Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Manual of Fear

Coverage of Norway’s terrorist atrocity has been an instructive reminder in how ideology circulates, and works. First the blether of uninformed experts analysing how the attacks fit the patterns of Al Qaeda and serve as a reminder of the need for and justification of the War on Terror. Then, once that particular line becomes unsustainable, a concerted depoliticising of the tragedy, figures of the “lone gunman” and “madman” replacing talk of terrorism, fascism and far-right fantasies. Worse again than this de-politicising has been the covert and not so covert victim-blaming and dog-whistling indulged in by media forces who, having spent much of the last few decades obscuring the fact that, in Gary Younge’s words, “The biggest threat to European democracy is not Islamic terrorism or multiculturalism” but fascism, work accounts of the bombing and shooting into a sickly familiar narrative. The BBC was particularly despicable, interviewing an English Defence League leader for his “insights”; the Jerusalem Post took the opportunity to editorialise about the “failures” of multiculturalism. John Key, meanwhile, always mindful of chances to parade his particular, well-nigh Bakhtinian parodic deconstruction of Prime Ministerial discourse, solved the problem by crushing both lines together, taking the opportunity to remind us that this was why New Zealand troops are in Afghanistan.

Taking the mass murder of political activists by a fascist as an opportunity to attack multiculturalism is grotesque and yet unsurprising. The history of anti-semitism is full of examples of accounts that, claiming to respond to bigotry, project it onto characters in the Jews instead of their persecutors, a pattern repeated in each new racism and prejudice.

A Coward Who Does Not Want to Admit His Cowardice To Himself

In the Tokyo summer of 2008 I had a brief, and hateful, job teaching business English to public servants out of a language school in Ginza. One evening, in the middle of an example from an article on the then-unfolding Great Financial Crisis, a student remarked casually that the problem was bound to favour the US over China in the end because, of course, with the Jews running everything they’d make sure it turned out that way. Unsure I’d understood him correctly, and in how far I could push the situation, I challenged him, but the conversation didn’t get far. It wasn’t racism, my student insisted, because he admired the Jews for what they’d achieved: as any patriotic Japanese could tell you, world domination wasn’t easy. The best thing you could say about Taro Aso, my student went on, was that he was what you’d call a real Jew. (Shades of Grammy Hall!)

I should have pushed harder, and been more assertive, and I still feel slightly grubby remembering that evening and the ease with which I backed away from a necessary confrontation with open, and zealous, bigotry. My excuses – the job, my situation, our mutual language barriers – sustained me for a while, if in an unsatisfying way, and, behind them, there was a more basic shock: how could the language of anti-semitism, the most European of prejudices, express itself in Japan?

Manual of Fear

In the autumn of the next year I took my mother and sister on holiday to Nikko, a serene, quiet, unusual part of Japan. We stayed in a village a few stops down the line from Nikko itself and, before tea, I went out to buy some beer. On the way back, unexpected in the darkness, I walked past one of those yellow, painted community service signs that are scattered all over the Japanese countryside. This one read:

Be vigiliant and demand the expulsion of Aum from the community.

Somewhere in the area followers of Aleph, the remnants of a broken and demoralised Aum, lived in one of their communities, perhaps with a bakery or other business attached. Murakami Haruki’s The Place That Was Promised profiles the after-lives of cult members post-1995, moving in groups from town to town, setting up lives and then finding the police and local politicians forcing them out.

It was a disconcerting, and, for me at any rate, disorienting and decontextualised sight. The horror of 1995 - thousands injured, many dead, terrifying disruption to a city at its most vulnerable - is remembered everywhere, if obliquely, in Japan, in generalised fears and anxities.

Protocols of the Elders of Zion

The late David G. Goodman wrote an important book on Jews in the Japanese mind, and an article of his tells the story of the Protocols and their history in Japan. Through the 1980s and 1990s – from the Bubble’s peak to its burst, in other words – dozens of books and articles appeared based on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, selling millions of copies. Goodman writes:

Jews were described in these books and in the large, gaudy advertisements that appeared for them in mass circulation daily newspapers as a clandestine cabal plotting to destroy Japan and rule the world. The Jewish plot, the books charged, had already succeeded. The United States, Japan’s chief ally and most important trading partner, was controlled by Jews, who formed a “shadow government” and manipulated U.S. policies for their own perfidious ends. Certain ministries within the Japanese government had already been taken over by Jews, it was said, and Japan was doomed unless something could be done. The enemy was ruthless, and the response, it was implied, had to be equally so.

The history Goodman traces has particularly important implications for our thinking about racism more generally: there have never been large Jewish communities in Japan, and, indeed, the role of Japan in sheltering Jews in wartime Shanghai stands out. Japanese anti-semitism cannot, then, be apologised away as a response to contact; it is, rather, Goodman suggests, that that “antisemitic ideas and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion have played an identifiable and deleterious role in the history of modern Japan”, and that these ideas are linked to ideologies and social forces within the social formation. We can, following Sartre or Abram Leon, link this ideology in the Bubble era to particular anxieties in Japan’s middle class, and to projections of evil to outside forces that allow internal divisions to remain unexamined.

