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from Japan vol. 72 2016.03.11 Discussing the idiocies of the 21st century - from 9.11 to 3.11 (Natsuki Ikezawa x Tetsuya Ozaki)

After publishing the second book of the series, One Years of Lunacy, we organized the "100 Years of Idiocy Exhibit" at 3331 Arts Chiyoda located in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo from August 22 to September 27, 2015. At this exhibition, we showcased photographs and video and also organized talk shows every Friday where we discussed "What we need to do to avoid repeating such idiocies." On September 11, the 14th anniversary of the coordinated terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, we hosted a special talk show with one of the contributors of the first book, One Hundred Years of Idiocy, novelist and poet, Mr. Natsuki Ikezawa and the editor of the One Hundred Years of Idiocy series, Mr. Tetsuya Ozaki. This earth report will introduce the topics discussed.

目次へ移動 Why has the lunacy accelerated in the past 13 years?

Ozaki - In 2002, we published the book, One Hundred Years of Idiocy, which Mr. Ikezawa kindly contributed to. As you know, "idiocy" is an adjective of the word "idiot" and means to be silly or foolish. We then named the sequel, One Hundred Years of Lunacy. And "lunacy" of course means to be "mad" or "insane." The sequel was released 12 years after the first book, so 13 years have passed since then, but it seems to me as though the lunacy has continue to multiply and has become harder and harder to put a stop to.

Ikezawa - We've been responsible for a great many idiocies, but what has had the most impact globally on all our lives today is the Iraq War. Let's go back to 9.11. That's when the world collapsed as a result of this war. Four months before it began, I actually traveled across Iraq visiting its monuments. I became very well acquainted with the people there, and Iraq soon became my favorite country in the Arab world. That is why I didn't want them to be bombed, so I quickly wrote and published the book, On a Small Bridge in Iraq, and took part in lectures and even appeared on TV although that wasn't really my cup of tea. I was, in a sense, running an anti-war campaign all by myself. The Iraqi people oppressed by Saddam Hussein would not welcome the American troops and the troops would destroy the Iraqi culture. I kept saying that they didn't have "weapons of mass destructions" as the Americans insisted. As a result, Iraq was destroyed, creating a vacuum of power, and that has resulted in the rise of the Islamic State.

Ozaki - Yes, ISIS.

Ikezawa - After George W. Bush left the presidential office, he apologized for the Iraq War, but the Japanese government, which supported the U.S. during this war, has yet to apologize. No matter how many people say that something is wrong, people keep pushing forward without being able to avoid it, and thus it becomes a reality. I think this is what idiocies are all about, and this pattern hasn't changed, and that basically sums up the past 13 years.

Ozaki - When you used to live in Paris back in 2004, the film director, Theo van Gogh, well-known for his extreme Islamophobia, was brutally murdered. 11 years later, in January this year, the Charlie Hebdo shootings occurred, again in Paris, but coincidentally, the popular writer, Michel Houellebecq published the book, Soumission, on the same day as the shootings. Soumission means submission in English, and this is also the title of the film Van Gogh was killed for. When translated into other languages like English and French, the word Islam means "submission." In the book, Soumission, a Muslim candidate wins the French presidential elections, and France becomes an Islamic nation. After the book was published, like Salman Rushdie, who wrote The Satanic Verses, Houellebecq, too, had to live under 24-hour police protection. Mr. Ikezawa, you wrote an essay at the time of van Gogh's death, but why do you think there is so much controversy over Islam in France?

Ikezawa - Ever since the French Revolution, France has cherished liberty, equality, and fraternity, and the national ideology has been that all citizens are equal. Nevertheless they had colonies. And people who lived in these colonies were considered second-class citizens, which was contradictory to the fundamental principle of equality. Finally, after the Algerian War, France recognized the independence of Algeria, its last colony. Thereafter, many Algerians immigrated to France and worked as lower level, low-wage workers, who began to provide underlying support to the French labor market. But when the economy worsened, these immigrants began to be treated as intruders who steal work. And although of course second-generation immigrants who were born in France consider themselves as being French, in reality there is a clear discrimination with respect to their economic status, etc.

