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Some years ago I was sitting at the counter of a rather exclusive sushi restaurant in the Roppongi district of Tokyo when I noticed that a middle-age man a few stools along was making monosyllabic comments each time I ordered a morsel of sushi or slipped one into my mouth.

“Wow,” he said as I chewed my yellowtail; “amazing” when I swallowed my sea urchin.

I rose to the occasion, ordering expensive slivers of raw fish, while showing off my hard-earned prowess at the sushi counter. When I asked for the bill it was 24,000 yen, a veritable fortune for me, and I realized that I had violated the cardinal rule of Japanese cuisine: Do not try to impress people in a sushi restaurant.

I noticed, however, that this man was writing in a thick notebook and I politely asked him what he was noting down.

“Oh, please forgive me,” he said, “but, you see, it is my hobby these many years to go into sushi restaurants, sit near foreigners and study what they order.”

“Fascinating hobby.” “Oh, thank you.” “And what have you learned by doing this?” I asked. “Me? I’ve have learned that you are from Denmark.” “No, sorry, I’m not.” “Oh yes you are. You are a Dane.” “Now, wait a minute,” I said. “I was born in the U.S. and I am an Australian citizen.” “You’re not from Denmark?” “Nope. Been there, though, only for a few weeks at a time.” He scratched his head. “That’s funny. Up till now eight people have ordered sea urchin and they’ve all been Danes.”

It occurred to me at the time that this was actually a rather typical, if simplistic, Japanese understanding of national identity. The Japanese people always found it easy to characterize other nationalities for the basic reason that their own view of themselves was as a unitary society with nationally shared interests, attitudes and mores.

The fact is, however, that this is gradually ceasing to be the case. The Japanese people are now finally beginning to see themselves as a richly diverse lot, a conglomerate representative of varied and often antagonistic tastes. When this process is complete I believe that they will not only be better equipped to analyze and understand social change outside Japan but also be genuinely eager to redefine the fundamental terms of their own nation state. Japan is about to discover domestic pluralism.

We in the West are ourselves constantly reassessing concepts of race, nationality, citizenship and ethnicity.

The first of these — race — is virtually defunct as a valid term to describe anything. Words like Caucasian and Oriental are now meaningless, if not pernicious. And what is nationality? Before the war my ancestors, though born and bred in Poland and Russia, would have been designated as having “Jewish nationality.” A people’s nationality today may be separate from that of the nation in which they live, though this may go unrecognized by the citizens of that country. As for citizenship, this is a procedural matter in our day and age.

And what is ethnicity? The majority culture in a country usually labels minority groups from other countries in it as “ethnic.” Ethnic is color; it is variety. But the ruling group in a country never refers to itself as part of the universal ethnic wash. It sees itself as the mainstream, controlling and decidedly non-ethnic factor in its society.

Let us return to Japan. Up until recent years the Japanese had been very clear about these concepts, with the exception of “ethnic,” which in Japanese originally meant no more than “spicy food.” Ask most Japanese prior to the 1990s and you would probably get a straight simple answer to the question of Japanese identity. This is because the Japanese were led to believe that from the standpoint of ethnicity, nationality, citizenship and race they were one, and that the word “Japanese” most concisely described them in all these four categories.

The buzzword of the 1980s was “kokusaika,” internationalization. This led young Japanese in particular into a phase of giddy cosmopolitanism, much of which was consumption driven. Yet the trendiness of kokusaika did leave something concrete and positive in its wake: the newly-found interest in “ibunka.” This neologism literally means “different culture.” It refers to the intersecting of cultures not only from overseas to home but to the interaction and intertwining of differing cultures emanating from within Japan — from the unique traditions of Okinawa and the Korean-influenced arts of northern Kyushu to the pristine spirituality of northeast Honshu, to name a few.

The Japanese overrode virtually all diversity, negated all internal pluralism, during the Meiji era — 1868-1912 — in order to unite the nation under the flag of the rising sun. The use of local dialect was banned in school. The absurd myth of the middle-class consciousness — the notion that all Japanese share the same tastes and predilections — was invented and foisted on a believing public. The Japanese were given a single racial, national, ethnic and civic identity and they accepted it gladly in exchange for the source of pride, namely a strong nation that could stand shoulder to shoulder with the developed West.

But the 1990s brought a crisis to this identification. They had achieved equality with the West, at least in terms of GDP, but where did it get them? Their ardor was wounded by the loss of confidence in their economic model and by their sense of betrayal that sacrifice of family, lifestyle and personal development was somehow acceptable in the name of national pride.

Now Japan is emerging in the minds of its people as a nation of diverse traditions and lifestyles. I believe that we can look forward to the day when people will not be ashamed to speak their native dialect or accent on television talk shows, when people will take pride in the differences and customs that have, under the smooth surface of sameness, always pervaded Japan.

The ideas of my friend at the sushi counter are certainly old hat in today’s Japan. Not only Danes eat sea urchin; and not only Jewish-American-Australians pay through the nose for their bravado.

The Japanese are finding a new and complex identity in their own midst and in the process are about to learn that they are not so different from the rest of us in their confusion and delight over it.

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