Japan's Comparative Advantage in Memetic Immunity

by W. David Kubiak
Kyoto Journal #24, 1993

In the real old days, before it became such a technical, tumorous business, pollution was a far more spiritual affair. The ancients knew not isotopes, CFCs or pesticidal residues, but well they understood the nasty contaminants the soul was heir to.

The hierarch's historical ideal was always mens sana in corpore sano - healthy bodies for toil, and minds cleansed of skepticism and strange ideas. Whatever corrupted people's hearts, weakening their docile support of the status quo, polluted the tranquil purity of the culture. Heterodox notions like justice, equality, evolution, et seditious cetera provoked corrosive questioning of the omniscience, wisdom and privileges of the power-that-be.

Such malignant cultural contaminants could be contracted many places - from books, intercourse with aliens, wild dreams, but most of all from travel. Travel positively drenched you with danger, exposing the undisciplined mind to heretical takes on "common sense," "normal behavior," even the nature of "human being."

In the East, therefore, many ancient Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic cultures quarantined returning citizens until acquired contagion's were diagnosed, shriven and ritually recanted. In medieval Japan, greeting committees for unauthorized rovers tended to favor precautionary beheading as a more poignant and cost-effective cure.

Suffice to say, containment and eradication of psychic pollutants became a lively professional specialty in many archaic hierarchies. Whether burning witches, blacklisting Hollywood directors or gulaging counter-revolutionaries, establishment immune systems recognized the threat of the internalized "other" and moved against it with dispatch.

Study of the spread of such social diseases, and cultural diffusion in general, has recently been codified into a new science called memetics. Memetics studies memes, which have variously been described as:

Virtually every aspect of culture we learn from or teach to others is a meme, Memes can be simple, telling us how to write haiku, play poker or respect elders. Or they can be complex and tell us how to practice Buddhism, quantum physics or democracy. Memes are thus the basic unit of cultural transmission, education and heritage.

Buddhist Meme in Migration
Buddhist Meme Winging West
Like genes, memes can pass rules from generation to generation, slowly establishing a social body's routines, traditions and organized structures. Like viruses, memes can also spread rapidly from mind to mind as crazes, fads or fashions. Also, like viruses they can lie dormant for many years, encoded in writing, tape or film, waiting to enter a receptive mind and return to activity.

Memes obviously affect nearly everything we think of as human, and there is thus no end to their diversity. There are orthodox memes and heretical memes, memes of altruism and memes of ritual murder, celibate memes and memes of tantric eroticism. We may try to morally or ethically judge certain memes, but such judgments are always influenced by other memes. Christians, for example, may condemn the "polygamy" meme as sinful, but the memes for "Christianity" and "sin" may be hotly criticized in turn by animists and humanists.

Although it is difficult to objectively judge a meme's morality, we do have the evidence of history to show how certain memes affect consciousness and society over time. For example, what kind of societies did Nazism, Taoism or bushido generate? What effect does materialism or animism have upon the environment? What kind of consciousness does slavery or capitalism or Buddhism actually produce? By their fruits, shall ye know them.

Also we can often gauge the evolutionary wholesomeness of a meme by noting how much effort is required to spread it to new minds. The spread of hierarchical Islam and Christianity, for example, was forced with centuries of missionary and military activity. And contemporary consumerism is propagated with hundreds of billions of advertising dollars. Democracy, feminism and rock music, on the other hand, spread quite spontaneously, infecting even social bodies that put up vigorous defenses against them. Defense against new value-laden memes is in fact a major concern in most social bodies, which brings us round again to our analysis of pollution.


Memetic continuity is the foundation of all cultural tradition. But as memes mutate within a social body or enter from outside, they also trigger changes, generate diversity, and drive social evolution. They can also, thereby, threaten the status quo.

