In any other country, no one would have noticed what Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said at the recent Grand Sumo tournament in Tokyo. But Japan isn't any other country, and his words created a small sensation.
Koizumi, who became prime minister in April and gets the highest approval ratings since they started keeping records, was watching from the royal box as a drama of remarkable fortitude unfolded. Takanohana, one of the great wrestlers, had torn a ligament on the previous day, but by an impressive act of will he stayed in the tournament and won the championship.
Everyone knew what should have followed. Sumo events, part sport and part ritual, follow a script. Presenting the Prime Minister's Cup, Koizumi was expected to read the same ceremonial phrases of honour and felicitation that have accompanied sumo tournaments for as long as anyone can remember.
And he did read them, but then -- this was the part that made news -- he added comments of his own: "You stuck it out despite the pain. I was thrilled. Congratulations."
The Japanese, far from deploring Koizumi's break with tradition, took it as yet another reason to adore him. The Asahi Shimbun ran a cartoon that showed someone presenting a cup labelled "public support" to Koizumi while saying "You stuck it out. I was thrilled." His small act of apparent emotional spontaneity was taken as a sign that perhaps he is not a prime minister like the others, not a servant of the ruling coterie and a tool of the bureaucrats who have been the country's real rulers for half a century. Perhaps his promises (stimulate business competition, sort out the public debt, overhaul the bureaucracy, reform the legal system) would not be as empty as the promises of the last half-dozen prime ministers.
His words also added to the impression that Koizumi may have the style to nudge the public in a somewhat threatening new direction. He's a third-generation member of the ancient governing party, the LDP, but he ran as a maverick and certainly doesn't seem to be a standard-issue politician: A Times of London writer recently called him "a long-haired, divorced, heavy metal rock fan." Is it possible that he's that rarity in Japanese public life, an individualist?
The same day I read the news from the sumo tournament I was looking at an article, "Resurfacing Individualism in Japan Today," by Shingo Kashima, an editor in Tokyo. It appeared in Japanese Book News, a Japan Foundation journal that charts the movement of ideas in Japan.
Kashima summarized The Frontier Within, a report published last year by the Prime Minister's Commission on Japan's Goals in the 21st Century. That report, as Kashima says, proclaims the dawning of "the century of the individual," and proposes "a momentous about-face: entrusting the revitalization of society and the economy to individual initiative and ambition." It says the convoy system, by which the government protected industries with a web of regulations and guidance, no longer works. Japan needs to give entrepreneurs a chance to bring the economy to life.
That's an earth-shaking idea, which to most people will sound both revolutionary and unJapanese. In the days when Japan was exuberantly prosperous and the world was eager to learn its secret, Western theorists claimed that culture and character explained the Japanese economy's strength: Business operated in Japan by consensus, a better system than competition and egotism.
Today, few would make that argument. After living with a stalled economy for a decade or so, the Japanese are wondering whether their culture and character also led to economic failure. Is a lack of individualism the problem? Can you have too much consensus?
Those who study Japanese society may find this idea outlandish. A national commission wants to transform the Japanese into individuals? As well preach loquacity to the Swedes, or abstinence to the Russians, or humility to the French. It's just not on.
But there's a theory that the Japanese have not always been so committed to consensus. As the report says, arguments in favour of individualism go back more than a century. Kashima believes there were always "currents of yearning for freedom" in Japan; they flowed largely out of sight through the 20th century but are beginning once again to reveal themselves.
In 1998, Carmi Schooler, an American sociologist, wrote a paper on the history of Japanese individualism in the International Journal of Comparative Sociology. She pointed out that Japan in the 16th century developed something like the European Renaissance, and for decades there was enough social mobility to encourage individualism.
But from 1603 to 1867, the Tokugawa rulers enforced the stratification of society into a hierarchy of "nobles, warriors, farmers, artisans, merchants and impure untouchables." By the 20th century, Japan had raised group loyalty almost to the level of a religious principle. The Japanese so carefully refrained from egotistic self-assertion that this came to be seen as a defining national trait, the result of cultural tradition, possibly even innately Japanese.
But Schooler says that as Japan grows more complex, individualism re-appears. The more decisions individuals must make, the likelier they are to become individualists.
She sees individualism arising during recent times in the place where character is initially formed, maternal care. Research in the 1960s suggested that Japanese mothers blurred the distinction between their infants and themselves, and didn't expect or encourage individual differences in children. Partly by this practice, Japanese families reproduced the emphasis on group interdependence. But Schooler writes that maternal behaviour has been changing and becoming more individualistic, encouraging independence in infants. In this, it appears, mothers consciously or unconsciously reflect a new national ethos.
It may be that the bureaucracies will continue to win all the battles; it may be that Koizumi, like so many before him, will turn out to be the bland salaryman's friend and the daring individualist's enemy. But Japan has changed quickly before, and it's not impossible that the people will collectively decide to revive their ancient spirit of individualism. Should that happen, historians describing the early years of the 21st century will note the irony that Japan rediscovered the power of the individual spirit partly through a government report and the personality of an elite party politician.