Soul to Soul

Ian Buruma

  • The Myth of Japanese Uniqueness by Peter Dale
    Croom Helm, 233 pp, £25.00, September 1987, ISBN 0 7099 0899 7

Is the Japanese Prime Minister, Nakasone Yasuhiro, a racist? Or must we read his recent remarks about the superior intelligence of a monoracial society like Japan, and unlike the United States, in context, as his defenders claim? If so, in what context? The physical context was a seminar for the Japanese equivalent of the Young Conservatives. Nakasone’s statements were clearly not meant for foreign ears. He probably didn’t mean to offend American blacks and Hispanics, although he obviously did, which showed a curious degree of insensitivity for a man who prides himself on being an international statesman. But perhaps the fact that few Japanese quarrelled with the content of his remarks tells us something important.

Most Japanese do not need to be reminded of the supposed blessings of being a ‘pure’ Volk. This, indeed, is the context of Nakasone’s ideas: the commonly-accepted myth that the Japanese are superior because of their racial homogeneity. Japan is one of the very few advanced societies in the world where 19th-century Blut and Boden theories still hold sway; where racism is not something to be hidden away or obsessively guarded against, but almost a national state of mind. How else can one explain why someone born and bred in Japan, who speaks only Japanese, but whose grandparents were Koreans, is still treated as an alien. Or why Vietnamese refugees were refused entry on the grounds that the culture and climate of Switzerland were more congenial (a Japanese official actually said that). This, whatever some apologists may say, is not the same as ignorant American views of foreigners or Mrs Thatcher’s jingoistic talk about Victorian values. (These values can be shared by, say, Leon Brittan, even though his ancestors were hardly of ‘pure’ English stock.) The difference is precisely one of unquestioned and institutionalised racism: if Nakasone believes what he preaches, and there is no reason to assume that he does not, he is in effect a racist.

The theoretical context of the Japanese Volksgemeinschaft (I use these Nazi terms quite deliberately) is a mythological mishmash of sociological, psychological, linguistic, anthropological and quasi-religious thought known as the Nihonjinron, literally the ‘theory of Japaneseness’. Nihonjinron is the subject of Peter Dale’s book, the style of which is marred somewhat by his own almost Nihonjinronish fondness for psycho-socio-anthropological jargon. He has interesting things to say, however. The intellectual quest for the essence of Japaneseness is a huge industry in Japan, involving academics as well as journalists. ‘Just imagine,’ Dale writes, ‘the situation which might ensue had English letters over the past hundred years been singularly preoccupied with the clarification of “Englishness”, not only as an essayistic form but as a major subject of austere academic research ... treating everything under the English sun as consequences of some peculiar mentality unchanged since one’s ancestors first donned woad and did battle with Caesar; imagine this as something which filtered down through newspapers and regional media to everyday life, and you have something of the picture of what has taken place in Japan.’

Dale is right about the scale of this national preoccupation. He is also right to attack much of it as spurious. It is not easy to disentangle the extraordinary ball of wool which constitutes the Nihonjinron. Dale begins by charting the basic elements which believers think make Japan intrinsically different from the West – the other side, incidentally, is always ‘the West’, which is not surprising since the Nihonjinron is a nativist response to a modernity that is largely associated with the West. To cite a few of these elements: Japan is racially pure, the West is mixed; Japan is agricultural, the West nomadic-pastoral; the Japanese eat rice (much importance is attached to this), Westerners eat meat; Japan is feminine, matriarchal and peaceful, the West is masculine, patriarchal and bellicose; Japan is tolerant and flexible, the West is rigid and intolerant; Japan is spiritual, the West materialistic.

A familiar pattern is immediately visible in this set of half-truths: far from being unique to Japan, as Dale points out over and over again, they are the typical response of a traditional, mostly rural society to the threat of more powerful and economically more advanced nations, representing the alienating machine age. The modern, urban, industrial world, associated with the West, is the great materialistic, patriarchal, meat-eating destroyer of traditional village life, where everyone knew his or her place and lived in blissful, spiritual peace. Never mind that traditional village life was hardly blissful, or very spiritual, or even very peaceful. Societies in modern turmoil are as liable to seek refuge in a mythical past as in a millenarian future – sometimes both, as in the Third Reich. What is remarkable is that such preoccupations have persisted in a country which has become in many ways more modern and powerful than most countries of the West. The bogusness of much of the East-West juxtaposition is illustrated by the fact that modern Korean nationalists often make exactly the same distinction between matriarchal, peaceful, spiritual Korea and patriarchal, bellicose, materialistic Japan. Japan was certainly bellicose in relation to Korea, but it was also largely responsible for the country’s industrial modernisation.

Dale traces many ‘uniquely Japanese’ ideas and stereotypes back to European models: Kuki Shozo’s theory of iki, for example. Kuki, an aristocrat by birth, studied in France and Germany in the early 20th century and was much influenced by Heidegger. In the typical manner of Nihonjinron theorists he picked one key word, supposed to contain, like some hitherto hidden gem, the essence of Japaneseness. In his case the word iki: ‘one of the most conspicuous forms of self-expression’, he says in Dale’s translation, ‘of the unique existential modes of Eastern culture, nay, rather of the Yamato race itself’.

