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Young Star

Japan’s Godzilla-sized problem

IN A NUTSHELL - Samantha King - The Philippine Star

Japan’s most famous monster-sized import is rich in symbolism: from being a symbol of military destruction to a sign sent by Mother Nature, the possibilities are endless.

Godzilla couldn’t have come at a better time. And no, I’m not referring to Gareth Edwards’ 2014 offering, although the Hollywood remake does coincide with the 60th anniversary of everyone’s favorite reptile.

While moviegoers are all abuzz with excitement over the return of fat Godzilla (see botched 1998 version for comparison), Japan finds itself paralyzed by a territorial dispute with China over the energy-rich Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Located in the East China Sea, the islands may be under the actual sovereignty of Japan, but China’s quest to take over the world has it playing the “historic claim” card for what may just be the zillionth time now. 

So far, the Chinese have sent coast guard vessels, a drone, and some bombers near the disputed region. Japan has responded with a deployment of its own — jets which can look, but not touch. After all, under their post-WWII constitution, Japan doesn’t possess an army, a navy, or an air force. The country is technically only allowed to react with the barest minimum for self-preservation, the guiding light behind its Special Defense Forces.

This ultra-pacifism is what beleaguers the nation now, as combative PM Shinzo Abe tries to convince citizens and the world that it’s high time for Japan to flex its military muscle again. Meanwhile, opinion polls show that apart from a minority of right-wing sympathizers, most of the Japanese don’t want anything to do with military buildup, the stigma of Japan’s former aggression weighing heavy on their minds.

So what does Godzilla have to do with all this? Nothing much, really. Except that he was an early product of the years after the war, commonly perceived as some sort of allegory: Godzilla as the USA, destroyer of cities; Godzilla as a warning, that nuclear energy can only do harm. And as Godzilla started to take on new roles, so did his symbolism. One popular interpretation likens the King of Monsters to the whims of Mother Nature, banking heavily on the curious geographic location of Japan.

Japan, which straddles three tectonic plates, is a veritable beacon for natural disasters: earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, you name it. And yet, if you’ve ever been there, you’ll find the country is home to the coolest summers and loveliest springtime. In this sense, nature is as redeeming as she is destructive, just like Godzilla. In the six decades since his conception, the giant reptile has shuffled between hero, villain, and the personification of the force of nature. Indeed, the kaiju (strange creature) genre to which Godzilla belongs has proven to be more malleable than most. You can weave a web of meaning around the monster mythos any way you want — in response to Japan’s surrender at the hands of the Allied forces, in response to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the country.  

For my part, I’d like to think of Godzilla (and the lesser giant monster repertoire — King Kong, Gamera, the legion of Kamen Rider and Ultraman nemeses, etc.) as a manifestation of Japan’s divided consciousness. For years the nation has adopted a creed of pacifism, attempting to banish its violent legacy with an almost obsessive outlook on peace. They aren’t allowed to come to the defense of allies, aren’t allowed to conduct combat operations. This has made Japan heavily reliant on the US for self-defense, and notably weaker in defense spending compared to China.

And yet, the country remains ambiguous about the full extent of its role in the war. Atrocities like the Rape of Nanjing and the army’s exploitation of comfort women have been heavily whitewashed in history textbooks; Japan’s post-war PMs continue to visit the infamous Yasukuni Shrine, memorial to their WWII war criminals. 

Japan is a society with an inherent affinity for warrior culture. Samurai and their code of excellence, bushido, figure proudly in the nation’s history. So you can imagine how the cultural taboo against military might has added to the nation’s schizophrenia, where Japan, despite being Asia’s first real superpower, remains trapped in its past.

Perhaps Godzilla and the rest of the kaiju provide Japanese society some form of release, in a way. The giant monster trope functions as a venue for Japan to channel its aspirations about might — about being perceived as the hero, for once; about being lauded, not condemned, for its status as a force to be reckoned with. This aspiration is made even more relevant today, with the polarizing issue of whether to amend Japan’s constitutionally-enshrined pacifist stance.

It remains to be seen, however, whether Japan can truly wear the role of a “benevolent” superpower. The US, after all, has been careful in the crafting of its international image — ranks of its individual superheroes with their all-American values have thoroughly charmed/manipulated global pop consciousness.

Godzilla is too majestic, too inhuman.

Maybe one day, Japan will finally come to terms with itself, and exit from the battle in the manner of its most famous monster: sublime, yet tame.

DIAOYU ISLANDS EAST CHINA SEA GARETH EDWARDS GODZILLA JAPAN KAMEN RIDER AND ULTRAMAN KING KONG KING OF MONSTERS MOTHER NATURE PERHAPS GODZILLA
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