Throughout history, the Japanese have thought of themselves as a unique people in a unique place. Despite this sense of themselves, they have frequently imported cultural aspects of other societies, first from China and later from western Europe and the United States, and often to a degree that can only be described as alarming. It is, perhaps, indicative that “Schoolchildren are still introduced to The Pillow Book [of Sei Shonagon] as a model of linguistic purity; for, apart from proper names, titles, and quotations, there is hardly a single Chinese word or locution in the entire book."1 Educated men during the eleventh century, when the Pillow Book and the more famous Tale of Genji were written, wrote in a carefully-constructed amalgam of Japanese and Chinese2 or else in Chinese proper; and so it comes as no suprise that both these great works of literature were authored by women, who were not encouraged in the study of Chinese language and classics, and who were thus able to write in their native language.3 But that was the eleventh century. In more modern times, the Japanese language has been seen considerably more favorably, even to the absurd extent of declaring, as one audiologist did, that the language caused the formation of the culture.4 Even those not quite going to such extremes still think of the Japanese language as peculiarly Japanese, and many find it odd indeed for foreigners to speak it at all, much less to speak it fluently.5
In the years since 1853 when Admiral Matthew Perry’s gunboats sailed into Tokyo harbor, the history of Japan has been the conflict between the Japanese sense of uniqueness and their importation and adaptation of Western—rather than Chinese—values, ideologies, and methods (and occasionally language, even still). Beginning with Fukuzawa Yukichi’s wakon-yosai, “Japanese sensibility, Western knowledge,” of the 1880’s, attempts have been made to reconcile the competing strains. Such an approach does not necessarily indicate a confusion of loyalties, however—Fukuzawa cheered as loudly as any in 1895 at Japan’s defeat of China.6 Nonetheless, through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, the “cultural ambivalence, the chronic sense of contingency on values and behaviors external to native traditions, has led to recurrent seasons of bewilderment and despair akin to a national identity crisis.”7 In the buildup to the Second World War and during it, nationalist sentiments held sway, reinforcing notions of Japanese as Japanese—as somehow different, better, than those against whom they fought. In the aftermath of defeat and occupation, however, the Allied—American—victors imposed, or at least tried to impose, quite a different view: that the Japanese were at fault, that the war had been an immoral and criminal (hence the International Military Tribunal for the Far East) act, that the impetus of the war and the behavior during it had both been reprehensible. Such a view makes much harder any identification with a national identity, or even the formation of one.8 The Society for the Creation of a New History, formed in 1996, perceived the problem and sought to combat it with a new middle-school textbook, thus inculcating future generations with pride in being Japanese, with the idea of a special haeccity of Japan and of the Japanese people. When written and submitted to the Education Ministry in 2001, it downplayed Japanese aggression, emphasized the collaboration of local peoples with Japanese troops, and in general was “antithetical to [the other textbooks] in circulation."9
Despite such efforts to instill national pride and consciousness, Japanese students have their own problems. Faced with an educational system whose pressures only mount as the student goes up the grades toward high school, many students have simply stopped attending as early as second grade, or go only to disrupt the classroom. Many teachers and political conservatives blame such behavior on a lack of gaman, endurance in the face of adversity, caused by an Education Ministry that seeks an “American-style school in which individuality is paramount,”10 in stark contrast to more traditional Japanese mores, in which the group is paramount, not the individual.
In any case, the conflict between Japan’s sense of itself and its reliance on other views of itself continues unabated, and “Japanese attitudes toward the United States remain deeply ambivalent.”11 Businessmen work to have the good (Western) life they can see on television, but in many cases have no time to enjoy it. Many Japanese are ashamed of their constitution’s Article 9, which prohibits war (in effect limiting the sovereignty of the nation), but suggesting the emending of it has caused at least one prime minister to be forced to resign. Prime ministers visit the Yasukuni Shrine in an official capacity, but not on August 15. Only time will tell how such issues are resolved, or even if they can be.
1 Morris, Ivan. Introduction. The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. By Sei Shonagon. Ed. and Trans. Ivan Morris. (New York: Columbia UP, 1991). 13.
2 Indeed, repeated borrowings at different stages of the development of Chinese even resulted in the Japanese importing the same word twice, giving words to the Japanese with related but separate meanings. See McWhorter, John. The Power of Babel. (New York: Perennial, 2001) 103-104, for further explication as well as commentary on the phenomenon of language borrowing in general.
3 Nathan, John. Japan Unbound. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004). 6-7.
4 Nathan, 6.
5 Nathan, 2.
6 Tipton, Elise K. Modern Japan: A Social and Political History. (London: Routledge P, 2002). 48.
7 Nathan, 9.
8 Nathan, 139.
9 Nathan, 14.
10 Nathan, 33.
11 Nathan, 158.