Iki, translated by Dale as ‘chic’, was a term originally used in the demi-monde of pre-modern Japan. It referred to the studied nonchalance of the brothel-creeping dandy, or the wordly-wise repartee of the high-class prostitute. This world of brothels and tea-houses was the product of a highly regulated society where marital bonds were seldom romantic and where rakes and courtesans literally played out the roles denied them in real life. The iki man of Edo had his counterpart in Regency England and Baudelairean Paris: the dandy with his refined ennui, whose life revolved around loveless seduction and self-imposed rules of etiquette. Iki, much like dandyism, is a form of snobbery born of social exclusion – dandies from the aristocracy, Edo playboys from the samurai class. The writer Mishima Yukio was much taken by the idea of iki; he was also a great admirer of 19th-century European dandyism. Both Kuki and Mishima shared with Baudelaire a profound contempt for the democratic vulgarity of the encroaching modern age.

The case for finding European parallels with every Nihonjinron concept can be stretched too far, however. It is a common pitfall for people who strain too hard to disprove Japanese uniqueness to believe that there is nothing different about Japan – or about any other society. Dale is highly critical of Doi Takeo’s theory of amae (another of those key words). Amae, as described in Doi’s book Anatomy of Dependence, is a noun formed from the verb amaeru, translated by Doi as ‘to presume upon another’s indulgence’. It is the sort of thing children do to get their way with parents. In adult relations it is used as a social bargaining counter: in exchange for a show of dependence (and by implication obedience) the ‘child’ expects to be indulged, to be treated with special consideration. It is in effect an abdication of personal responsibility. Doi sees amae as a fundamental aspect of Japanese social life: it exists between students and teachers, company employees and their bosses, even between Japan and the United States. It may be the case, as Dale claims, that Doi misunderstands Freudian terminology and overstates the uniqueness of amae as a Japanese phenomenon. One cannot, however, deny that it is a useful concept for understanding the structure of Japanese society. It is surely not exactly the same as Liebkosen (‘cuddling up’), as Dale would have us believe, nor do we see ‘merely an Oriental portrait of that society of types like the fop, the toady and the man of spleen which parades through the literature of the 18th century’.

That European models often served to bolster nationalist ideas of uniqueness in the early stages of modernisation is not as strange as it may seem. Just as a mythical past with its ancient Japanese spirit was conjured up in the Meiji period to legitimise the transformation of a traditional feudal society into a modern state, European jargon and ideas were used as proof that this unique Japanese spirit was actually quite modern. This was meant to solve that awful dilemma suffered by intellectuals in many non-Western countries: how to be modern and retain one’s national soul. Dale points out the huge Japanese debt to the theories surrounding German nationalism: ‘The discovery in mid-Meiji’ – around the turn of the 20th century – ‘of a strong affinity between Japan’s situation and that of Germany’s late modernisation led to an increasing dependence on the German example to legitimise the authoritarian heritage of the Tokugawa state while ostensibly remaining faithful to modernisation on Western lines.’

Fichte, for example, whose ideas on linguistics have been largely discredited in the West, was an important influence on the thinking of such people as the English literature specialist Watanabe Shoichi. Fichte distinguished beween living national languages, like German, and dead languages like French. Fichte, a kind of Richard Wagner of linguistics, rejected such Latinate words as Humanität, Popularität, Liberalität, spread by the effete French and their revolution. Instead, he believed in coining vigorous, native words, expressing the living German soul. Watanabe makes the same distinction between Yamato kotoba, the original Yamato language, and gairaigo, words borrowed and integrated during the last thousand years or so, mainly from Chinese, but later also from Portuguese, Dutch, German and English. According to Watanabe, the living Yamato words ‘go straight back to an age when some monkey-like animals first put together coherent sounds as the ancestors of the Japanese. In other words, Yamato kotoba are words which have their roots set down in the well-springs of the soul of our race.’ No wonder, then, that foreigners can never learn truly to understand Japanese, or, for that matter, the No theatre, or Haiku poetry: such matters are not in the soul of their race.

Even when a foreigner acquires fluency in Japanese, he will be told by Watanabe and his fellow Nihonjinron merchants that the Japanese have a unique ability to communicate without words, from soul to soul. This idea of silent communication – as opposed to the garrulousness of the West – is widely subscribed to. Parallels are drawn with Japanese painting or poetry, where less always means more. But Dale may be closer to the mark when he writes that the popularity of these theories may ‘be explained by the way they gloss the ritual banalities and oppressive formality of everyday life with the rich lacquer of cultural traditions vibrantly alive through successive upheavals in society from the hoary past to present times. Couples who silently spend their time in front of the television are not suffering from communication problems, as in the West, but merely engaging in a novel version of the ancient art of oblique discourse.’

