Hegemony of Homogeneity


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.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
December 4, 2004

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

27 Responses

  1. porandojin Says:

    Samuel P.Huntington separates Japan /and also Ethiopia and Haiti/ from other types of modern civilizations- what do you think of his description , is it sismilar to the concept of nihonjinron?

  2. marxy Says:

    I am not familiar with that particular Huntington work. Can you supply the name of the piece? Sounds interesting.

  3. porandojin Says:

    i think it was in his ‘the clash of civilizations’

  4. Momus Says:

    Being ethnocentric when thinking about one’s own culture is quite different from being ethnocentric when talking about someone else’s. Everyone has the right to judge themselves according to the criteria of their choice. How do I live, what are my practical habits, my aesthetic tastes, how do I perceive myself, what are my priorities? The collective answer to these questions is what we call a culture. Cultures are changing all the time, and also interacting with other cultures, but we’d expect the culture to change from the inside, on its own terms, with its own understanding of itself, its identity and its role.

    When it comes to cross-cultural judgements, judgements of others, and especially advocacy of change for others, it’s not so straightforward. How do they live, what are their aesthetic tastes, what are their priorities, how should they change? Here we leave the realm of identity, self-perception and self-criticism and enter something much more murky. Here we must discuss ‘the Other’ and our attitude to it. Personally, I think there are some rules of etiquette which apply here. Firstly, no deconstruction of the Other without deconstruction of oneself. Secondly, no bullying or rudeness, especially not if you’re a guest. Thirdly, it’s far more acceptable to consider the Other as ‘a good Other with a lot to teach us’ than ‘a bad Other with a lot to learn from us’. Fourth, realise that since you will never be able to see the Other as the Other sees itself, or participate directly in the Other’s self-determination, all your conclusions must be provisional and should be expressed humbly.

  5. Momus Says:

    (By the way, I’ve never read the Nihonjinron writers. I’ve never said anything about typhoon weather or language being based on blood. My views are based on my own observations of Japan over the years.)

  6. marxy Says:


    First of all, I believe you when you say you haven’t read the Nihonjinron writers, but you’ve basically assumed their position of Japan being an alternate holistic system to the West. You explain Japanese social structures through the culture, instead of vice versa. Although she’s not Japanese, Ruth Benedict’s The Chrystantheum and the Sword is seen as the starting point for this kind of Japan-as-different debate. The book’s translation was highly influential in Japanese circles, and the fact that it s conclusions were not drawn from ethnographic fieldwork gave a lot of less-than-scholarly types the idea that one can create whole, grand cultural explanations culled just from daily observations and simple comparisons (more on this in Yoshino Kosaku’s Cultural Nationalism in Contemporary Japan.)

    Whether you’ve read these authors or not, you’re basically making the same points they made in the 70s.

    The reason you may be seeing all this academic criticism of Nihonjinron as Western ethnocentricism is that you missed the entire background for these scholarly debates. The Japan-as-impossibly-unique-and-monolithic came to dominate the Japanese view of themselves, and by the 80s, actual scholars in the West (and East) began to point out the fact that these views did not exactly stand up to rigorous academic standards. Both scholars in Japan and the US work to try to “explain” Japan, and their job is to break through the bullshit and try to find the real meanings. This critical stance took a political meaning once the Nihonjinron views actually came to hinder communication between Japan and the West – exposing these theories as “myths” was seen as a way to break down barriers in the same way that Frank Boaz’s work fought against racism or Margaret Mead’s work fought against Puritan sexual repression. The difference is that the Japanese academic community was proffering these ethnocentric views as “science” and “truth,” and the non-Japanese academic community could not just sit back and accept the myths at face value.

    I understand your point about self-deconstruction, but you’re basically saying: academics cannot deconstruct ethnocentric theories unless they are their own. Only Germans can take down the science of Nazi Eugenics. While there has been much ethnocentric “bullying” of Japan, there has been equal stalemate caused by the Japanese government conviently hiding behind invented “cultural reasons” for refusing to change economic and societal structures. I think though, you confuse Western academic endeavours to describe “reality” and correct the record with Western attempts to bully a foreign country. I find your views Neo-Oriental in the sense that you see Japan as a small country outside of the world hegemon and therefore not subject to criticism from above. I doubt you would really be offended by a Latvian criticism of the United States.

