Nihonjinron and Japanese nationalism

Main themes
Nihonjinron, (aka Nihon-bunkaron, Nihon-shakairon) translating as  ‘discussions of Japanese identity’ (Dale 1986: 119) “constitutes a broadly based ideological stance for Japan’s nationalism” (Befu 1993: 107).  Its three central themes are a) the Japanese are group-oriented people, b) Japanese society is ‘uniquely’ different vis-à-vis the rest of the world, and c) the homogeneity of the Japanese nation (Mouer and Sugimoto 1986: 406).

As Self is defined less by what one is and more by what one is not through ‘Othering’ (Said 1978), so the Japanese identity is constructed  by ‘Othering’ the non-Japanese in a diametric opposition to itself in terms of class, culture, and ethnicity (Lie 2000). Thus, Nihonjinron categorizes the humanity through the binary contrasts (cf. Levi-Strauss 1967) of characteristics allegedly inherent to either the Japanese, Us, or the Other, Them: island – continent, blood purity – miscegenation of race, vegetable/rice diet – animal flesh food base, ‘shame’ culture –  ‘guilt’ culture, peaceful – bellicose, spiritual –materialistic, etc. (Dale 1986: 42-51).

In the absence of “dialogue and the feedback from the contrasted Other” (Dale 1986: 40), assumptions about it go untempered  in terms of geographical (Watsuji 1962), genetic (Hayashida 1976) and linguistic (Suzuki 1975, Watanabe 1974) determinism, racial purity (Masuda 1967), social homogeneity (Nakane 1967, Tsurumi 1986) and cultural primordialism (Masuda 1967, Kimura 1972).

Origins and switchover
 Although discussions of Japaneseness vs. Chineseness go as far as the Heian period of Early Japan, the term Nihonjinron dates back to the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) (Kawamura 1980: 44; Minami, 1980). In the late Tokugawa, the West took over the role of the Other from China (Pyle 1969), as Nihonjinron was adopted by the moribund shogunate as a counter-hegemonic ideology against Western colonialism. Soon after that, early Meiji intellectuals used it to develop a nationalist ideology (Hendry 2000). It dialectically combines both “oneness” and “otherness” by way of an “internalization of Orientalism” as an attempt to join the Western Other (Nakata-Stephensen 2000:142) in a self-exoticisation complimentary to the West’s Orientalism (Iwabuchi 1994).

Expulsion and projection
However, conforming to the Western normative values, the pre-requisite of joining the European-dominated “international society” of “civilised nations” (Bull and Watson 1977), did not yield that coveted membership and ended up in disillusionment. Building on the success if its early modernisation and military victories, Japan then re-invented itself as the Pan-Asian saviour from Western imperialism: becoming the Other of the West, albeit superior to the rest of Asia. This rhetoric adopted from the “White man’s burden” and mission civilisatrice of Western colonialism was served as the ideological justification of Shōwa imperialism (Nakata Steffensen, 2000:145). It was voiced by top politicians and influential intellectuals such as Kita Ikki, Ishiwara Kanji and Prime Minister Tōjō and served as the ideological justification of Japanese imperialism between 1895 and 1945 (Beasley 1991, Steffensen 2000, Kang 2005, Guelgher 2006, Ohno 2006).

Loud defeat and quiet resurrection

 After WWII, Nihonjinron  discussions resolved in much the same way as before the war in all save two respects: absence of the official emperor’s cult and the lower level of state involvement (Befu 2001: 140). Post-war identity evolved in a powerful US physical and ideological presence at the backdrop of Japan’s participation in the Cold War effort, the widening economical gap with Asia and the ascendant neo-nationalist current (Tamotsu Aoki 1990:29). With the state taking a back seat on the ideological front,  support for Nihonjinron ideas now emanates from the grass-roots (Ibid). Its quasi-scientific postulates are perpetuated and popularised by “upper-echelon scholars in the Japanese academy” (Dale 1986:15) thus gaining credibility in public opinion. Both Befu (1993) and Dale (1986) mention the oft-cited Nomura survey on the staggering proliferation and perennial popularity of Nihonjinron literature with approximately 700 book titles (let alone the much more numerous articles in magazines and journals) published between 1946 and 1978, while Yamawaki (2001) reports a further increase of such publications in the following period. 

Indicative of Nihonjinron’s deep hold over the nation’s consciousness is another survey done by the NHK, the national broadcasting company, in 1987. In it, nearly 80% of the respondents said that they felt the Japanese ethnic group or race (Nihon-minzoku) to be a superior one (quoted in Murphy-Shigematsu 1993: 78). Statements by people at many levels of society display beliefs that Japanese and non-Japanese have different human gestation periods, body temperatures, intestinal length, brains, and general body composition (Taylor 1983 quoted in Murphy-Shigematsu 2000: 70). Ben-Ari (2000: 73) notes that the majority of his Overseas Japanese interviewees “use the Nihonjinron kind of explanations to underline the uniqueness of Japan” (Manabe and Befu 2012).

Current identity crisis

Towards the end of the 20th century Japan found itself in the throes of  self-identity crisis. A perfect storm of drastic social change both domestically and internationally has destabilised the official nationalist discourse of Japan as an ethnically homogenous, harmonious nation (Nakane 1967), a “middle-mass” society (Murakami 1981), uniquely fit for success thanks to its inimitable characteristics (Yoshino 1992).
The so-called Second Opening of Japan (migration of foreign labour immigration started in the 1980s) and particularly the “labour repatriation” of Nikkeis have problematised the issues of Japanese ethnicity, nationality and citizenship (Kajita 1998, Sellek 1998, de Carvalho 2002). A body of research on multiethnic (De Vos & Wetherall 1973, Murphy-Shigematsu 1993, Lie 2001) and multicultural (Weiner 1997, Douglass & Roberts 2000) Japan has been developed in a kind of “elective affinity” (Weber 1895) with the gradual recognition of regional and ethnic identities.  As the widening gap between the rich and the poor with the end of the economic miracle became apparent (Marshall et al 1997, Sato 2000), so did the previously ignored reality of class and conflict (Steven 1983, Ishida 1988, Eisenstadt & Ben-Ari 1990).  The emergence of the Shinjinrui , the Japanese equivalent of the Generations Y and Next, exposed a sea change in values, attitudes and lifestyles between different age groups (Goodman 1993, Herbig and Borstorff 1995, Yoshizaki 1997). The post-Cold War realignment of power and interests, made Japan question its place in the multipolar world  (Murphy-Shigematsu 1993).

At the same time, Nihonjinron continues to inform public policies and decision-making, for example, provision guidelines in public education are based on hegemonic discourses of ethnic exclusion (Mito 2009). Even such ostensibly inclusion-promoting policies as kokusaika (internationalisation) and tabunka (multiculturality) appear, upon closer examination, to be powerful discourses of displacement (Burgess 2003). The discourse of Japan’s inherent superiority and paternalism vs. the rest of Asia continues in a variety of new guises all harking back to the pre-war pan-Asianism (Nakata-Steffensen 2000:148-150). Late 1980s, with Japan at the peak of it economic ascendance and the perceived decline of the USA, Europe and the socialist world, saw the development of a Japan vs. the ‘non-Asian West discourse (Hiaishi 1994:27-28).

Share This: