Reporter: Marcus James (Sydney University student)
August 13 2015
Roger Pulvers is a playwright, translator, author, journalist and academic who has spent much of his life living and working in Japan. It is his identity as an artist, an academic and a Nihon-jin that gives Pulvers his outlook on Japan – one that sees culture as the key to Japan’s success. “Enrich the country by strengthening the arts,” he says.
Following a speech last year to The Japan Society (London) entitled, ‘The Indispensable Nation: Can Japan save the world in the 21st century?', Pulvers spoke to AJS-NSW, this time with the title ‘How Japan can save the world’. Noticeably, as Pulvers highlights, he no longer considers the matter of Japan’s role in the contemporary world a question. He now argues that how Japan fulfils its potential is important; both as a cultural intermediary between superpowers China and the US, and in its role as the world’s eminent secular state.
In his speech, Pulvers admitted the disparity between his own views of Japan’s future and those of his friends, colleagues and even the average person on the street in Japan. Why is Pulvers so optimistic? Perhaps he is simply an optimist, as indicated by his reference to the lines of poet, Akashi Kaijin – “if you do not burn like the fish in the depths of the ocean, there will be no light”. Yet Pulvers is also an expert and his arguments substantiated.
The presentation opened with a historical comparison between Japan’s last 22 years and the first half of the Meiji era. Both were failures in many ways, according to Pulvers, but the failures of the first 22 years of Meiji were soon replaced by success and modernisation following the Sino-Japanese War and the turn of the 20th century. This historical analogy can therefore alleviate some anxieties regarding contemporary Japan’s progress. Pulvers argued moreover that Japan was regarded by the West as a leading nation during the latter half of Meiji era, suggesting Japan’s opportunity to be a contemporary leader. Crucially, he said, Japan is a westernised yet simultaneously non-white, Eastern nation, citing the American civil rights activist Du Bois who saw Japan as the hope of the coloured people of the world.
It is this privileged position of being truly east and west which will allow Japan to ‘save the world’. Pulvers argued Japan – having heavily adopted economic, social and cultural ideas from China and the US – is the only country which understands the two nations enough to effectively mediate between what he described as “two giants who are going to clash for sure”. Furthermore, Japan can contribute to world harmony through its position as a secular state and primarily secular society. Pulvers indeed defined Japan as the world’s foremost secular nation, having no organised, state-sanctioned religion and predominantly atheist citizens. Importantly, he said, the Japanese maintain a deep respect for religion and spirituality (underlined for example by Shinto traditions) and avoid the rhetoric of religious entitlement which still pervades many supposedly secular Western states. In this respect, Pulvers believes Japan can have an important role even in mediating between the Christian and Muslim worlds.
However Japan’s crucial role to play as a world citizen has and may continue to be marred. Pulvers reminded the audience how Japan’s goodwill and reputation was obliterated by its actions in the 1930s and 1940s, and warned that “the present political ilk are of the same mould” as the first half of the Meiji. That is, playing a conservative political waiting game focusing on economic growth and thereby slowly engendering patriotism. Pulvers joked that “Abe-nomics is all tip and no iceberg”, raising laughter in the audience. But like all good jokes, it struck a chord of relevance. This time, he said, the old Meiji style of ‘gambaru’ – of waiting it out until it’s all okay – will not work. Pulvers instead wants Japan to engage in arts, in culture and implicitly in its youth. “There is another Japan of culture”.
Pulvers identified a rich cultural capital to be drawn from, including the mock tenets of Japanese-ness: MASK - “Manga, Anime, Sushi, and Karaoke”. Again, an amusing phrase but also an enlightening one. The universality and approachability of such modern culture has arguably not been capitalised enough by Japanese, he said. For example, in another joke, Pulvers noted that most shops selling sushi rolls in Sydney are run by Koreans. More can be done then to bring art and culture to the core of Japan’s national narrative and reclaim a national pride hijacked by right wing nationalism.
Towards the end of the presentation, Pulvers read the poem ‘Miruku yo ga yayura’ (‘Do we have peace now?’) by a 17 year old Okinawan high school student, Chinen Masaru. The poem expresses the young narrator’s duty to keep his grandmother’s memories alive, to uphold “the preciousness of peace”.
“… I cling to her memories inside me / Linking the wonders of peace / With all that is to come.”
As Pulvers’ voice swelled through each verse, a couple things (of many) became apparent: the power of art and of humanity.Pulvers concluded with the question, “what can we do for this to stand for Japan?”.
Previous Event Reports :
From Exchange Student to Executive VP - June 2015
2015 University Awards - May 2015
Rugby World Cup 2019 - Nov. 2014
Food Safety and Security - JAEPA July 2014
Tohoku - 3 Years On - March 2014
Nikkei Australians- November 2013