By definition, the appearance of a new meme in a social body changes things - sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Large changes shake up the entire social structure, including of course the power structure. Memetic change therefore can pose serious perils to those who control a social organism. For example, the privileges of mullahs, samurai, brahmins and cadres in their respective political bodies largely depend upon wide and unquestioned acceptance of established memes. That is, most other members must believe in the ideas and values that make their superiors' authority seem "natural." When new memes enter consciousness, however, the old "common sense" - theocratic rule, divine right of kings, apartheid, primacy of the Party, etc. - can suddenly be thrown into doubt, debate and danger.

This memetic phenomenon is universal and fascinating. And it helps to know a little genetics to understand it. Laymen tend to think that chromosomes are lifeless 'objects,' like the big tinker toy models of molecules hanging in school science labs. In reality, though, each chromosome is a lively community of jostling, vibrating molecules managed by so-called "conductor" genes that control all communal activities.

Yes, just like apes, bees, chickens and sararimen, genes organize themselves into hierarchies. And the "conductor genes" at the top tell the other genes what to do, when to do it and when to stop. Mostly they tell them how and when to create the molecular enforcers (enzymes, hormones, nucleotides, etc.) that keep the neighborhood in working order.


The same is true in the meme communities of our minds. Some memes are more equal than others, and these "conductor memes" are called "meta-memes." Meta-memes are usually ideologies, religions, philosophies or some kind of "ism" that defines all of reality and are empowered by deep belief. Historically, most meta-memes were sovereign in their cultures because the society's members just didn't know any better. They were never polluted with alternatives.

But even when we learn of memes for many religions and ideologies, it is faith that elevates one among them to meta-meme status. The selection process may often seem accidental or arbitrary, but once enthroned, meta-memes are tyrannical. They will not, or more accurately, cannot share their control functions with competitors.

Take classic meta-memes like Maoism, Islam or kaisha-shugi (Japanese "corporation-ism"). Each arrogates primary authority over all their members' attitudes and life activities. Each, therefore, claims the right to decide what other memes are welcome in the psycho-social community. The Islamic meta-meme, for example, frowns balefully upon the free circulation of memes that tell you how to bake ham, brew sake or crack Salman Rushdie jokes.

Big Daddy keeping the lads in line...
Hierarchy at Work


The more authoritarian the meta-meme, the longer its list of no-nos. While different "isms" reject different memes (communism forbids private property, fundamentalism outlaws evolution, Nazism dismisses human equality, etc.), all authoritarian meta-memes tend to oppose the psychic maturation of their members.

From an authoritarian point of view, maturation is destabilizing. Unchecked it leads the population to adulthood, individuation and seminal thinking, all of which encourage those offensive mutations that threaten schism, revolution or the supplanting of authority. Since elites must preserve at all costs the memes that assign them power, they are all status quo conservative. (This simple insight clears up a lot of the semantic confusion we encounter finding the same so-called "conservative" defending radically different memes in Japan, Russia, Iran, etc.)

Authoritarian meta-memes generally instruct us to accept a specific "ism," and submit our lives to its representatives who rule society as a patriarchal house-hold. Pope John Paul, Lee Kuan Yew, Kim Il Sung and Ayatollah Khomeini all represent very different meta-memes, but the paramount value in each of their societies is the same: total, child-like obedience. Children almost by definition are not interested in the crafts or responsibilities of civil politics. They are immature beings without real rights who must be protected, taught and disciplined. Politics and power are the business of elders - officials, Fathers, oyabun, et al. Authoritarians therefore train citizens for endless childhood, i.e., life-long dependence, conformity and obedience. "Don't you bother your little heads..."

[Of note here is MacArthur's famous quote that he found "Japan a nation of 12-year-olds" in '45 (and was generally content to leave it that way in '52). Of further interest is the fate of Japan's crowded ranks of kobun and all women here whose names end in ko, since "ko" ("" : the ideogram for "child") explicitly implies such people may be treated as children throughout life.]


Democratic meta-memes, by contrast, positively demand that citizens grow up. The practice of democracy requires effort and adulthood from everyone, and therefore necessitates individuality, responsibility and creative evolution. (It is thus no accident that most of modern history's great inventions, cultural innovations, and Nobel prize-winners have issued from democratic societies.)