And regarding religion, French has enacted the law of separation of church and state. But Islam does not have the same meaning to Muslim immigrants as Catholicism has for the French people. For Muslims, it's impossible to separate religion from politics. For example, Muslim women must cover their hair with a hijab (scarf) when they go outside their homes to refrain from showing their sex appeal. But French people wish Muslim girls in elementary schools and junior high schools would refrain from wearing hijabs when they come to school because it draws unnecessary attention to their religion. But Muslims would respond, "That's ridiculous. Would you walk outside naked?" So this is how different the perceptions are.


目次へ移動 What journalism should be like and the changing media

Ozaki - Aside from religious conflict, it feels as though idiocies and lunacies have multiplied in many other areas, too.

Ikezawa - One of the reasons why the lunacy has swelled, is that financial capital nowadays wreaks havoc, absorbs net interest everywhere it goes, and destroys countries. Greece is a great case in point. Wealth has become increasingly concentrated, but journalists are no longer criticizing this. That is why criticism hasn't spread among the public. You may be familiar with the trickle-down theory, which claims that as the rich get richer, part of the wealth will eventually trickle down and benefit all.

Ozaki - That's what neo-liberalists and Abe's administration is talking about.

Ikezawa - But the wealth doesn't trickle down to all areas, just like Somen Nagashi or flowing noodles. Overall, I don't think anything has gotten better. With respect to journalism, let's take a photograph of a deceased refugee child. The Japanese media blurs out the body. This is because people, who don't want to see such things, will call and complain. But if we should look at it, because it's reality, would being forced to look at such images eventually dull our sensitivities and would we become immune to such images? On the other hand, would this give way to hypocrisy? Would we start to believe that we are good people because we can sympathize with such children?
In 1990, a photograph taken by Kevin Carter, a South African photojournalist, near the refugee camp in Sudan won a Pulitzer Prize. An emaciated little girl is hunched over and there is a vulture in the background. It looks as though the vulture is preying on the girl. We found out later that this wasn't actually the case, but many people criticized Kevin Carter for his lack of action. They asked, "Why were you taking photographs? Why didn't you help her?" In the end, he committed suicide a few weeks after receiving the Pulitzer. People who criticized him may have been pleased by the delusion that by protesting against this photographer they were fighting for justice.
In 2004, when 3 Japanese people were taken hostage in Iraq, the government colluded with the media and launched a campaign that argued that their selfish acts had interfered with the affairs of state. The citizens fell for this campaign, so when the hostages returned home, they were intensely criticized. People who were taken hostage had gone to Iraq to help people who were suffering there. When someone does something others can't, rather than praising them, people think they're being pretentious and show animosity. Like a ridge of a mountain, somewhere within our hearts, there is a part that feels this way. And this is what the government and the media manipulated.

Ozaki - On the other hand, I feel as though the media has become polarized. Of course, it's impossible for media to be completely neutral. That is why you need to compare the opinions of each medium, and decide what you believe is right. But there are many people nowadays who don't read newspapers, or even watch TV, so they rely on a very few sources of information.
During the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both sides argued on Twitter and other social networking sites, but the arguments were out of synch. This is because supporters of Israel were reading the Jerusalem Post and other right wing media, and supporters of Palestine were relying on BBC, The Guardian, New York Times, and other liberal media for information. In the beginning, SNSs were praised for being an excellent platform for open exchange, but when the data was analyzed, they found that actually the opposite was true.

Ikezawa - People don't normally post information or logic. They post about their feelings right at that instance. And such opinions instantly become interconnected and turn into a large movement that influences the fate of things. Of course these are feelings, so they may not be sensible. But on the other hand, opinions shared by intellectuals with the public, are formulated based on history and logic. Now, what do I mean by intellectuals? They are like advisors to the king, in other words in countries where the sovereignty resides with the people, they are advisors to the nations' citizens. These advisors try to tell the king the rights and wrongs of certain issues, but whether the king listens to that is beyond the advisors' power. And with the introduction of SNSs, the king has stopped listening to his advisors.

Ozaki - I think SNSs are like cars. This is true for me as well, but there are people out there whose personality changes when they get behind a wheel. They start cursing even though they normally wouldn't. People can't see you, so it's a completely safe, anonymous environment.

