In 1853, the American naval commander Matthew Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay with a demand that Japan end a two-hundred year policy of isolationism and open itself to Western trade—a demand backed by gunboats. Shortly thereafter, a samurai coup brought the Tokugawa shogunate to an end and installed a new government with its symbolic head embodied in the divinely-descended emperor. The Meiji era had begun. Forced into an open position to the Western 'barbarians,' witness to the carving of China into 'spheres of influence' by profit-crazed capitalist powers, and aware that its national sovereignty was already eroding under the threat of coercive tariff agreements and extraterritorial harbors, the new government and the Japanese people it ruled over became seized with a profound sense of inferiority.

By the late 1860s, they were desperate to correct the yawning gap they saw between themselves and the distant countries they had so long ignored. It become vital that the nation define just what it meant to be 'Japanese' in the world context, before the forces of modernity negated the nation entirely. Three approaches exemplified from the Meiji era to the present day reveal that the Japanese felt the need to define themselves by negative, looking intently toward 'the West' in hopes of discovering the essence of 'the East'. This determination of the Japanese to keep their eyes trained on the movements of their new world neighbors while sculpting their own national identity led to many successes, but carried with it a blindness to the movement of their own hands that led to pervasive confusion, ambiguity, and instability in defining 'Japanese-ness.'

Trading in kimono for suitcoats

One of the most stunning reactions to Western intrusion into Japanese life was the resolution to reshape Japan and its people into a nation indistinguishable from any on the Anglo-American or European power. This aspiration toward equal footing with the West found itself eloquently embodied in the writings of prominent Meiji intellectual Fukuzawa Yukichi. His Outline of Civilization, published in 1875, firmly established the emulation of Western civilization as a national goal. Inherent to his theory was an inevitable process of 'social evolution,' allowing the nation of Japan the opportunity to progress upward to an eventual political, cultural, and social equality with the West. Individual Japanese were urged to embrace change and set their minds to emulating the West for the sake of national strength and prosperity.

The Meiji oligarchs put this theory of progress into practice, especially in relation to its implications for governance. Noting that Western powers ruled by the authority of constitutions, it logically followed that the Japanese would need a constitution as well if they were to elevate themselves to an equal level with the West. Going many steps further, intellectual, political, and business figures rushed to familiarize themselves with all things Western in order to 'learn their secrets.' Throughout the late 19th and into the early 20th centuries, translations of Anglo-American political theory, German philosophy, and French artistic technique flooded the libraries of any self-respecting member of the Meiji elite (or those who aspired to it).

Beginning in the 1900s as enthusiasm among the elite wained, urban Japanese middle- and working-class picked up the Westernization trend with stunning enthusiasm, although their focus of admiration fixed on the glamor of Western fashion, celebrity, and pop culture rather than weighty matters of industry or philosophy. Westernization transformed from fascination to near-fetishization, as illustrated by the climax of the satirical novel Naomi in which its main female character undergoes a metamorphosis into the pinnacle of Japanese hopes toward identity. Bursting into her husband's home after long absence, she appears to be “an unfamiliar young Western woman... in a pale blue French crepe dress... Every bit of flesh protruding from the dress was as white as the flesh of an apple”iii It is of little matter to her husband's infatuation that Naomi accomplishes this transformation by powdering her entire body to hide any unfashionable 'darkness' of the skin. For both the elite and the urban common classes, 'Japanese-ness' was in fact a rejection of Japanese-ness—a paradoxical tossing away of all things familiar in favor of the fruits of Western 'progress.'

It proved impossible, however, for a culture to wholesale reinvent itself into a Western nation. In his famous lecture The Civilization of Modern-day Japan, novelist Natsume Souseki summarized the feelings of many in the early 1900s even in the midst of Western-mania: “Because age-old customs cannot be changed overnight, all we can do is mechanically memorize Western manners—manners which, on us, look ridiculous.”The humiliation underlying the movement to embrace everything Western did not disappear as Japan developed a normalized parliament system, an industrial economy, and all the technological refinements of a 'civilization.' The subordination of familiar Japanese customs to Western imports merely magnified a sense of inferiority. As Kakuzou Okakura lamented in his appeal toward preserving and celebrating the art form of tea ceremony perceived to be indigenous to the Japanese, “Some of my compatriots have adopted too much of your customs and too much of your etiquette... Pathetic and deplorable as such affectations are, they evince our willingness to approach the West on our knees.”

