Your RDA of Irony

I Sink; Therefore I Was

June 4, 1942:  Zen and the Art of Aircraft Carrier Maintenance

According to the best-sellers list from 30 years ago, the Japanese were expected to be running the universe by now. The Yen was almighty, and the rest of the world was simply Japan’s outer islands. Any aspiring entrepreneur was told to think like a samurai–except for the hara-kiri. Corporations restructured themselves on the basis of two viewings of “Yojimbo.”

Of course, we now know that the Chinese will dominate the world. (No, it was not a case of mistaken identity. There is a physical difference between the Chinese and Japanese; the Japanese dress better.) The Japanese may actually have overworked themselves into their decline. While putting in 80 hours a week at the job, they forgot to reproduce. Perhaps a 15 minute “coppy” break in the work day could have replenished the demographics; unfortunately, the Japanese sense of hygiene must have been a detriment. Japan now has a dwindling population.

No, the Japanese “invincibility” of the Eighties was simply that they were methodical. They knew a good idea when they stole one. Think of all the Japanese inventions. That didn’t take long. But consider how they successfully developed and marketed those products. If you would like an American television set, go to the Smithsonian. In fact, Japan was the first to use cheap Chinese labor for manufacturing. (The Chinese also know a good idea when they steal it.)

The Japanese are thoroughly methodical but they have no talent for improvisation. How many Japanese comedians do you know? At an open-mike night in a Tokyo club, people would reenact their favorite scenes from Kabuki. This lack of spontaneity would explain why Kurosawa made so few comedies and why the Japanese lost the battle of Midway.

On this day in 1942, a Japanese fleet found itself totally disoriented (sorry but I couldn’t resist) by the presence of a smaller American force at Midway. The Japanese were surprised to find three evidently hostile aircraft carriers confronting them. No doubt, the Japanese would have liked a few days to contemplate the petals of a chrysanthemum and develop a brilliant strategy in a haiku. But we Americans are always in a rush–fighting a two-front war can be hectic–so we rather brusquely sank four Japanese carriers. Apparently, Zen is not a good defense.

If the Japanese were a more spontaneous people, they would not been so stupefied by the surprises of war. Did they think that they had a monopoly on surprise attacks? Admiral Yamamoto did graduate work at Harvard but apparently none at the Lampoon. Just imagine if the Japanese fleet at Midway had been commanded instead by a Groucho Marx. The Japanese could have quickly reacted and reduced the American fleet to the equivalent of Margaret Dumont.

But the Japanese mind lacked that flexibility. You can’t fly by the seat of your pants when wearing a kimono.

  1. Michael Gury says:

    Interesting post, Mr. FireFly. It sort of depends on whether you are talking about pants or underpants. I can’t possibly comment on how I deck myself out in my kimono, especially when I take my Zero out for a run. It seems that we didn’t deploy Margaret Dumont as a weapon during the war. Think about it; had we done so, we wouldn’t have had to create the Atomic Bomb. As for Mr. Marx, he could well have provided considerable leadership or at least a foil for Doug MacArthur in: “MacArthur, the Musical”. Your note that Yamamoto was at Harvard is interesting. He never made it to the Lampoon, but he did make it to the Hasty Pudding, where he appeared in drag as “Fifi” in a production called “Lollipop”, alongside Fred Gwynne. Who says Japanese people can’t be comedians? Yamamoto doing the theme song from “Lollipop” brought the house down every night.

  2. Wimple says:

    Puts me in mind of the scene from “1941” when the Japanese are trying to squeeze a rather large radio down the hatch of their submarine. “We should find a way to make these smaller.”

  3. rio imamura says:

    My pc was down awhile, so this is a belated reply.

    Enjoyable read and I don’t deny anything about the Midway defeat, the turning point of war.
    The invincible Battleship Yamato is one of the big prewar laughs.

    Most staff coming from the Ruth Benedict’s Chrysanthemum and the Sword.

    Please correct spelling of Kurosawa’s name.

    Are you aware of the Japanese Rakugo? You might say it’s also methodical?

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Mr. Imamura speaks with a certain authority and insight on this topic.

      I certainly misspelled Kurosawa’s name and I have made the correction. Fortunately, my heritage can live with guilt–and probably thrives on it.

      “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” is a famous anthrological study of Japan, written in the perfectly objective time of the 1940s. (Of course, if you are right; you don’t need to be objective.) However I am not familiar with Rakugo–but now I will look it up. Am I to assume that it is an improvisional form of entertainment?

      Thank you for your edifying contribution.


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