|Gazing at Sri Lankas future from Japans present
What still lives in Kyoto from the citys historical past are its Buddhist temples. Ancient Anuradhapura, similarly, lives in and through the Buddhist temples and artefacts. Kyoto is only 1200 years old. The city was dominated by Mahayana and Zen Buddhism. In contrast, Anuradhapura is part of a chronicled history that goes back 2500 years, a history dominated by the Theravada school of Buddhism.
The Japanese shifted their capital from Kyoto to Tokyo. After Anuradhapura was abandoned, the capital was shifted from place to place and today it is Sri Jayewardenepura, Kotte. In both countries agriculture was the main livelihood, Buddhism the principal cultural fountain. And yet, if the two economies are compared today, the chasm is truly astounding.
When diplomatic relations between the two countries were established in 1952, they were more or less equal in terms of economic strength. What explains then the rapid distancing that has taken place over the past fifty years? Physically and psychologically battered by the atomic bomb, the Japanese murmured, "we have no one, we have to stand on our own". Was this what made the difference?
There are those who claim that although it is true that in physical terms Japans progress is remarkable, there is a serious spiritual erosion in Japan. They even argue that although blessed with a Buddhist culture, Japans embracing of Western economic fundamentals is the cause of this "erosion". Before verifying the validity of these assertions, I believe that we ought to take a step back and take a look at where we are, having come so far since we uncritically embraced Western development models.
The past 25 years reminds one of the pithy saying in Sinhala, "Netu netumakuth netha, bere paluwakuth netha". In other words, there is precious little to show for all the trumpeting and chest-beating. Economic policies servile to the West did not deliver on the promise of improved physical quality of life either. Culturally too, as a society, we have lost more than we gained. Discipline, values, customs and tradition have all seen a marked change. For the worse. There is ample evidence to say that not only is our economy in pretty bad shape, but that the extent of the cultural compromise in the process is severely limiting our ability to pick ourselves up, as the Japanese did.
Japans story is different, I believe. It is superficial to look at Tokyo, its glitter and fashions and conclude that the Japanese have declined culturally. In general, the discipline, the desire to adhere to and thereby protect cultural norms, customs and traditional values, is far more evident in Japanese soceity than in Sri Lanka. The further one moves from Tokyo, one is struck by the fact that these things are even more deeply rooted among the general population.
Although a healthy work ethic and respect for rules and regulations gives a certain mechanical flavour to the Japanese, it is by no means of tragic proportions. Even among the "yakusan", referred to as the Japanese Mafia, there is more discipline and respect for the law than Sri Lankas private bus drivers.
The Japanese are aware of how being absorbed with "demand" and "supply" has resulted in environmental degradation. They are taking corrective steps. They know that family ties have come undone because they have worshipped their responsibilities at the workplace. They have the humility to be self-critical. I realised that most Japanese are unwilling to discuss work-related matters after a certain time. They consider it more important to spend time with the family and attending to household chores. A wealthy businessman that I met insisted that the most important task of his day was to bathe, feed and put his children to sleep. However busy he may be, he never neglects to do this. This and other incidents instilled in me the conviction that for all their economic prosperity, the Japanese have retained the core values of their cultural heritage.
If discipline and respect for others is a pillar that represents a rich culture, then it would not be wrong to say that the each and every Japanese is attached to this pillar by his or her heart strings. In Sri Lanka, such attachment to a set of central cultural norms and values have been torn apart. In Japan, these string are inarguably long, so long that on first appearance one might think that Japanese society has been irreversibly drawn into the bosom of Western culture.
And yet, it is true that the Japanese have ensured that when necessary they can always find their way back and rediscover and affirm their cultural identity. In other words, the foundation upon which modern Japan was built remains unshaken.
It was the emperor Meiji that launched Japans first development drive when he insisted in 1864 that it is imperative to build a strong economy and have a modern army. Japan shifted from an agricultural economy into an industrial one during his reign. If the atomic bomb destroyed the creations of man, it did not succeed in destroying his spirit.
I met an 70-year old woman in Hiroshima. I asked her what she thinks of the bomb. Her answer was perplexing: "If several such bombs had fallen on other cities as well it would have been better," she said. Her point was that the fact that the Japanese were able to transform the first wave of helplessness into unwavering determination to recover was the base which propelled Japan into an economic giant. Sri Lanka did not suffer a tragedy of those proportions. Is this why we have not hardened our resolve to triumph over all obstacles?
Japan emerged from the ashes of the war and walked with determination on the path of progress. Today, in the 21st century, when we look back at where we started and where we have come, it is sad to report that we seem to have walked with the same kind of determination, in the opposite direction.
It is true that countries such as the USA and Britain have manufactured arms and invaded other countries in order to plunder their resources. There are only two countries which also manufactured guns to defend themselves; Japan and Sri Lanka. Even after suffering defeat, the societal need to use the technological know-how they possessed and improve it did not abate in Japan. In Sri Lanka, we have had almost 500 years (since 1505) where we have gone out of our way to destroy and bury everything we had that we could call our own. The people of Japan took to heart the slogan, "A strong economy and a modern army" and expended every effort to build these things. We in Sri Lanka do not have a goal or vision that is even vaguely comparable. Politicians who do not have the national interest at heart do not have the minimum qualifications to mobilise the people around such a project.
When the capital was shifted from Kyoto to Tokyo, and especially when America stationed troops in Japan, there was one thing that refused to be shifted; the commitment of the Japanese people to the ethic that fuelled their development drive. When the first Europeans arrived on our shores, we possessed a stronger determination and a clear vision. The decline ended up, in my opinion, with the enslavement of our people to the agenda of Colebrook and all the power-hungry political puppets he engendered. The media in general and the academe ensured that the country will continue to produce generation after generation of lazy and servile people.
Perhaps what is required today to turn things around and achieve a development such as what Japan enjoys, is a benevolent dictator. In the very least, we should begin to talk of vision and targets and these should not be the preserve of politicians who cannot see beyond the next election.
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