    I suggest you read either the Befu book or Yoshino book. They are short and offer excellent reviews of the Nihonjinron literature and positions.

  7. Momus Says:

    Your third paragraph there is just appalling rubbish and bluster, Marxy, with its vague talk of ‘scholars from the West (and East)’ deciding collectively to ‘cut through bullshit’. One of the major intellectual tendencies of our time has been the development of ‘situatedness’ and ‘identity politics’, which has cultural self-identity and self-determination right at its core. Porandojin was quite right to mention Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’ theme, although he could have mentioned hundreds of analysts who’ve put cultural identity at the heart of their work.

    Here’s a brief summary of how the Fukuyama v. Huntington debate looked circa 1993:

    Fukuyama: history is directional and its endpoint is capitalist liberal democracy.

    Huntington: modernization and westernization are not synonymous. The West’s influence in the world is waning because of growing resistance to its values and the reassertion by non-Westerners of their own cultures. The world will see in the 21st century an increasing threat of violence arising from renewed conflicts among countries and cultures basing their identities on long-held traditions.

    (By the way, Fukuyama was a Bush advisor and Huntington a Clinton advisor.)

    Many thought 9/11 proved Huntington’s analysis more presuasive than Fukuyama’s.

  8. marxy Says:

    Identity politics is fine, but that doesn’t make ethnocentric self views of one’s own culture empirically valid as an explanation I am not saying that the Japanese do not have a right to view themselves as the Unique Other; I am stating that non-Japanese scholars have a right to correct misleading notions about Japan that are not based on reality. Are we arguing the same issue?

    I feel like if you actually sat down and started reading up on the history of Japanese studies you would have some context for what I talk about. Instead you just get carried away in these grand, deductive post-modern “cultural studies” type arguments.

    Also, if Huntington is right, isn’t there a political goal in using scholarly research to debunk myths of cultural nationalism? Wouldn’t the world be a better place if populations (including the United States) were making decisions based on non-mythic, rational information?

  9. Momus Says:

    Bruce Caron makes some good points about Nihonjinron:

    ‘Nihonjinron describes a discourse (ron) in and about Japan the topic of which is the Japanese people (nihonjin). Coming out of academic reflections that helped inform the Meiji reformation in the mid-nineteenth century, it later acquired its nationalist and racialist vocabulary through interaction with more global discourses on nation and race. Nihonjinron is not atypical of discourses in and out of Japan—and in and out of anthropology—that attempt to encapsulate essential configurations of qualities that mark a national population as distinct in itself and from its neighbors. In the pre-War period, cultural configurationalism in anthropology linked tribes and their practices (including language) to a history made unique by isolation, and made possible and meaningful through practical adaptations to the surrounding environment and subsequent linguistic (symbolic) formations.’

    Caron points out that Westerners tend to see such accounts of difference as racist assertions of superiority: ‘This is understandable as racism arose in the West as an ideology to rationalise colonial expansion and domination.’ But, he points out, ‘the sense of difference of the Japanese from the others (westerners) in the prevalent discussions of Japanese uniqueness has been basically that of horizontal difference or difference in kind. (This does not mean that the sense of superiority is absent among the Japanese as in the case of their attitude towards the Korean minority in Japan.) Many of the nihonjinron of the 1970s have presented the image of the Japanese as simply being very different without explicitly claiming superiority, though some literature has discussed the strengths of Japanese society…. The important point to be noted here is that explicit claims of Japanese superiority have not been so common as non-Japanese readers, who may equate the Western style of racism with race thinking tout court, might have supposed.’

    If we look at nihonjinron as a form of cultural identity politics (Japanese studies by Japanese seen alongside queer studies by queers, women’s studies by women, etc) things look very different. It then becomes very dubious indeed to call a nation’s way of discussing itself ‘wrong’.

  10. marxy Says:

    Thanks for posting that summary.

    I think the wall we are hitting is that I see Japan as the #2 economy in the world and a hegemonic system of its own right. You see it is as a discriminated minority in need of protection and bullying.

