2013/09/28

Shinzo Abe likens Japan to The Sandman

Won't you stretch imagination for a moment and come with me
Let us hasten to a nation lying over the western sea…
Here’s a Japanese Sandman sneaking on with the dew
just an old secondhand man
He'll buy your old day from you…
There's the Japanese Sandman trading silver for gold

written by Raymond Egan and Richard Whiting
(1920)

 
The Fukushima Daiichi ruins, once said to be “under control” and in “cold shutdown,” have gathered world’s attention again because, in fact, it has become apparent that the situation there remains terrifying and unsolvable. Massive volumes of radioactive water have been stored on the site in a haphazard manner and irradiated groundwater leaks into the sea. No one knows what the effects will be, or whether the situation will worsen. The spent fuel pools pose a risk that some experts classify as potentially a threat to civilization, and certainly a grave risk to Japan.
During this time, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has managed to convince the IOC that Tokyo will be ready to host the Olympics in 2020, and he went to New York this week to sell his new Japan to American investors on Wall Street. Some call him a liar, others wonder if he keeps himself intentionally ignorant or is just incapable of comprehending the danger posed by Fukushima and the demographic collapse of the economy.
His speech in New York (full text here) was a bizarre hodgepodge of references to American culture, all loosely tied to his thesis that “Japan is back” in the high life again, the place it left thirty years ago when Sony ruled with the Walkman cassette recorder.
In the speech he began with the strange request, “Buy my Abenomics.” Then he seemed to be wishing to flatter his hosts, but he just reminded the world of Wall Street’s reputation for criminality by making reference to Gordon Gecko, the criminal, sociopathic stockbroker in the fictional films Wall Street and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. He also talked a lot about sushi, wasabi, bullet trains, LED lights, wind turbines and batteries. There was no mention of the enormous amount of economic growth that would be necessary to raise the revenue that could shrink the deficit and the national debt. But he did have this to say, straight faced, about Japanese nuclear technology:

Japan will also continue to make contributions to the world in the area of safety technology for nuclear reactors. There will be no abandoning them. I believe that it is incumbent upon us to overcome the accident in Fukushima and contribute to the world by having the highest level of safety in the world.

He also talked about his plan to finally give women a useful role in the labor force. Listeners might wonder why the sudden urge to do the right thing has appeared after sexual inequality has been a problem in Japan for so long. It seems the government has suddenly decided that if women don’t want to produce the tax payers of the future, they will have to be the tax payers of the future. The decision is purely economic rather than moral, just as it is in the decline of the nuclear industry in America. Recent plant closures have come because of financial pressures, not because of the moral arguments from the anti-nuclear movement.
Finally, Mr. Abe talked about baseball, the Yankees and Mariano Rivera’s recent last game with the team. From there, the topic jumped bizarrely to Metallica’s Enter Sandman, the song which was always used at Yankee stadium to herald Rivera’s entry onto the field. In this way, the song was appropriated by Rivera and the meaning of its words were somewhat forgotten. Mr. Abe appropriated the song for himself by saying,

Japan is once again in the midst of great elation as we prepare for the Games seven years from now. It is almost as if Metallica's ‘Enter Sandman’ is resounding throughout Yankee Stadium: you know how this is going to end.

This is precisely the problem with Mr. Abe’s attitude: actually, no, you don’t know how this is going to end. Will those hundreds of spent fuel rods in unit 4 be safely removed over the next two years, or will the whole thing come crashing down and create a bigger mess than ever? If Mr. Abe could show a little more nuance in his statements, and a little more awareness of the dangers ahead, we might have more confidence in him. We would all worry less if he would worry a little more and tone it down with the “guts pose” and other empty words and gestures about a yet unproven triumph. Sorry, but Japan is not back yet. Do the victory lap seven years from now, if things go well.
Since Mr. Abe’s speech writers did such a wonderful job in free-associating with so many diverse elements of American culture, I thought I would add a little more to the flow of this consciousness. I can play this game too. We can look more closely at the cultural history of the Sandman and ask what it means about the present Japanese government policy.
The Sandman was a character from European folklore, a benevolent spirit who sprinkled sand on the eyelids of children to give them a peaceful sleep. But in some stories he was a malevolent character, as he is in the song by Metallica. The child in the song can pray to God for protection, but he goes to sleep with a feeling of dread, as conveyed by lines such as these:

Sleep with one eye open
Gripping your pillow tight…
Something's wrong, shut the light
Heavy thoughts tonight
And they aren't of snow white…
Dreams of war, dreams of liars
Dreams of dragon's fire
And of things that will bite...
Sleep with one eye open
Gripping your pillow tight…
And never mind that noise you heard
It's just the beast under your bed,
In your closet, in your head

