Thursday September 15, 2005

The Paradox of Japan

Perhaps the most hackneyed cliché in travel writing is to describe a foreign country as "a land of contrasts".  But Japan, more than anywhere else in the world, really is such a place.  Everywhere you turn you find a startling mix of the old and the new, the traditional and the novel, the past and the future.  These contrasts are rooted in the tumultuous history of Japan in the 20th century.

From the beginning of the century through the Second World War, Japan's course was not without precedent.  Its industrialization and colonial adventures were, quite consciously, a compressed recapitulation of the recent histories of the European powers.  But everything changed in those two cataclysmic flashes of terrible light in the skies over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Occupation followed, and then reconstruction, although the latter term hardly seems strong enough to capture the thoroughness of the changes to Japanese society at all levels.  As the nation emerged from occupation in the 1950's with its new and unique constitution, in which it forsook the practice of war for all time, it seemed poised to chart a course different from that of any other nation.  Just how different was more surprising than anyone expected.

Why the early attacks by monsters and extraterrestrials focused on Japan remains a mystery.  Some have claimed that the residual radiation from the atomic attacks somehow attracted the unwanted attention, but no one can say for sure.  What is certain is that the Japanese people's courageous response to the attacks both saved them and doomed them to further onslaughts.  The rapidly developing industrial and technical capacity of the Japanese economy was able, in short order, to churn out cheap electronic goods that brought in much-needed revenues.  These revenues in turn funded research that turned Japan into a world leader in high-speed transportation, robotic and cybernetic technology, man-portable energy weapons, psychic phenomena, space travel, and the new science of 怪獣学 (kaijuugaku or 'monsterology').  These capabilities proved sufficient to save Japan (and the rest of humanity) time and again, but also put the nation inevitably on the front line of the defense of Earth—any invader with half a clue knew Japan would have to be taken down first.  Continuous attacks and continuous reconstruction over the last fifty years, coupled with astonishing advances in all technical and scientific fields, have transformed Japan beyond recognition.

At least, they should have.  But against these tremendous forces of change stood the firm attachment of the Japanese people to their land and their way of life.  The Japanese, 120 million people living in a country smaller than the state of California, had already learned how to make maximum use of their land.  They applied the same ingenuity, coupled with an aesthetic sense that valued subtlety and detail, to the fortification of the country against attacks from all quarters.

If you know how to look, the results can be seen everywhere in the Japan of the early 21st century: a unique integration of the traditional with the hyper-modern.  A traveler walking through a modern city of steel and neon can turn a corner and find a narrow alley of traditional wood and tile buildings.  Suburbs mix Japanese-style homes and schools, small parcels of farmland, space-defense emplacements, and starship dry docks.  Faced with a continual shortage of land, the Japanese have responded with an unprecedented wave of underground construction.  Starting with the multi-level streets and subways of mid-century urban Japan, this wave has grown to include numerous city-sized subterranean bases, to the extent that by the last decade, the total usable area of the home islands was as much as 20% larger than their surface area.  Still, carefully disguised entrances, air vents, and even whole hills articulated by hidden hinges cleverly conceal the massive reshaping of Japan's very foundation, preserving as much as possible its natural appearance.

Everywhere you look in Japan is a flurry of construction, but the history of the country has not been submerged by unrestrained modernity.  Constant attacks by huge prehistoric reptiles and curiously elastic aliens have taken their toll, destroying large swaths of the country, but the Japanese have responded, as they did in the aftermath of WWII, by rebuilding replicas of their destroyed landmarks—in recent years, out of newly-developed or extraterrestrial ultra-strong materials that are expected to withstand future attacks (and, indeed, to last longer than the lifetime of the Earth).

What's more, the Japanese people have shown an amazing ability to turn seeming weaknesses into strengths.  Nearly half of all monsters attacking Japan, for example, are eventually tamed or controlled, providing the nation and the world with some of its most powerful defenders, not to mention beloved friends to its children.  The small size of the densely populated nation, seemingly a disadvantage, has recently allowed the construction of nationwide defensive shields supported by ubiquitous antennas, dishes, and spires that, it is hoped, will protect fortress Japan from further devastation.

Finally, and most important of all, the world owes a debt of gratitude to the bravery of the people of Japan.  Never before have a people been so willing to face such dangers and to transform themselves in the defense of humanity.  From the youngest age, Japanese children are screened for aptitude in the martial arts, giant robot piloting, monster affinity, and psionic ability.  They train constantly at their tasks while still maintaining their other pursuits, in literally all walks of life.  The ubiquitous groups of uniformed schoolchildren may appear unremarkable, but if you watch carefully, you'll see that they tend to form clusters of five: one dreamy, one angry, one jolly, and two girls.  In addition, Japan is home to a large number of scientific paramilitary organizations, including a dizzying array of Defense Forces, Rescue Squads, Science Ninjas, Mobile Police Units, and oddly-named superteams.  But as in other areas, the Japanese have not allowed this transformation to fundamentally alter their way of life.  For example, although the country has by far the highest rate of cybernetic replacement of body parts, nearly all Japanese, including the heavily-cyberized senior citizens, prefer to retain mainline-human appearance.

Japan is unique.  It is a country of ancient wooden temples and ten-kilometer-high stratospires.  It preserves its ancient martial traditions while fielding the world's most advanced (and most varied) army of giant robots.  Its people revere nature and the Earth's beauty even as they forsake the homeworld in unprecedented numbers to man (and woman!) orbiting defense platforms and the Cislunar Defense Fleet.  Through all of Japan's challenges, in the face of the devastation of war, atomic bombings, monster attacks, alien invasions, colony drops, and psychic cataclysms, it has somehow managed to remain, essentially and unforgettably, Japan.

[Written on the 超電導リ二ア (superconducting maglev) express, traveling at just under the speed of sound from Kyoto to Neo-Tokyo, 9/11/2005.]

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Comments

Very nice. Nor sure why I made the jump... not the kind of intro I'd usually deem clickworthy. Glad I did. Love the air vents.

Posted by: eric morse at Sep 15, 2005 12:45:46 PM

On the air vents -- I always knew those things had something to do with daikaiju. I just never made the underground base connection. Well done.

Posted by: David Moles at Sep 15, 2005 1:47:42 PM

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