    And again, in the essay I wrote, I said that the Japanese have a right to construct their own cultural nationalism. The problem is when the mythic parts of that nationalism start to inform the international view of the country.

    (I especially am bothered by the simplicity of “cultural” explanations when I think the effects of artificial social structures, socioeconomics, and education systems can explain most social behavior.)

  11. Momus Says:

    Well, let’s get a bit more specific, shall we? I had a meeting with Hitoshi Okamoto, at the time editor of Relax magazine, now editing Brutus, in the Giggle Cafe in Naka-meguro once. We were talking about stylists, and Okamoto said he tried not to use them. When I asked why, he said it was something to do with Shinto — Shinto respects the particular spirit that resides in each specific thing, and a stylist tries to erase that spirit.

    Now, that has gone into my file of anecdotes about ‘things Japanese say about themselves’. I don’t generalize it and say that all Japanese act and think that way (stylists are hardly an endangered species in Japan), and if I report it I take care always to say it’s just one man, in a cafe, saying something he perhaps thinks might please me, as a Japan-loving gaijin.

    By the way, the reason we were there is that he was commissioning me to publish a four page spread of my photos and comments about Japan. It ran in Relax under the headline ’13 Ways of Looking at a Tokyo Crow’. That’s an allusion to the Wallace Stevens poem ’13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’. Implicit in my description of Okamoto’s anecdote about Shinto, as in the title of my piece for Relax, or my blog piece about the blind gaijin and the Japanese elephant, is that there is no definitive way of looking at something like Japan. It’s a mistake to portray any one analysis as monolithic. In the end there’s just a big mess of meshing, contradictory, overlapping, myths. Some of us like that confusion, others don’t.

  12. marxy Says:

    Shinto respects the particular spirit that resides in each specific thing, and a stylist tries to erase that spirit.

    This is awesome. This is like if I refused to tip the waitress because “I’m Episcopal.”

    But I think you are trying to suggest in a flippant way that Japanese self-explanations through tribal folklore and ethnic homogenity don’t get in the way of serious matters. Roy Andrew Miller’s book Japan’s Modern Myth has a great chapter towards the end on how those myths are directly reponsible for the fact Japan has some of the worse English scores in Asia. (I think you may find some weird reason for why this is a good thing, but the Japanese themselves are pretty bummed out that they spend many many years and dollars boning up on English and are blown away by even the average Chinese guy on the street.)

    When I say “monolithic,” I mean that the various Japanese Nihonjinron theories tries to describe all of Japan as one single cultural unit that stands in opposition to the Other (in most cases, the West).

    Confusion is fine, but social science looks for some sort of cause-effect relationship between events or underlying structural order. You seem to be denying all scholarly analysis of Japan as just more “competing myths.”

  13. Momus Says:

    Scholars argue too, you know, and compete. And I’m not dismissing the cause-and-effect relationship between Shinto and Relax magazine’s policy on stylists at all. I’m just not generalising it either.

  14. Momus Says:

    When I go home to Scotland for New Year, I promise to write an entry about the Scots’ misguided and racialist view of themselves as a unique people with sinister customs derived from their weather and clan systems. I’ll call it ‘Hegemony of Hogmanay’.

  15. Sarmoung Says:

    I’m not sure I’ve necessarily got a third way tucked in my sleeve for this discussion, but there are a few thoughts that come to mind.

    This matter of explicit and implicit racism within Nihonjinron. My initial thought is that explicit statements of superiority are indeed perhaps lacking in many Japan-centred texts, but they don’t need to be stated. The discourse is already fully-charged with substantial historic event. Even the most charming, if mistaken, piece on the tea ceremony (say, Okakura Kakuzo and his Book of Tea.) resonates with the approach of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and similar. This might just be excusable in the heady pre-45 period, but not so after. So, whilst some aspects of nihonjinron might be comparable to gender studies and similar, other aspects of this Japanese identity politics have had profound impact elsewhere in external policy and actions in East Asia and elsewhere. Women’s studies, queer studies, these things have tended to improve lives. Nihonjinron cannot, for me, be disconnected from either Japan’s previous actions or its ongoing disdain for the rights of resident Koreans and similar issues.

