Son Of A Gunnar

Cold War To COVID-19, A Swedish Priest Answers Susan Sontag

A construction worker in Gdansk, Poland — April 8, 2020
A construction worker in Gdansk, Poland — April 8, 2020
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The late American essayist Susan Sontag theorized that people are drawn to watching disaster films to help normalize and rationalize what we find psychologically unbearable. Watching a fictionalized apocalypse on the screen, she argued, inures us to the possibility that a real one may arrive.

Sontag's idea in 1965 about the need for a remedy to global anxiety rings true today, in a bitter new way, for my generation. Yet, after three months of witnessing a real-life disaster unfold on our computer and smartphone screens, what some are openly wishing for now is not normalization — but rather that the end of COVID-19 may actually (finally) bring us some sense that there's hope for the future. What is it today that has felt so psychologically unbearable for young people?

Perhaps such big questions are indeed best answered by the likes of Susan Sontag, but in her absence I went for the next best thing — an old priest. He offered this:

- Do you believe in God?

- No, and I don't believe (in) you either.

This exchange between a reporter and a Moscow resident took place sometime towards the end of the Cold War. The old priest, who also happens to be my father, explained to me over the phone last week that the issue was not the disbelief in God, but the disbelief in everything else.

The Swedish world my parents entered into in the 1950s, like most of the West, was one marked by a firm belief in the promises of technological progress and economic growth. Fast-forward to 1989, when I was born, and that belief had already started to fade. Today, technology has become the very thing that undermines the economic prospects for many of us.

The issue was not the disbelief in God, but the disbelief in everything else.

After hanging up with my dad, I realized that in Swedish we use the verb "att tro," "to believe" and "to believe in" something or someone interchangeably. That returned me to the present, where the health pandemic was joined on our screens and in our streets by the Black Lives Matter movement — at once a testament of our lack of trust in the authorities telling us to stay at home, and a protest against a society we may no longer believe in at all.

Of course, my parents' generation of Les Trente Glorieuses had their own, and not so trivial, worries about nuclear war. But as my dad pointed out, it was a threat that was more clearly defined — and a burden shared by all. So what might unite us today: a global pandemic, racial justice, robots taking our jobs…?

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A Dove From Hiroshima: Is Fumio Kishida Tough Enough To Lead Japan?

Japan's new prime minister is facing the twin challenges of COVID-19 and regional tensions, and some wonder whether he can even last as long as his predecessor, who was forced out after barely one year.

Japan's new PM Fumio Kishida in Tokyo on Sept. 29

Daisuke Kondo


TOKYO — When Fumio Kishida, Japan's new prime minister. introduced himself earlier this month, he announced that the three major projects of his premiership will be the control of the ongoing pandemic; a new type of capitalism; and national security.

Kishida also pledged to deal with China "as its neighbor, biggest trade partner and an important nation which Japan should continue to dialogue with."

Nothing too surprising. Still, it was a rapid turn of events that brought him to the top job, taking over for highly unpopular predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, who had suddenly announced his resignation from office.

After a fierce race, Kishida defeated Taro Kono to become the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and pave the way for the prime minister's job.

Born into politics

A key reason for Kishida's victory is the improving health situation, following Japan's fifth wave of the COVID pandemic that coincided with this summer's Olympic Games in Tokyo.

The best way to describe Kishida is to compare him to a sponge: not the most interesting item in a kitchen, yet it can absorb problems and clean up muck. His slogan ("Leaders exist to make other people shine") reflects well his political philosophy.

He is an excellent actor.

Kishida was born into a political family: His grandfather and father were both parliament members. Between the ages of six to nine, he studied in New York because of his father's work at the time. He attended the most prestigious private secondary school — the Kaisei Academy, of which about half of its graduates go to the University of Tokyo.

However, after failing three times the entrance exam to , Kishida finally settled for Waseda University. Coming from a family where virtually all the men went to UTokyo, this was Kishida's first great failure in life.

An invitation for Obama

After he graduated from college, Kishida worked for five years in a bank before serving as secretary for his father, Fumitake Kishida. In 1992, his father suddenly died at the age of 65. The following year, Kishida inherited his father's legacy to be elected as a member of the House of Representatives for the Hiroshima constituency. Since then, he has been elected successfully nine straight times, and served as Shinzo Abe's foreign minister for four years, beginning in December 2012. A former subordinate of his from that time commented on Kishida:

"If we are to sum him up in one sentence, he is an excellent actor. Whenever he was meeting his peers from other countries, we would remind him what should be emphasized, or when a firm, unyielding 'No' was necessary, and so on ... At the meetings, he would then put on his best show, just like an actor."

According to some insiders, during this period as foreign minister, his toughest stance was on nuclear weapons. This is due to the fact that his family hails from Hiroshima.

In 2016, following his suggestion, the G7 Ise-Shima Summit was held in Hiroshima, which meant that President Barack Obama visited the city — the first visit by a U.S. president to Hiroshima, where 118,661 lives were annihilated by the U.S. atomic bomb.

Photo of Shinzo Abe, Barack Obama and Fumio Kishida with their backs to the camera, in Hiroshima in 2016

Shinzo Abe, Barack Obama and Fumio Kishida in Hiroshima in 2016

Japanese cynics

In September, 2020 when Shinzo Abe stepped down as prime minister, Kishida put out his candidacy for the first time for LDP's presidency. He didn't even get close. This was his second great failure.

But reading his biography, Kishida Vision, I must say that besides the two aforementioned hiccups, Kishida's life has been smooth sailing over the past 64 years

When one has had a happy and easy life, one tends to think that human nature is fundamentally good. Yet, the world doesn't work like that. And Japanese tend to believe that "human nature is vice," and have always felt a bit uneasy with the dovish Kishida diplomacy when he was foreign minister.

Leftist traditions from Hiroshima

Hiroshima has always been a city with a leftist political tradition. Kishida's character, coupled with the fact that he belongs to the moderate Kochikai faction within the LDP, inevitably means that he won't be a right-wing prime minister.

How long will a Fumio Kishida government last?

Kishida would never have the courage to be engaged in any military action alongside Japan's ally, the United States, nor will he set off to rewrite the country's constitution.

So after barely a year of Yoshihide Suga in office, how long will a Fumio Kishida government last? If Japan can maintain its relatively stable health situation for some time, it could be a while. But if COVID comes roaring back, and the winter brings a sixth wave of the pandemic as virtually all Japanese experts in infectious diseases have predicted, then Kishida may just end up like Suga. No sponge can clean up that mess.

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