The disaster was “divine retribution (tembatsu),” proclaimed Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara just days after the Tohoku earthquake. “The Japanese have become a selfish (gayoku) people. We need to use the tsunami to wash away this egoism.”
There is not a little irony in a wealthy 12-year governor — one who has recently begun his fourth term, despite early indications he would step down — lecturing others on egoism. Writing in these pages at the time, Philip Brasor put down the tembatsu outburst to his being shut out of the news cycle.
Whatever Ishihara’s motivation, his words do at first glance bear passing similarities to those uttered by U.S. religious conservatives in the wake of natural disasters. For example, in 2005 Pat Robertson and others portrayed Hurricane Katrina as God’s punishment for America’s sins.
In actual fact, Ishihara was not really talking about God at all; he was talking about Japanese national identity. His words can be seen as criticism of what he perceives as a growing self-centeredness and materialism in Japanese society, particularly amongst the younger generation. This leads to an interesting question: Does national character actually exist?
The answer to this question would seem to be “yes” judging by postquake coverage in the international media. One trait that has frequently been highlighted is gaman, originally a Zen Buddhist concept typically presented as having no English equivalent, but which has been variously translated as stoicism, “toughing it out,” self-denial, forbearance, patience, perseverance and poise in the face of events beyond one’s control. Gaman is closely related to that other ubiquitous Japanese term ganbaru.
A related term that has risen to prominence both inside and outside Japan following the Tohoku earthquake is the concept of jishuku, literally “self-restraint.” Jishuku is not a trait as such but rather a social mood. The BBC noted that Japan had entered a period of jishuku, with people making cutbacks and studiously avoiding extravagance out of a sense of solidarity with the victims of the disaster. Thus, cherry-blossom viewing parties were cancelled and Osaka dimmed many of its well-known illuminations, including those on Osaka Castle. Even candidates in the recent gubernatorial races — nicknamed the jishuku election — shied away from the usual loud, vigorous campaigning. Ishihara personified the jishuku mood by saying it wasn’t the time for people to “drink and chat,” as well as criticizing vending machines and brightly lit pachinko parlours for wasting energy.
While The Times described gaman as a “distinctively Japanese mentality, the direct consequence of geography and history,” the term does bear a striking resemblance to that peculiarly British trait of the “stiff upper lip.” The idea of emotional self-restraint and maintaining one’s composure in adversity that gained popularity in the Victorian era is often used to explain the spirit of national solidarity and community said to be evident during the Blitz. Then, for a period of eight months from September 1940 to May 1941, London was subjected to almost daily German bombing that saw some 40,000 civilian deaths and perhaps 100,000 houses damaged or destroyed.
Some have suggested that the British remain an extremely tenacious people. Anthropologist Brian Moeran, with tongue firmly in cheek, argues that the Japanese do not seem particularly persevering in contrast to the English, who form an orderly queue at a bus stop and wait for 30 minutes or more for a bus that never comes. Nevertheless, in Britain today the concept of the stiff upper lip is rather outdated, though older Brits occasionally bemoan the loss of such “traditional” virtues amongst the young.
In Japan, however, Japanese self-images have tended to remain fairly constant in the postwar period. For example, one survey spanning 50 years has consistently shown that the Japanese regard themselves as diligent and persevering. The winner of the Japan Tourism Agency-sponsored 2010 “My Japan” contest — in which entrants had to express something unique about Japanese culture in a 30-second commercial — focused on the concept of enryo (restraint).
The important thing to note here is that we are dealing with images – deep-rooted self-perceptions about how a people both believe themselves to be and think they (and others around them) should be. This is not necessarily the same thing as how they actually are, although beliefs can become strong enough to influence behavior, creating a self-fulfilling social reality. Thus, Ruth Benedict’s “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,” which has sold more than 2 million copies in Japanese, has been so widely disseminated, embodied, internalized and regurgitated in Japan that anthropologists find ordinary Japanese using Benedict to answer their questions.
“The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” is perhaps the most famous of the genre of writing known as Nihonjinron, writings that portray a coherent and holistic image of “Japaneseness.” This kind of cultural nationalism is by no means unique to Japan: The modern nation-state, whether Japan or anywhere else, relies for its very existence on the construction of such images — national traits that allow countries to function as “imagined communities.”
Returning to the question of whether national traits such as gaman exist, it is important to note that the national stereotypes presented in Nihonjinron and other writings need to be believable – i.e. need to resonate with the inherited experiences and memories of ordinary people — if they are to be accepted and internalized. They cannot be 100 percent invention.
For example, in Japan one of the main processes through which modern Japanese identity came to be accepted as social reality was known as “samuraization.” Through this process, characteristics such as loyalty, perseverance and diligence said to be held by a small (but elite) segment of the population — the samurai — were gradually extended through propaganda, education and regulation to cover the whole population.
Here it is interesting to note how the (supposed) traits of a small but powerful class can successfully take root in the wider society. The same phenomenon occurred in Britain, where the “stiff upper lip” was originally associated with the upper class and the private school system before it came to symbolize the whole British people. The fact that the Blitz spirit of solidarity and national unity has been shown to be at least partly myth has not prevented it becoming historical “truth,” burned into the collective national psyche.
In sum, in answer to the question “Does national character exist?,” the answer must be “yes,” but only as an ideological discursive formation, one that is “real” but not fixed. National character changes over time and varies with class, gender, region and age. For example, Koichi Iwabuchi has shown how the Japanese were described as lazy and incapable of systematic work by Western missionaries around the turn of the last century. More recently, the Japanese media has lamented the increase in kireru kodomo, students unable to control their emotions and temper who wander around “collapsing” classrooms (gakkyū hōkai), phenomena that seem to suggest gaman is a learned rather than inherent Japanese trait.
Ishihara’s pronouncements on Japanese identity are ideological in the sense that they not only describe how he thinks Japanese people do behave but also prescribe how they should behave. The phenomenon of the older generation using “tradition” as a reason for how youth should behave is a universal one. As a politician who supposedly needs to be in touch with a changing and varied electorate, Ishihara would do well to keep this fact in mind.
Chris Burgess lectures in Japanese and Australian studies at Tsuda College. The Iwabuchi paper can be found at wwwmcc.murdoch.edu.au/ReadingRoom/8.2/Iwabuchi.html. The “My Japan” 2010 winners can be viewed at my-jpn.com/cm/. For more on the formation of national character in Japan, see japanfocus.org/-Chris-Burgess/3310. Send comments and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org