    If I detect an air of chagrin about my attitudes to Japan, as a single cultural unit, it would be in part from when I worked for a fair few years with various governmental bodies and the like promoting Japanese culture here in the UK. The challenge, particularly when the Japanese Foreign Ministry was controlling the purse strings, was to try and do anything that did not conform to how Japan, officially, wanted to be seen in the world. Visiting kabuki troupes and ikebana were in, bosozoku drive-bys and random fishermen were unfortunately out. The Japan they promoted, which I assisted in, was not a Japan I particularly recognised from my life there, especially outside the metropolis.

    I still make my part of living from Japan (including poetry translation, a woefully Orientalist pursuit I suspect) and what I have wondered often is how comfortable I am sustaining myself financially through an imagined Japan (isn’t that why I’m being paid though?). I like translating poetry, I hate it when the poet starts going on about how some series of poems illustrates the particular Japanese relationship to nature, as opposed to his own. I start reaching for that revolver. My fault, perhaps.

    Nevertheless, Japan is sufficiently unique, whether in imagination or reality, to sustain a reasonable service industry of artists, musicians, academics, poetry translators, commentators and other specialists (we’re all in there) variously supporting and opposing what we think we have found there and what we can make from it. I can’t imagine it will be otherwise for some time.

    And I will admit quite a soft spot for Momus’ assertion above about the “good Other with a lot to teach us”. I can do something with my positive experiences of Japan, there’s not much I can do with the negative apart from develop ulcers. Possibly in the shape of chrysanthemums.

  16. Momus Says:

    Well, that’s a nice comment and it’s interesting to hear how deeply you’ve been implicated in the transmission of Japanese self-image abroad. I don’t think you’d expect the British Council, for instance, or the British Tourist Board to promote something like British football hooliganism either. I don’t think anyone would call this a sinister lack of realism on their part.

    I like translating poetry, I hate it when the poet starts going on about how some series of poems illustrates the particular Japanese relationship to nature, as opposed to his own.

    I’m Scottish. I think that in some ways my work is very Scottish, and increasingly so — my 2004 album ‘Summerisle’, for instance, creates a synthetic Scottish island and its lore. Now, if I were to speak about my Scottish identity in an interview, and link attitudes in my songs to Scottish attitudes (which I do, sometimes), would you be reaching for your revolver? Why? Is all national-cultural identity taboo for you?

  17. Sarmoung Says:

    Few of my ideas were readily accepted by the Japan 2001 organising committee. I think we can see why, but when I compare the activities of, say, the Goethe Institute or Institut Francais here in London with those sponsored by the Japanese Embassy, there’s a distinct lack of imagination in the celebration of cultural achievements, particularly the contemporary. However, most of this is workplace griping, so…

    No, it’s not taboo at all. Most of the translation I do can best be described as vanity publication. These are poets who would like to see their work in English, but have little desire for fame outside their poetic circle in Japan. I like the company of these Japanese poets, there’s a lot I can learn from them and mine tend to live in delightful houses filled with antiques and other distractions.

    My issue is not with discussing the nature of Japanese literature, or other Japan-centred subjects, it’s when that discussion lacks example and makes a metaphysical appeal alone. If the poet says this particular line about a stone pathway echoes a verse by some other poet in the tradition who in turn was alluding to some other earlier event, well, this I enjoy. I like this linked nature of references and allusions in the tradition that exist outside of any one given individual. I can rarely translate it without excessive and distracting footnoting though.

    Sometimes I find things I can’t translate in any way at all. On occasion I have been told it is because I am prevented from fully perceiving the Japanese mind due to my origins. Well, that’s true in part, but what is it you are trying to say here? It’s the repetition of this stonewalling argument that frustrates me. I show the verse to other poets. I’ve no idea what they’re on about either, they say. Sometimes it’s just bad poetry.

    There’s a very specialised seasonal vocabulary in traditional poetry and you can buy guides which will help you locate the correct series of expressions for the time of year. I’ve often been told that this seasonal aspect of literature is something uniquely Japanese. You wouldn’t know about this being English, I’ve been told, you don’t have these words. It’s true we don’t have them in a standardised form and few city-dwellers know when a given flower blooms or a certain bird sings, but they are there and in literature and song all around the world. It’s just we’ve forgotten more in this particular context. The poet sits in his air-conditioned Tokyo mansion, hmm, today it shall be cranes.

