Viewed through a religious lens, Japan makes more sense


Ever noticed how Japan — and in particular, its ruling elite — keeps getting away with astonishing bigotry?

Recently Ayako Sono, a former adviser of the current Shinzo Abe government, sang the praises of a segregated South Africa, effectively advocating a system where people would live separately by race in Japan (a “Japartheid,” if you will). But that’s just the latest stitch in a rich tapestry of offensive remarks.

Remember former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara’s claim that “old women who live after losing their reproductive function are useless and committing a sin,” or his attribution of Chinese criminality to “ethnic DNA” (both 2001)? Or former Prime Minister Taro Aso admiring Nazi subterfuge in changing Germany’s prewar constitution (2013), and arguing that Western diplomats cannot solve problems in the Middle East because of their “blue eyes and blond hair” — not to mention advocating policies to attract “rich Jews” to Japan (both 2001)? Or then-Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone declaring Japan to be “an intelligent society” because it was “monoracial,” without the “blacks, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans” that dragged down America’s average level of education (1986)?

Although their statements invited international and domestic protest, none of these people were drummed out of office or even exiled to the political wilderness. Why? Because people keep passing off such behavior as symptomatic of “weird, quirky Japan,” i.e., “They say these things because they are Japanese — trapped in uniquely insular mentalities after a long self-imposed isolation.”

Such excuses sound lame and belittling when you consider that it’s been 160 years since Japan ended its isolation, during which time it has successfully copied contemporary methods of getting rich, waging war and integrating into the global market.

This treatment also goes beyond the blind-eyeing usually accorded to allies due to geopolitical realpolitik. In the past, analysts have gone so gaga over the country’s putative uniqueness that they have claimed Japan is an exception from worldwide socioeconomic factors including racism, postcolonial critique and (until the bubble era ended) even basic economic theory!

So why does Japan keep getting a free pass? Perhaps it’s time to start looking at “Japaneseness” through a different lens: as a religion. It’s more insightful.

A comprehensive but concise definition of “religion” is “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.”

Japaneseness qualifies. A set of beliefs ordering the “Japanese universe” is available at your nearest big bookstore, where shelves groan under the wiki-composite pseudoscience of Nihonjinron (the “Theory of The Japanese”), a lucrative market for navel-gazing about what Japanese allegedly think or do uniquely and collectively.

Japan also has its own creation myth grounded in mystical immortals (the goddess Amaterasu et al), with enough currency that a sitting prime minister, Yoshiro Mori, once publicly claimed Japan was “a nation of deities (kami no kuni) with the Emperor at its center,” in which Japanese have seen “beings above and beyond humankind” (2000). Seen in this way, Japan transcends the mere nation-state to become something akin to a holy land.

Devotional and ritual observances involve not only an imported and adapted foreign religion (Buddhism) hybridized with an established state religion (Shinto), but also elements of animism and ancestor worship whose observances regularly reach down to the level of the neighborhood (o-mikoshi festival portable shrines) and even the household (butsudan shrines).

As for a moral code governing conduct, Japanese media offer plenty of ascriptive programming (e.g., NHK’s popular quiz show “Nihonjin no Shitsumon” or “Questions The Japanese Ask” — as if that’s a discernible genre). They broadcast an unproblematized uniformity of “Japanese” thought, belief and morality generally offset from the remainder of the heterodox world.

Thus this religion-like phenomenon, because of the knock-on effects of vague mysticism and faith, goes beyond regular nationalism.

For one thing, unlike nationalism, religion doesn’t necessarily need another country to contrast and compete with — Japanese are sui generis special because they are a family descended from gods. For another, nationality can be obtained through law, but bloodline descent cannot — and blood is what makes someone a “real” Japanese. Further, how can you ever offer a counter-narrative to a myth? (For a national narrative, you can offer a different historical interpretation of mortals and events; it’s far tougher to argue different gods.)

These dynamics have been covered in much literature elsewhere — in fact, they are depicted positively by the Nihonjinron high priests themselves — but few people consider three other effects of religiosity.

First, there’s religion’s enhanced political power in prescribing and enforcing conformity. If media uncritically establish how “normal Japanese” act, then deviant thoughts and behaviors not only become “unusual” but also “un-Japanese.” It’s not a big leap from the “science” of what people naturally do as Japanese to the science of what to do in order to be Japanese. There is an orthodoxy to be followed, or else.

