On the one hand, it was refreshing—borderline shocking, really—to see Shinzo Abe, the buttoned-down Japanese prime minister, show his lighter side at the closing ceremony of the Rio Olympics. On the other, can you imagine the leader of any other country doing adult cosplay on top of a giant green tube? Abe himself seemed to have doubts about the spectacle, suddenly realizing that he was, in fact, waving a floppy red hat and holding a red ball in front of millions of people, like some variation of the dream where you’re standing naked in front of the class.
Other countries are, to a fault, intent on demonstrating their strength. (Hello, America.) But Japan is almost perverse in its opposite commitment to flaunting its gentle benignity. This is especially relevant since Abe is considered a hard-liner on issues of national security, and for years has been trying to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution. The result may seem schizophrenic—paying tribute to Japanese war criminals one day, and dressing up as a cute video game character the next. But it is actually of a piece with Japan’s post-war tension between asserting itself as a global power and apologizing for its rapacious militarism in World War II.