    In my experience, there’s a tendency within parts of nihonjinron to speak from ignorance too quickly and without credible reference, but I don’t think this is necessarily so different from people I meet who say the Japanese are good copyists but useless creators. Now pass me the revolver!

    Your ‘Summerisle’ is a strange enchanted place that I don’t quite understand. I’m not sure I want to entirely. I prefer it uncertain. National identity is not taboo, but, whereas ‘Summerisle’ engages my imagination and I think it playful for the sake of being playful, nihonjinron has for too long informed a dangerous set of conclusions about Japanese identity and origin, which are far more of the Celtic vs Rangers variety than me striding past the Tailor of Dunblane’s window.

    That last sentence doesn’t make sense. Oh well…

  18. marxy Says:

    Sarmoung: Thanks for joining the discussion. Very informative posts.

    Translating poetry strikes me as one of the most difficult translation tasks – especially with two languages as different as Japanese and English.

    Sometimes it’s just bad poetry.

    This is an intriguing idea, and one I hit a lot in translating a lot less literary things. Sometimes I can’t seem to make the Japanese sentence-order logic sound like well-written prose in English. I wonder, is this a “Japanese” thing or does this person just not know how to write? (This seems like a possible option in the light that the education system does not focus on writing the short essay.) I always err on blaming my own lack of skills, but obviously, judging quality by another culture’s standards is the hardest task of any intercultural translator or critic. Some would say that it shouldn’t even be attempted.

    I don’t think this is necessarily so different from people I meet who say the Japanese are good copyists but useless creators.

    I had a conversation yesterday about the word mohou 模倣 (imitation) not having bad connotations within the Japanese language. Apparently, it’s the building block of kindergarden education: students, imitate what I’m doing. I think the West has a problem with Japanese art and culture in that we feel a mismatch between two different perceptions about the role of conventions. Most Western rock music is terribly conventional, but we are all supposed to ignore that there are rules guiding its creation. We’re just supposed to imagine it sprang out of some dank garage in a moment of genius. The Japanese artistic tradition is at least forthright about their own use of conventions – the innovation is in the way the conventions are played with. Your description of those seasonal poetry rules and cross-referencing reminds me of Shibuya-kei’s sampling, but Shibuya-kei is stuck between modes by having to somewhat obscure their refrences and claim originality.

    Momus provides useful Devil’s Advocate-type arguments, but I am surprised he’s never been personally aggrevated by Nihonjinron stonewalling. I think he makes a good point – “Is all national-cultural identity taboo for you?” But I think my problem as a liberal American is my inherent sensitivity to what I see as racially-based cultural explanations. The Japanese example does not usually explicitly use racial reasoning, but I find it hard not to read that into ideas of “homogeneity.”

  19. Sarmoung Says:

    In many ways, Marxy, the poetry is easier than work I did sometimes in Japan such as proof-reading translations of electronics manuals and the like. The payment system is much simpler too, you can break it down to a yen-per-syllable rate!

    Obscure kanji and classical language aside, the challenge is to get it to read in English, but poetic language affords a lot more room for deviancy in translation than prose. From time to time, some translations get returned corrected for being ungrammatical. You’re right, I say, but it reads better like that.

    My knowledge of Japanese popular music is fairly limited. The convention that always struck me was what I called the unnecessary key change, where J-pop songwriters would insert these modulations that didn’t make any sense to me. Was it some sort of Beatles homage that didn’t work out or was I missing something? I’d be expecting a straight forward power-ballad set of chords and these spanners would appear from nowhere. The melody often appeared to be an afterthought to the showiness of the progression. I often wondered if this was some recognised convention or not. I enjoyed some of Christine Yano’s ‘Tears of Longing’ on conventions in enka and identity-making.

    I was thinking about homogeneity in nihonjinron as I drifted off to sleep last night. I have to say that on balance, it’s the matter of America’s national-cultural identity that makes me lose more sleep at the moment. Mind you, I’m visiting Japan sometime in Spring and I’m sure to get wound up about sakura and nihon no kokoro in no time at all…

  20. sparkligbeatnic Says:

    I have to say I’m having some trouble understanding exactly what this argument is about.

