The Japanese term nihonjinron refers to discourses on the distinctiveness of the society, culture, and national character of the Japanese. As such, nihonjinron have manifested themselves periodically from the Meiji era (1868-1911) to the present, while continually undergoing changes in form. In its narrower and most recent sense, the term refers to the vogue of such discourses during the 1970s and the early 1980s, when a very large quantity of works on the unique qualities of the Japanese inundated bookstores – the so called nihonjinron boom. In the aftermath, a period of critical reaction to the nihonjinron set in, and this in turn has had a large impact on the ways in which Japanese society and culture are discussed today.
For the most part, the nihonjinron were not written as rigorous, objective studies of Japanese society, culture, and national character, but rather as works of popular sociology intended to be received favorably by wider sections of the population. The works reflect the concerns of the particular historical period in which they were written, concerns with the social, cultural, and economic conditions of the times, as well as the prevailing international relations. Characteristics of the Japanese chosen for discussion as well as the tone of discussion vary according to each historical epoch.
For example, works written in the 1950s mainly took on a self critical tone and dealt with the feudalistic aspects of Japanese society as causes of ultra nationalism and militarism that led Japan into World War II. During that introspective period, Japanese intellectuals produced a series of works on some distinctive features of Japanese society and depicted them as feudalistic obstacles to the democratization of Japan. Among such works were sociologist Kawashima’s The Familial Structure of Japanese Society (1950), anthropological geographer Iizuka’s The Mental Climate of the Japanese (1952), and social psychologist Minami’s The Psychology of the Japanese People (1953).
In contrast to this, the nihonjinron that flourished in the 1970s and the early 1980s sought a more positive reevaluation of Japaneseness. The literature portrayed the distinctive features of the society and culture of Japan taking the West as the main standard of comparison. The nihonjinron of this period featured a wide range of participants including, in addition to academics, cultural elites with diverse back grounds such as business elites.
Images of Japanese Society and Culture
The nihonjinron of the 1970s and the early 1980s focused on and consolidated certain images of Japanese society, culture, and national character. These may be summarized in terms of the following propositions and assumptions. First, Japanese society is characterized in the nihonjinron by groupism or “interpersonalism” (kanjinshugi), vertical stratification (intracompany solidarity), and dependence, as opposed to western society which is characterized by individualism, horizontal stratification (class solidarity), and independence. Among the many books written on Japanese group orientation, Nakane s Japanese Society (1970) and Doi s The Anatomy of Dependence (1973) are two of the most prominent. Social anthropologist Nakane employed the key concept ”vertical society in an attempt to identify peculiarly Japanese forms of social organization and inter actions. The Japanese are described as a group oriented people preferring to act hierarchically within the framework of a group, typically, a company. Psychiatrist Doi identified the attitude of passive dependence (amae) as being pro longed into adulthood in Japanese society. Amae is considered to occur typically as a quasi parent-child relationship in companies and political factions, where a person in a subordinate social position assumes the role of a child toward his superior who plays the role of a parent. The notion of group orientation was often discussed in the context of business organization, management practices, and industrial relations.
Generally, the concept of groupism is contrasted with that of individualism. Some argue, however, that groupism does not accurately conceptualize Japanese patterns of behavior and thought, as it tends to imply group members immersion into and loyalty to the organization. Hence, sociologist Hamaguchi proposed the notion of kanjinshugi (literally, ”interpersonalism, or in his own translation, ”contextualism ), which is characterized by mutual dependence, mutual trust, and human relation in itself. It is maintained that this better describes what it really feels like to be part of the group for the Japanese in their everyday life.
The second major proposition of the nihonjinron concerns the patterns of interpersonal communication of the Japanese. Again, in contrast with the communication style of the West, which is said to value verbal skills and logical presentation, the non verbal and supralogical Japanese style of communication was stressed. Essential interpersonal communication among the Japanese is supposed to be performed non verbally, non logically, and empathetically. Supposedly Japanese characteristics such as ”belly talk” (haragei) and empathetic understanding (ishindenshin) were often discussed in this connection.
Thirdly, the nihonjinron emphasized and assumed the homogeneity and uniformity of Japanese society. Here again, the contrast is with the multi ethnic and multiracial composition of the West, in particular the society of the US, with the racial and ethnic homogeneity of Japan underscored.
Fourth, social and cultural traits such as groupism, ”interpersonalism,” non verbalism, and supralogicalism are usually explained in terms of historical formation deriving from climatic conditions and modes of production, that is, rice cultivation, which required solidarity and mutual dependence in a village community. In this instance the contrast is with what are taken to be western historical modes of production such as pastoralism and nomadism, which are conducive to individualism (e.g., Aida 1972).