Ikezawa - What is most like SNSs is the shouting and jeering in parliament. They voice their opinions without identifying themselves. And when asked who voiced that opinion, they deny that it was them. And when they're found out, they pretend to bow their heads in apology.



目次へ移動 Why are social sciences and humanities departments being undervalued?

Ozaki - This year, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology sent out a letter to national universities across Japan to reduce the size of their social sciences and humanities departments. When universities responded by asking if the government is undervaluing social sciences and humanities, the Ministry insisted that that wasn't what it meant, but if intellectuals at universities read the letter and if it was misunderstood, this must be because the letter was poorly written. I can't understand at all why people, who can't even write well, are trying to minimize social sciences and humanities.

Ikezawa - Universities are a strange place. Universities that have professors who say, "If you memorize this and that, you'll pass," are clearly bad universities, and universities with many professors who have the strangest, extraordinary theories are good universities. If the classes provoke a discussion within you and you think, okay, but wait, that's not true, I don't think that's right, then you're actually learning, and this will help nurture intelligent, interesting individuals. But in recent years, when professors present students with a strange theory and ask them to think about it themselves, their parents complain. They are paying tuition so that their children will be able to work at good companies, so they don't want professors teaching their children strange things. If it's not going to help them make money, it's inconsequential. It feels as though the whole country is beginning to think this way. And if so, social studies and humanities would seem pointless because they're just chopping logic.

Ozaki - Gabriel García Márques, who was also a renowned journalist, conducted a seminar for youths aspiring to be journalists. When asked what should they teach if they were to create a department of journalism, he said that students should study social studies and humanities at length, and this will help create the necessary foundation. If this is the right way to go, Japan's higher-ups may be thinking that they don't want to use taxpayers' money to nurture individuals who may one day challenge the government. That's my perception.

Ikezawa - That is probably one of their objectives. But if we only have people with a science and technology background making the decisions, they only look at the immediate future. People who have a wide world perception, who look at the entire market, are actually people who have a social studies and humanities background. People with a science and technology background, in other words technicists aren't capable of doing so. Nuclear power generation reflects the thinking of technicists. Technicists convinced themselves that with technology they can do this and that, and fixed this, and then everything will be all right. But this market has been from the very beginning susceptible to decay. Because it's an exclusive market without competition.
I think it was in the early 1990s, but when I visited the nuclear power generation plant at Tokai village I was quite concerned. It looked great, but on the brochure that I got there it said, "It is safely shielded by a thick layer of resilient concrete and steel." I thought, that's one too many adjectives. Because would you say today that bullet trains are safe? So I thought they were trying to cover something up with words. We have to be careful of sentences with many adjectives and not so many verbs.


目次へ移動 Newspapers' polarization, yet deep-rooted influence

Ozaki - The novel you published about 2 years ago, Atomic Box, is a suspense based on nuclear power. I thought it was a great book for various reasons. It postulates that there is a top-secret national project to build a nuclear weapon in post war Japan. The main character receives top-secret documents from her father, who was involved in this project, on his deathbed. She takes on the national government, which yields massive power, with her one and only weapon, the network of people she knows. This is amazing. And no one died in the book, so it had a great aftertaste.

Ikezawa - Good thrillers are often based on treasure hunts, chases, or solving mysteries. I wanted to combine all of these elements, and so I thought, who would be an overwhelming opponent? And thought of the national government. The police, especially, since they are the only legal brute force we have in Japan. The police have guns, and nowadays they can even track individuals using images from surveillance cameras and computers. With what secret is she running from the government? The government frantically chases after her for the top-secret documents, and then other countries like the U.S. get involved. What could be so important? Nuclear development. The reason why Japan's nuclear power reactors are in use so much is because they want plutonium and they have quite a lot of it stockpiled.

Ozaki - The main character meets a few people who end up helping her. First of these is the left-leaning newspaper reporter. I thought this mirrored today's social situation. The mass media is either leftist or rightist, and the gap in between is widening by the minute.

