Karl Marx and the Divine Wind


Spirited Away, Studio Ghibli, 2001

by Alexander McGregor

Japanese history is a fascinating mesh of spirituality, cultural contradiction and spectacular economic achievement. Surely no other nation stands today so solidly in both the oriental and occidental worlds. Yet, this relationship with both Eastern and Western ideas is complicated. Japan remained officially closed to the west until the Meiji Restoration of the 19th century and even then it took the unassailable technological might of the US navy under Matthew Perry to win an official invitation from the Japanese government to open trade.

Throughout the previous century, Dutch traders had been allowed to reside only upon artificial wooden islands off the coast, such as Nagasaki. Bibles was strictly forbidden under pain of imprisonment or execution. In its preceding centuries of splendid isolation, Japan developed a multi-caste social system based on ceremony, spirituality and fealty: it created a powerful sense of Japan-ness and Japanese exceptionalism. Tradition and ritual became sacrosanct during the long centuries of feudalism. Consequently, Japanese woman were to be married by 18 (at the latest ideally) and were to be beautiful, porcelain trophies for their husbands. Even today in contemporary Tokyo, men step through doors opened for them by women: women who will apologise at the dinner table if they fail to show the foresight to refill a glass of sake before the man reaches for the bottle himself. As James Bond’s Japanese ally Tanaka explains in You Only Live Twice, “in Japan men come first.”

This highlights the similarities between the west and Japan. Both societies emerged from patriarchal, feudal origins. However, it also pronounces the differences. Japan’s feudalism was not invested with the concept of chivalry unlike its European counterparts. Indeed, until recently only 3 per cent of Japanese boardroom chairs were occupied by women. Moreover, whilst Japan did not undergo an Enlightenment, ensuring its feudalism long outlived that of the West, its art, literature, music and theatre was remarkably more sophisticated, subtle and diverse than Europe’s (whose artistic feudal doldrums did of course lead to the Renaissance). When the feudalism of the Shogunate era finally ended in 1868, Japan underwent a period of intense Westernisation. It did not wish to emulate the U.S., for example, rather it was determined to rise above it as the popular slogan of time, ‘Catch Up, Overtake’, suggests. This period began the process that finally culminated in modern Japan, a nation that has over the last century experienced rapid industrialisation, violent empire, nuclear catastrophe, foreign occupation, economic domination and natural disaster.

Japan’s communist party was formed in 1922, and today boasts one of the largest memberships of any international CP. However, during a multi-generational era of socio-political and economic upheaval caused first by the Meiji Restoration and then by the depression of the 1930s, Japan lurched not left but right towards extreme nationalism. Indeed, whilst consolidating in nearby Russia and rising in neighbouring China, the communist movement remained something of a pygmy in Japan. In fact, despite its some 300,000 members today Japan’s communist party advocates change from within the capitalist system and rejects social revolution, the very essence of Marxism (Bernstein’s revisions aside).

In the cold war years, Japan forged a contradictory relationship with its erstwhile occupiers, the United States. On the one hand various capillaries of Japanese society burned with resentment towards a Western capitalism that forced upon it a new diet of humility and economic subordination – perhaps best represented in a literal sense by the new diet of milk and bread – while on the other hand, as audiences for sumo fell by over a third, stadiums could not find enough places for Japanese fans of baseball. Pro-wrestling practically became a new national sport. Even then the wildly popular professional wrestling, as superciliously American as anything else, used the medium to depict heroic Japanese fighters such as the Korean born Rikidozan (whose North Korean origins were a profoundly guarded secret) defeating flabby, obnoxious American opponents. In short, there seemed to be the social and economic conditions for a strong revolutionary communist movement in Japan. After all, few other countries could argue that Western Liberalism was harsher to them than Japan, especially if one hailed from Nagasaki or Hiroshima. All of which raises a fascinating question: how can we account for the failure of a revolutionary communist movement to develop?

