How did it get in? Like a good salesman with a simple slogan that promised great riches: he could sum up one country in a word. Shame. He had great teeth and his eyes were clear and bright, and shining with the translucency of fanaticism… There is only one thing you need to know about this great civilisation: it is a shame culture. We let him in, but he quickly bored us – he had nothing else to say.
For of course no country, not even little Luxembourg, can be explained by a single word. Ian Buruma once discussed this cliché and dismissed it very quickly – it may have some validity in certain contexts, but there are too many exceptions for it to explain much; and too many cultures that share the same characteristics:
…too many Germans don’t have the slightest wish to confess, and too many Japanese like Mori, whose efforts to make public the “sins” of their country are definitely meant as gestures of atonement. (Wages of Guilt)
Buruma cites Ruth Benedict as the source of this idea, and goes on to argue that it is not so easy to distinguish between shame and guilt. Oh no! But oh yes! Now we are talking, and there is something interesting to discuss; as well as a new country to discover. Come on. Let’s take a look under those exquisite kimonos…
I went with a great throng of people to witness the arrival at the station. I expected to hear and see anger; I even feared possibilities of violence. The murdered officer had been much liked; his relatives would certainly be among the spectators; and a Kumamoto crowd is not very gentle. I also thought to find many police on duty. My anticipations were wrong.
The train halted in the usual scene of hurry and noise, scurry and clatter of passengers wearing geta, screaming of boys wanting to sell Japanese newspapers and Kumamoto lemonade. Outside the barrier we waited for nearly five minutes. Then, pushed through the wicket by a police-sergeant; the prisoner appeared – a large wild-looking man, with head bowed down, and arms fastened behind his back. Prisoner and guard both halted in front of the wicket; and the people pressed forward to see – but in silence. Then the officer called out:
‘Sugihara San! Sugihara O-Kibi! is she present?’
A slight small woman standing near me, with a child on her back, answered, ‘Hail!’ and advanced through the press. This was the widow of the murdered man; the child she carried was her son. At a wave of the officer’s hand the crowd fell back, so as to leave a clear space about the prisoner and his escort. In that space the woman with the child stood facing the murderer. The hush was of death.
Not to the woman at all, but the child only, did the officer then speak. He spoke low, but so clearly that I could catch every syllable:
‘Little one, this is the man who killed your father four years ago. You had not yet been born; you were in your mother’s womb. That you have no father to love you now is the doing of this man. Look at him’ – here the officer, putting a hand on the prisoner’s chin, sternly forced him to lift his eyes – ‘look well at him, little boy! Do not be afraid. It is painful; but it is your duty. Look at him!’
Over the mother’s shoulder the boy gazed with eyes widely open, as in fear; then he began to sob; then tears came; but steadily and obediently he still looked – looked – looked – straight into the cringing face.
The crowd seemed to have stopped breathing.
I saw the prisoner’s features distort; I saw him suddenly dash himself down upon his knees despite his fetters, and beat his face into the dust, crying out the while in a passion of hoarse remorse that made one’s heart shake:
‘Pardon! pardon! pardon me, little one! That I did – not for hate was it done; but in mad fear only, in my desire to escape. Very, very wicked I had been; great unspeakable wrong have I done you! But now for my sin I go to die; I am glad to die! Therefore, O little one, be pitiful! – forgive me!’
The child still cried silently. The officer raised the shaking criminal: the dumb crowd parted left and right to let them by. Then, quite suddenly, the whole multitude began to sob… (Writings from Japan, by Lafcadio Hearn)
You can see where the idea of a culture of shame might come from: the strong collective nature of the act, which involves the community. Benedict, one supposes, would have been struck by a society less individualistic than her own (the above description is from the 1890s; her work came out after the war). But how easy to be fooled by the differences, all the newly strange and wonderful things which strike us with a Spring freshness (Hearn is marvellous on this; while later lamenting losing it, as he gets to know Japan better); and how easy to miss the similarities. And then to make a further mistake: to conflate a culture with each individual; a system of rules and codes with the live human being. Strangely, something similar was done in the USA in the 1950s, where men and women were turned into Organisation Man; the institutional role of a corporate careerist mixed up with the living flesh and memory underneath it.
Hearn, though living in Japan, and knowing its culture from the inside, is surprised by the scene, because he is expecting violence. And just like him, but for different reasons, our expectations are transformed: initially it looks like a public shaming; but then through the cultural dress of a different civilisation we see the human underneath. We see a man exhibiting terrible guilt; in part, Hearn writes elsewhere, because the Japanese have an intense solicitude for children.
Looking out the window through the cigarette smoke and steaming tea we see the salesman shouting his wares to the windows all around us. We call him over, and throw the book towards his gesticulating hands. They miss it, and Lafcadio lands him a knockout blow.