This dynamic also robs dissidents of the power to use reason to adjust society’s course. Instead of social mores being codified in the rule of law or grounded in terms of concrete “rights, privileges and duties” of a nation-state, they are molded case by case to suit an alleged “consensus feeling” of an abstract group, sending signals through the media or just through “the air” (which people are supposed to “read”: kūki o yomu).

How can one reason with or argue against an amorphous “understanding” of things, or summon enough energy to push against an invisible enfranchised opponent? Easier all around to fall back on the default shikata ga nai (“There’s nothing I can do”) attitude, meaning Japanese will police each other into acceptance of the status quo.

The second effect of this phenomenon is the corruption of social science. The broad-stroke categorization inherent to “groupism” normalizes the pigeonholing of peoples. In Japan, this has reached the point where influential people openly espouse fallacious theories, such as that eye color affects vision quality, blood type affects personality and race/country of origin/gender influence intellectual ability or talent (e.g., “Indians are good programmers,” “Jews are rich,” “Chinese have criminal DNA”).

Although stereotypes exist in every society, in Japan they underpin and blinker most social science. In fact, learning the stereotypes is the science.

The third effect is religion’s enhanced rhetorical power, and this projects influence beyond Japan’s borders.

If Japan’s behavior was merely seen as a matter of nationalism, then things could be explained away in terms of furthering national interests under rational-actor theory. But they’re not. Again, “quirky” Japanese get away with weird stuff like bigotry because they are treated with the deference traditionally accorded to a religion.

Scholar Richard Dawkins put it best: “A widespread assumption . . . is that religious faith is especially vulnerable to offence and should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect.”

Author Douglas Adams expounds on this idea: “Religion . . . has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. What it means is, ‘Here is an idea or a notion you’re not allowed to say anything bad about. You’re just not.’

“If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like. . . . But on the other hand if somebody says, ‘I mustn’t move a light switch on a Saturday,’ you say, ‘I respect that.’ ”

Likewise, you must respect Japan, and woe betide you if you criticize it. Decry even the most egregious bad behavior, such as the whitewashing of an exploitative empire’s history into an exculpated victimhood, and you will be branded “anti-Japan,” a “Japan-hater” or “Japan-basher” by the reactionary cloud of anonyms that so dominate Japan’s Internet.

This trolling wouldn’t matter if that cloud was ignored for what it is — a bunch of anonymous craven cranks — but otherwise sensible people steeped (or academically trained) in Japan’s mysticism tend to take these disembodied opinions from the air seriously. Instead, the critic loses credibility and, in extreme cases, even their livelihood for not toeing the line. Japan is sensitive, and you’re not allowed to say anything bad about it. You’re just not.

This is one reason why even the most scientifically trained among us is ready, for example, to take seriously the comment of a single native-born Japanese (rather than trust qualified Japan experts who unfortunately lack the mystical bloodline) as some kind of evidence in any discussion on Japan. Every Japanese by blood and dint of being raised in the temple of Japanese society is reflexively accorded the right to represent all Japan. It’s respectful, but it also blunts analysis by keeping discussion of Japan within temple control.

So, whenever Japan makes mystical arguments — about, say, longer intestines, special soil and snow or the country’s unique climate — for political ends (to justify banning imports of beef, construction equipment, skis, rice, etc.), skittish outsiders tend to be deferential to the nonsense because of Japan’s “uniqueness” and respectfully ease off the pressure.

Or when Japan’s rulers coddle war-mongering rightists (who also advocate Japan’s mysticism) and sanction pacifist leftists (who more likely see religion as a mass opiate), relax — that’s just how Japan maintains its unique social order.

And if that social order is ever questioned, especially by any Japanese, that is treated as heresy or apostasy, drawing the threat of reprisal — if not violence — from zealots. After all, you do not question faith — or it would no longer be faith. You just don’t.

In sum, seeing Japaneseness through the prism of religion helps explain better why the world accommodates Japan egregiously excepting and offsetting itself. It may be time to abandon simple political theory (seeing Japan’s polity in terms of rational actors with occasional inexplicable irrationalities) in favor of the sociology of religious cults.

