A CHANGE of consciousness'' is a phrase that has become rather popular among Japanese commentators. On a television talk show recently, a well-known politician was listing all the things that the Japanese would have to do if they were to be accepted as full-fledged members of the international community: Give up the herd instinct that says the safest way to cross a bridge is for everyone to go together. Express our viewpoint clearly and don't try to build a vague consensus around a meaningless formula of words. Welcome diversity. Encourage individual creativity.
``Oh,'' the host intervened. ``What you're calling for is a change of consciousness.''
``That's exactly right,'' the politician said.
I wondered how many Americans discussing the future of their country would talk in terms of changing consciousness. Wouldn't they say, rather, that what Americans need to do is to get back to the basics, to the principles enunciated by the founding fathers 200 years ago and still not fully realized?
The United States, a continent in size, has never come under pressure from outside the country to change its basic political or social structure. Development and change have been initiated from within, and always with a view to perfecting a vision that from the beginning was sweeping in its universalism.
But in Japan changing consciousness is an apt term for the task ahead. Twice within the last 150 years the Japanese have had to undergo this process. Both times, the immediate occasion was very strong pressure coming from the outside, complemented by a realization within the country that change was essential if the nation was to survive.
First came the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the overthrow of the feudal Tokugawa Shogunate, and the new Emperor's pledge to ``seek knowledge widely from the world.'' That change was initiated when Commodore Matthew Perry sailed his squadron of ``black ships'' almost right up to the Shogun's castle and de-manded in President Millard Fillmore's name that Japan open its doors to the world. It took 15 years from Perry's first visit to achieve the overthrow of feudalism, and the accompanying change of consciousness took much longer. In some ways it was still going on when the second cataclysmic event in modern Japanese history occurred: defeat in World War II and occupation by American forces under Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Looking back on this second transformation, some conservative Japanese jeered that the only real change was stronger stockings (nylon instead of silk) and stronger women (they got the vote). The traditionalists contended that an ethnically homogeneous people at least 2,000 years old were not going to be easily changed by high-flown phrases about democracy and individual rights in an occupation-imposed constitution.
More recently, Western so-called Japan-bashers have echoed the traditionalist argument. But the Japan-is-unique school, whether Japanese or Western, ignored the living, breathing nature of human beings and that, within a single lifetime, individual and group consciousnesses do change - sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly.
The Japan of the Meiji period did not enter a static Western World. America had just undergone the trauma of the Civil War, the first national effort to apply the ringing phrases of the Declaration of Independence that ``all men are created equal.''
Britain had fought the Opium War with China and had put down a massive mutiny in India. In the Mother of Parliaments, reformers were working hard to eliminate corruption from the election system and to humanize ``dark satanic mills.'' Neither in Britain nor in America did women have the vote.
The Meiji Japanese drank in eagerly, without much discrimination, all aspects of Western thought and ways of doing things. Some even advocated making English the official language. But the government was led mostly by samurai - members of the feudal warrior class - and Japan's political, economic, and social systems eventually settled into a mixture of authoritarianism and liberalism.
Defeat and the subsequent MacArthur era gave liberal Western ideas a second chance, and once again a seemingly endless series of discussions and debates over democracy and human rights took place. At first, the majority of Japanese were too preoccupied with making a bare living to pay much attention.
That is no longer the case. Japan has become an economic superpower, buying and selling throughout the world, a presence that no one can ignore, yet mentally still clinging to the habits of the days when the country was poor and small and not much noticed. Once again the pressure for change ballooned outside Japan, coming from Americans and Europeans who bore the brunt of Japan's trade offensive and who demanded that Japan open itself up and complement its economic prowess with a greater sense of responsibility for helping to manage the global community.
These days, however, internal pressure for a change of consciousness is growing, arising from the recognition that Japan has become too big and too independent for the rest of the world to hold it mentally at arm's length. Twice before in modern history the Japanese have risen to the challenge. Surely they can do so again.