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Thoughts on Japan

Kingaku kara no omoi - 金額からの思い

Thoughts on Japan from the National Institute of Japanese Studies. University of Sheffield

April 03, 2009

Nonsense About Nihonjin

One of the traps it’s easiest to fall into when you start living in a foreign country and start noticing that people don’t seem to behave the way they do back home, or institutions don’t seem to work in the way you’re used to, is to start making broad generalisations about the reasons why. We all do it – it’s just so tempting to say, ‘Oh, people here do such-and-such because they’re Japanese,’ or ‘Japanese companies/shops/governments just work that way, because they’re Japanese,’ without looking for deeper causes. It’s only a short step from that to making generalisations about what the Japanese are like: ‘Japanese are group oriented,’ ‘Japanese don’t feel guilt,’ ‘Japanese aren’t religious’ – I could go on, but I’m sure you get the point. You may even have said similar things yourself, when asked about Japan by family and friends – I know I have.

On one level, there’s nothing wrong with making statements like this, as most people asking, ‘What’s Japan like?’ aren’t looking for an in-depth anthropological or sociological discussion, just a quick explanation. Equally, however, you always need to keep in mind that any simplistic statement is likely to conceal just as much as it reveals, and I’m sure that you do, for the most part. A conversation with friends or family, however, isn’t likely to cause much damage to Japan’s relations with the rest of the world, but what would happen if some of those broad generalisations made it into print, were widely disseminated and came to be believed as representing the truth about Japan and the Japanese?

Well, believe it or not, this is what did happen for a period during the 1970s and early 1980s, with the uncritical acceptance by many academic specialists on Japan of a stream of publications coming under the general heading of nihonjinron 日本人論 – a term which translates loosely as ‘theories of the Japanese’ – produced by Japanese writers about almost every aspect of Japan: linguistic, social, cultural, historical, and even scientific. Many of these works were extremely influential in Japan, being widely read by the general public, and the theses they contained gained broad acceptance in the media, popular culture and even some facets of Japanese academia. Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that non-Japanese attempting to research Japan should come to think there must be something in all these writings, and to use them when seeking to ‘explain’ Japan to those outside it. It’s even less surprising that non-Japanese media sources and non-specialist writers should pick up on the contents of these English language nihonjinron-based works, and believe that the contents were an accurate description of the way Japan ‘really was’, and thus these ideas made their way into popular ideas about Japan and the Japanese and, unfortunately, still remain there to a great extent.

The simple fact of the matter is, however, that much of what was written in the nihonjinron was, not to put too fine a point on it, nonsense, which was academically indefensible, scientifically inaccurate, or unprovable.

The single key thesis, running through almost all nihonjinron, was that Japan was a unique case in the world’s societies and cultures, and as a corollary of this, there was an essential core at the heart of all things Japanese which was inexplicable to, and incomprehensible by, anyone who was not born and brought up in Japan as a Japanese. Furthermore, these characteristics held true for all of Japan and could be contrasted with the characteristics of a monolithic ‘West.’ This was both wonderful and seductive, as it meant that any questions asked about how Japanese society, culture, language, or institutions worked could be answered simply with the explanation, ‘They work that way because they are Japanese,’ and any disagreeable analyses could be dismissed, because the researcher, not being Japanese, ‘couldn’t really understand Japan.’ This was an extremely useful defence mechanism, and a good way of deflecting attention from uncomfortable truths.

What sort of ideas are contained in the nihonjinron?

Well, at the moderate end of the scale, there’s sociologist Nakane Chie, who argues that non-Japanese sociological models don’t fit the Japanese reality, and that scholars using these methods tend to dismiss what doesn’t fit as ‘feudal residues’, whereas, in fact, they are repositories of the uniqueness of Japan. In the field of linguistics, there’s Kindaichi Haruhiko, who argues that Japanese should be compared with the Germanic languages (English, German Dutch, Danish, etc.), ignoring the fact that all of these are different and have their own histories and dialects. Other writers too numerous to mention have argued that the Japanese language contains an ineffable component – represented by yamato kotoba 大和言葉, that is, ‘pure’ Japanese vocabulary – which is uniquely suited to describing Japanese situations and conditions, and is essentially untranslatable. This is contrasted with kango 漢語, ‘Chinese vocabulary’, or gairaigo 外来語, ‘loan words’, which, because they are foreign in origin, can only represent ‘alien’ concepts and – even though they may be used widely by the Japanese – cannot accurately describe Japan. Still less can expressions in foreign languages actually do so.