Indeed, when this pounding heavy metal song is used to signal Rivera’s arrival on the field, it seems to be an intentionally ominous signal of a force that has come to knock out opponents and deliver their worst nightmares. It may not be the allusion to peaceful trade and prosperity that Mr. Abe wanted to create. Instead, the message is that Japan is the monster under the bed, and in fact, that is how I feel many nights with the ruins of Fukushima Daiichi just a two-hour drive from my home.
Extending the Sandman reference farther back in American culture, we could recall the roaring 20s with mention of stories from that era like The Great Gatsby, or the contemporary period drama, Boardwalk Empire, which incidentally revived the period tune The Japanese Sandman. The song is an example of the sort of meaningless exotification of The Orient that was common then. There is no apparent reason why the Sandman had to be Japanese in this song, other than to just lend it a mood of escapism. But if Mr. Abe is suggesting that Gordon Gecko, Mariano Rivera and Metallica are all somehow relevant to Japanese economic policy in 2013, then I’ll use this and leave readers with the lyrics to this wistful song from a century past.

The Japanese Sandman
written by Raymond Egan and Richard Whiting
sung Lauren Sharp (2011) on Boardwalk Empire








Won't you stretch imagination for a moment and come with me
Let us hasten to a nation lying over the western sea
Hide behind the cherry blossoms here's a sight that will please your eyes
There's a lady with a baby of Japan singing lullabies 
Hear her as she sighs

Here’s a Japanese Sandman sneaking on with the dew
just an old secondhand man
He'll buy your old day from you
He will take every sorrow of the day that is through
And he'll bring you tomorrow just to start life anew
Then you'll be a bit older in the dawn when you wake
And you'll be a bit bolder in the new day you make
There's the Japanese Sandman trading silver for gold
Just an old secondhand man trading new days for old.

Then you'll be a bit older in the dawn when you wake
And you'll be a bit bolder in the new day you make
There's the Japanese Sandman trading silver for gold
Just an old secondhand man trading new days for old.


Metallica (1991)

Say your prayers little one
Don't forget, my son
To include everyone

Tuck you in, warm within
Keep you free from sin
Till the Sandman he comes

Sleep with one eye open
Gripping your pillow tight

Exit light
Enter night
Take my hand
Off to never never land

Something's wrong, shut the light
Heavy thoughts tonight
And they aren't of snow white

Dreams of war, dreams of liars
Dreams of dragon's fire
And of things that will bite

Sleep with one eye open
Gripping your pillow tight

Exit light
Enter night
Take my hand
Off to never never land

Now I lay me down to sleep
Pray the lord my soul to keep
If I die before I wake
Pray the lord my soul to take

Hush little baby, don't say a word
And never mind that noise you heard
It's just the beast under your bed,
In your closet, in your head

Exit light
Enter night
Grain of sand

Exit light
Enter night
Take my hand
We're off to never never land

For more on this topic

Pesek, William. “Abe's Turn on Wall Street Is Lost in Translation.” Bloomberg, September 27, 2013:

Nine months into Abe's tenure, nothing has been done to better utilize the female workforce, reduce trade barriers, cultivate entrepreneurship, prepare for an aging workforce, internationalize corporate tax rates, find an alternative to nuclear reactors, wrestle government power away from a vast, unproductive and sometime corrupt bureaucracy and improve relations with Asian neighbors. It's great Abe is putting these issues on the table for discussion, but it's far too early to be telling Wall Street that Japan is back and better than ever. That day is years off, at best.
Abe's clumsy sales job is emblematic of Japanese governments, past and present. Japan has long had trouble capitalizing on its soft power around the globe. Abe certainly tried in New York, with references to baseball star Ichiro Suzuki, sushi, bullet trains and advances in maglev rail technology that Japan is itching to export to America's Northeast corridor. Yet nothing would sell Japan Inc. globally like success. Revive the economy, reinvigorate the biggest corporate names, unleash a wave of innovation among young Japanese, and the international clout Japan craves will follow.

1 comment:

  1. If Abe is the benchmark for global leadership in Japan, that is troubling. Has there been sufficient investment in entrepreneurial education in order to name exports that don't carry a whiff o' the '90s, darewesay, '80s? That go-to list was yellowing (I mean old, not Asian!) Though, Metallica is perfect for Wall Street--an adrenaline mosh pit with mantras for every occasion from the coke-party to the apocalypse.

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