Ikezawa - So what does the newspaper reporter, who discovered this top secret, Japan's plans for nuclear development, do? Should they publish or should they not? This was discussed internally at great length, but it's not an easy decision. You can't just go for it without concrete proof. You need to make sure you have all the facts straight. And this decision is primarily made by people with a social studies and humanities background.


Ozaki - It is said that mass media such as newspapers and TV have lost traction; nevertheless, I still think that newspapers still lead the way for public opinion, and I think in a way it's positioned as a meta media. For example, the Tokyo gubernatorial election was held 1 month after the Great East Japan Earthquake. Before the nuclear accident, there were rumors that the then governor Shintaro Ishihara would win by a landslide. But after the accident, those who were against nuclear power said that this would help bring change to politics and that Governor Ishihara would lose. That's what I thought, too, but Governor Ishihara won by an overwhelming majority. Looking back, immediately after the accident, the mass media probably wasn't sure whether to be pro or con nuclear.

As you mentioned, they needed time to discuss the subject matter within their organization. More specifically, Asahi Newspaper, known as a leading liberal paper, was clearly pro nuclear power generation before 3.11, and they remained that way for a while afterwards, but after their editorial published at the end of April, their position changed drastically. Afterwards, they were very much against nuclear power generation, and thereafter, this perception gained ground on TV programs and weekly magazines. I think the Tokyo gubernatorial election was around 10 days after the publication of the article, so Asahi's "turnaround" came too late. If it had come 2 weeks earlier, the election may have turned out differently. In any case, newspapers influence other media, tabloid TV shows, and weekly magazines. They have changed public opinion before, and I think they will continue to do so.

Ikezawa - I think newspapers form the foundations of journalism. They are the basis upon which the news formulates their situational analysis and opinions. What's important is not whether they are pro or con government, rather, whether their opinions are independently formed or not. The Yomiuri and Sankei Newspapers, and the NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) are sidling up to the national government. They don't criticize, and if it's inconvenient, they don't even publish or broadcast it. I don't care which side they stand on, but I wish they were independent.

目次へ移動 In order to stop repeating the idiocies

Ozaki - I mentioned before how García Márques felt that social studies and humanities were essential to journalism, but I feel as though nurturing journalists and politicians isn't like 2 sides of a mirror, rather, it's very much the same thing. Reforming the electoral system or organizing qualification tests for becoming an assembly member is not a walk in the park. That is why it's better to spend time and nurture excellent individuals; otherwise, we won't be able to find a fundamental solution to our problems. As an institution for doing so, could we not establish private academies like the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management to nurture individuals equipped with truly essential common sense and knowledge.

Ikezawa - You probably could make private academies, but I think it would be difficult for people who graduated from there to become members of the assembly. The ruling partly currently only acknowledges people who are obedient, who do what they are told, who are likeable in their local area, and once they become assembly members, who never complain, who are basically seat-warmers. Perhaps I should say, because they want to take part in the elections again, they don't dare speak out against their superiors. Take Seiko Noda for example. She couldn't even get 20 recommendations for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidential election. That's why everyone is saying that the LDP has really changed. The party used to have all different types of people, and it was quite energetic, but nowadays most people are afraid and worried about protecting their own positions, so no one is bold enough to try to reform the electoral system. For now, I think as a long-term plan, establishing private academies is fine. But for the immediate future, I don't think it will be effective. What's important is who will step up, if Abenomics turns out to be a complete failure, and Japan slumps back into a great depression that effects everyone, and when people start to think he's not the right guy.

Ozaki - That is also the conclusion I was coming to. When I conducted research about the qualification tests for becoming an assembly member, I came across a test for the secretary for policy/legislative affairs. It's nearly the same as the civil servant examinations, but the questions were really good. People who take the test are asked to write an essay on what Japan should do under certain situations. These questions may be about Japan's food self-sufficiency, declining birth rate and the aging population, the extent of the military forces the U.S. army has all around the world, or data about nuclear waste materials. If politicians understood all of this, they would be able to conduct affairs of state properly. But unfortunately, this is not a test that politicians have to take. This is a test that their secretaries must take. And in actuality, not many people take these tests because people who want to become secretaries can't apply for these tests themselves. The politician, who the secretary would be working for, must apply on their behalf. But politicians want to surround themselves with people who aren't skilled in policymaking, rather, who are skilled in election strategies. That is why hardly anyone takes these tests. I really wish that the bosses, the politicians would read these questions on the test.