The trouble with democracy is its gross "inefficiency." Citizen participation in decision-making takes time, decentralizes power and exposes real conflicts over priorities. Should consumerism or conservation govern our economics? Should corporate expansion outrank the environment? The conflicts at issue are legion and important: high growth vs. zero growth; agribusiness vs. family farming; trade blocks vs. bioregions; nuclear power vs. renewable sources; state's rights vs. human rights; et significant cetera. In democracies the clash of values and agendas is a lengthy, noisy affair. But when choices are finally made by flesh-and-blood people, as opposed to corporate bodies, they tend to reflect basic human values that resonate with environmental and humanitarian concerns.

Since authoritarian rulers need not debate such issues with their 'children,' they are efficient to a fault. In post-war Japan, for instance, once conservative political/bureaucratic/business elders decided the national agenda was to expand and project corporate power, that was the end of the conversation. Policies, laws and education were rapidly aligned with corporate convenience, with little need to calculate, let alone quibble over the costs to local residents, ecosystems or the foreign community.

While Japanese citizens continue to enjoy ceremonial voting rights, popular sovereignty remains, as in the Meiji era, an elaborate fiction. For democracy to actually function, people require a few basic tools: free access to official information to educate themselves, and equal access to media to stir debate; swift, impartial legal processes; responsive legislators and/or initiative & referendum rights; and local control of vital institutions - schools, police, airwaves, etc.

Whatever the philosophic or evolutionary advantages of such system, Japanese authorities have treated full blown democracy as a recipe for economic disaster. And it is no doubt true that democratic oversight would hobble Japan's corporate advance with the same inefficiencies, liabilities and bleeding-heart concerns that have rendered the West so "uncompetitive." Thus as in many so-called 'peoples' ' republics," democracy in Japan is everywhere proclaimed and nowhere described. Certainly, democratic memes like freedom of information, popular referenda, jury systems, or local control are neither extolled nor even introduced in Japan's currently authorized school texts. Indeed, "initiative," the common term for a citizen-generated legislative proposal, has yet to appear in a Japanese dictionary! Even so, these things get around, and as we noted above, memetic self-defense has become a very high-stakes game.


Prudent social bodies guard themselves against memetic pollution either by isolation or immunization. Isolation involves sealing off channels where new memes can enter, usually by closing ports or borders, prohibiting travel and controlling the flow of information. Edo Japan was a classic example of isolation, closed off to protect the patriarchal feudal hierarchy from look-alike Euro-Christian rivals. Such precautions persist, and the modern spectrum of such isolation ranges from the strict media censorship of China, Saudi Arabia and Singapore to the near total seclusion's of Brunei, Burma and North Korea.

Before telecommunications, isolation was fairly effective mode of memetic quarantine. In an age of telephones, faxes and satellite broadcasting, however, absolute control of meme flows becomes almost impossible. Immunization is a far more sophisticated countermeasure, and operates exactly like vaccinations against viruses.

Biological immunization injects carefully debilitated disease organisms - half-dead pox viruses, for example - into the body. They are disabled because 'healthy pathogens' are hardened professionals and nasty adversaries for untrained immune forces. When methodically mutilated, however, foreign viruses (or memes) are easy prey for most normal immune systems, which quickly contrive lethal defenses and pass the technology on to their descendants. Future visitations by similar viruses/memes will find this now "immunized" body fully briefed on their vulnerabilities and toxically armed to repel them.


In Japan a debilitated democratic meme was introduced into the body politic during Meiji constitutional reforms. Although the Emperor and his representatives still ruled the country as a "family state," parliamentary trappings were deemed necessary to project a modern, Westernized image. During the so-called Taisho democracy period, however, certain parties began to take this pretense seriously and demanded full adult rights and a say in decision-making. The brief fervor that ensued was rather like the short fever following typhoid shot, as conservative forces heatedly battled and dispatched all those who embodied the alien virus. That was lesson one.