Specifically, this would mean studying Japan’s cult of personalities, i.e., the way a ruling elite is resurrecting mysticism and exploiting the reflexive deference usually reserved for religion to game the system. This is especially important now, as Japan’s rulers indulge in belligerent behavior — historical revisionism, remilitarization and so on — that’s helping destabilize the region.

This column was a seminal attempt to make that case. Discuss, if you dare.

Twitter @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears in print on the first Monday of the month. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Steve Jackman

    This is an exceptionally insightful and accurate article about Japan. I have to laugh everytime I hear someone say that the Japanese are not very religious, since living in Japan I find the Japanese to me among the most religious people in the world. Its just that their religion is not recognizable to most as Christianity, Judaism, Islam or even Budhism/Shintoism. The true religion of the Japanese is “Japaneseness” or “Nihonjinron”. Looking at it this way, Japan is an extremely religious country. This is evident to those of us who live in Japan at many levels.

    An example of this is how many Japanese look at the world in quite black-and-white terms. For them, the world is made up of two main groups, the Japanese and the non-Japanese. This is similar to how extreme elements in some other religions think of everyone as either a “believer” or “non-believer”. Unfortunately, this way of thinking inevitably leads to and manifests itself through insularity, xenophobia, racism and racial discrimination – all of which are significant problems in Japan.

    Another example is the way many Japanese are extremely sensitive and defensive when a non-Japanese makes the slighest criticism of anything Japanese. This, again, is similar to how extreme elements in some other religions act by labeling speech of those who they feel are critical of their religion as blasphemy. In Japan, these people are labeled as Japan-haters or Japan-bashers (the worst possible things to be called in Japan) and often threatened verbally or physically for offending Japan, no matter how well-intentioned their criticism may be.

    Furthermore, when something is backed by religious authority, it cannot be questioned. Religion does not have to conform to logic or common sense, as it is based on blind faith. This is why many foreigners aften say that things in Japan don’t always make common sense to them. Since “Japaneseness” or “Nihonjinron” are the defacto religion of Japan, this also ensures that anyone who questions the status-quo does so at their own peril. Using religion is the best guarantee for those in power to hold on to their power, since it is easy to kill dissent under the guise of religion. This is why it is almost impossible for meaningful change to happen in Japan anytime soon.

    These characteristics are not lost on those who are familiar with Japan, which leads to the Japanese often getting a free-pass from the rest of the world for their transgressions, as pointed out in this article.

  • Hendrix

    Brilliant article , well written with good insights… i have always had the sneaking suspicion that Japan is one big cult but couldnt quite put my finger on it, i put it down to shintoism or a mix of social engineering / brainwashing… but this article explains it all .. one big cult of nihonjinron.

  • Sharad Majumdar

    I’m not sure how useful such a view is in understanding Japan in particular. After all, most nations have their own creation myths, heroic legends, and prescribed “manifest destiny”. The fact that certain comments find more latitude in Japan than in the West reflect the cultural differences between the two. And I’m not even sure if political correctness can be considered either Western or a value. In fact I think the tolerance of such widely diverging (and sometimes offensive) viewpoints is a wonderful example of “western” freedom of expression.

    I believe what irks the author is not the “mystic” nature of Japanese nationalism, but the fact that Japanese viewpoints differ so greatly from his own narrow, inflexible, Western version of “correct” history. He is adamant that Japan be forced to continue to fill the role of the aggressor in the post-World War narrative order. As long as Japan continues to be dragged through the mud and vilified from their crimes, he will remain happy. The fact is, Japan has is exhausted of being continually blamed for actions they have apologized sincerely and profusely for – and stray comments by individual politicians cannot be considered to negate them. Yet no matter how many times Japan apologizes, its neighbors return with further demands for more “earnest” apologies.

    Thus, the author is more interested in upholding the victor’s justice of the Tokyo tribunal than trying to look at both sides of history. While the author professes to subscribe to the theory of maintaining Asian peace, in practice this boils down to keeping Japan artificially weakened. Is it any surprise that in the face of Chinese sabre-rattling the Japanese government is looking to bolster its own security? To call this re-militarization is really blaming the victim.

