To be or not
That is the conundrum
By: Paul J. Scalise
What does it mean to be Japanese? If
that sounds like a loaded question, it's because it is. But before
curling up lips in cynicism, it's useful to remember how serious
the question once seemed. Not so long ago, when the epicenter of
global debate on anything from economics to comparative sociology
inevitably led back to the Japanese business model, two innocuous
little words also made their debut: Wareware Nihonjin, or
Almost everyone in Japan from the local cab driver to the average
high-school student were wont to ascribe "We Japanese" as a proxy
for the much broader and ill-defined features of the "Japanese Miracle"
itself: industrial organization, Japanese-style management, devotion
to company, biological determinism and so forth. In the process,
these actors plead for understanding to many of the bilateral trade
frictions with America on the grounds of a unique national character.
After all, they argued, if trade were allowed to take place it would
offend Japan's cultural sensitivities—not its inefficient
monopolies resistant to competition. This melding of blissful ignorance,
dogmatic arrogance, utopian idealism and pop psychology formed the
core of what is today commonly referred to as Nihonjinron,
or theories on the nature of "Japaneseness."
Two recently published books compliment each other as they explore
the assumptions beneath this controversial thicket. John Lie's
Multiethnic Japan analyzes how the dominant view of an ethnically
homogenous country is a myth built on a sandbar. Harumi Befu's
Hegemony of Homogeneity: An Anthropological Analysis of Nihonjinron
considers why that myth almost became a civil religion. Both authors
remind the reader how human the search for identity can be when
faced with uncertainty and doubt.
At the time of publication, John Lie was professor of sociology
at the University of Illinois. Some iconoclasts would approach the
topic of Japanese uniqueness as an annoyance to be quickly dismissed.
Not Mr. Lie. Lest there be room for doubt, he wields a sledgehammer,
smashing graven images many Japanese hold dear. Leveraging personal
experience with a broad range of academic research materials and
face-to-face interviews in several languages, the author aptly demonstrates
that "if the dominant view of modern Japanese society were correct,
then Multiethnic Japan would be either an oxymoron or an
occasion for a very short essay." At 248 pages, we have our answer.
foundation for his analysis stems from a statistical observation.
How is it that a nation comprising of Ainu, Okinawans, Koreans,
Chinese, children of mixed ancestry and foreigners—some 5%
of the total population and similar to that of the United Kingdom's
foreign makeup in the early 1990s—behaves as though monoethnicity
were an undisputable fact? Are the emerging statistics the product
of postwar immigration or a permanent—yet deliberately ignored—feature
of Japan's imperial past?
need for identity itself is emblematic of a misplaced
be sure, cognitive dissonance can be a national pastime. As a prewar
imperial power, the current idea of "one nation, one people" was
not only incompatible with the Japanese empire's "Greater East Asian
Co-Prosperity Sphere," it conflicted with simple fact: Much of the
culture was a byproduct of the Asian mainland. Whether examining
dishes (ramen), or games (pachinko) or genres
(enka), one inevitably comes across clear examples of ethnic
heterogeneity and cultural hybridity in postwar pop culture.
Indeed, Multiethnic Japan reads like a welcome collection
of sober rebuttals. Few readers would have suspected, for example,
that Seibu department store was founded by a Japanese of Korean
descent; or that Kitano "Beat" Takeshi, arguably the leading entertainer
in Japan since the 1980s, is also part Korean. Given the chance,
the list can easily grow: The actress Matsuzaka Keiko, the singer
Misora Hibari and the wrestler Rikidozan are all of Korean ancestry;
Sumo superstar Taiho's father was Russian; and the baseball star,
Oh Sadaharu, was of Taiwanese origin. All of these figures (and
many more) heralded as symbols of the Japanese race are, in fact,
the opposite—symbols of its multiethnicity.
Which leads us to ask: When and why did the idea of a monoethnic
Japan arise? "The discourse of Japaneseness," argues Mr. Lie, "emerged
as the dominant response to the question of Japanese identity in
the late 1960s." A postwar ideology, monoethnic Japan found its
leading proponents in Ishihara Shintaro (now Tokyo governor) and
the late Mishima Yukio, two prominent writers who did more than
any others, in Mr. Lie's view, to replace pre-war Japan's ultra
nationalism, emperor worship and militarism with a postwar ideology
centered around economic growth, exceptionalism and racial purity.
In Hegemony of Homogeneity, anthropolgist Harumi Befu expands
upon this framework. Unlike Mr. Lie's proactive stance towards debunking
pervasive myths, Mr. Befu adopts a more staid approach; he explores
"Nihonjinron in its various guises": non-verbal communication
patterns, group think and race and blood, to name a few. While Mr.
Lie takes the assertion of Japanese uniqueness at face value, Mr.
Befu places it within an international context. He views Nihonjinron
as an example of a universal phenomenon to fulfill the need
for identity. Sadly, even the myth of Japanese uniqueness fails
to be uniquely Japanese.
The national flag, the national anthem and the Chrysanthemum throne
are symbols that commonly capture the idea of the nation. Disaffected
segments and generations of the population may disagree with them,
but what makes Nihonjinron Japan's civil religion is that
no other body of discourse can claim a higher degree of consensus.
Put differently, the reason Nihonjinron prevails is simply because
there is a lack of palatable alternatives.
It was Friedrich Nietzsche who once said that all things that live
long enough are gradually so saturated with reason that their origin
in unreason soon becomes improbable. Had he lived to witness the
20th century, one wonders whether Nietzsche would have viewed Western
preoccupations such as multiculturalism and political correctness
or Japan's obsession with uniqueness and national identity as the
On this score, the need for identity itself is emblematic of misplaced
insecurity. We begin to see what really lies beneath many of the
arguments bandied about at the height of the U.S.-Japan trade wars
of the 1980s and 90s. The rapid influx of Asian immigration into
Japan, the rising (and then setting) economic sun and the disenfranchisement
of Tokyo's leadership in Asia are the catalysts to the rapidly emerging
"Who are we?" industry.
Where these authors materially diverge is in what the myth of Japanese
uniqueness means for the future—a subject every serious Asia
watcher should ponder. Whereas Mr. Lie views the uniqueness myth
to be slowly giving way to multiculturalism and acceptance, Mr.
Befu is less sanguine. Overt state suppression of contrary views
may be gone and emperor worship replaced with more secular nationalism,
but to quote Mr. Befu: "The contemporary positive evaluation of
Japan, emanating from the grass roots, may perhaps be a stronger,
more firmly rooted affair than the wartime Nihonjinron." His conclusion:
"This contemporary trend may be something to worry about."
In any case, both books serve as valuable reality checks to Nihonjinron's
pseudoscientific fodder in the postwar period. They should be read
and re-read, discussed and debated, but never dismissed. So, the
next time Ishihara Shintaro speaks for "We Japanese," the next time
a politician demands certain industries be protected on cultural
grounds, the next time immigration is roundly condemned, it's a
good idea to remember that these are just birth pangs of the insecure
and the confused. It may not seem very "Japanese," but it's certainly
“To Be or Not to Be. . .Japanese: That is the conundrum.” Asian
Wall Street Journal, Culture and Thought, February 28, 2003,
Copyright 2002-2005 JapanReview.Net, All rights reserved