Contemporary Tokyo stands as a paean to the excesses of liberal capitalism. The famous crossing at Shibuya station encircles pedestrians with giant television screens that incessantly pump out breathless snippets of the latest J-Pop starlets, Photoshopped to perfection. Meanwhile, the Starbucks that overlooks the crossing is the busiest in the world. Individualism is the vice of choice. The city’s public transportation system is operated by different private organisations meaning that visitors requiring multiple changes to complete a single journey may have to purchase multiple tickets as each correspondence may engender a change of line and therefore of provider. Then there is the proliferation of the robotic toilet, perhaps the ultimate symbol of bourgeois decadence. The sleek aeronautic lines of this inviting, beautiful machine entice whilst the oscillating spray of the bidet function, alongside the heated seat, inspire entreaties to supply and demand economics. Upon use one cannot help but dreamily long for the inevitable moment when the robot toilet is synergized with Starbucks, Subway and Warner Bros. so that one glorious Sunday a man may fully realise his liberal individualism with an afternoon spent on the toilet with a conveyor belt bringing caffee lattes and Italian BMTs on demand as Batman Versus Superman is digitally projected onto the three enclosing walls. And yet, hints of the odd Marxist principle or two glow through this multiplatform, pixelated modernity.

Take the essential Marxist tenet of collectivism for example. One cannot ride the train or metro without sacrificing a large degree of one’s individualism to the collective need. The concept of personal space simply doesn’t exist. Importantly though, neither is there any overt sign of resentment towards this fact. The London Underground at rush hour is notorious foul tempered. The Paris metro is malodorous in every sense at any time. Yet the denizens of the Tokyo public transit systems fully accept without comment or complaint their submission to the need of the greater good to travel to the same place at the same time on the same carriage. That the all female molestation-free carriages cost no more than the take-your-chances-about-the-molestation mixed gender carriages is further evidence suggesting if not Marxism per se then certainly a social esprit d’corps that threatens to puncture the individualist bubble. After all, the most legendary exponents of this, Dumas’ Three Musketeers, proudly exclaimed their commitment to the common creed of ‘One for All’.

Furthermore, the oft-cited Japanese work ethic, the sense of cultural efficiency, the uniformity of domiciles, and their unaffected décor and design, the educational technocracy, and the belief that a workplace must engender loyalty amongst its workforce all suggest fertile soil for Marxism or at least a compatibility with Marxism. The Japanese quasi-Buddhist concept of Wa seems genuinely sympathetic  to communism. Loosely translated Wa refers to societal harmony. This concept was central to Japanese culture during its feudal and indeed post-feudal eras. The notion is that without harmony amongst the populace ‘confusion’ will reign and confusion inevitably leads to disorder and discontent. This suggests that a political ideology premised on the idea of classlessness would have wide ranging appeal. And yet, despite its CP’s enormous membership surely no nation in the region is further away from a Marxist awakening than Japan.

In the short term, post-World War II, context we may account for this through the necessities of the Cold War. During the U.S. occupation of Japan, between 1948-1951, some 20,000 Japanese communists, or suspected communist sympathisers were purged from positions of political and economic influence. Moreover, U.S. trade with Japan during the cold war was dependent on clearly enforced anti-communist policies. This was partly due to the U.S. dominant paradigm involving containment and the domino theory. It was also more specifically based on the necessity to maintain a firm ideological ally during the period of the Korean and Vietnam wars. However, it was also built on economic realities. Japan was an enormous emerging market utterly wrought asunder by the firebombing and nuclear assaults suffered at the end of World War II. Therefore, not unsurprisingly, as the U.S. had to ensure a politically compliant and economic vibrant West Germany in the wake of World War II, as much for the need to penetrate markets as to provide a bulwark against communism, so too was a similar plan elected for Japan. The only problem with this explanation is that it is wholly extrinsic. After all, might not foreign capitalist meddling only help foster an ideological shift towards Marxism? Was the experience of World War II so ruinous that it saw an imperialist nation premised on concepts such as the kamikaze spirit so meekly accept American instruction? Might there not have been something more intrinsic to the Japanese that made Marxism so unpalatable? After all, if one reads the works of Mishima, particularly the novels Spring Snow and Runaway Horses, one cannot help but be left with a sense that the Westernisation of Japan begun during the Meiji Restoration was at best an interesting and possibly required novelty and at worst an inexcusable intrusion upon Japanese values by a morally corrupt West.