    Unfortunately, the author has expressed similar viewpoints ad nauseum in other articles, and I can only say that it is his prejudiced viewpoint of his adopted country that borders religious delusion, not the experience of being Japanese.

  • Japanese Bull Fighter

    The idea of Japan or Japaneseness as a religion is neither new nor novel. In 1976 the right-wing author Yamamoto Schihei (1921-1991) published a book with the title Nihon Kyoto 日本教徒 in which he pushed the idea of Nihonkyo 日本教. He followed this later with Nihonkyo no shakaigaku 日本教の社会学. Not that much in English, but a search on Nihonkyo or Nihon-kyo will show that this idea has been kicking around for some decades.

  • Liars N. Fools

    An interesting article…..interesting is an adjective meaning clever and amusing but not conveying admiration necessarily.

    Japan is a particularist country. Perhaps more so than most, this particularism is played out with a huge concentration on specific Japanese attitudes and value systems. But there is also a huge diversity in this particularism ranging from the right wing fanatics to frivolous otaku.

    Is there a temple to Yoshida Shoin? Yes probably, but the number of Shoin followers are mostly specialized. Are there Sakamoto Ryoma followers? A much larger number to be sure, but a goodly number of Ryoma followers are into dress up fun with no great desires to forge another Meiji Restoration.

    The focus on Japanese particularism is by and large healthy. Its manifestations for foreigners are the forced drinking of sencha, the strained listening to the wonders of The Tale of Genji, and not being able to say “no” to Noh.

    But there is no revival of state Shintoism. There is hardly a clerical class that goes beyond textbook revisionism. Let us not judge Japan through the peculiar visions of people who believe the beauty of Japan can be found in imperialism and militarism, as certain leaders do.

  • Terry “Death to Equality” Xu

    Unable to understand true East Asian nationalism, Debito resorts to transplanting the boogieman of Western religious conservatism onto a non-Western country. This is problematic.

    First, let us strip away the semblance of authority. By saying “us” when referring to the scientifically trained, Debito implies that social sciences as practiced today is a valid science, rather than a series of academic apologia for equality. His education background is thus not only irrelevant, but speaks against the validity of his opinion on the matter.

    What you call Nihonjinron is not at all unique to Japan, only slightly more pronounced among East Asians because of our emphasis on ethnic nationalism. To say this is religion is to be willfully ignorant. It is an extension of our identities, purposely perpetuated for the sake of othering people who are outside the tribe. This is what makes the Asian race strong and resilient. The lack of which, as seen in modern White nations, is why whites will be blended into nonexistence within the coming centuries. In other words, “groupism” is a positive thing because it leads to conflicts over supremacy.

    That’s not nice! has never been a persuasive argument.

  • Japanese Bull Fighter

    I would also note that the concept of “civil relgion” has long been applied to discussions of American identity and when I was in graduate school, I knew other graduate students who were trying to apply the concept to Japan. In 2007 David Gelernter touched off a substantial debate, especially in conservative journals, with his book Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion. Gelernter, like Yamamoto Shichihei, might well be style “right wing.” I suspect that at least some fraction of the Japanese right would be quite comfortable with the notion of “Japan as religion.”

  • KietaZou

    I could replace “Japan” with “America” and write the same essay with only minor tweaks.

    It’s the idiocy, currently much less virulent in Japan than in my holy hellhole of the USA, that presents itself as “conservative values” that is the problem: it shields them from blame and allows the conservative leadership to do whatever it wants – and serves their personal, short-sighted, greedy and petty interests – and claim they are “protecting” and “preserving” what they are destroying.

    Political conservatives are, by their own definition and actions, NEVER wrong, and failures are ALWAYS the fault of 3rd-parties unwilling to serve their interests.

    And, by every possible measure, homo sapiens have been shown to be built to fall for this BS.

  • J.P. Bunny

    The article started out promising listing the bigoted remarks made by those who should know better, but then went off the rails. Those people were not tossed out of office because they were constantly re-elected by the Japanese voters, not because other countries gave them a free pass because of their quirkiness. After that, just a long slog through the usual “toeing the line…..consensus feeling…..orthodoxy to be followed, or else” scribblings, along with a lot of religion and mysticism thrown in.

