TGW | The Japan Journal

Contemporary Japan is often presented as exotic, unique and difficult for 'the west' to comprehend. What are the reasons for this and to what extent is it a valid perspective?

The UK’s current bestselling book on Japan is entitled ‘The Japanese Mind’. The bookseller’s synopsis tells us that the author “offers Westerners an invaluable key to the unique aspects of Japanese culture” (, 2004a). “No book could possibly explain all the intricate facets of Japanese society” notes one reviewer, who goes on to claim that this publication gives a “fascinating insight into what can at first appear to the layman to be a baffling and unfathomable culture” (unknown source, 2003, quoted in, 2004a).

As shall be demonstrated, this kind of comment on Japan is by no means rare. There is a mainstream of academic writers, both Japanese and Western in origin, who for over fifty years have backed up such notions through their works, which claim to explain the ‘mystical inner workings’ of the nation, more often than not taking culture as the basic infrastructure of the nation (Dale, 1986). Revisionist scholars, those who argue against such empirically-challenged methods of analysis, have often found themselves labelled as ‘Japan-bashers’ (McCargo, 2004, 4). It is clear that attempts to give Japan and its culture a sturdy backbone upon which a student of the nation may gain a firm grasp are not welcomed by mainstream scholars, as something understood is something which requires no further explanation. Self-interest on the part of the Japanese people could also be to blame: stripped of their exotic cloak they would find themselves relegated from a position of ‘global uniqueness’ to one of ‘global commonness’.

Whilst there is some truth within the argument that Japan is difficult for ‘the West’ to understand, it seems that this idea is rather the product of a careful selection of appropriate historical facts, interwoven to produce a mystical, amorphous whole, which is then presented to the outside world as the genuine article.

So where exactly did these ideas stem from? Due to the constantly evolving nature of the West’s opinion of Japan, it is not possible to pin them to any one particular period in time or a specific group of commentators. However, if one looks back in history at the words of early Occidental travellers to the islands, these notions can be seen in their embryonic stage. Early Jesuit missionaries brought back tales of a land diametrically opposed to Western Europe. In 1583, one account told of a culture where “everything is so different and opposite that they are like us in practically nothing. So great is the difference… that it can neither be desired nor understood” (Valignano, 1583, quoted in Wilkinson, 1983, 32). When Japan closed its doors to the outside world in the early 17th century there was little possibility of furthering Western knowledge of the nation, and, as noted by one revisionist scholar, “Where facts are in short supply, myth stands ever ready to cast its narrative nets over the yawning gaps” (Dale, 1986, 1). The result of the lack of first-hand experience was a further coat of lacquer applied to the Oriental image, which was that of a far-off Eastern land where communities lived in group-centred harmony, without social strife or the problems brought about by individual autonomy (Moeran, 1990).

With the forced opening of Japan by Perry’s black ships in 1853, the West was once again at liberty to engage in the study of ‘the Japanese way’. However, with global interests lying more towards the exploitation of China, and with the idea of Oriental nations being inferior still holding fast, there was no rush to learn more about the country. In fact, it was to be almost another nine decades before the 2nd World War finally brought about the need for the West, and in particular the USA, to gain a thorough understanding of how Japan worked.

In 1944, the cultural anthropologist Ruth Benedict was commissioned by the US War Department to carry out a thorough study of the Japanese. In order to wage an effective war they felt the necessity to understand their enemy: how would the Japanese people react to a ground invasion? Would the Japanese army fight to the bitter end, perhaps resorting to guerrilla tactics? Benedict’s study was designed to answer these questions, and upon publication became an instant classic due its status as the first in its field (Benedict, 1946). Almost sixty years on, it remains in the top-ten bestseller’s list of books on Japan (, 2004b), and has spawned a whole catalogue of literature.

Central to Benedict’s argument were certain ‘key’ aspects of Japanese culture such as ‘On’, the strong feeling of obligation incurred that no Japanese could escape from, and its counterpart, ‘Giri, used to repay the On debts (Benedict, 1946, 116). This technique of presenting Japanese society as having to follow a myriad set of such unspoken rules was seized upon by later authors, and developed to the point where the Japanese were no longer in control of their lives, rather, their lives were determined by their mystical all-powerful culture.

Post-war Japan saw an explosion in the market for books on “Japanese-ness”, with a large percentage of the total number being published in the 1970’s (Nomura Research Institute, quoted in Dale, 1986, 15). Central to many of these culture-based texts (which came to be known under the genre label of ‘Nihonjinron,’ meaning ‘discourse on the Japanese’) was that of the Japanese being ‘uniquely unique’. Japan’s group-centred society, in which devotion to the corporation and the state came before individual or familial needs, was trumpeted as one of the main factors behind the post-war recovery. This facet of society was attributed to a variety of historical ‘facts’, such as the necessity of rice-growing communities to band together to ensure the success and safety of the crop (McCargo, 2004). Another argument sites the longevity of “medieval group attitudes” (Reischauer & Jansen, 1995, 70), brought about by centuries of tight control of the population by feudal warlords, whilst the divisive nature of Japan’s mountainess landscape have also been cited as a cause (Reischauer & Jansen, 1995).