The above themes are interrelated. The Japanese patterns of interpersonal communication, which discourage logical and verbal confrontation, are strongly related to the high value placed on consensus and harmony in interpersonal relations, while non verbal, empathetic, and supralogical communication is assumed to be a product of homogeneous society. This leads to an assumption that the Japanese pat terns of behavior and communication are so unique that they can only be understood by persons born Japanese.
National Identity and Nationalism
Although one may be inclined to think that nihonjinron type discourse is peculiar to Japan, intellectual curiosity about the perceived unique traits of one’s own nation has been widely observed in various periods of history and in many parts of the world. In fact, exploration and articulation of ideas of national distinctiveness are an essential part of cultural nationalism. Nihonjinron should be regarded as one variation of the more general phenomenon of discourses on national distinctiveness. This enables comparison with other national cases as well as theoretical understanding of national identity and cultural nationalism.
If cultural nationalism is the project of creating, preserving, and strengthening a people’s cultural identity when such identity is felt to be lacking, inadequate, or threatened, it is understandable that intellectuals should play a prominent role in systematizing ideas of national distinctiveness. In fact, the history of modernity saw an evolution of a systematic comparison of the characters of different peoples – whether in terms of a holistic construct such as Volksgeist or by reference to institutions as key elements in creating a sense of national identity.
If nihonjinron gives the impression of being an extreme case of such a phenomenon, it is partly because Japanese intellectuals’ ideas of Japanese uniqueness have been highly holistic. Their primary concern is, on the assumption of Japanese society as a homogeneous and holistic entity, to explore and describe the cultural ethos or collective spirit or, to be more exact, the characteristic mode of behaving and thinking of the Japanese that underlies objectified institutions and practices.
Criticisms of the Nihonjinron
In the 1980s criticisms of the nihonjinron began to be expressed by scholars concerned about the large influence of these types of writings. In turn, discourses critical of the nihonjinron came to form their own genre in intellectual debates in and out of Japan. Sugimoto and Mouer’s Are the Japanese Very Japanese?, published in 1982, pioneered a critique of the nihonjinron. Befu was also one of the earliest critics, notably in The Discourse on Japanese Culture as an Ideology (1987). Another noteworthy effort in this vein was Dale’s The Myth of Japanese Uniqueness (1986), which leveled criticism at a wide range of nihonjinron type materials, both contemporary and historical.
Criticisms took many forms. There was, first of all, a methodological criticism. Writers of the nihonjinron, it was pointed out, based their conclusions on personal experiences and everyday anecdotes, picking and choosing evidence in an arbitrary manner that supported their arguments, and thus their conclusions lack a sound methodological basis and any scholarly value. As to why the writers employed such a self serving method of amassing examples to back their theories, one answer is to be found in their ideological orientations.
Second, the nihonjinron was criticized as constituting a conservative ideology well in tune with the interests of the ruling elite in society. It is true that there was, as discussed earlier, a strong tendency to expound on the virtues of village communal culture, rice cultivation culture, and so on, and this tended to affirm and support the group solidarity ethos of Japanese corporations. Rather than class solidarity, the nihonjinron theories can be used to buttress intracompany solidarity and group harmony, and it is this conservative ideological bent that was criticized. A third type of criticism leveled at the nihonjinron was that it was a nationalist ideology that extolled the superiority of Japanese culture by explaining Japan’s post war economic growth and success by reference to Japan’s supposedly unique group harmony and communal style of interpersonal communication. A fourth line of criticism voiced in many quarters was that the nihonjinron overemphasized the cultural and social homogeneity of the Japanese, to the serious neglect of diversity existing within the society.
In response to such criticisms, there began to appear in the 1990s a new type of discourse that endeavored to take into account Japan’s internal diversity as well as similarities between Japan and other societies. For example, Amino’s Perspectives on Discourses on Japan (1990) and Oguma’s A Genealogy of “Japanese” Self Images (2002) are representative of this trend. It is fair to say that an approach that favors demythologizing of Japan’s homogeneity has become the norm in studies of Japanese society.
Consumers of the Nihonjinron
Nihonjinron critical literature also sought to provide explanations about why discussions of Japanese distinctiveness became such a significant social phenomenon. It was commonly argued that readers were attracted to the nihonjinron because they offered a salvation from an identity crisis derived from the westernization of Japanese culture, or that such works promoted feelings of cultural superiority by way of their explanations of Japanese economic success as the result of unique cultural traits.
Such assertions prompt the following sociological questions to be raised: who, in fact, read the nihonjinron, and in what manner? What types of social groups for what reasons responded actively to and consumed these writings? These issues are addressed in Yoshino’s Cultural Nationalism in Contemporary Japan (1992), which analyzed the social process of the consumption (acceptance) of the nihonjinron. Unlike cultural, business, and other elites, who concerned themselves with abstract notions such as threatened identity and culturalist rationalization of economic strength, consumers of the nihonjinron tended to be attracted to what they felt to be practical benefits in their immediate personal environments such as in understanding and dealing successfully with problems of the workplace.
