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Japan’s endless search for identity

by Florian Coulmas

HEGEMONY OF HOMOGENEITY: An Anthropological Analysis of Nihonjinron, by Harumi Befu. Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press, 2001, 181 pp., A$44.95 (US$29.95)

Nihonjinron, the discourse on “Japaneseness,” has been with us for quite some time.

As a recurring topic of discussion it resurfaces every once in a while when the public appetite for identity needs to be satisfied, for one reason or another. There is an ebb and flow, but the stream of publications never dries up completely. Contributions to the debate about “Who are we? What is Japan? Where do we come from?” — no matter how arcane — are always sure to attract quite a bit of attention in Japan.

Indeed, to ponder these questions is something like a national pastime.

While the discourse takes place mainly in the Japanese media, ranging from serious books to the odd quiz show on TV, it has also captured a lasting place in Western dealings with Japan, her culture and identity.

Although European and American authors have contributed their share to portraying “impenetrable and unfathomable Japan” as mysterious and exotic, Western writings about Nihonjinron are usually highly critical, if not sarcastic. They tend to see in it nothing but self-serving ethnocentrism and excuses for protectionism couched in prejudice and myopic claims to uniqueness.

Harumi Befu’s book offers an overview of Nihonjinron, its history and the breadth of themes it has absorbed over the years. He tries not to take part in the discourse, but to look at it as a detached observer. Rather than choosing sides and advancing arguments for or against particular tenets of Nihonjinron (or Nihonron, as it is more commonly called in Japanese), his intention is to understand it as a remarkable phenomenon which calls for explanations in terms of the functions it fulfills for society and culture. In this he is quite successful, although he clearly has more patience with some aspects of Nihonjinron than with others, which he is not always able to conceal.

Befu sees in Nihonjinron an all-encompassing discourse of Japanese identity, both cultural and national. Reviewing the major doctrines, such as “groupism,” closeness to nature, nonverbal communication patterns, incomparability of the Japanese language, race and blood, influence of climate on national character, to mention the most important, he approaches the question of what functions these ideas fulfill from various angles.

Nihonjinron, he observes, is not an esoteric niche phenomenon, but a mass market. Consumer demand is generated and must be satisfied. In some measure, therefore, Nihonjinron products are governed by market mechanisms — the lower the quality, the higher the print run. Like other consumer goods, Nihonjinron products are susceptible to fashion. The kind of Nihonjinron that is marketable at a given time thus reflects socioeconomic and political developments.

A good example is Befu’s discussion of how Nihonjinron was transformed after World War II. The Emperor and the Imperial institution which had been central to the discourse about Japanese identity in the early 1940s disappeared from Nihonjinron virtually overnight after the defeat.

Nonetheless, Befu argues convincingly, Nihonjinron filled a spiritual vacuum left by the catastrophic failure of wartime nationalism built on the divinity of the Imperial line and the invincibility of the Japanese spirit. With unconditional surrender, the Emperor and Japanese spirit were out of fashion, but uniqueness could still be claimed, although it was now anchored in language, environment and race. It is this common mixture of biology and culture which makes the tenets of Nihonjinron so hard to disprove by lay consumers.

Belief, not verifiable fact, is what Nihonjinron is mostly about. In this regard it has unmistakable traits of a religion, as already Ben Dasan, alias Yamamoto Shichihei, remarked years ago in one of the most successful books ever on Japanese national character, “The Japanese and the Jews.” Befu devotes an entire chapter to the idea that Japanese identity discourse fulfills religious functions. That Nihonjinron is not just descriptive, but, by claiming universality for all Japanese, has strong normative elements, is quite obvious. The common notion that the Japanese know no religion other than Japaneseness is, perhaps, more contestable.

However, Befu does not argue that Nihonjinron is a religion. Rather, he suggests convincingly that certain aspects of Nihonjinron can be described in terms of what others have called “civil religion.” Pervasive as Nihonjinron is, no single theoretical approach can do justice to this complex discourse which, as becomes clear in this book, is much more than public stultification. If proof of that was necessary, Befu has demonstrated in this book that it is a fascinating phenomenon deserving of serious study.

It is not the contents of the discourse, however, which is most interesting. Instead, it is the fact that it exists, that it seems to be inexhaustible and that it changes in response to changing times while claiming immutability. Nihonjinron may not really offer many valuable insights or answers to its leitmotif question, “What is Japan?” but it is a very Japanese phenomenon and as such commands the attention of those of us concerned with Japanese society and culture.

Befu does not say many things that haven’t been said before, but his comprehensive and multifaceted view on Nihonjinron as an anthropological phenomenon is original. As a summary of what Nihonjinron means for Japanese identity it has no rival on the English-language market.