Aum, in January 1995, a few months before the sarin gas attacks, published a “manifesto of fear”, declaring war on the Jewish “world government” and its plans to “murder untold numbers of people and...brainwash and control the rest.” The gas attacks, Goodman contends, can be seen as a opening salvo in that war.

As with the attacks in Norway and Brevick’s “manifesto”, there was plenty of the wild and outlandish about Aum with which to depoliticise their portrayal. The Elephant masks; the heady mix of Nostradamus, the Book of Revelation and Buddhism; the dancing election campaigners: a narrative of “craziness” isn’t short on illustrative material. The story of the Cult doesn’t, though, capture the full power of the fear and terror their attack achieved, nor does it account for the unsettling parallels of banality and paranoia between Aum’s imaginative world and that of Japanese society more widely. For total fear, it’s hard to imagine a better target than the underground, functioning as they do for Tokyo as the unseen centre: passing through Kasumigaseki on my way to work in Ginza I’d often think of how terrifying the morning of the attack must have been, and how difficult, in the crush and unpleasantness of rush hour, it must have been to realise that this was a distinct, and dangerous, terror.

For banality, though, Aum, a religion where, one of Murakami’s interviewees reports, it helped to have been to Tokyo University, managed to match its host society. It’s striking, reading Murakami’s interviews, how many of the former members have abandoned particular details of the faith but kept the method of conspiracy: one former member reports her doubts about Asahara’s approach unless, she adds, the Freemasons were involved in invading Japan.

The logic of Aum’s apocalyptic vision – and it is important that we insist that there is a logic here, that these aren’t “ravings” and thus able to be expelled from the realm of analysis and discussion – fits a familiar pattern of Japanese right-wing storytelling, from the self-pitying accounts of betrayal, from within by the Left or without by Jews, “third country” figures and foreigners, to the promises of war and redemption through national salvation. How different is this from Happy Science, from Ishihara’s comments over several decades, from the frenzied revisionism surrounding Yasukuni Shrine?

My suggestion is not, if this needs stressing, that these other forces are identical to Aum or that they plan mass murder in the near future. It is, rather, that political violence of the kind Tokyo suffered in 1995 cannot be removed from the wider discursive context in which its justifications and strategies were produced. Isolating Aum from the realms of what counts as the political is itself a political act, and one aimed at preventing examination of the kinds of ideological cross-contamination at work within far-right thinking and imagining. The same process is at work today.

Mori Atsuya feels that society lacks the vocabulary to account for the damage of Aum’s actions:

Ten years later, do we know any more than we did back then?

Unfortunately, the answer is "no." The series of Aum Shinrikyo-related trials unveiled very few new facts. I don't think this is because former Aum executives are hiding what they know or feigning innocence.

Rather, they, too, seem to lack the vocabulary to explain what made them carry out the heinous crime.

Meanwhile, society has stopped asking "why religions whose mission is to deliver salvation kill people," a fundamental question that kept nagging us immediately after the incident. Together with many other "whys," we put it behind us.

Perhaps what we flinch from is the fact that Asahara’s visions fit a pattern and share themes with much more mainstream and respectable ultra-rightist lines. Take away the laser beams, world conspiracies and global conflicts, and the central message, delivered via the various Tokyo University graduate “Ministers” is eerily recognisable: most will be wiped out, the elite will survive. The social formation is basically sound.

Sartre, in Anti-Semite and Jew, called the anti-semite "a coward who does not want to admit his cowardice to himself." The cowardice and self-pity of the conspiracy theorist and terrorist can be read symptomatically, then, for what they reveal about other versions of their narratives, more common, politically acceptable iterations of their main points. If these deranged rantings – on the global cultural war, on the race bent on world domination, on the sinister links between outside figures and cultural defeatists – sound familiar then we’ve good reason to be worried, and good reason to consider political responses.

Goodman’s final point is important. When so many accounts of European fascism reveal themselves to be covert translations of the fascists’ creed (multiculturalism has failed, this is the response of the white working class to their disempowerment, people have “real” and “genuine” concerns and so on), it’s worth remembering the place of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in Japanese political discourse, and of the ways Aum managed to mobilise its rhetoric.

This mobilisation tells us something important about the targets of racism, and thus for anti-racist activism:

“Jew” for the antisemite is a free-floating signifier to designate the object of his animosity. Even the emperor of Japan, as Aum showed, can be a “Jew.” Aum’s gassing of the Tokyo subway was, in this sense, not only the first large-scale act of urban terrorism, it was also the first act of 21st-century antisemitism. Today, anyone can be a “Jew,” and everyone, even the Japanese, are at risk.


I learnt from the H-Japan list last month that Goodman died. He was a very important scholar, and I learnt a great deal from his work on avant-garde Japanese theatre. You can read his survey of the place of the Protocols in Japanese political life here (PDF).

Murakami’s Underground has been translated into English. David Mitchell’s first novel, Ghostwritten, responds to the sarin attacks.

All the images of book titles I’ve taken from amazon.co.jp, indicating their place in the world of mainstream publishing. One is a title on the “5000 year secret” of “the Jews and money”, one is a self-help book of sorts (again on Jewish secrets and money), the other a variation on Protocols literature.