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The Godzilla Tour of Japan : A Writer, a Politician, a Diplomat and an Artist Wrestle With the Fantasy-vs.-Reality Questions of their Country's Shifting Identity

November 13, 1994|Margaret Scott | Margaret Scott is a writer based in Tokyo. Her last article for this magazine was "Vanished Japan," about the postwar photos of Horace Bristol

"Wimps," Kenji Sato says slowly in English, as if he is savoring the sound of the word. "Japan has become a nation of wimps raised on Godzilla movies." We are sitting in a skyscraper sipping coffee in a faux French cafe called Petit Monde. The view is of the glass towers and huge, blinking video screens of Shinjuku, the once ramshackle section of Tokyo that is now its flashing, shining center of consumerism. The blocks of swanky department stores, the broad avenues of tall, sleek office buildings and hotels have also become the favorite film backdrop for Godzilla's rampages of the city. It is a perfect setting for Sato, one of Japan's most provocative young writers, to lay out his theory that Godzilla films are a primer on what he calls the fantasy of postwar Japan. He's written a bestseller on the subject, "Godzilla, Yamato and Our Democracy."

It was a bit over a year ago, not long after Japan's stunning political upheavals began, that I first met Sato, who is 28 now and has the look of an arty graduate student. "If you want to understand what's going on in Japan," he told me then, "Godzilla films are a good place to start." With Sato as my guide, we set off on what I came to think of as the Godzilla tour of Japan.

Like many Japanese, Sato grew up with Godzilla. Nearly a rite of national passage, there would always be the tale of the monster, born of the horrors of the nuclear age, wreaking havoc on his defenseless victim, Japan. The first one came out in 1954, and yet another one, the 21st, is due out next month. It is not a far-fetched conceit to see them as giving a story line to postwar Japan. Over the years, the skyline in the movies changed from squat and war-scarred to glimmering high-tech, and the plots loosely followed the vagaries of the Cold War. But the basic ingredients, including the 165-foot-high Godzilla, a mutant, overgrown reptile spewing flames of radiated heat, stayed the same.

After Sato went abroad and began to write, he started thinking of these movies less as a story line than as a mirror of something deeper--Japan's postwar myth. It goes like this: Thanks to Uncle Sam, Japan was reborn as a peace-loving country. Accepting its role as victim in the larger world, Japan abhorred power and, as a result, politics. It was to be a place where consensus reigned and everyone could get rich. Most important, it was to be a sheltered place where people didn't have to concern themselves with the big, bad world beyond their shores.

Sato calls it the fantasy of postwar democracy, and the point of his Godzilla tour was to tell me that the fantasy is falling apart. "If Japan was still a two-bit country, no one would care if we wallowed in our fantasies. But we've become rich and strong and the rest of the world is asking us to get involved, do our part, and we don't have an answer," he said. "Japan's become like a Godzilla movie. Just look at Japanese politics. We all know the plot is outdated and ridiculous, but who will write a new one?"

The Japanese are indeed looking for a new plot. Their political system collapsed last year, bringing to an end 38 years of one-party rule by the Liberal Democratic Party and the orthodoxies of postwar Japan. To be in Japan during the past year has been to witness the flowering of a great debate over what's next for the country. Sato calls it a grand identity crisis, and he's right.

It's not as if the identity issue hasn't been addressed before. Intellectuals in Japan have agonized over whether the price of modernization has been the loss of Japan's soul, whether Japan is part of the West or part of Asia, and over what it means to be a pacifist nation. But the debate has had a make-believe quality, like a Godzilla movie, because it has been divorced from the world of politics.

Now with the crumbling of the political set-up, it seems an unmistakable sign that a chapter has closed, that the national narrative needs to be overhauled. Japan is rich now and is no longer frantically trying to catch up with the West. For the first time, the Japanese are asking questions about what's next from a position of strength.

Sato and three others--a politician, a diplomat and an artist--give voice to the central and often contradictory themes of the debate. Tadatoshi Akiba, the politician, insists that pacifism, so ingrained in how postwar Japanese see themselves, must be retained. Sato seeks identity by reinventing a tradition that he feels has been lost since the war. The diplomat, Kazuo Ogura, turns to Asia as an inspiration and wants Japan to stop imitating the West. And the artist, Yukinori Yanagi, believes that identity can only be defined by individuals, freed from preordained ways of thinking.

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