Japan’s strange narcissism


For people to become mature, they need to balance their feelings of self-respect with a coolheaded recognition of the need to see oneself in relative terms. These days, there seems to be a tendency among some Japanese to give up this balance and push forward their sentiments of self-esteem.

The modesty that regards impudent self-advertisement as shameful must have been among Japan’s traditional values. But nationalists who loudly call for respect of tradition are succumbing to narcissism more frequently than other groups.

An NHK chairman who tries to justify the World War II “comfort women” system by saying that other countries did the same during wartime, and a member of the public broadcaster’s board of governors who denies Japan’s wartime aggression with his revisionist view of history, symbolize such the spirit of the times.

Because Prime Minister Shinzo Abe strongly backed the appointments of these people, it follows that he is the very symbol of immature narcissism.

Japanese political leaders who exhibit a desire to paint a positive picture of themselves also tend to advocate the need for globalization in the fields of education and the economy.

How should we interpret this strange combination that exists in these people?

Nurturing human resources conducive to globalization is the buzzword in the field of education. Japan’s schools — from the elementary level through university — are busy trying to respond to the call for producing more Japanese capable of working in a global environment. English lessons will become part of the curriculum at elementary schools, and teachers at Japanese universities are required to teach in English to students.

Behind these moves is the conviction that Japan is lagging behind other countries in global competition, because Japanese are poor at English.

Curriculums are tampered with based on the simplistic belief that the English proficiency of Japanese youths will improve if schools are encouraged to provide more English classes.

In the first place, language is a tool of thinking. If one thinks in a language with which one has a limited vocabulary, one will naturally come up with only superficial and simple ideas.

Many Japanese university teachers who have to teach in English can be likened to tennis players rallying with sponge balls instead of tennis balls.

If Japan appears to lag behind other countries in globalization, it’s the result of historical experience. Japan was the first non-Western country to successfully modernize by relying on its native language. When Japan imported Western civilization in the late 19th century, intellectual leaders like Yukichi Fukuzawa used their knowledge of Chinese classics to translate Western concepts into kanji phrases.

With the spread of education, cultural markets in Japan expanded, and the publication of books written in the mother tongue of Japanese flourished. The Japanese people became capable of abstract and high-level thought in their own language.

The approach taken by the government in its current push for “globalized education” is to reduce the number of hours for training youths how to think and to invest more resources in having students acquire English — mostly as a tool.

Such a course is reminiscent of the days when the government, shortly after the 1868 Meiji Restoration, built the Western-style Rokumeikan (Deer-cry Hall) for parties and balls in Tokyo. As part of its attempt to get Japan into the ranks of the Western powers, the government operated the hall for the purpose of teaching members of the elite how to dance in Western dress. In its way of thinking, the government presumed that people could absorb Western civilization better if they danced in Western dress.

Today’s government shows that it has inherited this way of thinking, as it believes that Japan can globalize itself if Japanese youths acquire some English skills.

Westernization policies, symbolized by the Rokumeikan, triggered nationalistic reactions that eventually led to Japan’s feeling superior to its Asian neighbors.

In today’s Japan, the over-adaptation to globalization and the rise of exclusionist nationalism are two sides of the same coin.

To keep a balance between sentiments of self-respect and self-criticism, we need to develop the composure to look back on the achievements as well as the failures of modern Japan.

To do that, we need to deepen our understanding of history and society — and not make light of knowledge and cultured intellects.

The so-called globalists in Japan view education merely as a tool for the pursuit of profits. Such a way of thinking is what pushes Japan further along the path toward the Galapagos syndrome.

Jiro Yamaguchi is a professor of political science at Hokkaido University.

  • Steve Jackman

    Good analysis, Yamaguchi san.

  • kyushuphil

    Jiro Yamaguchi here sees the same problem that bedeviled Natsume Sōseki.

    Where Yamaguchi-san now recalls the antic beliefs in faux westernization — the get-dressed-up-western dance halls of the Meiji era — Sōseki fingered those Japanese content to adorn themselves with easy phrases and stylistic conceits. They were merely facades, or gold plating over base brass, he said, often. One place he said it particularly well was in the novel “And Then” (viz p. 61 of the English language Tuttle edition).

    Yamaguchi-san has it about right — calling for solid gold Japanese contents over the allure of the gold-plate surfaces that mere display of English may cast.

    So let’s be more specific to second his hopes for better thinking skills among Japanese than evident in the current nationalists. Let’s ask not just for English-language glittering facades for global needs, but real writing skills, in Japanese first, among students, writing skills that let youth refer well and widely to many sources in the older culture, and to many fields of experience in today’s world.

    More essays, more essaying, I’m saying. And more quoting from students of all ages to see other students as people, as humans, still precariously edged on the same dilemmas today as Sōseki saw in his day.

  • A lot of rationalisation here. All will be revealed in its proper context. The problem is the facts allude the writer. prompting to engage in fantasy.

  • JTCommentor

    This is a good article. Thank you.

  • zer0_0zor0

    Interesting article.

    The modesty that regards impudent self-advertisement as shameful must have been among Japan’s traditional values. But nationalists who loudly call for respect of tradition are succumbing to narcissism more frequently than other groups.

    Let’s face it, Japan has a deep tradition that is rich in diversity. What the nationalists are clamoring for has basically nothing to do with tradition. I would venture to say that there is little that has been developed in Japan since the onset of the Meiji period in 1868 that can be classified as “tradition”. That is not to say that there is none, especially in the fields where cross-fertilization has played a role, but In fact, there was much destruction of tradition wrought during the Meiji against tradition (for example, the separation of Buddhism-Shinto syncretism, a thousand-year old tradition at the time).

    Some of that destruction was in the name of modernization, some not. Tradition and modernity are not necessarily incompatible, as people need to preserve culture because it carries values and embodies practices that have proven their value time and again through the ages and should be transmitted to future generations.

    Meanwhile, superficial manifestations–either utilitarian or decorous–of modernization are neither representative of an actually embracing of modernity and its values, nor the embodiment of something that could be called a modern tradition.

    Actually embracing certain values of modernity is key to succeeding in a globalizing world, not the other way around. Moreover, since other East Asian nations have embarked on the course of modernization, having been the first to do so would seem a questionable basis for making recourse to nationalism.

    So indeed, the author poses an interesting question with

    How should we interpret this strange combination that exists in these people?

    By the way, it bears noting, too, that Edo period Japan had one of the highest rates of literacy in the world during the early 19th century. That would seem to point to a tradition of learning.

  • Manfred Deutschmann

    A very good and balanced article. National narcissism is definitely a huge hurdle to overcome for a better future. As long as the only sources of national self-esteem are myths, lies, and unfounded pride, there is still a chance of evil people taking over.