As a short term cause we might be able to account for the rejection of Marxism through a brief examination of the yakuza, the popular term for Japanese organized crime syndicates. Japanese organized crime had arguably existed for centuries if one considers feudalism to be a form of organized crime. Indeed, yakuza had been registered by the Japanese authorities as far back as 1600 when they were involved in gambling, fencing stolen goods and illegal sales of trinkets during Shinto festivals. In the contemporary sense however the yakuza were largely a reaction to the US occupation. A black market grew during those years immediately following WWII when such basic requirements as food were in short supply. Soon its interests spread to gambling, prostitution, drugs, big business and politics to the extent that flights from Tokyo to Honolulu were only half jokingly referred to as the Yakuza Express. As with American organized crime, its illegality lay in its creation of a parallel economy in which taxation by the government could not be applied as opposed to any moral imperative.

Whilst the yakuza ran prostitution rings, mostly for American servicemen managing the occupation, prostitution had actually been perfectly legal in Japan for hundreds of years most clearly illustrated by the geisha culture. It was only under the occupation that it was made illegal as result of the U.S. administration’s determination to keep American servicemen free of venereal disease and/or to promote protestant values. Consequently, a new tier of power brokers emerged whose value system was equally based on the concept of profit through business, as inspired by the western liberal model, and on the premise that the black market represented something of a form of resistance to the occupation. That is, the yakuza was a mechanism through which one could fully illustrate one’s Japan-ness and yet with each illicit business established a type of capitalism was further entrenched. But so too was a re-manifestation of those ancient, feudal values of pride, honor, shame and service to the leader. This latter element was thoroughly separate to its American variant. Is it even possible to imagine American organized crime resolving its disagreements through the honorable resolution of sword fights? Can one imagine American organized crime generating rules that forbade gang members to engage in physical combat if the other side was outnumbered so as not to shame one’s opponent? Can one imagine American made men offering a penance for acts of dishonor that includes severing one’s own finger?

The short-term factor for Japan’s rejection of Marxism may have been the creation of a profit-centric, quasi-capitalist economy, both official and black, the re-adoption of these aforementioned ancient, feudal values by the yakuza leads us to our long-term explanation. At Shintoism’s centre is a force called the kami, a spiritual essence contained in everything. Other aspects of the religion involve the enduring concepts of impurity and purification. Certain acts of shame create impurities and moreover acts that result in death, without the proper purification, cause those who are killed to possess urami, a grudge. Thus they will become evil kami and will seek revenge upon those that dishonored them. Shintoism understands the spirit world as one in full interaction with the material world. If there is a separation it is not into different plains of existence per se, as in western concepts, but rather as overlapping plains divided, not separated, by a sort of permeable gauze. In part this accounts for the proliferation and popularity of ghost stories in Japanese culture. In Shinto culture the material world is continuously influenced by its direct relationship with the spiritual world. This is an element Hollywood’s reinterpretations of Japanese ghost stories fail to understand. The west’s relationship with the spirit world is essentially one of difference wherein ghosts are considered unnatural and uncommon. Consequently, completely absent from the American remake is the scene in the original Ring where a rationalist university professor sits on a park bench as he is visited by ambiguous kami that have no relation to the plot, are not fully seen or expressed and cause disquiet and fear but not surprise. Indeed, the American version reconstitutes the film as a story about the unnatural as opposed to the supernatural. Let’s put it another way. The Hollywood film, The Sixth Sense, is famous for a moment when a little boy, traumatised by visions of ghosts, unseen by all around him, exclaims ‘I see dead people’. This is designed to engender fear and surprise at the boy’s otherness. If a similar line had been spoken in Ring, the response would quite likely have been ‘yup, me too.’Perhaps this relationship between the material and the spirit world is best expressed in the two sequels to Ring. In the Japanese sequel, scientists attempt to measure the evil kami so as to quantify its urami whereas in the American sequel, The Ring 2, the plot centres on demonic possession.