 Simultaneously, the ‘vertical organisation principal’ of Japanese society, which places strong emphasis on hierarchy within group structures, was singled out as yet another point on which Japan differed greatly from the West (Nakane, 1970; Reischauer, 1977, 1995), and subsequently played an important role in enabling Japan to economically rise above it’s Occidental allies in the 1970’s and 80’s. A core belief underlying all of these arguments was that Japanese society was homogenous in nature (Reischauer & Jansen, 1995, 126). Certainly, there were exceptions to the rule (such as the 20,000 plus indigenous Ainu and the 600,000 plus immigrant Korean population), but these were easily swept aside as insignificant minority groups – their physical similarities to the rest of the population (as judged by the Western eye) aiding this process (Sugimoto, 2003).

Other writers of the time, such as the psychologist Takeo Doi (1973, 1985), chose to focus upon intangible concepts within Japanese Society, such as ‘Amae’, which could be translated as “to presume upon another’s love or indulgence” (Mente, 1994, 8): his theory was that the dependency upon others that is nurtured during childhood within all cultures, continues in the Japanese throughout adulthood. Influenced by Benedict’s work of 1947, he became fascinated with such differences between American and Japanese societies, and began to consider what might lie at their root. His attention was drawn towards the Japanese language, which was rife with abstract concepts such as ‘giri’ (‘obligation’) and ‘ninjo’ (‘human feeling’) (Doi, 1973, 33). Japanese psychology then was very different from Western Psychology; the Japanese were unique in a way that no other society was. Other terms such as ‘Tatamae’ (external appearance) and its opposite ‘honne’ (true feeling and desires, hidden from view), ‘soto’ (outside or outsiders) and ‘uchi’ (inside, insiders) have equally garnered much support for the Nihonjinron approach. However, these ‘unique’ dichotomies within Japanese society also exist in the West, albeit with less prominence (Sugimoto, 2003).

Nihonjinron theories were well received by both the domestic and international markets.  The Japanese could recognise the patterns described by Doi, and feel pride in the fact that there was no equivalent in the West. Meanwhile, western authors saw the possibility to explain away Japan’s ‘economic miracle’ as a result of these assets which western societies lacked. It became far more attractive to read about how a nation hauled itself back from disaster through harmonious group-centred effort and selfless attention to the feelings of others, rather than due to the fact that it had been the recipient of generous economic breaks afforded by the Americans, combined with fiercely protective national government policies.

Such was the hold that these mainstream arguments had over their subject that attempts by revisionist scholars, that is those who seek to examine Japan without regarding Japanese culture as deterministic, have been met with harsh criticism. Through seeking to de-mystify the country these authors (such as van Wolferen (1989), McCormack (2001), Kerr (2001) and Sugimoto (2003)) have often found themselves labelled as ‘Japan-bashers’ (McCargo, 2004,4), out to tar the nation rather than simply offering an alternative point of view based on objective empirical analysis.

It seems then that self-interest on the part of mainstream authors, in conjunction with that of Japanese leaders and the Japanese people themselves, could be to blame for the lack of popularity amongst the international public of such theories on Japanese society. After all, if Japan was explained once-and-for-all in a manner that was internationally understood, the lack of mystique surrounding its hitherto cloaked internal mechanisms could result in a significant drop in the level of interest that it currently generates. This in turn would result in falling sales for mainstream writers who have depended upon a ready market for their explanations of Japanese uniqueness, and a general downturn in the international trade of Japanese cultural products - an industry that currently relies heavily upon its oriental label. There would also be damage to national pride, as the Japanese find themselves living in ‘just another country’.

The fact that many elements of the so-called ‘traditional’ Japanese culture are outside the western realm of experience plays nicely into the hands of mainstream scholars. It is far easier to present a convincing argument based on the manipulation of truth to a group of novices than a group of specialists. Japan’s physical distance from the West, combined with its lack of appeal as a tourist destination, ensures that the chances of the global community gaining first-hand experience and a true understanding of the nation are slim. Furthermore, even after years of living in the country, a foreigner could be none-the-wiser. There is a strong sense within Japanese society of ‘them and us’ that continues to enjoy widespread acceptance, resulting in foreign residents (‘gaijin”, literally ‘outside people’) being not only isolated by the language barrier, but also by the natural Japanese trait of regarding themselves as too different for others to truly understand. Admittedly, with the younger generation becoming increasingly internationalised the situation is changing, but is only doing so at a very slow pace.