    As far as the “uniqueness”, just about every country and culture tends to view itself as special. Nothing special about that. Basically, this whole article could have been shortened down to “The Japanese electorate continue to re-elect morons.”

    • Steve Jackman

      You have a special talent for trying to trivialize important issues.

    • Jeffrey

      “Those people were not tossed out of office because they were constantly re-elected by the Japanese voters, not because other countries gave them a free pass because of their quirkiness.”

      Actually, it’s a mix. The fact of the matter is other than giving the U.S. it’s largest military toe hold in East Asia, Japan just doesn’t matter much anymore in the mind of America’s politicians, general public or even the business community. I get the impression that most of the countries in the EU feel the same.

      Japan could admit to the Nanjing Massacre, openly discuss Unit 731 and offer to pay the Chinese billions in reparation, but the Chinese powers that be are even more atavistic than their Japanese counterparts and would continue to trot out WWII every time it suited them. Relations with S. Korea would be less of a problem, I believe, if Japan came clean there as well.

      None of this will ever happen, of course, and there have been two generations of Japanese educated with only the most circumspect of information about WWII, so finally getting the textbooks straight might not matter at this point in Japan’s history.

      The Bubble was probably Japan’s last hurrah on the world’s stage as it declines into irrelevancy. This being the case, the whole silliness of nihonjinron just doesn’t figure into American strategic or even economic calculations – Yes, the Japanese are unique. All cultures have aspects of uniqueness. And, for what it’s worth, Japan doesn’t really try to use idiotic justifications for blocking or hindering imports any more, especially from the West, still the source of most consumer goods held in the highest esteem. Hell, nearly half the produced consumed in Japan is foreign grown with the bulk of this being from China. If they are willing to “compromise” their food supply with goods from China, then rabid nationalism is really mostly in the mind of the politicians. But I digress.

      But you are right – the Japanese are worse than Americans with voters returning some of the biggest fools to office at every election. However, David is correct in that public ridicule of even the stupidest of them is not much tolerated, by the official press anyway. The weeklies can and do say pretty much whatever they like, the Sankei Shimbun is a right wing rag and historically the Yomiuri, beyond establishment, rarely criticizes the anything but liberal of democratic LDP.

      Otherwise, I think this is one David’s better essay.

    • Steve Jackman

      Yes, every country tends to view itself as special, but in Japan it crosses the line to overt racism and racial discrimination against anyone who is not considered 100 percent pure Japanese. I suggest you read the article published today on Bloomberg titled, “Beauty Queen Wants Japan to Open Minds and Borders”.

      In this article Ariana Morimoto is quoted as saying, “Japan is always saying it’s globalizing, but I feel it hasn’t yet dealt with basics such as racial discrimination.” Miyamoto also recalls school classmates asking her not to share the same swimming pool with them, because she is biracial.

      The article further describes comments posted about her by the Japanese on a popular website in Japan. One of the higheset rated posting is, “What is a half-Japanese doing representing Japan?”. Other cooments are, “She looks like a foreigner,” and “What a disappointment,”.

      All this goes far beyond having pride in one’s country and smacks of religious extremism, which I think is the correct way of looking at Japanese culture.

    • http://www.dadsarmy.co.uk/ GMainwaring

      “orthodoxy to be followed, or else”

      I am struggling to grasp how the author can be so convinced there is a monolithic orthodoxy to be followed, even as he points out in the same article that Japan has both left-wingers and right-wingers. Surely the simultaneous existence of both would prove heterodoxy or even polydoxy?

  • Steve van Dresser

    I have never read a more succinct description of the immunity from criticism experienced by Israel in the perpetration of horrific deeds that would be considered as genocide if perpetrated by any other country. Interesting analysis, but even more appropriate to Israel than Japan.

  • GJM

    Japan Times – please reconsider allowing Debito to write these columns… Do you really want someone writing this sort of thing in your newspaper? Do you really want to be associated with someone known for a Japan-bashing blog? Do you really want to be associated with someone who has such little credibility that they have to spend days on end editing their OWN wikipedia biography (complete with Debito’s own sockpuppets/meatpuppets)?

  • Lemming

    Did Debito just describe Japanese Nationaliam and then call it not nationalism?