Shintoism is therefore in direct conflict with Marxism’s core atheism. Whereas Confucianism in China is largely compatible with Marxism, in an intellectual and social sense at least, preaching as it does self-improvement in the material world, and whereas the Orthodox Church could, theoretically, be completely removed from the Russian socio-political body, the same is not true of Shintoism which had entwined religion and the material world so that they were one and the same thing. Moreover, Shintoism is inherently hierarchical. True, communism could certainly remove the notion that the emperor was a direct descendant of the Sun Goddess and partially a god himself, in the same way the Enlightenment moved Europe beyond absolutism and, in a different manner, the Roman Empire moved Egypt beyond the pharos. However, this hierarchical, patriarchal understanding of society would take a number of generations to remove. In fact, far from being overtly combatted through any Marxist agitation, Shintoism was remoulded into the corporatised structure of the yakuza and Japanese big business, wherein one owes loyalty and not simply contractual obligation to the leadership tier and the entity itself as a whole and where the act of gift giving to demonstrate fealty to one’s leader is still common.

At this juncture one might argue that as pervasive as the criminal underworld was, and as committed to Shintoism as it may have been, it remained an underworld and was therefore hardly central in the political or revolutionary direction of 20th century Japan. However, as Robert Whiting argued, the yakuza was inextricably linked to Japan’s utterly dominant conservative political party, the Liberal Democratic Party. This link extended beyond pay offs and financial deals, such as the infamous Lockheed scandal. The Japanese premiership was decided from within the ruling party and selection to the position of prime minister was resultant upon who controlled the most amount of factions within the party. These factions were largely bought through ‘gifts’ secured through yakuza connections. In other words, even the leading Japanese political party was organized according to the same principles as the yakuza often overlapping directly. In essence, yakuza relations with business and politics made the Teemsters look like a bastion of openness and transparency. Indeed, the fusion was well illustrated in 1960 where US president Eisenhower visited Japan. Unable to provide a strong enough police presence to ensure the safety of the president the security arrangements were outsourced to yakuza. Organised crime ensured the streets were safe and clean for the American commander and chief and the reason for their undertaking of this task was to ensure Japan did not shame itself in the eyes of the watching world: a motivation not often found amongst its western counterparts. The consequence of this was to promote across all strata of society, economics and politics a sense of Japanese exceptionalism built on the concepts of profit, power, resistance to American cultural hegemony, dependence on American economic model and the values of Shintoism. In order for Marxism to have any popular appeal, a society essentially built upon the twin pillars of an overt, tangible spirituality and organized according to castes based on fealty would have to reshape Marxism radically to the point that it would appear. Hence today’s non-revolutionary communist party, which in truth merely advocates for more social equity and political accountability. In other words: how could Marxism appeal in the Japanese idiom if Japan capitalist stage of development was still largely fused with its feudal stage?