    Frankly the nihonjinron topic looks like a straw dog to me. Sure
    I don’t like to encounter nihonjinron stonewalling as someone called it. But I’ve found there’s a diversity of attitudes towards nihonjinron beliefs amongst the Japanese people I know. And I was under the impression that nihonjinron arguments were considered passe by most Japanese intellectuals – though they were quite popular during the bubble era, and Alex Kerr’s first book had a section complaining about the ‘myths of Japaneseness’. I’m not certain about this, but I think it would not be correct to say that nihonjinron theories are official policy of the government.

    But it looks like Befu’s book is fairly recent. I’ve met him a couple of times socially. He was brought up in Japan but spent most of his working life in the American academic system (he’s retired). His wife is Japanese-American and an extremely nice person. Unfortunately I haven’t seen either of them for a few years and am not in touch – I would imagine Befu has a very interesting viewpoint on all of this. I think I’ll order a copy of this book and see what his take is on the Nihonjinron issue.

    By now you guys will expect this from me, so I won’t disappoint. Surely every country has it’s national myths. The American belief of ‘specialness’ is surely the one with the most destructive consequences for our planet. Why are we wasting our time Japan bashing when there are more important myths to discredit?

  21. Momus Says:

    Okay, apologies in advance, but this is going to be a comment which doesn’t pull its punches.

    I find it quite extraordinary — and I think it’s a measure of how extreme some of the opinions on this site are, and how extremely out of touch they are — that at this stage in this debate, arguments as inoffensive as the idea that ‘it’s okay to have a national-cultural identity’ are still being characterized as ‘devil’s advocacy’. I think it’s extraordinary that the okayness of national-cultural identity is passed off here as something that went out of fashion in the 70s, when in fact it’s one of the most important features of our time. There’s even a word for it: glocalism — the tendency for local cultural identity to advance alongside globalism, as its direct corollary. Global localism is, I believe, behind Islamist fundamentalism, behind 9/11, behind the Taliban as well as behind all sorts of benign and positive things like the tourist-friendly sprucing of almost every major European city during the last ten years (including the spectacular Hogmanay event in my own hometown, Edinburgh). Glocalism is the end result of two of the most massively important developments of the last thirty years — identity politics and globalism — and one of the main characterising features of the postmodern era. If the nihonjinron authors were discussing it in the 70s, kudos to them and kudos to Japan for being, as so often, in the vanguard of global trends.

    I also find it extraordinary that Marxy calls, for support of his position, on a book like ‘A Public Betrayed’, and then, when he hears it’s published by a conservative publisher and has ties with a major religious sect, withdraws his endorsement of the book but apparently doesn’t consider his arguments in any way dented or discredited. It’s my view that cultural identity issues are acceptable and important that still, apparently, has to be proven, rather than his view that they’re taboo and dated. It’s my view which is ‘devil’s advocacy’ and his view which is ‘liberal’, despite the dubious allies it seems to have.

    I’d like to ask Marxy to read an entry on Click Opera entitled ‘When Adar Enters’.


    It’s about a video piece by Israeli artist Yael Bartana. Yael filmed, in March 2003 in orthodox districts of Jerusalem and Bnei-Brak, celebrations of Purim involving people dressed up as brides and kings. The costumes are a reference to a passage in the Old Testament describing how the Jewish people avoided a massacre at the hands of the Persians during the month of Adar (March). Bartana uses slow motion and rather disturbing music to alienate the viewer from the carnival, but she’s also using its spectacle for the content of her work. My piece (and it’s been run now in a catalogue about Bartana’s work) shows the contrast between the universalism one orthodox website claims for Purim (‘a celebration of the human capacity for transformation’) and the particularism and clannishness that Bartana, judging from her artist statements, finds rather unsettling.