It’s just a short step from this to ‘scientific’ studies like those of Tsunoda Tadanobu, who claimed that consonants and vowels were processed in the left hemispheres of Japanese brains, but were processed separately in the left and right hemispheres in ‘occidental’ brains. This was used as justification for any number of claims: that exposure of a Japanese child to a foreign language could lead them to develop an ‘occidental’ type brain and irreparably damage their ability to process and produce Japanese; that the poor performance of Japanese athletes in international sporting events could be explained by the stress having to learn foreign languages placed on their unique brains, and so forth. Needless to say, no subsequent researchers have been able to duplicate Tsunoda’s results.

The uniqueness inherent to Japan, however, is not limited to the human beings: Sakagami Shōichi argued that Japanese bees displayed different characteristics to ‘western’ bees' characteristics which remarkably reflect those of the Japanese people: ‘western’ bees cool their hives by (aggressively) facing outwards and fanning backwards with their wings, while Japanese bees (peacefully) face inwards - wanting to be part of the group; ‘western’ bees, uncaring of pollution, or dirt, will colonise hives vacated by Japanese bees, while Japanese bees – sensitive to pollution – will dismantle a vacated hive and build a new one; and finally, ‘western’ bees are welcomed into Japanese bees’ hives, but Japanese bees are attacked by ‘western’ bees if they enter their hives. This simultaneously makes the ‘western’ bees aggressive colonisers and explorers, and the Japanese bees peaceful, insular, homebodies.

You can make of that what you like, but purely by chance I've recently heard about some other research which has scientifically demonstrated that native Japanese bees are much better at defending their hives from attack by hornets than imported ones - so much for their 'peaceful' nature!

The key thing to understand about all of the nihonjinron is that they are essentially works of cultural nationalism, whose unstated purpose was to defend and establish a Japanese identity against perceived political, cultural, or linguistic threats. It comes as no surprise that their heyday was in the 1970s and 1980s, when the Japanese came to feel that it was once more OK to feel proud about being Japanese, after the success of the ‘economic miracle’, and simultaneously many of the traditional ways of doing things came under increasing threat from social modernisation. The writers who wrote them, though, drew upon a long history of works in a similar vein, often produced in the 1930s, when ultra-nationalism was on the rise, or in Meiji, when Japan was threatened by the imperial ambitions of the Great Powers.

So, whenever you hear anyone talking about the uniqueness of Japan, or are tempted to do so yourself, just remember: Japan is a unique society, but then so is every other one, and it doesn’t mean that Japan doesn’t have a great deal in common with the rest of the world. Second, whenever you hear, or read, about ‘Japan’ and ‘the west’, as if they were two monolithic polar opposites, pause, because Japan is by no means homogenous, and ‘the west’ simply doesn’t exist – there are individual nations (the US, UK, France, Portugal, Greece, Romania, Turkey, etc., etc.), and it’s dangerous to assume that there are any unifying commonalities between them. You need to think about where the speaker/writer is really referring to, and often you’ll find that ‘the west’ is an Anglo-centric shorthand for the US/UK, ignoring the differences between even those two nations.

If you want to read more about nihonjinron and its significance in both Japanese and non-Japanese writing about Japan, I suggest you take a look at Peter Dale’s never-bettered The Myth of Japanese Uniqueness (1986; Routledge), which comprehensively critiques nihonjinron ideas, and is where I’ve got much of the information above.

There won’t be a column next week, as it’s Easter, and the week after, my department at Sheffield is moving accommodation, so I’ll be up to my ears in packing cases – I’ll try and get something done for Friday, April 24th.



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Comments

Another well balanced and excellently explained description of Japan from Dr Tom. I only wish we could see such sensible writing in the Japan Times.

Neil McClelland is absolutely right. An excellent article that I will be sure pass along. Keep them coming!

Do you mean to say that "westerners" are no longer aggressive because they are carnivores and that it is actually possible for some of them to be nimble-fingered - and perhaps even nature-loving?
Oh dear - I guess I must have been brainwashed all these years!

Thank you very much for the liberating article!

For Thomas,
Thanks for the clarity and some info for further research on this topic.

I run into this issue occaisionally with a higher level private student. I hope to discuss this more with her using some of the meat in your article.

Cheers for clarity.

Mike

Thomas

Would you have any gem quality sources for agricultural/economic/business aspects of Japanese history?

Thanks.
Martin Dennis Molinary

The article is very good. Write more please.

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