent special series titled “The Third Miracle.”

The purpose is to evolve from the “lost decades” and open a new era, promoting another miracle after the Meiji Restoration and the economic boom. But at this juncture, will the third miracle really happen?

Sakamoto Ryoma only lives on television and in books.

*The writer is a senior business writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Nahm Yoon-ho
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