The confusion of being able to touch only the surface of 'Western ways' while losing touch entirely with past 'Japanese ways' induced a profound sense of anxiety in the people of this break-neck developing nation. In 1903, a Japanese university student leapt from a waterfall, saying in his suicide note that he could no longer face the agony of trying to conquer the “incomprehensible.” The death became an almost-celebrated media event. During the next eight years, as many as two hundred may have dived from the same waterfall in imitation of the student's despair-wracked protest against a society changing too rapidly for anyone to catch up.

Hybrid vigor

Many of Japan's prominent thinkers responded to the negative consequences of Westernization by advocating a different sort of Japanese identity—one which would neither leave Japan stranded behind Western powers, nor force it to ape them. Nobel Prize-winning novelist Yasunari Kawabata advocated a new 'pure literature' in the 1930s that would capture “traditional Japanese beauty” in timeless and apolitical form, reflecting national order and harmony. As his most portent symbol of this 'counter-Western modernity,' the rural geisha Komako of his novel Snow Country embodies Kawabata's conception of traditional Japanese beauty by taking Western influence and subverting it to traditional Japanese forms. Having no teacher available, she hones her technique on the traditional samisen instrument by untraditionally relying on sheet music and radio broadcasts. Her lover Shimamura comments that, “the publishing gentleman would be happy if he knew he had a real geisha—not just an ordinary amateur—practicing from his scores way off here in the mountains.”

Kawabata's description of Komako is some of the most detailed and laudatory in the novel, infused with a sensuality that borders on overtly sexual. Kawabata's artistic interpretation of Japanese identity accepted Western influence as inevitable, but disarmed it of the humiliation inherent to mimicking another culture by fusing it with an 'opposing' traditional Japanese culture.

This identity carried with it an inherent extension beyond Japan's own borders. Although World War II and its process of colonization is conspicuously absent from Kakuzou's work, Okakura's similar view made it more explicit. He argued for a Japanese art form augmented by Western technique, rather than dependent upon it. He derived his theory from the study of Wilhelm Hegel, whose philosophy laid stress upon the synthesis of two opposing forces—thesis and antithesis—into a superior form. His thought quickly took hold in cultural spheres, seeding a view that Japan had a special opportunity through its 'superior development' to carry the torch for other Asian civilizations and use the nation's extensive contact with the West to create a superior, pan-Asian art form.

The imperialist expansion of Japan, which began in earnest with the colonization of Korea following the 1904 Sino-Japanese War and continued unabated for the next forty years, suited itself well to this theory. Before a pan-Asian cultural thesis could be joined with its Western antithesis, there needed to be a pan-Asian culture. The Japanese people, who almost universally approved of the expansion of their nation's influence, saw themselves as not only freeing their neighbors from the devastating effects of Western imperialism, but also laying the grounds for the linguistic and cultural assimilation of all Asia into a Japanese identity with the emperor as its political and cultural pinnacle. The shocking declaration that all conquered Koreans must speak Japanese and take Japanese names in 1942 was not a sudden decision, but the natural consequence of a view of Japanese identity beginning in the 1900s that sought to protect 'Asia' by melding it with the West under Japanese tutelage—a catastrophically unsuccessful process resulting in the death and suffering of millions.

Bleeding off the Western taint

With the acceleration of Japan toward a state of 'total war' and the increasing dominance of the military in the government during the 1930s and 40s, a third concept of 'Japanese-ness' emerged that explicitly rejected Western influence. The identity has its roots in Meiji government attempts prevent cultural alienation through the process of modernization by anchoring their new regime in some traditional Japanese elements, notably religion. Religious institutions in Japan, however, were far from homogeneous, and a certain amount of inventiveness was necessary to pull together a state-sponsored religion to support the divine emperor.

As an example of this, the Yasukuni Shrine to war dead established on the eve of the Meiji political coup, sought to reinforce national consciousness by extending the Japanese custom of ancestor veneration to the level of the nation-state, dictating that fallen soldiers be venerated as though they were the family members of every individual in Japan. The Shintou ceremony for deifying the remains of the war dead did not exist before the establishment of the shrine, so imperial advisers invented one and treated it as a state secret. Framing Shintou as the state religion was a blatant rejection of Western influence in the realm of spirituality that remained constant even when every other realm of culture was subjected to thorough Westernization. As World War II engulfed the entire Pacific and East Asian region, repudiation of the West grew only more vociferous. The government tried to expel all Western influence, especially American, from the cultural sphere, banning jazz, baseball, and permanents while organizing intellectual conferences on the Japanese triumph against modernism. It is telling, however, that few paid mind to the decrees, and discussions of the end of modernism drew heavily upon modernist philosophy. The public was receptive to the spirit of total war, but they had too long paid reverence to Western customs to return to a semi-mythical 'Japanese purity.'

