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.

You know, it's a loaded question. If I had to answer it, I would say that people are defined by their experiences no matter where you go.

Last week, for instance, I met a young lady at a bar. She was born in Japan to Korean parents; her name is Lee. After I made some comments about wanting to "sauce her bulgogi," one of my fellow American friends pointed out that she wasn't all that Korean. Meanwhile, there are all these foreign sumo wrestlers: Asashoryu, who's from Mongolia, recently got pissed at a Korean reporter and called him a "kimchi bastard" in the middle of a press conference. If I didn't know that Asashoryu was Mongolian, I would have assumed he was Japanese (he even disses Koreans perfectly); hell, even the European sumo wrestlers look Japanese to me.

But what is Japanese to a Japanese person?

Well, me, I'm five signatures and a hundred bucks away from having an Irish passport in my pocket. But I've lived in the US most of my life, and if I suddenly decided to exercise my right of return and move to Dublin, people would probably think of me as "the Yank upstairs."

It could be worse. I could be like the poor lawyer in the back of our office. He's Japanese by birth and upbringing, but he lived and worked in New York for a long time, and somehow forgot how to be Japanese without really learning how to be American. Now, he wanders around alone, reading The Japan Times and speaking a weird blend of Japanese and English words that "real" Japanese people wouldn't use.

In Tokyo, you see people from all over. There's a Bengali guy working at the Wendy's by my school, there are Korean and Chinese girls who work the curry and sushi joints near where I live, and they all speak Japanese and seem to function pretty normally in this city.

I think Japan will claim them, if it wants to. I knew about Softbank's Masayoshi Son for years before reading that he was actually Korean. I didn't know about Yomiuri Giants manager Sadaharu Oh being Taiwanese until someone pointed it out during the World Baseball Classic a few weeks ago. Then I said "Holy shit, how do you ever know?"

Maybe there's a future Japan where me, the Irish-looking kid, can be Japanese too. I might change my name (to something badass, like Daiji Masamune), but I don't think I can change the hair color.

It's true that foreigners have a lot of novelty value in this country. The presumption of not speaking Japanese is wearing off a bit: I imagine that the "gaijin talents" on television help with that. But the reality is that many foreigners in Japan don't speak the language, at least not with any level of competency, and that's what people are prepared to deal with, especially if you go out in the sticks where people will just assume you're a lost tourist.

Now, what identity do Japanese people ascribe to themselves? That's still a loaded question, because it's hard to say what makes someone Japanese. Upbringing and lineage put together, I guess.

Anyway, I was talking politics with this Korean Japanese Lee girl, and we were debating the merits of the various idiots who are on the slate to follow Koizumi as prime minister, and she said "How do you know about this stuff?" and I knew what she was really saying is "Why are you infringing upon the sphere of knowledge reserved for Japanese people?" and I wanted to say "I should ask you the same damn question" but I wasn't sure whether she would still let me kiss her after that so I just had to explain that I'm a genius. Even though I'm not.

Notice that I still haven't answered the question. Actually, I'm not the person to be answering this question. I've been in Japan, whether in body or in spirit, way too long. Too much has just become normal. Short skirts? Don't bat an eyelash. $100 minimum withdrawal at the ATM? Bring it on! Sea urchin? Yum! But if I talk about these things with my parents in South fucking Carolina, they think I'm on Mars or something.

In the end, there is no answer. Make up your own; that's all that counts. If you want my input, I'll be in the corner, eating the sea urchin. But if you really want to know, you should just come here.

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