Ikezawa - I said many things today, but I haven't made a single constructive proposal. I can't, really. I can read the situation, analyze it, and point out who did what wrong where. American citizens were infuriated after the attack on U.S. soil on 9.11, and Bush used that anger to destroy Iraq. I can analyze that. At that point in time, perhaps for Americans, Bush might have been an excellent politician who represented the country's feelings. But from a long-term perspective, it was a big mistake. That, too, can be analyzed looking back. But how can we prevent ourselves from repeating such idiocies. No one, including myself, has been able to propose a viable solution to this big problem. But we know things can't stay the same, and that we have to prevent the same thing from happening, so we should continue to think about what can be done. We need to think about it tirelessly.

Ozaki - Lastly, if we can add the icing on the cake, I want to be able to have hope in something. And I think the key to that lies in The Complete Works of Japanese Literature you're currently working on as the sole author.

Ikezawa - I was able to work on the Complete Collection of World Literature because I was quite familiar with world literature, but since I hadn't read Japanese literature, I initially turned the project down. But after 3.11, I spent a year frequently traveling to Tohoku, and did a lot of thinking in front of the wreckage, and I thought, before 3.11 what did we used to think about everyday? Because I specialize in literature, to really understand ourselves, the people of Japan, I thought I should read Japanese literature. So I am desperately trying to learn every day.

Ozaki - It's amazing that as accomplished as you are, even you are still trying to learn something new and to create something from it. And what's more, you're the sole author. As a literary person, you are working on this project not anonymously, but by assigning your name to the work, making it clear where the responsibility lies. The political scholar, Masao Maruyama once said that a democracy requires tireless effort and action, and it would disappear without this endless, continuous process, but if each and every one of us worked on something, like you are doing right now, then may be this helpless world would be a little different.


Natsuki Ikezawa
Novelist and poet. Born in Obihiro City, Hokkaido Prefecture in 1945. Moved to Tokyo in elementary school. Being an avid traveler, he spent 3 years in Greece, 10 years in Okinawa, and 5 years in France, and he currently resides in Sapporo City. He won the Akutagawa Prize in 1987 with his novel, Still Lives. He is also the author of Tio of the South Island, The Navidad Incident: The Downfall of Matías Guili, A Burden of Flowers, Wonderful New World, and The Quiet Land. His recent works include The Beginning and End, Hyouzan No Minami (South of the Iceberg), Atomic Box, and books related to the Great East Japan Earthquake include Haruwo Urandari Shinai (I Don't Begrudge the Spring) and Soutou No Fune (The Double-Headed Boat). From 2007, he wrote 30 books as part of Kawade Shobo Shinsha Publishers' Complete Collection of World Literature as the sole author and received the Asahi Prize for this series in 2010. He is currently working on 30 books that comprise The Complete Works of Japanese Literature as part of the same series.

Tetsuya Ozaki
Born in Tokyo in 1955. Editor of One Hundred Years of Lunacy. He is the publisher and editor of Japanese-English bilingual culture web magazines, REALTOKYO and REALKYOTO. He was involved in the creation of cultural information magazine, 03 TOKYO Calling, (Shinchosha Publishing Co., Ltd.) in 1989. After leaving Shinchosha, he became involved in the Japan pavilion - "Sensorium" - at the Internet World Expo 1996, Expo 2005 Aichi Japan's free paper - Kukunochi, worked as an editorial director of the web magazine, Senken Nikki (Insight Diaries), and editor of the inaugural contemporary art magazine, ART iT. He has also planned and edited the CD-ROM book Digital Kabuki Encyclopedia and a photography book, One Hundred Years of Idiocy. He is also a visiting research scholar at the Kyoto University of Art Design Graduate School, and he has also served as a general producer of performing arts for the Aichi Triennale 2013

Formatted by: Yuki Sugise
Photographs by: Think the Earth
Translated by: Yuri Morikawa (oxygen inc.)



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