  • wanderingpippin

    Is the author aware that Nihonjin no Shitsumon went off the air about a dozen years ago?

  • KetsuroOu

    Interesting how Arudou denounces the argumentum ad hominem when used against the critic. I seem to read the accusation of “apologist” far more than I ever do “Japan-hater” or “Japan-basher”.

    “Troll” and “trolling” are two other words I encounter frequently. Part of a doctorate is understanding the difference between “troll” and “someone who criticizes what I write”.

  • Bucky Sheftall

    Thanks to quirks of evolution, human beings — as far as we know — are the only creatures on the planet neurologically and thus cognitively predisposed to dwell upon the unavoidable fact of their own mortality
    and the emotionally and psychologically (ego-wise) unwelcome intimations of insignificance that foreknowledge entails. The human institution of “culture” evolved as a coping mechanism vis-a-vis that messy stuff whichfunctions by providing us with useful illusions of cosmic significance (“I am a beloved child of God!” or “I’m a loyal member of the best tribe around!” etc etc) and illusions of either (depending on your culture) “literal” (the God/Heaven thing) or “symbolic” (the tribal project to which I have devoted my life’s efforts and loyalties will survive my mortal demise”) immortality. There are many differing cultural ways to skin this existentially-comforting cat — with or without god/heaven mumbo-jumbo. What Debito is describing here, in so many words, is a culture that has come up with a “no god/heaven mumbo-jumbo” solution. Length requirements prompted him to use the word “religion” as a space-saving shortcut. Understandable, given the space limits of the newspaper column format, but as this thread illustrates, the word (which also comes with copious emotional and political baggage) creates more problems than it solves.

    This is a heavy, heavy topic impossible to cover — or even survey — in the depth it deserves in a single column. I’d say it’d take a couple of academic monographs (no one would ever read), minimum, to even scratch the surface of describing the issue and explaining the bare-bones of its functional structure.

    Bottom line: human beings cannot function without SOME useful illusion of immortality and significance. The idea that we are puny, frail creatures on a puny, cosmically insignificant planet pursuing lives and dreams and enduring pain and loss that all, ultimately, amount to nothing is utterly unthinkable for our species. Culture throws us a life-saving rope in that respect. All cultures promise immortality to their loyal human constituents either explicitly (the god/heaven thing) or implicitly (“what you do in life echoes in eternity”). Japan, clearly, is of the “implicit” school in this regard.

  • 99Pcent

    I think the author is talking about the Chinese Communist Party and how it operates.

  • blackpassenger

    I had arrived at this very conclusion ever since I moved here in 2001 and wrote about it in my 2009 book, ‘black passenger yellow cabs.’

  • David Christopher

    Has there ever been a leader in recorded history that has had millions of followers who would gladly give up all their possessions, go commit suicide, and even make peace with enemies? No other nation or religion on earth wields the power the japanese emperor does.

  • Steve Jackman

    Yeah, sure, and Obama is a Muslim!

  • Hanten

    Great premise for an article on “the specialness” of Japan with some firm logic and lots good examples. A flaw in the reasoning in fourth paragraph weakens the overall impact but I do love that Arudou seems to have coined a new phrase “the religion of Japan”.

    While I enjoy living here and feel I’ve come to understand a lot about her, I can see the need for caution in trying to sum up Japan in a page. It is too ancient and too complex a country do so. Also I don’t want the nationalists to rain their fiery disapproval down on my head. Not even online. It doesn’t mean I agree with the apologists, either.

    There is so much about Japan to love and I usually focus my attention on those things that please my eye, mind stomach and soul. When, on one of the rare occasions that I encounter something unfair, ugly or wasteful, I would like to be able to talk about it. Without being beaten up.

    Japan is special but it’s no more special than anywhere else. It is particularly special to me but I think it is to Japan’s benefit if she can accept a little criticism from inside and out. A healthy dose of self-esteem is not weakened by an honest eye. Improving Japan is a noble goal for all Japanese people and Japanese lovers.

  • Tim Groves

    Yep, the Christians are obviously pulling the strings here. It’s only thanks to the constant infighting between Catholics and Protestants among the elite that they haven’t yet managed to introduce the Japanish Inquisition.

  • Tim Groves

    Ever noticed how Japan — and in particular, its ruling elite — keeps getting away with astonishing bigotry?

