I just finished reading a short book called Hegemony of Homogeneity by esteemed anthropologist Harumi Befu, and I’d like to stop the usual Japan bickering to approach this idea of “Japan” from a different angle.
Befu’s book looks at how Nihonjinron — the Japanese theory of self-uniqueness — became a civil religion in Japan and eventually came to dominate the domestic and international discourse on Japanese culture. He never explicitly judges the contents or statements of Nihonjinron — for example, the beliefs that Japanese societal structure was formed through monsoon weather/rice cultivation or that the language is linked to pure, homogeneous blood — but instead analyzes the function/role of these beliefs within modern Japanese society. For a moment, I would like to take the same approach.
There are plenty of Western books that debunk the myths of Japanese uniqueness through scholarly analysis, but they are missing the point: You can’t argue facts against religion. The Nihonjinron canon takes on an important structural role within the Japanese national-consciousness. If these beliefs are indeed a civil religion, all the facts in the world cannot remove the grand myth from its supporting role in society. Try arguing the science of evolution with a Fundamentalist Christian — it will get you nowhere.
I can understand the right of this Nihonjinron myth to exist within Japan as a source of culture nationalism, but the conflict starts when objective foreign parties also end up believing the myths. The Japanese government has worked to propagate the positive Nihonjinron theories of Japanese uniqueness to “explain” Japan to the world, which is an understandable PR move. But that does not mean we should take the arguments at face value.
Academic scholarship continuously aims to uncover and explain reality, and therefore, much work in the field of Japanese Studies has been focused on repudiating the more mythic parts of Japanese cultural beliefs. Many Western scholars see Nihonjinron’s implications of Japanese superiority as a new form of ethnocentricism — a natural critical position of anyone foreign who has no structural need for those particular myths themselves.
I find it odd that Momus has essentially taken on Nihonjinron as his own civil religious belief, but this would at least explain why we have reached such an impasse in arguing. He stands behind the Nihonjinron writers’ monolithic Japan as a more morally correct alternative to Western Rationalism and Christianity. His argument is basically, “The Japanese all believe in Groupism, and Groupism is better than Individualism. The Japanese all avoid conflict, and this is better than Protestant bickering.” Momus sees this holistic “Japanese system” as a complete set of beliefs that naturally exist and rule Japan, and therefore, any arguing to the contrary would not be “debunking” as much as an affront to his personal spirituality.
There are a few common approaches to challenging the grand Nihonjinron explanation of Japan. We could challenge the scientific validity of the claims. Or, we could prove that Japan has too much heterogeneity to be defined by monolithic theories. And if that fails, we can attempt to show that the system fails on a moral level against human rights.
Forget all that for a moment. For the sake of arguing, I would like to take the Nihonjinron theory at face value — as a factual body of work that explains Japanese uniqueness. And in the next installment, I will attempt to explain modern Japanese society through the interaction of this monolithic and unique Japanese system with the Western hegemonic Globalizing juggernaut.