Beyond the ‘1940 system’

Mainichi Shimbun Wednesday 16 August 2000

Aug. 15 marked the anniversary of the end of World War II and thus of the commencement of the postwar era. Over the last decade, our perceptions of this anniversary have begun to change as we have been forced to deal with a spate of problems associated with the breaking down of the postwar system—the stagnant economy, declining academic standards among schoolchildren, rising rates of juvenile delinquency and the destruction of the environment.

The natural inclination is to blame everything on the postwar era and yearn for the good old days of prewar Japan. Recent political developments, such as the legal recognition of the Hinomaru rising sun flag as the national flag and Kimigayo as the national anthem and the enactment of a wiretapping law, can be seen as attempts to revive the strong centralized state of the prewar years.

The Aug. 15 anniversary of the end of the war, the Aug. 6 anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, and the Aug. 9 anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki happen to fall during the Obon summer holidays, a most appropriate time of the year for mourning those who died in the war. However, Japan must resist the temptation to place the sole emphasis on the suffering experienced by its own people during the war.

The Japanese government did not formally express remorse for waging an aggressive war until 1995, and the process of reconciliation is far from complete. Many Japanese believe that wartime issues have been settled with all nations except Russia and North Korea. However, over the course of the 1990s, plaintiffs in South Korea, China, the Netherlands, Great Britain and elsewhere filed lawsuits seeking apologies and/or compensation for acts committed by Japan and the Japanese people during the war.

Moreover, those generations born after the end of the war now account for more than 70 percent of this country's total population, and those younger people have increasingly come to feel that they bear no responsibility for the war. However, the postwar generations must nonetheless accept the burden of the nation's prewar and wartime history.

As we have frequently argued, our postwar system and institutions are in a state of paralysis. Reverting to the practices of the prewar era, however, is not the way to overcome this paralysis. Instead, we must solve our present dilemmas by ridding our country of outdated practices that have lingered on in the postwar era.

According to Professor Yukio Noguchi of Tokyo University, postwar Japan has been defined by the 1940 system, which is characterized by mass mobilization, a group-oriented ethic, and lifetime employment and seniority-based wages, which first arose during the wartime mobilization and then spread throughout industry after the war. Under the 1940 system, groupism became so entrenched that one senior Liberal Democratic Party official was prompted to point out that Japan had become the world's most successful socialist state. Even as our country emerged as an economic superpower, the people clung to the groupism that had been fostered in the 1930s and 1940s to support the war effort.

But groupism also gave rise to many of the excesses and evils of Japan Inc. The time has come for us to eradicate this legacy of war, and to build a society that places a priority on nurturing self-reliant individuals.