Though defeat in 1945 brought the unprecedented experience of foreign occupation and rule by Americans, bringing Japan through a period during which its identity was shaped by the hands of non-Japanese, the reactionary philosophy survived through the trans-war period and took on new form, exchanging military force for economic force. With a stable, highly successful economic policy of intimate cooperation between government and business that yielded world-record breaking growth in GDP, “Japan Inc.” soon dominated the monetary world. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, even the United States, once victor, now found its own choice properties snapped up by Japanese investors as 'bargains' and its proud industries collapsing under the weight of high quality, competitively priced Japanese imports.

Observers on both sides of the specific began to speak of the Japanese as 'unique,' a homogeneous culture whose economic practices and structure of governance showed itself to be superior in social, cultural, and economic realms. Books in the area of nihonjinron, “theories of the Japanese,” described special psychological factors that made the Japanese 'special.' Some members of Japanese society even began to speak of biological differences, asserting that the Japanese had special intestines that could tolerate only domestic beef or used one side of their brain more than the other to achieve high productivity. Layered into this new concept of 'uniqueness' was the feeling that Japan no longer needed the West—in fact, it had a few lessons to teach its former 'superiors.' This economically-grounded Japanese identity, rooted in homogeneity and uniqueness, defined the post-war period of high growth right until the economic crash of the 1990s, a blow to the national consciousness which has left the Japanese nation again scrambling for a new way to define itself.

Staring at the sun

In recent history, the controversy over history textbooks and their implications about 'Japanese-ness,' especially in relation to the countries it colonized during World War II, illustrates the operation of all three means of defining a Japanese identity in light of significant Western influence. The Society for History Textbook Reform, an organization with the aim of instituting a nationalist view of history in Japanese schools and combating an “unchecked tendency toward masochism in history textbooks,” forwarded an ultimate goal of shaping Japanese students' conceptions of their own national identity in the early 2000s.

Seeking to justify the exclusion of Japanese war crimes from the reporting of World War II, the authors assert that Japanese behavior was no different than that of any other imperialist nation at the time, so it would not be fair to single Japan out for its brutal tactics. The Japanese occupation is framed as a necessity for preventing Western colonization and preserving a distinct Japanese identity—the survival and prosperity of the Japanese nation predicated on invading and subjugating its neighbors. These historical interpretations harken back to the view of Japanese national identity requiring the 'defense' and 'synthesis' of pan-Asian culture through imperialism. In prominently placing Japanese kofun tombs next to pictures of the Egyptian pyramids and repeatedly asserting Japanese art as the indisputable equal of 'Western' art, elements of the Meiji era obsession with legitimizing Japan to the West emerge. The Society's pamphlet even mentions a goal of Western approval for their efforts by translating their textbook into English.

Speaking of Japan's transition from the feudal shogunate to the Meiji era government, the book asserts that “not one drop of blood was spilled,” a statement that ignores the frequent, violent riots and armed rebellions that marked the period. In contrast, it claims that “had a similar attempt been made in Europe, 400 years of bloodshed would have ensued.” The statement highlights a view of Japanese uniqueness, and in this case superiority. The phrasing and attitude reflect the economic 'uniqueness' argument that rejected Western influence during the years of the 'economic miracle.'

Though the textbook was approved by the Ministry of Education, less than 1% of Japanese schools adopted it, showing that such nationalistic, revisionist views are no longer strong forces in Japanese society. Nonetheless, the controversy does highlight the new challenges Japan faces in sculpting a national identity, stranded between three means of defining 'Japanese-ness' in the wake of modernization that share a common bond of dependence upon an ambiguously defined 'non-Japanese' Western culture. Considering the negative consequences of each means toward capturing what it is to be a citizen of Japan, the nation as a whole may need to strike an uncharted path. Rather than keeping eyes focused on the movements of the West, whether to compete with, imitate, or reject what they see, the Japanese now have the chance to examine their own handiwork, ignoring neither the embarrassing faults nor the skillful flourishes, and shape their future identity according to an inwardly inspired vision of Japanese-ness.

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