Cable TV has been re-running The Last Samurai, a film I never get tired of watching again and again for its superb direction, cinematography, costume and set design, and also for the superb acting of its main thespians, especially my favorite Japanese actor, Ken Watanabe. It also carries a very good storyline and the classic message, “Change is the only constant in life.” It will inevitably come and, when it does, it is insuppressible.
The film is about Japan’s samurai, the warrior class under the rule of the shoguns (warlords), who pledged their loyalty and life to the service of their emperor, who, until the end of WWII, was deified by his subjects. Samurai tradition had been at the base of Japanese society and culture for hundreds of years, from the Ashikaga Shogunate of the 12th century up to the Tokugawa Shogunate of the 19th century.
By the mid-19th century, Japan began to transform into a modern technological and industrial society. A new clique of powerful industrialists, collectively called zaibatsu, gained foothold and sway in the imperial court, effectively marginalizing the samurai. This was the beginning of the Meiji Era in Japanese history, which brought the culture of modernity and materialism to the land of the rising sun, and end to the feudalism and isolationism of the previous eras. Change began to blossom at the expense of many social structures that defined and distinguished the Japanese nation, which the samurai zealously guarded. One by one, the samurai lords began to join the new order and adopt western culture and technologies.
The last samurai (named in the film as “Katsumoto”) refused to follow the lead of his kinsmen. He waged a war of resistance to western influence, which he believed was out to destroy the very institutions he and his ancestors and class had stood for and fought to preserve. Armed only with traditional swords and arrows, he and his warriors eventually fell to the modern weaponry of an emergent Japanese army.
For Arnold Toynbee, historical and social transformations are products of the struggle between two contending forces, “challenge” and “response”. The survival and success of any group, society or civilization are directly proportional to its ability to see, understand, prepare for, and respond effectively to the challenges posed by change. Woe unto the society that lacks the foresight to read the signs of change and adequately prepare to meet the challenges it brings. The decline and eventual death of the shogunate could be ascribed to its inflexible traditionalism by which it completely disavowed change and even resisted its irrepressible inroad to Japanese society.
By the end of this year, the integration of ASEAN markets will officially start, which integration seeks to ensure free trade among member states by doing away with usual protective and restrictive economic measures. Even though fair balance-of-trade is also on the table, its achievability depends so much upon the industrial and infrastructural preparedness, among other conditions, of the state concerned as would enable it to position itself to meet the demands of international single-market economics.
The Philippines and our very own Palawan are in the middle of this sea of change. Yet, like mid-19th century Japan, lines are drawn between those who, on the one hand, want to preserve our natural and social environments by opposing, inter alia, large-scale infrastructural development that would alter or destroy its natural resources; and the provincial government, on the other hand, which supports that developmental need in the hope that the province would be in a position to entice and accommodate ASEAN businessmen, who would definitely align and direct their business and trade plans to where business opportunities and support are available upon the opening of the ASEAN free-trade floodgates.
In the midst of the standing conflict between these two opposing camps lies an inescapable truth: In spite of the acrimonious debate between them, radical change is still going to happen and it does not give a hoot about whose argument and stand is better. Change is change, and it will surely happen in the manner and character in which it presents itself. Like a locomotive train, it will rush to its appointed destination. It will not ask us if we welcome it; it is up to us if we want to be at the station platform when it arrives there. We either get on board when it stops by, or be left behind. It will not wait for laggards slumbering or arguing at the station or elsewhere. We cannot stand on its tracks in the hope of stopping it, lest we get trampled by it just like what happened to the Tokugawa Shogunate.
It is time, therefore, for all stakeholders in our society to set aside their personal agenda and differences and put their acts together by sitting down and discussing seriously and sincerely what have been prepared so far, and what are needed to be prepared still, to ensure an active and effective response to the arrival of the Change Express that will surely unload its cargo of sweeping challenges to all facets of life in this part of the world. Our survival and success depend on how well we are able to read, analyze, prepare for, and adapt to change, in a way that strikes a good balance between conservatism and progressivism, between what our society presently is and how it must be when that change comes, just like Meiji Japan did.
Change is coming. Are we ready to man the stations with an effective, all-inclusive response plan? Or, are we still ensconced in our respective comfort zones, backdoor dealing and bickering with “all the sounds and fury” that, for change, “signify nothing”?