Aso's strenuous life

In the last analysis a healthy state can exist only when the men and women who make it up lead clean, vigorous, healthy lives; when the children are so trained that they shall endeavor, not to shirk difficulties, but to overcome them; not to seek ease, but to know how to wrest triumph from toil and risk. The man must be glad to do a man's work, to dare and endure and to labor; to keep himself, and to keep those dependent upon him. The woman must be the housewife, the help meet of the homemaker, the wise and fearless mother of many healthy children. — Theodore Roosevelt, "The Strenuous Life," 10 April 1899

As Japan debates another indiscreet remark by Prime Minister Taro Aso — the chief cabinet secretary has already dismissed it as evidence of the prime minister's "inadequate linguistic ability" — it is worth considering precisely what the prime minister intended to say, and what it reveals about his way of thinking. After all, as Michael Kinsley said , "A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth."

Speaking on Saturday at meeting in Yokohama of the Junior Chamber, an organization Aso headed in 1978, the prime minister remarked on the role of citizens over 65 years old in Japanese society. "How should we use very energetic old people?" he asked. "These people are all different, but please consider that they only have the talent to work." The prime minister couldn't quite understand why he was being criticized for his remarks. At a speech in Sendai Saturday evening he stressed that his intention was to note that since Japan has many vital senior citizens, they ought to be given opportunities "to participate in society."

It is unclear to me why Aso's remarks are being treated as a gaffe. He has made no secret of his belief that — perhaps projecting from his own experience as a "vital" senior citizen — that the elderly should work if they're able. He said it in his speech opening this year's ordinary Diet session. He discussed it in his 2007 book Totetsumonai Nihon (as mentioned here). And some may recall that in November of last year he voiced his annoyance at having his tax payments go to support the infirm elderly. Aso's phrasing this time around may have been indelicate, although I would argue his remarks about senior citizens who do nothing but eat and drink was substantially worse. The point is that there is a consistent worldview and should therefore not be treated as simply another gaffe by the "linguistically challenged" prime minister.

Which brings us to the Theodore Roosevelt quote with which I opened this post. Theodore Roosevelt's speech "The Strenuous Life" might be the most complete statement of Roosevelt's worldview, an ode to the vigorous life, which Roosevelt argued was both a metaphor for the nation in international politics and also the literal bedrock for national greatness. The speech, considering that it was given following the US victory over Spain in 1898, not surprisingly ends with a rousing call for the United States to not "sit huddled within our own borders," to develop the army and the navy and take up the "White Man's Burden," as Kipling advised the US the same year Roosevelt delivered his speech in Chicago.

Having read enough of Aso's worldview, and the worldview of other Japanese conservatives, I could not help but think of Roosevelt when I read that Aso had virtually called upon Japan's elderly to live the strenuous life. I do not think the similarity is accidental. Not that Aso and his colleagues have drawn directly from Roosevelt's writings, but rather that their thinking is ultimately drawn from the same late nineteenth century Romanticism tinged with Social Darwinism that underlay Roosevelt's thinking. It is not an accident that Roosevelt admired Meiji Japan's achievements — alluded to here — right up until he came to see Japan as a threat to America's own pursuit of national greatness. Roosevelt's stress on work, toil, and strife at home and the pursuit of greatness abroad have clear echoes in contemporary Japanese conservative rhetoric (and, I should add, among certain American conservatives, at least at one point in time).

The idea of a Japanese work ethic, that Japan can overcome any of its problems if its people simply work harder, has been in a common theme in Aso's remarks as prime minister — especially in his initial comments when the global financial crisis had clearly reached Japanese shores and Aso was convinced Japan would be the first developed country to escape the recession. It animates his idea of Japan's "latent power." And it certainly is behind his idea that elderly Japanese, if they're able, should not be easing into a comfortable retirement but should instead continue working past sixty-five.

What does this intellectual lineage mean precisely? Well, not much, unless you find Roosevelt's bellicose vision of the "strenuous life" woefully out of place in twenty-first century Japan. It seems to me that the Japanese public is perfectly content with what Roosevelt disparaged as "a life of slothful ease, a life of that peace which springs merely from lack either of desire or of power to strive after great things." Having spent the twentieth century striving, many Japanese seem perfectly content to leave the striving to others and enjoy a life of peace and prosperity.

Other posts by Tobias Harris: