Monday, 13 February 2017

Walls, Guns and Gates: How the US and Japan Construct Their Different Senses of "Homeland Security"

You may have noticed that there has been an awful lot of comment of late about the coast-to-coast wall the new American president is planning on building along the Mexican border. Just about anyone who has ever had a wall has weighed in with their warnings: we have heard about how ineffective the Great Wall of China was, how painfully divisive the Berlin Wall.

If there are walls that invites meaningful comparison, then it is perhaps the walls (from England to North Africa) the emperor Hadrian constructed around the Roman empire in the 2nd century. Concerned that the empire's boundaries were ill-defined and porous and that the empire risked being dangerously over-stretched, Hadrian decided to shore up its boundary.

Most historians agree that he did a good job of helping to ensure the empire flourished for another century or so, though in end the "walls" were to sow the seeds of ultimate downfall. As I was often reminded as a child, "There is no such thing as staying still: if you are not going forward, you are going back." If the empire had committed itself to not expanding any further, it was only a matter of time until it began to contract and fall apart.

In the case of America, the country has been defined by its seemingly limitless expansion and the ability to absorb and assimilate huge numbers of immigrants. The frontier was constantly being pushed back from the Appalachians to California, and to Hawaii, Alaska and beyond. When they ran out of land, in the immortal words of Captain Kirk, they headed into space.

But now, under President Trump, America is pulling back from relentless expansion to "make itself great again". Like the Roman Empire under Hadrian, such a policy might well shore things up for decades to come, but ultimately it will sow the seeds of decline. If you are not going forward...

The point about the Mexican border wall however is not so much what the wall will practically achieve, but how it will affect the psyche both of Americans and the rest of the world. It will be a symbol of the limits of American power as well as an exclusionary snub at those placed on the other side of it, a powerful cultural divider between WASPish North America and Hispanic Central America (picture below of current border between San Diego, left, and Tijuana, right).

You will doubtless have heard many counter-arguments why the wall will not work: immigrants will arrive in the US in planes that fly over it or else the circulation of workers from Mexico back and forwards will cease causing Mexican workers to actually stay in the US - so the wall will be counter-productive.

But such arguments fail to take into consideration the psychological impact of the wall. It sends out a very clear message that the US strongly wishes to keep out illegal immigrants, indeed is less inclined to immigration at all. In that sense - regardless of whether you think that immigration is a good or bad thing - the wall will surely have an impact.

The ultimate psychological cause of the demand to build a wall however has nothing to do with Mexican immigration at all - it is part of a displaced psychological response, responding to a desire to make Americans feel safe. Ever since 9-11, Americans feel vulnerable to foreign threats on their home soil, something they had hardly felt in the previous two centuries. After thousands died in horror in New York - constantly replayed and analysed on television - a nagging fear that something like this might happen again seeped into the national psyche.

There are overwhelming statistics - including from that leading thinker Kim Kardashian - showing irrefutably that many thousands die each year from American-on-American gun crime while deaths from foreign terrorists can usually be counted on your fingers. If you wish to make America safer, so the undeniable logic runs, you reform the US's insane gun laws.

But such arguments do not address the deep-seated psychological needs of those Americans who would feel "safer" with a large wall along their southern border and a gun to protect themselves in their glove box. No amount of blathering about statistics is going to change that psychology, which is rooted in the national psyche.

In the debate in the US about gun laws, the importance of the right to bear arms as enshrined in the constitution (an embodiment of resistance to the British) is constantly repeated, but perhaps more important in the national psyche is the connection between the open frontier, an endless expanse filled with unknowable threats from native Americans, outlaws and wild animals, and the right to bear arms.

If Americans begin to feel that the "endless frontier" has been closed off will they gradually come to relinquish their dependence on guns as well? I'm not so sure. Once concepts such as these become deeply engrained in a culture, it can sometimes take centuries to remove them, no matter that the logical need for them has long since disappeared. The Americans are no more peculiar in their dependence on guns than other nations are on their own indigenous means of how to feel "safe". Let me give you an example of this: Japan.

Japan is one of the safest countries in the world, with miraculously low levels of crime and no guns whatsoever. Japan indeed is often paraded - for example by Carl Sagan back in the 1980s in his ahistorical mystic mush "Cosmos" - as a land where people actively renounced the gun in the 17th century. That's kinda right, Carl, because guns made Japan's rulers feel insecure to the threat of insurrection. But what did they bring in instead? A system of "gates". And the gate system still rules Japanese psychology to this day.

A few weeks ago I gave a lecture at a college in Tokyo and stayed for a few days. The college has a compact and very pretty campus and everybody was kind and helpful to me. But upon arriving I had to fill in a form detailing what I would be doing each day. Curfew I was told - when I had to be back inside the campus gates - was 8.30pm.

When I strolled down to the gate on the first day, a very flustered guard fretted about which gate I had entered from. Trying to shake her off I remarked I was just going for a little stroll to the train station whereupon the alarmed official enquired exactly how long I was going to be. It's impossible to imagine this kind of intrusiveness in the "Land of the Free".

An awful lot of people were involved in monitoring me from office assistants to security guards. What exactly was it all for?

But there is something quintessentially Japanese about this obsession with monitoring and observing who and what comes through gates. Power was maintained in the Edo Period (1603-1868) by keeping the family members of feudal lords hostages in the capital and ensuring that no guns could be smuggled in. The gated barriers were an important means of inspecting whether hostages were attempting to escape and arms were coming in - a sure precursor of rebellion. (Edo Period checkpoint officials depicted below).

So, for centuries in Japan, gated barriers became a crucial means of exerting political power. Take, for example, the most famous of all Kabuki plays, Kanjincho (The Subscription List), where the entire drama centres on whether a group of rebels will be able to pass through a gated barrier as they flee north. The play is set at the end of the twelfth century, but during the Edo Period when the play was actually written, such gated barriers were in place the whole length of the country as a means of monitoring people and maintaining control.

In Japan, there really is no escape from "gates" of one form or another. If you wish to turn your back on the vanities of the temporal world and enter instead the world of serenity afforded by religion, then you need to pass through, both literally and figuratively, the temple gate.

One of the great Zen classics, full of absurd riddles intended to show us the intrinsic absurdity of our existence, is called "The Gateless Gate" ("Mumonkan"), as if the book is striving towards the impossible - a world without gates - as unthinkable to the Japanese as a world without guns is unthinkable to the Americans. Indeed the Japanese obsession with gates spreads its tentacles to every aspect of Japanese culture.

The word for an introduction or primer on any subject is called a "nyumon" (literally "entering the gate") and if you know nothing about a subject then you are a "mongaikan" (literally "someone outside the gate", a layman).

So central is the word "gate" to Japanese thinking that at least 50 kanji pictograms incorporate it. Indeed there is even a film called "Gate of Flesh" ("Nikutai no Mon", 1964) implying that the world of sensuality has to be entered via a gate. The word "gate" lurks deep in the Japanese psyche.

Do you feel more comfortable living in a society where you have more personal freedom but counter-balance your sense of insecurity by carrying a gun or do you prefer no such risk but where there is far more intrusive monitoring of your daily activities, where you have to submit to the control of gate-keepers?

The real point is to understand how each society constructs its own particular sense of "safety" and to psychologically untangle it. Americans are not going to give up their guns and their wall because of statistical truths. People who constantly harp on about such things simply fail to have insight into human and national psychology.

By all means abandon the ruinously expensive plan for a wall and take the guns out of American life. But just realize that you are going to need to carefully put something back to preserve an important, albeit illogical sense of "safety" in the national psyche.

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