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.

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