Several types of concrete concerns became apparent. For example, as the nihonjinron often concerned themselves with peculiarly Japanese social characteristics of business management and company organizations, they exercised an especially strong appeal to the likes of businessmen in companies. Furthermore, the nihonjinron appealed to people with an interest in intercultural communication. Such people tended to feel that true international understanding required not just knowledge of English, the international language, but also a firm grasp of cultural differences between Japan and non Japanese (European and North American) societies. The nihonjinron, with their characteristic style of comparisons and contrasts between Japanese and western cultures, provided them with fertile ground to explore and understand problems of intercultural communication.
Globalization and Cultural Differences
Nihonjinron as the activity of intellectuals and cultural elites had its heyday in the 1970s and the early 1980s and then became subject to criticism. This is not to say, however, that nihonjinron lost their importance in the time that followed. On the contrary, nihonjinron discourses in various guises underwent a process of reproduction and were diffused to broader segments of the population. To take one example, nihonjinron themes have been reproduced in the foreign language education industry. Mastery of foreign language skills is a requisite qualification for employment in a globalizing world; so too is knowledge of cultural differences. Reproduction of nihonjinron discourses is typically seen in the private English language teaching (ELT) industry, where these types of discourses about Japanese society and national character find their way into the classroom as part of the project of improving intercultural communication. This is not limited to ELT. In foreign language training in general, we often see two cultures, one represented by the mother tongue and the other by the foreign language, being compared and contrasted as part of language instruction. Also, in the case of Japanese language teaching for non Japanese, comparative cultural discussion is often added to the teaching content. Students of Japanese do not merely receive instruction in Japanese grammar and vocabulary, but often the teacher will feel compelled to proffer nihonjinron type insights to students and will use nihonjinron writings as study materials. Indeed, in more advanced Japanese classes the trend is to use quite a lot of nihonjinron writings as study materials. Thus, classic stereotypical images of the Japanese propagated by the nihonjinron continue to be reproduced and consumed in the realm of language teaching.
The thematic importance of nihonjinron can be said to be actually gaining weight. Ideas of national distinctiveness and cultural differences, while ever shifting in shape, continue to be reproduced in new and different settings. Indeed, it may be said that discourses on cultural differences are flourishing more than ever in the age of globalization.
- Aida, Y. (1972) Nihonjin no Ishiki Kozo (The Structure of Japanese Consciousness). Kodansha, Tokyo.
- Amino, Y. (1990) Nihonron no Shiza: Retto no Shakaito Kokka (Perspectives on Discourses on Japan: Society and State of the Archipelago). Shogakkan, Tokyo.
- Befu, H. (1987) Ideorogii to shiteno Nihonbunkaron (The Discourse on Japanese Culture as an Ideology).
- Shiso no Kagaku Sha, Tokyo. Befu, H. (2001) Hegemony of Homogeneity: An Anthropological Analysis of Nihonjinron. Melbourne: TransPacific Press.
- Dale, P. (1986) The Myth of Japanese Uniqueness. Croom Helm, London.
- Doi, T. (1973) The Anatomy of Dependence. J. Bestor. Kodansha International, Tokyo.
- Hamaguchi, E. (1982) Kanjinshugi no Shakai Nihon ( Japan: The Interpersonalistic Society). Toyo Keizai Shinposha, Tokyo.
- Iizuka, K. (1952) Nihon no Seishin teki Fudo (The Mental Climate ofthe Japanese). Hyoronsha, Tokyo.
- Kawashima, T. (1950) Nihon Shakai no Kazoku teki Kosei (The Familial Structure of Japanese Society). Nihon Hyoronsha, Tokyo.
- Minami, H. (1971 ) The Psychology of the Japanese People. A. R. Ikuma. University of Tokyo Press, Tokyo.
- Mouer, R. & Sugimoto, Y. (1986) Images of Japanese Society. Kegan Paul International, London.
- Nakane, C. (1970) Japanese Society. University of California Press, Berkeley.
- Oguma, E. (2002) A Genealogy of “Japanese” Self Images. D. Askew. TransPacific Press, Melbourne.
- Sugimoto, Y. & Mouer, R. (1982) Nihnojin wa Nihonteki ka? (Are the Japanese Very Japanese?). Toyo Keizai Shimpo Sha, Tokyo.
- Yoshino, K. (1992) Cultural Nationalism in Contemporary Japan: A Sociological Enquiry. Routledge, London and New York.
- Yoshino, K. (1999) Consuming Ethnicity and Nationalism: Asian Experiences. Curzon Press, London.
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