Multi-Ethnic Japan:  book cover

Book Info:
Multi-Ethnic Japan
By John Lie
Harvard University Press; ISBN: 0674002997; January 2001; pp. 288

Hegemony of Homogeneity:  book cover

Book Info:
Hegemony of Homogeneity: An Anthropological Analysis of Nihonjinron
By Harumi Befu
Trans Pacific Press; ISBN: 1876843055; March 2001; pp. 181

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To be or not to be…Japanese: 
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 "We Japanese."

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.

 The 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?

...The need for identity itself is emblematic of a misplaced insecurity...

To 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 larger delusion.

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 human.

“To Be or Not to Be. . .Japanese: That is the conundrum.” Asian Wall Street Journal, Culture and Thought, February 28, 2003, p. 9. 

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