Wisdom often fails the test of time

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One generation’s wisdom is the next generation’s folly.

Do we have any idea where we are and where we’re going? We do not. No one as 2020 dawned could have foreseen where we are as 2021 dawns. Tomorrow is no less obscure, next year more so, the next generation hopelessly so. Bring the best minds to bear on the problems that beset us and we’ll hear great thoughts, credits to the thinking capacity of our species — and yet no less likely, for all the knowledge and intelligence that went into them, to be mocked by time. How many of our best thoughts today will seem childish nonsense to our near (never mind distant) descendants?

Shukan Gendai magazine (Dec. 29–Jan. 2) presents two vivid examples — one demographic, one nuclear.

The demographic alarm sounds today for the declining population, the falling birth rate, the soaring number of elderly. In the 1970s, the same alarm sounded a sharply different note. Population was rising; overcrowded Japan was straining its limited resources; people were having too many children; it wouldn’t do, it wasn’t sustainable, birth must be curbed, two children per family should be an officially advocated, if not imposed, maximum. The current buzzword shōshika (having fewer children) was current then, too. Today a problem to be solved, it was then the touted solution to the opposite problem: population explosion.

Nuclear energy was a tarnished blessing long before the 2011 Fukushima Tokyo Electric Power Co. meltdowns. Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, numerous accidents and coverups in Japan beginning with an explosion and radiation leak at Tokaimura in 1997 — to say nothing of threats posed by nuclear waste and nuclear arms — raised an enormous question: Are all glowing appearances treacherous?

The atom, in postwar Japan as elsewhere, glowed with promise — “the dream energy,” in Shukan Gendai’s sardonic phrase; “the energy of the future.” The United States had wreaked nuclear carnage on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — the horror of war magnified thousandfold; but the atom humanely deployed was “a second sun”; atoms for war in wartime could be “atoms for peace” in peacetime, maybe the guarantors of peace for all time. “Atoms for Peace” began as an American program to spread the good news of nuclear power worldwide. Japan — resource-poor, energy-starved — joined a rising, rousing chorus. “Atoms for peace” exhibits in Tokyo in 1955 as well as Hiroshima the following year drew huge and eager crowds.

Among “atoms for peace” enthusiasts in Japan was its top nuclear scientist, Yoshio Nishina (1890-1951), wartime head of a national program to develop an atom bomb. Resource-poverty doomed it to failure. Shukan Gendai cites remarks of Nishina’s published in August 1948 by the Yomiuri Shimbun.

“The whole world knows,” Nishina said, “that if war breaks out again, more powerful atomic bombs will cause devastation on a far larger scale than Hiroshima and Nagasaki…. Antiwar feeling is rising (accordingly).” So much the better, he implies. Let war be so horrible as to be unthinkable. Then there’ll be peace. It was an idea with a long future.

Exactly a year after Nishina spoke, the Soviet Union conducted its first successful atom bomb test. The grotesque arms race that followed got an appropriately grotesque name: “mutually assured destruction” — “atoms for peace” reconfigured, pacifist despite, or because of, its macabre resonance. Astonishingly, it worked; it got us through the Cold War alive, defying rife predictions that it wouldn’t. It operates to this day — how reliably? Precariously, most fear. Hence the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons adopted in 2017, now in force.

What now? Less risk of nuclear war? More risk of conventional war? Both? Neither? Anyone in the 1950s visionary enough to foresee such a treaty would have foreseen Japan’s eager participation — wrongly. Japan joins the United States and eight other nuclear-armed states on the sidelines, withholding ratification. War is hell, nuclear war is worse, but an imperfect, dangerous and unpredictable world demands compromises — so the argument goes — with reality. Few disagree. Disagreement arises over what reality really consists of.

In the 1950s, it consisted of war-wrought ruin, resource scarcity, energy deficiency — and the atom, the “second sun.” Perceptions were distorted, Shukan Gendai reminds us. The American-led Occupation censored the news, talking the atom up and its side-effects down. Blithely ignorant about radioactivity, the Japanese public joined the government in embracing nuclear power as the key to revival and prosperity. The Tepco meltdowns six decades later jolted in its tracks a nation with 54 nuclear reactors generating 30% of its electrical power.

Less suddenly but still dramatically, a population problem became a depopulation problem. So urgently did overpopulation seem to press in the 1970s that trial balloons floated by highly qualified experts Shukan Gendai cites included forced sterilization and “brainwashing” — or, failing those extremes, at least contraceptive promotion and the enlistment of the mass media in a campaign to get the public on board. The media cooperated, the public signed on, the birth rate fell —with results for the most highly qualified experts of our own day to grapple with.

The future’s impenetrability has mystified and challenged humanity all its conscious life. Prophets, mystics, sages and cranks have all defied it — some successfully, those who in retrospect we call “prescient.” Modern prognostication is more cautious, more “scientific.” Like older forms, it’s sometimes right and sometimes wrong. Two late 20th-century books by eminent scholars — both American, as it happens — seem worth mentioning. One is “Japan as No. 1” (1979) by Ezra Vogel, who died at the age of 90 last month. The other is “The End of History and the Last Man” (1992) by Francis Fukuyama.

It’s a long time since Vogel’s glowing optimism reflected reality. Closer to current sentiment would seem to be a 2018 Nippon Foundation survey of 18-year-olds in nine countries, Japan ranking last regarding “having dreams for the future, and believing that they can change society or their country.”

Fukuyama does not mean what he was too often taken to mean, that things would stop happening. He was suggesting the (seemingly) inevitable ultimate triumph, worldwide, of liberal democracy. The Soviet Union had just fallen. Optimism seemed warranted. Thirty years later, it no longer does. Ten years from now, 20, 50, it may again. Who knows?

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”

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