Although these ideas of uniqueness do hold some weight (after all, every country has its unique attributes), it seems that the true picture, presented by the international media and backed up mainstream scholars, does have a number of serious flaws. Sugimoto (2003) points to sub-cultures within Japan. Of these, some are stronger than others. The company executive who enjoys the benefits of the life-time employment is for more prominent than the part-time office cleaner. The hordes of military-style-uniformed schoolchildren stand out above the teenage delinquents. The visitor, or indeed the Western academic author, is far more likely to come into contact with members of the more powerful sub-cultural groups than those who, whilst not necessarily in the minority, are not so easily accessible (Sugimoto, 2003). The same applies when Japanese academics spend time abroad. Due to the important role that the USA has played in modern Japanese history, it is to the prestigious universities such as Harvard that they go in order to carry out research. Once there, they seldom mix with the impoverished working classes, and thus return to Japan to compare their population with a very select group of middle-to-upper class white American males. These are elite scholars, with access to a media who are only too happy to listen (Sugimoto, 2003). The whole Nihonjinron case it seems is based on studies of a powerful minority, and not the majority that it purports to represent.

One severe criticism of Benedict (and subsequent studies that took her model as a guide) is that it was based on anthropological research methods designed for the study of small relatively small groups of people with shared views and a common cultural background. Japan, with a population of over 70 million at the time (MIC, 2002) and a rich diverse society undergoing incredible social change, did not lend itself to such basic forms of analysis (Dale, 1986). The indigenous theories by the likes of Nakane (1970) and Doi (1973) could not escape from being subjectively tainted, whilst Nakane’s theories should be treated with extra caution due to the fact that they are based on her studies of rural communities, the results of which she then attempted to apply to ‘modern’ metropolitan Japan (Nakane, 1970, viii). Such a predetermined attitude could quite possibly have affected the final outcome.

There is a notable reluctance amongst mainstream scholars to draw comparisons with Japan and countries outside of the West. When reading Reischauer’s The Japanese Today (1995), one could almost be forgiven for thinking that is actually a book about America, as seldom a page goes by without the author highlighting the differences between the two. For example, if one were to compare Japan to South Korea, Taiwan or Hong Kong, the similarities in terms of economic growth may become uncomfortably numerous – Japan’s economic miracle would lose its prestige and become merely yet another Asian economy that has done well under the protective wing of favourable international conditions and internal government support.

Whilst the popular view that is consistently peddled to the international public by those with vested interests does contain some truths, the foundations upon which it is based are not firm. Rather, they consist of mystical or ‘unique’ elements of Japanese history and culture relevant to their own hypotheses. These have been head-hunted for the purpose of creating a mysterious cohesive entity, which suitably lacks any backbone onto which an outsider could gain a firm grasp of understanding. Those ‘normal’ parts of society (such as a class conflict, an employment industry that suffers from insecurity and dissatisfaction, continuous changes in social structures) do exist in Japan, yet they have either been discarded or dressed up in exotic veils through mainstream deterministic cultural arguments.

Until the market for exotic interpretations finds itself lacking in consumers, it seems that in the eyes of the West Japan will remain an exotic, unique and incredibly complex East Asian nation, no matter how far from the truth the image may lie.

References (2004a), Books: The Japanese Mind, Slough: Available from <> (Updated 2004, Accessed 31/10/2004 22:08). (2004b), Japanese Culture, Slough:  Available from <> (Updated 11/11/2004, Accessed 11/11/2004 12:03). (2004), Books: Japanese Culture, Seattle: Available from < > (Updated 2004, Accessed 10/11/2004 21:38).

Benedict, R (1946), The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Dale, P (1986), The Myth of Japanese Uniqueness, London: Croom Helm.

Doi, T (1973), The Anatomy of Dependence, Tokyo: Kodansha International.

Doi, T (1985), The Anatomy of Self: the individual versus society, Tokyo: Kodansha International.

Kerr, A (2001), Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan, London: Penguin Books Limited.

McCargo, D (2004), Contemporary Japan, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

McCormack, G (2001), The Emptiness of Japanese Affluence, London: M.E. Sharpe, Inc.

Mente, B (1994), Japan’s Cultural Code Words, Illinois, USA: NTC Publishing Group.

MIC (2002), Components of Population Change, Tokyo: Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication: Statistics Bureau. Available from <> (Updated 2002, Accessed 13/11/2004 19:59).

Moeran, B (1990), British Images of Japan, Tokyo: Kinseido Ltd.

Nakane, C (1970), Japanese Society, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Reischauer, E, Jansen, M (1995), The Japanese Today : Change and Continuity,  Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press.

Sugimoto, Y (2003), An Introduction to Japanese Society (2nd Edition), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Varley, P (2000), Japanese Culture (4th edition), Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Wilkinson, E (1983), Japan versus Europe: a history of misunderstanding (Revised Edition), Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Wolferan, K.V (1989), The Enigma of Japanese Power, London: MacMillan London Limited.




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