    There are dangers on both sides. For instance, if we see something like the Old Testament the way I sometimes present Japan (and this position is devil’s advocacy), as a ‘universal and exportable statement about how humans should live’ (the way the Christian religion sees it), we risk having something evangelical and spuriously universalist being made from the customs of one particular race (whether it’s evangelical Christianity or ‘Japanizing the world’). If, on the other hand, we see things like the Old Testament as something totally situated, rooted in the specifics of nation, blood, race, language and soil, then we face a world of culturally relativistic pluralism, where no idea is better than any other and clitorectomy must be tolerated ‘because it’s our custom’.

    One big difference between Christianity and Shinto/Japanism, though, is that Shinto/Japanism has never been evangelistic. It has never been pretentious enough to claim universality or to try to export itself. Its racial-national rootedness should be seen as a kind of modesty, not a kind of arrogance.

    My personal way out of the universalist / particularist bind I outline above is that I think people should make a synthetic personal culture based on what they see as the best features of all the cultures they encounter. Thai cooking, Shinto nature worship, German music… And, you know what, that eclectic sort of personal curation is something the Japanese happen do better than anyone else in the world.

  22. marxy Says:

    1) I want to re-iterate that 50% of Americans also believe the American policy is out of hand, but that isn’t enough to change things unfortunately. Since America dominates international discourse (for better or worse), English is the lingua franca, and Americans have access to media/communication technology, the American minority voice also is heard around the world. I think that Japanese ethnocentricism is probably only a plurality in Japan, but because the Japanese populace has a hard time communicating with the world outside of official channels, only the positive spin is available. Are Nihonjinron-type positions “official”? No, but they are surely unofficially promoted by the embassies and alternate views are drowned out or only available in Japanese.

    2) I’d like to ask Marxy to read an entry on Click Opera entitled ‘When Adar Enters’.

    Honestly, can you start referencing things that you didn’t write? I’m not basing my arguments on term papers I wrote in college.

    3) Is cultural nationalism or glocalism a big deal? Yes. Is it always a good thing for the world? No.

    4) Momus, I find this blog war format hard for debate, because you pull the discussion into some abstract arena of your own knowledge to avoid the direct issue at hand. I need you say: I think the Japanese are allowed to be racist. At least then, I’ll know what I’m up against.

    No one thinks that the idea of having a “cultural nationalism” is an extreme idea – we are arguing that many Japanese convienently use this as a end-all-be-all excuse for their behavior. Of course, that Relax guy may actually believe in Shintoism, but I really doubt that’s why he doesn’t like stylists. Certainly, all the other Japanese magazine editors are as Shinto as he, and they all use stylists. This kind of inane behavior explanation based on blood-kinship ties is what the issue is.

    5) I keep telling you this, but you won’t listen: Shinto is not Nihonism. Shinto is a loose set of folk beliefs which were restructured into an Imperialist State cult in the late 19th century. Most of what you consider Nihonism is much more linked to traditional patterns of Tokugawa life and Confucianism. Nihonism is a better word. Shinto has no set moral code to guide behavior.

    6) I also find it extraordinary that Marxy calls, for support of his position, on a book like ‘A Public Betrayed’, and then, when he hears it’s published by a conservative publisher and has ties with a major religious sect, withdraws his endorsement of the book but apparently doesn’t consider his arguments in any way dented or discredited.

    I just don’t want the dubious connections of the writers to tarnish facts that have been shown clearly in a myriad of other sources. Just because these two guys may have agenda doesn’t mean the Japanese media is not corrupt.

    7) One big difference between Christianity and Shinto/Japanism, though, is that Shinto/Japanism has never been evangelistic. It has never been pretentious enough to claim universality or to try to export itself. Its racial-national rootedness should be seen as a kind of modesty, not a kind of arrogance.

    Japanism may not be evangelical, but it is more exclusive than even Judaism, which you can join if you try hard enough. Subscribing to the Japanese patterns of behavior is not enough to make one “Japanese.” Koreans who look like Japanese and live like Japanese are not Japanese. There is certainly an arrogance in this.

  23. Momus Says:

    You’ve suddenly introduced this new term ‘Japanism’ into the debate, without explaining what you mean by it. The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines Japanism as ‘an aesthetic cult that had a major impact on Impressionist painting’.

