Kevin M Doak is a Professor of Japanese Studies at Georgetown University. He is an expert in the study of nationalism and the interplay of democratic ideas and culture in modern Japan.
In an interview with The Sankei Shimbun and JAPAN Forward, Dr Doak discusses how Japan compares to the United States. While the US boasts economic and military prowess, Japan surpasses it in terms of social stability. He also points to the rising crime rate and drug-related deaths in the US, attributing them to a declining moral compass.
The professor also discusses Japanese nationalism, which remains unsteady without a constitution crafted by its own people.
Excerpts of the interview follow.
Some Japanese people try to show how far behind their country is by saying, "Compared to the United States, Japan is ..." I would like to say this to those Japanese people: "What are you talking about? In many respects, Japan is better than the US!"
It is true that the United States has many advantages over Japan. The US has more economic power, military power, and international influence. But even so, Japan is superior to the US in terms of social stability. The American social order has reached a point of crisis.
While streets in Japan are generally clean everywhere, in urban areas in the US, step into any main street and you will find piles of trash everywhere. Families are breaking up in many areas, and crimes of all sorts are increasing.
Take for example Washington, DC, the nation's capital where Georgetown University is located. This is also where I work. I am honestly afraid to go into DC because there are many "carjackings" in which young people threaten drivers and rob them of their cars, often assaulting them and sometimes killing them.
They do not rob cars because they are poor. They play at crime as if it were a game. In other words, they have lost the ability to judge what is right and wrong. In short, American society has lost its moral compass.
The US Drug Epidemic
The biggest cause is probably the drug epidemic. According to the US government's Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 100,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2021.
The total number of US military deaths in the Vietnam War (1955-1975) is said to be 58,000. But the number of drug deaths is nearly double that in one year. These numbers are only of those who die from a drug overdose. The number of drug users who do not die is unknown.
It may be something of a taboo for American democracy, but political protests in the streets often include more than a few drug addicts. As a result, acts of violence infest the streets. And in some cases, these protesters turn into violent mobs. It goes without saying that drugs are a breeding ground for rape and other sexual crimes and aberrant sexual behavior.
However, politicians, political elites, and the media do not face up to the drug problem. They muddle their words, saying that it is a complicated issue, etc. Japan also has drug crimes, but when they are discovered, they are severely denounced by society. In Japan, morality is still alive.
Where Liberalism without Christianity is Taking Us
In the United States, the number of people who are Christian and go to church has been rapidly declining in recent years. This is deeply related to the current social instability in the United States.
In Japan, even without much organized religion, a moral foundation is built into the culture of life. But this is not the case in Western Europe and the United States. There, morality is deeply rooted in organized religions, especially Christianity. And in the case of the US, if Christianity were to disappear, the moral foundation of society would collapse.
One might think that law would suffice to ensure order without religion or morality. But one would be mistaken, at least as far as the United States is concerned. This is because, in the US, the Constitution and the legal order are built on the shared values of religion and morality. For Americans, laws that are not backed by religion and morality are merely tools of the political authority of the moment, and may no longer be worthy of the people's obedience.
'Freedom' of Anarchy
Some may object that "in Europe and Canada, people don't go to church as much as Americans do and there is less crime than in America." It is true that fewer Europeans go to church than Americans do. And in Canada, since the 1960s "Quiet Revolution," many people also have stopped attending church.
However, among Western nations, the United States has a unique history. It is a country that was established by severing ties with the British Crown and its monarchical government in the Revolutionary War. And by doing so, it has built a progressive nation that places emphasis on the individual.
An unrestrained individualism carries the risk that individuals will simply indulge themselves while society falls into an anarchic situation of "might makes right." John Adams, one of America's founding fathers and its second president, said, "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people." America could not have become a nation or had its Constitution without Christianity.
But what is going on now is an unprecedented shift away from religion. It is something we might more accurately call "apostasy." If one merely says that religion is a matter of personal freedom, so it is. But freedom in America today is becoming the freedom to indulge in crime and drugs. It is a freedom that is leading us to the "freedom" of anarchy.
No Freedom for Opposing Views
One might think that liberalism is based on a social order and rule that respects the rights of others. However, as we see in the US today, that idea no longer prevails.
In the LGBT debate, for example, many activists advocate the "freedom" to determine one's sex based on one's gender identity rather than on the body one was born with. However, many of them also refuse to recognize the "freedom" of those who oppose this idea. They label opposing views "hate speech" and try to silence them, if not criminalize those views.
This is the reality of liberalism in America today. Freedom is precious. But without religion and morality to control it, it becomes a tool of Satan. Is it surprising that there are Satanic clubs in American schools and the increasing visibility of Satanic temples in America today? I cannot imagine something like that in Japan.
Unstable Japanese Nationalism
Some of these problems with liberalism are said to be occurring in Japan too. Fortunately, however, the situation is not as extreme as in the United States.
Whether Japanese morality comes from religion (albeit a different religion than Christianity) or from earlier cultural traditions, I will not venture to decide here. What I would like to discuss here is Japanese nationalism.
While the US established its nationalism through independence from Great Britain, Japanese nationalism remains unstable. Are the Japanese people an ethnic nation (minzoku) or are they a civic nation (kokumin)? What does the Japanese state (kokka) mean to the Japanese people? The Japanese people as a whole still lack a clear understanding of these issues.
Not a few historians argue that the Meiji Restoration made the Japanese people aware that they were Japanese and strengthened their consciousness of Japan as a state (kokka). In that sense, nationalism has grown stronger in Japan since the Meiji period.
However, the Meiji Restoration was a revolution "from above" by the samurai class, and was carried out to protect Japan's independence from the Western powers. For the majority of the Japanese people, it was a revolution without a clear sense of what this new modern Japanese state meant to them. Therefore, the rights of the nation (kokumin) (they were called "subjects" (shimmin) of the Emperor) under the Meiji Constitution were also unstable.
A Constitution of Japanese Making
After the war, Japanese nationalism was further complicated by the Allied Occupation. Although the sovereign rights of the civic nation (kokumin) were clearly written into the Japanese Constitution, the Constitution itself was enacted at the direction of the United States.
More than 70 years after the restoration of "sovereignty," the Japanese people still do not even have a constitution of their own making.
Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was assassinated in July 2022, was a visionary who tried to stabilize Japan's unstable nationalism. Not only did he work diligently to address the North Korean abductions issue and enact a national (kokumin) referendum law, he also promoted Constitutional amendment by the people.
This was an attempt to rethink the relationship between the nation (kokumin) and the state and to make the Japanese state something that clearly exists for, and belongs to, the Japanese people.
Sadly, that task was unfinished when he was assassinated. I believe that the first priority of the current Kishida administration should be to complete Abe's unfinished project.
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(Read the essay in Japanese.)
Interview by: The Sankei Shimbun