Dale has, I think, successfully followed in the footsteps of other Nihonjinron-bashers such as Roy Andrew Miller, the author of Japan’s Modern Myth (1982), in proving that the Japanese are not as unique as they think. This, in itself, would not be proving very much. What else does Dale have to say? Two things, it seems. First, that the Nihonjinron theorists help legitimise a kind of social totalitarianism – a fascism that works. The second point, which ties in with the first, is the failure of Japanese intellectuals to follow the supposedly logical course of modernisation and become bourgeois individualists. Is this in fact a failure? The Japanese system appears to work so well that there are plenty of takers, in Japan and out, for the argument that bourgeois individualism would be inappropriate and undesirable. Look at the ‘British disease’, they say, crippling the country with a surfeit of I’m-all-right-Jack individualism. Why should the Japanese take that particular road to Bethlehem? Are they not Number One, in any case? Is it not possible that they have found an alternative modernity, which avoids the oppressive stagnation of Communism as well as the jittery malaise of the capitalist West? Perhaps. But there is a price to pay. The Japanese system, which continues to operate like an economic Volksgemeinschaft (justified by Nihonjinron theories and defended by well-rewarded foreign apologists), is almost impossible to integrate into the capitalist community of nations. It could well end up wrecking it, and thereby Japan itself. There is also a political price to pay, for as long as the Japanese seek their identity in racial exclusivity they will have problems with their neighbours, as proven by the frequent anti-Japanese outbursts in China and South Korea. These sentiments only serve to goad Japanese nationalists into even more extreme positions, which is bad news for Nakasone’s much-vaunted plan to ‘internationalise’ Japan.

One must therefore conclude that the predominance among Japanese intellectuals of nationalism over individualism constitutes a failure. The weakness of Dale’s otherwise fine book is that he fails to explain how this failure came about. Because he does not address the many attempts by Japanese thinkers to foster individualism, his book presents a rather too monolithic picture: one is left with the impression that the entire Japanese intelligentsia since about 1910 has been engaged in a conspiracy with soldiers and bureaucrats to keep the people down by convincing them that social totalitarianism is a unique Japanese cultural trait and thus perfectly in order. To be fair, however, Dale does say that ‘a significant wing of the intelligentsia, in relatively unconstrained autonomy, defected from the modern by a theoretical regression to archaic or feudal consciousness, and thus inadvertently supplied a sophisticated armoury of ideological ammunition to the very state from which they themselves often felt estranged.’ But why? The reasons for this might, pace Dale, make Japan a little different from many other nations.

One of the most fascinating points about Japanese intellectual life in the first few decades of this century is the way in which many writers tried to solve their personal problems by adopting universal value systems, such as Christianity and Marxism. These are of course the usual straws which people clutch in the midst of modern confusion. As so often happens in developing countries, these universal creeds soon turned inward to become platforms for rabid nationalism. A remarkable example of this was the Christian thinker Uchimura Kanzo (1861-1930). He became a Christian, he wrote, because ‘we believed that only Christianity was able to save Japan from various threats both from within and without Japan. Our involvement with our nation is so deep that we cannot think of our salvation apart from Japan.’ Having said that, his version of Christianity turned outward again: ‘Now that Christianity is dying in Europe and America because of their materialism, they cannot revive it; God is calling upon Japan to contribute its best to his service.’ God became a kind of Japanese emperor, just as Mao Zedong became a Chinese son of Heaven. Far from helping the individual transcend his society, Uchimura’s faith was an attempt to dissolve modern alienation by identifying the religion with the society.

Perhaps the key to the failure of Japanese thinkers to become bourgeois individualists lies in the different roles of religion in Japan and Christian countries. Religion in Japan either served as a complete escape from society (Buddhist meditation, for instance), or as a justification for the existing social order (state Shinto). According to Tatsuo Arima, in his excellent book The Failure of Freedom, Europeans developed ‘liberty of conscience’ as a result of secularisation, which meant that ‘the individual consciousness had to confront directly the Christian dogmas it was in the process of rejecting ... It cannot be overemphasised that Japan did not undergo any such experience, either with ideologies or with respect to such institutions as the family or the monarchy. Since all these ideologies and institutions had all the flexibility of the undefined as well as the tenacity of the functional, there was no reason to apotheosise any one of them in order to kill it.’ Arima quotes the writer Akutagawa Ryunosuke: ‘There are many reasons to kill God, but there is no god in Japan who deserves to be killed.’

Church was never separated from state in Japan. There was never a religious dogma to serve as a moral check on the often arbitrary ways of Japanese rulers. Social harmony, loyalty to superiors all the way up to the Emperor, in short everything that makes up the Japanese state, can be seen as a religious substitute. As a result, the Japanese only really believe in their Japaneseness. Individual emancipation from this is very difficult. It means taking on not a religious dogma, but the entire society with which one has been educated to identify. A Japanese individualist is a bit like a grain of sticky rice trying to dislodge itself from a glutinous rice ball. It has been tried, to be sure, and the result has often been extreme solipsism, suicide or terrorist fanaticism. If one bears this in mind, the appeal of Nietzsche, Hegel and other quasi-totalitarian thinkers to Japanese intellectuals seems less silly, or at least more understandable than Dale makes it out to be. It is no wonder that so many Japanese run for shelter in variations of the Nihonjinron. This sort of patriotism is the last refuge of the alienated intellectual desperate to find his way back to the great national breast that nurtured him.