Plus ça change…

In Moby Dick, Herman Melville referred to Japan as “that double-bolted land” — remote, mysterious, impenetrable. To Americans, it was a nation of riddles. But puzzlement went both ways. From across the Pacific, the United States seemed to be just as much of an enigma. There was a lot about the Americans that baffled the Japanese — their unpleasant smell, their loud voices, their hairiness — but what fascinated them the most was their government.

An early glimpse of American democracy came through Nakahama Manjiro (1827-1898), who at fourteen was shipwrecked off a Pacific island, rescued by Americans, and whisked away to New Bedford, Massachusetts. Returning to Japan in 1851, he offered this account of American politics: “The kings of America are selected from among the wise men of the country, and they serve for four years.” Obama’s move into the White House today indicates that things haven’t changed that much since Manjiro’s time — Americans still look for exceptional intellect in their leaders, or have started to again.

Then again, Manjiro also claimed this: “It is said that those who are especially wise serve for eight years.” Really?

To fall back on a cliché — the more things change, the more things stay the same. “Change” is what Obama has promised America, and as he heads into office, I’m nervous that he’s promised too much. I’ll save specific reasons for another doom-cloud post, on another day, when I’ll feel like less of a party-pooper. Suffice it to say that unless Barack walks on water, cures the lepers, and turns water into wine, he will disappoint a lot of people. Fortunately, I think most Americans realize this.

But I’m still anxious. Anxious because I’m perplexed. Nothing makes me feel more foreign — more bewildered, more dissociated — than Obamania. Sure, there’s a lot about Americans that disturbs me — their unpleasant smell, their loud voices, their hairiness — but on Election Night, when I saw the frenzied, emotional celebrations erupt around me, I felt more than just confusion; I felt alarm. Now as before, the distance across the Pacific can be felt most strongly. Never in Japan would there be so much hullabaloo about a political transition. Never in Japan would two million people gather to hear one man speak. Never in Japan would this happen either (we would do it with Hello Kitty instead). The last time a Japanese leader inspired as much devotion as Obama has here, he was the freakin’ emperor, and he was actually descended from gods. And that was sixty years ago. Granted, a new presidential term is more momentous than the constant revolving-door-switcheroo of parliamentary governments like Japan’s. Granted, American presidents are a bigger deal than Japanese prime ministers. Why would Beyoncé and Usher team up for a big inaugural bash for Taro Aso, when they’re both infinitely more famous than he is? (Actually, a quick Google search reveals that Beyonce has 70 times more of an internet presence than our prime minister. Even in Japanese)

So I understand the excitement. Americans are entitled to feel pumped. Obama is more well-spoken, more thoughtful, and just straight-out more awesome than anyone who’s come out of Japanese politics in forever — I couldn’t vote for him, but I trampled across neat New Hampshire lawns on his behalf. Even the Japanese have caught the Obama bug. Still, that’s an awful high pedestal he’s standing on now, and the fervent admiration for him, on this campus at least, strikes me as dangerous and counter-productive, bordering almost on irrational totemic worship. America wants its presidents to be heroes, but this glorification undermines the democratic spirit — it creates an impenetrable distance between the president and the people who elected him. I could attribute this to the American culture of individualism, which celebrates the exceptional man, but at the same time, I could call it submission to a psychological autocracy. Maybe Manjiro was not so far off the mark when he called American presidents “kings”.

When he gets sworn in, His Majesty Obama will become the most powerful civil servant in the United States, but to his fans, he’s more than just a bureaucrat — he’s a savior. He’s the man who will turn America around. He’s the man who will end the war. He’s the man who will fix the economy. This seems odd. The United States boasts the best and brightest among its citizens, the mightiest corporations, the sturdiest capital. Did it really need to wait for Obama before it could embark on these goals? What happened to the plucky American “can-do” spirit? Why count on one man to redeem the nation? It’s “Yes, We Can”, not “Yes, He Can”. Right? The problem is that Americans expect their president to work for them, when truly they should be working through him. In a representative government, the president should be nothing more than a metonym for the electorate. He should be an agent working on behalf of the people, not an enlightened executive who happens to know better.

This should seem obvious. However, I worry that in the United States, the distance between metonym and object — president and people — is widening. It seems evident in the American approach to history, which places a great deal of emphasis on human agency. Whether presidents are glorified for their success or reviled for their mistakes, they are remembered as individuals, somehow severed from the constituents they represented. Traditional American historiography cannot comprehend events in any other way — even looking at Japan’s wartime past, American textbooks will overstate the role of Tojo Hideki, because it must have been someone’s fault, gosh darn it, whereas Japanese books will refer more obliquely to “the government” or even “the country” as being responsible for WWII. I don’t advocate for collective guilt, but I also think that over-emphasizing the man who sits in the White House (in retrospect and now) leads to irresponsible politics. After all, the buck stops at the president’s desk. And so it was LBJ who dropped the ball in Vietnam, and Iraq was all Bush’s fault. But what about the American people, some of the most enfranchised citizens in the world? What was their role? I realize that both wars were unpopular, but neither was because of a renegade president gone mad with executive powers. The people consented (although not entirely, my friends will argue, and correctly), through the democratic mechanisms afforded them. For Bush to serve eight years, someone had to elect him. It seems that the buck should stop, if anywhere, at the polling booth.

I’m watching the inaugural festivities now (Aretha Franklin is singing with bubble wrap around her head). It’s a historic moment. The mood is self-congratulatory. I hope, though, that the high expectations people have for Obama are expectations they will hold themselves to, as well. I’m optimistic about what their president can achieve, but he can only be as enlightened, as progressive, and as sacrificing as his constituents allow him to be. I hear that Obama’s address will be about taking responsibility (we’ll find out soon!). Obama can’t go it alone — Americans will have to realize that they can’t keep borrowing against their future, that they can’t keep consuming at their current levels, that they can’t be the only land of milk and honey in a world of much, much less. The next four years will be a test, not of one man, but of an entire nation. I’m disappointed that Americans believed they had to wait for this day, for Obama’s leadership, before they could take much-needed steps towards collective security, towards environmental protection, towards sustainable economics.

But now the day has arrived. Congratulations, America. Looks like you’ve chosen well.


Work Cited: “The Interrogation of a Castaway, ca. 1851.” In The Japanese Discovery of America: A Brief History with Documents. Ed. Peter Duus. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1997.


1 Comment

Filed under Caterwauling

One response to “Plus ça change…

  1. Check out this Reuters clip of Obama parties and celebrations in Japan:

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