Japan saw its inter-war lurch to extreme nationalism result in nuclear catastrophe. This was followed by years of American occupation that in turn was followed by American economic dominance wherein Charles de Gaulle famously referred to the Japanese premier Hayato Ikeda as ‘that transistor salesman’. Therefore, could we not also argue that it now approaches any political ideology with the kind of skepticism one would expect given the brutality of its experience. Take for example the classic 80s anime comic and film, Akira: set in a Japan of the not-too-distant future, the story of Akira takes place in Neo-Tokyo, a megalopolis built on the remnant of old Tokyo which was destroyed in a nuclear war that takes place prior to the story. Neo-Tokyo represents a capitalist hellscape as cold and oppressive as that depicted in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Meanwhile the streets are ruled by vicious yakuza gangs that are the only viable institution offering Japan’s directionless youth any chance of identity and group membership. Then there’s the military, busy conducting experiments on its own citizens and advocating a society that can perhaps be labeled as fascist. Marxism doesn’t feature in any meaningful way in this representation of Japan’s future. And why should it? After all, in reality it was a pygmy. Perhaps more importantly, the story clearly argues that any ideological institution is inherently corrupt. This only further underscores the resonance of this remodeled Shintoism in modern Japan: its promise of purification and its perceived naturalness combine to make it a ‘common-sense’ philosophy, not a dangerous, dogmatic ideology. All of which in turn further separates Marxism from Japan.

That said, the Soviet Union, China and Cuba entrenched their respective revolutions through a cult of personality that deified the leader. Could Japanese communists not tap into this type of propaganda and bend Shintoism to its own will? Possibly, but these cults developed after the revolutions, which all boasted popular support due to the economic and social concerns of the time. These conditions were largely absent from Japan. Moreover, Russia and China’s proliferation of natural resources saw Marxism become a highly viable economic option. Even in Cuba, the sugar, fruit and tobacco industries, whilst not promising self-sufficiency per se, offered a chance for a future built of the principle of self-determination. Japan is a country without natural resources and so self-sustainability is hardly an option. Today Japan is compelled to import oil, gas and most metals. As a result it is compelled to trade and that in itself fosters some need for market Liberalism. Consequently, perhaps this cultural unsuitability of Marxism is something of a red herring. Gramsci would disagree but might one argue that it is Japan’s lack of resources that has actually determined that Marxism cannot take root in the society’s culture? After all, if a nation cannot generate self sufficiency then it must simply dismiss Marxism because although Marxism promotes international cooperation the realpolitik of the cold war meant that this was not an option unless one wanted to be under the wing of Soviet or Chinese patronage.

Considering the great rivalries between these nations self sufficiency was the only mechanism through which a brand of Marxism might work in Japan and it simply could not obtain that. Perhaps. But we cannot dismiss the role of culture. Let’s take for example, the Mutual Security Treaty of April 1952 that returned home rule to the Japanese following the American occupation. This was premised on the guarantee that the new government implemented Washington directed anti-communist measures and allowed for the stationing of 120,000 US troops on 150 bases throughout the country. Ultimately this would prove a highly successful smothering of Marxism. Military occupation turned to cultural occupation and what little economic and social freedom the Japanese felt they were granted post-occupation could only be maintained through political adherence to US foreign policy objectives. So be it seemed to be the response and so any reaction against this perceived Western intrusion took the form of a reconstitution of Shintoism. In turn this only reinforced notions of exceptionalism and hierarchy wholly at odds with Marxism.

Today, Japan faces a future of declining birthrate and a rapidly ageing population. Nevertheless, it remains a deeply hierarchical and patriarchal society. This resonates not simply through the vending machines that allow one to buy the used underwear of high school girls but also in the absence of women from leadership roles in politics and business. The economic bubble of the ‘80s burst and a return to those heady days has not occurred. Given the current global economic punishment it is also unlikely to. However, what if the West German model can no longer provide a solution to post-cold war problems? Whatever solutions are advocated, it appears that as a consequence of both long and short term political, cultural and economic conditions, it remains highly unlikely that Marxism will ever be the answer.

About the Author:

Alexander McGregor is the author of The Catholic Church and Hollywood (2013) and The Shaping of Popular Consent (2007). He was awarded a PhD in History from the University of East Anglia. Dr McGregor is the head of history at the United World College of South East Asia. His research interests include cultural theory, ideology, propaganda and education.