For the first two years of the occupation, GHQ's New Deal lawyers apparently made sincere attempts to empower Japan's democracy meme. These young reformers believed that the flowering of democratic consciousness could only occur if Japanese 'subjects' began to experience their own power as 'sovereign citizens' and took adult responsibility for it. Their prescribed memetic remedies: renounce militarism; demythologize the emperor; dissolve the zaibatsu; suppress Establishment yakuza/rightist enforcers; and institute land reform, labor rights and local control of education.

Unluckily, the Chinese revolution erupted in 1947, scaring the hell out of GHQ. Occupation officials quickly packed off their idealistic New Deal meme splicers, and filled their posts with G-2 CIA types who had little use for democracy in either theory or practice. Pre-war hierarchies were quickly re-empowered, rightists rehabilitated, and labor movements quashed. Most of the few memetic reforms New Dealers did manage to insert - zaibatsu dissolution, modest decentralization and school board elections, for example - soon fell victim to the conservative immune reactions of the mid-fifties, While the new Constitution's Article 9 forced the substitution of an aggressive mercantile clone for the pre-war militarist meme, the expansionist, authoritarian Meiji meta-meme was essentially restored by 1957.

Since this second MacArthur-abetted vaccination against democracy, peoples' power exponents within Japan have never posed more than minor irritations to the body politic's business-as-usual. Local activists' few post-war tactics - petition drives, rallies/demos; litigation and independent "protest" candidates are now totally familiar to the corporate organism and blithely neutralized.

Even petitions bearing hundreds of thousands of signatures are routinely ignored at government and commercial offices, except perhaps by those shoveling them out the back door. Demos and mass meetings normally attract only the converted and are virtually ignored by the media. Court cases, particularly political and class action suits, take expensive decades to reach a final, usually demoralizing verdict. And in the rare cases when they prevail, independent candidates surprisingly discover that legislators here are just not supposed to legislate. (Despite Kyoto's maverick reformist reputation, her case is typical: the last "legislator"-initiated bill in the City Assembly was proposed in 1957. It lost.)


With few promising internal mutations in the offing, the last possible source of memetic democracy in Japan again appears to be external "pollution." Local commentators on the right, left and center have admitted for decades that only gaiatsu (foreign pressure) has the power to budge entrenched interests and alter established arrangements.

Such meddling with a sovereign nation's operative memes may seem unwonted interference, but Japan's multifaceted impact on the world today leads to legitimate international concern. Confined to its imperial isles, the impotence of Japanese democracy would simply occasion sympathy and condolence. But without democratically empowered reform movements, a body politic not only sickens within, its disease organisms begin to creep about, plaguing economies and ecosystems all over the neighborhood.

Japan's enfeebled environmental movements, for example, can hardly slow the corporate rape of their cultural mother, Kyoto, let alone stop their multinational destruction of rain forests, banyan groves, and sea creatures far away.

Her human rights movements cannot even curtail corporate prejudices against local Korean and buraku citizens, much less halt official support for suppression and atrocities in Burma, Timor and Tibet.

Nor can her impotent consumer movements begin to curb corporate cartels and extortionate local pricing. Consumer rip-offs here thus not only depress citizens' quality of life, they help to finance dumping, bribery and predatory marketing abroad. These in turn destroy foreign jobs and industries, assuring a plentiful supply of pre-paid international hostility for Japanese and their children in the future.

In sum, belated, toothy democratization could change a lot of things in Japan, and consequently a lot of things in our world. Simply empowering existing local constituencies against Japanese plutonium policy, ODA abuses, and Third World pollution exports could radically improve the Asian neighborhood.

Ironically, this foreign meme may also be the only hope for saving endangered local traditions from extinction at the hands of Tokyo's mutant teenage corporate consumerism. Referenda on building height, design and zoning codes could still rescue many traditional human-scale neighborhoods. And popularly mandated tax breaks for organic agriculture and traditional industries could help revive hundreds of faltering farming and craft communities. In fine, grassroots empowerment is the first step in preserving the unique locales that once made life in and travel to this country so worthwhile.

