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New Left Review 8, March-April 2001


Japan's flashy gangsters look to be the antithesis of its austere emperors. Bertell Ollman contends that there is a structural connexion between them. Rule by an unelected bureaucracy requires an inviolate imperial symbol for compensating legitimacy, which must in turn be shielded from queries or criticisms by criminal thugs. An American Marxist challenges the central taboo of Japanese public life.

BERTELL OLLMAN

WHY DOES THE EMPEROR NEED THE YAKUZA?

Prolegomenon to a Marxist Theory of the Japanese State

On June 5, 1999, a junior high school principal in Osaka was stabbed and seriously injured by a member of the yakuza, Japan’s mafia. He had refused to raise the hinomaru—the Rising Sun flag—or allow the kimigayo anthem (‘Let the Emperor Rule Forever’) to be sung at the graduation ceremony. In February, the principal of a high school near Hiroshima had been driven to suicide: conflicting pressures from the Ministry of Education, ordering the use of song and flag, and from his own teachers, urging him to stand firm, had proved unendurable. A show of respect for the national symbols was made mandatory in Japanese schools in 1989, but it is only in the last two years that it has been seriously enforced. What is going on here? And why has a seemingly minor cultural dispute blown up into such a major political controversy, with such dire, even fatal, consequences for some of its participants?

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