Books | THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Discriminating professor takes provincial view of Izumo

by Donald Richie

IZUMO-JIN: The People of Izumo, by Daisetsu Fujioka, translated by Caroline E. Kano and Toshiko Yamakuse. Matsue: Harvest Publications, 2002, 138 pp., with maps. 1200 yen (paper).

This curiously provincial investigation sets out to discover the qualities of the inhabitants of the province of Izumo (Izumo-jin) in Shimane Prefecture. Professor Daisetsu Fujioka’s method is that of a fellow seeker, Takao Sobue, who in 1971 wrote a book called “Prefectural Character” in which he discovered that the people of Nagano are “fond of theorizing,” while those of Shiga are “grasping, cunning,” and folks in Kochi are “stubborn . . . fond of alcohol.”

The people of Shimane, according to Sobue, are “negative and unassertive,” as well as “gloomy, introvertive and poor at socializing.”

It is Fujioka’s theory, however, that Sobue did not mean Shimane folks in general. He meant the province of Izumo, whose inhabitants constitute two-thirds of the population of the prefecture and happen to be gloomy and introverted.

All of them? Apparently. A 1979 NHK public opinion poll found that the people of Shimane ranked first in “possessing an attitude of prejudice toward people from other prefectures.” Fujioka, a native of Shimane, quoting this source with approval, further states that since “the temperament of the people of Izumo cannot but be seen as somewhat negative,” a thorough investigation is due.

One of the reasons for this investigation is that the Shimane Prefecture Promotion Committee published in 1990 a volume called, fittingly, “On Promoting the Image of Shimane Prefecture.” In it were listed “five shortcomings,” which included, along with lack of initiative, “a poor sense of public relations.”

This generalization of Shimane is what Fujioka seeks to remedy with his book. As the prefecture has two other provinces — Iwami and Oki — about which no one has ever said anything bad, Fujioka concludes that the prefecture’s reputation must be the fault of Izumo. But why should this be so?

Following his logic to an extreme, the author spends the rest of his time looking through legend and history to find examples of what he is searching for. He also discovers an ally in an obscure Meiji Era educator, Omachi Keigetsu (from “stubborn” Kochi), who in 1901 wrote that people in Izumo “do not consider either a sense of shame or a sense of honor important.

“Their manners and customs are obscene: fifteen- or sixteen-year-old boys visit prostitutes. Izumo-jin are devoid of human kindness, and there are no lovers in Izumo passionate enough to commit suicide together for the sake of their love.”

Curious as this description is, Fujioka, after a few qualifications, is ready to find it all too likely (for otherwise he would not have republished it) and writes: “Though we may not be able to agree with everything he states, perhaps we ought to feel grateful to him for such a precise and poignant criticism.”

Or perhaps not. The arguments of both professors are based upon assumptions as suspicious as they are common. To insist upon the essentialism of a group of people is to deny that such a group is made of individuals each of whom is somewhat different from his neighbor.

To state, as Fujioka does, that “even now, a hundred years later, the temperament of Izumo-jin is fundamentally unchanged,” is self-serving. Yet, “one cannot but marvel at its tenacity!” the professor opines. Indeed, marvel one does.

That he is describing differences that he takes not only from the people of Izumo but from the land of Japan itself only comes to him at the every end of his book. During his writing, he says, “it gradually occurred to me that this very temperament might possibly be a replica in miniature (a concentrated form) of the very consciousness of the Japanese people.”

Perhaps, but this conclusion is reached only on page 132 and by this time we have become convinced (if we are going to be) of the wretched state of the poor Izumo-jin.

Having presented his case, he now opens to the possibility that “I have placed too much emphasis on the weak points . . . there must always be some strengths somewhere, too.” He casts about and finds a few, among them an ability to appreciate the tea ceremony.

The problem is not, however, with the Izumo-jin but with assumptions and conjectures based upon unexamined prejudice, and with suspicious surmises put to the uses of political argument.