The hard work of democratization has to be done by the Japanese themselves, but citizens of the outside world still have a vital role to play.


Gaiatsu, the foreign pressure mentioned earlier, is one narrowing avenue of approach. Unfortunately, this route is now primarily reserved for Establishment American types. Authoritarians in Japan as elsewhere are by definition incapable of regarding others as equals. Those above you command influence, while those beneath get no respect at all. In this monochrome world, hierarchical position is determined solely by power relations - in Japan, that is, by economic might. So until the European Community actually coalesces, the only voice Japan, Inc. still harkens to is America, Inc.

Even for Americans, however, the window of memetic opportunity is closing fast. Recent American leaders have squandered enormous prestige pandering for U.S. multinationals lusting to ravish consumers here as freely as local firms. Between Bush's bulemic bullying for Detroit auto makers, Washington's coercive weapons sales, and Clinton's bludgeoning of local farmers for U.S. agribusiness, American leaders have consistently ignored important areas of potential U.S./Japan citizen solidarity to run interference for the corporate elite.

The most egregious example is of course the Strategic Impediments Initiative which demanded 240 immediate changes in Japanese culture and society to suit American corporate interests. Keidanren, the political citadel of Japan's Fortune 500, was delighted with this arrogant assault and quickly turned it to advantage.

SII provided Keidanren with a triple bonanza. First, it justified abolition of politically sensitive Occupation-era laws protecting small farmers, tenants and shopkeepers from corporate displacement or control. Second, it committed Japanese taxpayers to 430 trillion yen in new public works spending (with nary a word on environmental safeguards). And finally, it diverted outward popular outrage over these corporate-friendly developments, further inoculating the public mind against future American influence. This final point has become crucial. Once Western democracies are fully discredited as memetic sources (as communist nations once were for Americans), many conservative leaders believe populist threats to the corporate Establishment can be virtually eradicated.

Certainly, local immune forces are feverishly working to this end. For the past several years, for example, local rightists, watching their raison de etre evaporate with the collapse of Communism, have devoted themselves to surreal anti-Semitic campaigns that scarcely disguise an anti-Americanism that dare not yet speak its name.

Big ultra-nationalist groups are also currently active in East/West "culture clashes" like the whaling uproar. Carefully casting the whale issue in emotional racial/cultural/"us vs. them" terms, rightist black-bus artists have reprogrammed their loudspeakers with ear-splitting anti-western slogans. (Though they remain strangely silent on sources of last year's $80 million pro-whaling PR budget, a truly leviathan outlay for a $40 million marginal industry.)

Even mainstream media are playing along. Despite recent surveys showing that 70% of Americans have never heard of "Japan bashing," local news reports now apply the term wholesale to any foreign criticism, making it seem an epidemic and ominous Western obsession.

In sum, the authoritarian immunogentry are on the case, raising fears, resentment and outrage against intrusive foreign influence. But before Japan's body politic is re-inoculated against democratic pollution for another generation, there are a couple of things you can do.

Lend a hand. Find the groups and NGOs working for direct democracy in Japan help them any way you can. It may be a local issue to them, but citizens struggling to protect their families and neighborhoods anywhere are defending intimate resources that reflect and embody planetary interests. Especially in Japan, their battles have global implications that will eventually touch your life.

Second, work at home. Although SII having served its (local) purposes, is now officially dead, Japan's malignant trade surplus lives on and some new remedial policies will have to be proposed. If you live in a society where leaders listen, get involved. When foreign trade "experts" start ranting about Japanese price-fixing, bid-rigging and non-tariff barriers, point out that these are only the economic symptoms of a much deeper malaise. Just drop a polite postcard saying, "Worried about Japan, Inc.'s corporate advantage? So are environmentalists, human rights advocates, and many, many Japanese. Think systemically. It's the democracy, stupid!"

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