    Although that’s clearly not what you meant, I think it’s an interesting starting point for a model of hybrid cultures, something I think we’re both arguing in favour of. I just don’t think you realise the extent to which impure hybrid cultures depend on pure cultures, or the extent to which being nationalist and being internationalist are two sides of the same coin (that glocalism thing again).

    So, Japanism. It’s the 1890s. French painters look at Japanese prints and ‘hybridize’ the flat, stylised look of them with French painting styles. Impressionism is the result. The world is richer for it. Now, surely you’ll agree that for this ‘impure’ hybrid to occur, we need something ‘pure’, namely a clearly defined and recognisable Japanese painting tradition distinct from the French one. Or, wait, perhaps the Japanese become aware that the French are ripping off their flat look, and actually look at their own painting in a new way? Maybe the hybridisation actually creates the purity just like postmodern globalism creates fundamentalist Islam? Because look, in 1890 the Japanese invent a self-consciously Japanese form of painting called nihon-ga, a response to western painting forms.

    Every time it looks like there’s no longer any point in talking about a national painting style, because everything’s a big coffee-coloured mulch of influences and origins seem to have been lost, along comes a group of protestors, reformationists, renaissancers, revisionaries, traditionalists, nationalists, call them what you will, to revive and re-invent the national style. They may seem to be reacting against the hybrid international styles when they do this, but they’re actually giving hybrid culture new ammunition for new combinations, because hybrid culture loves a clean palette. Where would fusion cuisine be without national cuisines?

    In Japan right now there are many hybridisers who are also traditionalists. Takashi Murakami’s painting style refers to Warhol, but it also refers to the Meiji nihon-ga painters. Murakami has a strong theme of Japaneseness at his openings and events like the Geisai. Makoto Aida and many, many other Japanese artists are making similar combinations of traditional Japanese elements with western ones. So if you were an art critic, would you be telling them they were wrong to make these references?

    Liberal bastardisers, hybridisers and other champions of promiscuous international liasons depend on cultural guardians, conservatives, and nationalists. Essences might disturb you, especially when they follow national-racial lines, but without them there can be no ‘miscegynation’ — an ugly word for a beautiful thing. And it might be worth remembering that the US is not the norm, but something of an anomaly amongst nations in the way it sees itself as proudly synthetic, the sum of all hybrids. There may be a Statue of Liberty at Odaiba now, but it’s very much not saying to the entire world ‘Bring me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free…’

  24. sparkligbeatnic Says:

    Momus wrote:
    One big difference between Christianity and Shinto/Japanism, though, is that Shinto/Japanism has never been evangelistic. It has never been pretentious enough to claim universality or to try to export itself. Its racial-national rootedness should be seen as a kind of modesty, not a kind of arrogance.

    In fact, State Shinto was forciably declared the official religion of both Taiwan and Korea after they were inducted into the “Greater co-prosperity sphere”.

    Many of the new Japanese religions actively promote themselves overseas. I’m not an expert on this but they seem to be universalized versions of Shinto and/or Buddhist beliefs sometimes with a touch of Christianity thrown into the mix.

    Some are fairly pure Shinto offshoots, such as
    Oomoto (Alex Kerr worked for a couple of decades for Oomoto promoting Japanese culture to foreigners).

    Other Shinto-related groups active internationally are Seichi-no-ie and Tenrikyo. These are syncretic and seem to have picked up traces of Christianity.

    SG, an offshoot of Nichiren Buddhism, has already raised it’s head in this blog. It’s not uncommon to meet Black or Caucasian Americans in Japan on the JET program or such, who have been raised in an SG family.

  25. marxy Says:

    I used Japanism because you used Japanism!

    Momus wrote:

    One big difference between Christianity and Shinto/Japanism, though, is that Shinto/Japanism has never been evangelistic.

    I meant it like you meant it, but then you went to look it up (?) and found that it was a French Impressionistic thing. That’s not what both of us meant. We meant Japanism as a philosophy in support of the idealized structure of Japanese society. There’s probably a better word for that, no?

    Although the Japanism art talk was interesting.

  26. Momus Says:

    Ah, whoops!

  27. r. Says:

    sorry to bog your blog down with self-promo, but i thought the kids on this thread might do well to read this new post of mine.