    Can’t say I have. Indeed, I’ve not noticed Japan engaging in any conscious behavior at all. Its chief representative and “the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people”, His Imperial Majesty the Present Emperor, appears to be the very quintessence of modesty, propriety, politeness and decorum. We could all learn a lot from Him as a role model of good manners.

  • CJ

    Strikes me that those who haft drinketh of the Green Tea Cool Aide Fountain too longeth… doth protesteth far too strongeth.

  • Toolonggone

    Exploitation of religion for manufacturing myth and deference in political practice brings spectacle but not much substance to democracy. That has nothing to do with genuine faith in God, and everything to do with misguided notion of ancestor worship. No wonder many Japanese people are having an extremely hard time dealing with numerous issues driven from this cultural paralysis in Japanese society today.

  • Sam Gilman

    Hello Japan Times moderators. I had a long comment published; I edited it for a small typo and it’s now back in the “pending” publication queue. Any chance of it being published again?

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    One of Debito’s better articles. Not convinced on the religion aspect, but it is an interesting concept that might be better characterized as a cult. Nevertheless, a clear example that when Debito avoids polemics, he writes much better than when he is shrill.

  • sasit93

    An important article to know many things about Japan and Japanese. Thanks.

  • Mateusz82

    Seems like Debito started with an assumption, and tried to build arguments around it. Japaneseness is more an ideology, and better understood as simple nationalism, similar to examples in the past, even comparable to China, which is attempting to create a similar narrative of superiority through homogeneity (harmony, as the government puts it).

    Also… calling Richard Dawkins a “Scholar”, especially in these matters, is being quite generous.

  • Foreigner Friendly

    Japan’s a great place to live and work. Always fascinating, it never fails to deliver something baffling and marvelous in every facet of its magnificent culture.

    This business of “nihonjinron” is baffling, ne? As is the casual racism one sees, thankfully rarely but often loudly trumpeted in the Japanese media. The Japanese people and the foreign residents here are generally very well-educated so it should come as no surprise to anyone that there’s nothing in Japanese DNA to distinguish them from any other human being. That means there’s no rational basis for racially discriminating against anybody. Even so-called “positive racism” is completely nonsensical when one realizes that we’re all one. We’re all humans. We may have different passports, different shades to our skin and we may speak different languages but we all think and feel like humans because we’re all the same species.

    Culturally, it’s easy to draw lines between ourselves and others. If we do it to make ourselves feel better about who we are as a people then that’s sad. It’s true, Japan can claim a unique culture that thousands of people come here to enjoy. On the other hand, every country can claim the same level of cultural uniqueness. None of them are superior to any of the others.

    Let’s stop treating Japan as the pauper prince. Let’s stop tolerating this religion of “Japanese-ness” and being show some reasonableness instead. If those that profit from the idea that “nihonjinron” want to join the human race they’re welcome. But please drop the ‘tude at the door.

  • Catherine Dassy

    You are right that “Japan” and “Japaneseness” is not a “religion”. It is closer to being a cult with fundamentalist-religious aspects, similar to North Korea, which may not even be accidental given that North Korea’s system is based on Japanese fascism and Emperor cult, adapted to the Kim family.
    There is a clear tendency to shut out outside influences that question the cult, which goes hand in hand with the inability to see criticism as valuable rather than an insult which must, without fail, be discredited.

    One good example is German Chancellor Merkel’s recent visit to Japan, which was seen in the Western world as a very polite gesture for the Japanese to maybe learn from Germany’s history, but in the Japanese media, save the left-leaning Asahi Shimbun, it was generally seen as a completely insensitive, insulting interference, and some Japanese media even went as far as to claim that Merkel “insulted the Emperor”.

    This inability to see others (Merkel in this case) as equals instead of just aliens who must be looked down upon, has reached cultish levels in Japan.

  • Chief Presiding Judge

    Great read Debito. Thank you for this. No 1st world country in a modern interconnected era should get a pass on bigotry.

    Racism is disgusting.

  • JD

    Joining the party late, but this should be reprinted by JT as a formal response to Debito’s article. I hope the people at JT are reading this and seriously questioning whether they should continue to publish Debito’s nonsense.