A Node Your Homework Production
Anthropology 102, Spring 2002, Cornell University (A-)

The dramatic Meiji Restoration, a critical period of Japanese history, was the cause of significant change throughout Japan, and as a cultural product, notions of ethnic and social identity were no exception. This text will focus on three Japanese identity groups - the warrior class of samurai, an outcast caste, and the Ainu, a native group residing in northern Japan, all traditionally defined by heritage and set apart from the “mainstream”, common identity. We will examine the manner in which as a result of the nationalist Restoration, Japanese identity was quickly redefined to include these traditionally excluded groups, which in time either faded or ceased to exist as functional identities.

Before we proceed, it may be useful to provide a rough sketch of the Meiji Restoration. In short, the restoration was a radical yet successful attempt to modernize Japan and bring it to the level of other world powers as quickly as possible. Spurred by the arrival of Matthew Perry’s “black ships” in Tokyo Bay and the subsequent treaties of Kanagawa and Chorakuji, opening up Japan to outside influence for the first time since shogun (military governor) Tokugawa Ieyasu’s implementation of isolationist policies in the early 17th century, several prominent leaders instigated a civil war against current shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu. Acting with widespread support of the nation’s samurai class, they were able to force the resignation of Tokugawa Yoshinobu and the dissolution of the shogunate, ending the Tokugawa era and returning the emperor to power under a constitutional monarchy. A campaign of modernization was then begun, aiming to transform Japan from an obscure feudal agricultural archipelago to a modern industrial nation and major world power.

This campaign entailed a dissolution of the feudal system, the education and installation of an entire government and social infrastructure, an industrialization program, and a sizable military buildup, all in the space of half a century, and involved significant abandonment of tradition and the heavy import of materials, ideas, and practices from overseas, and some degree of effort to distance the country from its “undeveloped” past and neighboring asian countries. Some precedent for this action may be seen in the wholesale importation, a millennium earlier, of Chinese literature, philosophy, and culture. By the end of the Meiji reign in 1912, Japan had become the leading industrial producer of Asia, and had become the first Asian nation to defeat a European country in battle in the Russo-Japanese War. In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles would recognize Japan as one of the five “great powers” of the world.

Later feudal Japan organized its population into a “shi-nou-kou-shou” caste system: bushi, the samurai warrior class; nou, farmers; kou, artisans; and shou, merchants (of course, this system was only formally instituted with the beginning of the Tokugawa era in 1603, but was based on systems of hierarchy and values already prevalent in the society (Sjöberg 104)). As an agricultural society, the nou were considered most vital and accorded status above the kou and shou, but below the bushi. All were subordinate to the feudal lords, daimyo, to whom they were bound, who were in turn obliged to support the nobles and members of court (Sjöberg 7). In addition to the lords and ladies who resided above this system, some fell beneath these classes, most notably the eta, extremely poor commoners who would practice (and were limited by law to) unsavory and culturally “unclean” professions such as those involving the handling of dead flesh, a serious taboo in the Bhuddist-Shinto culture. Roughly parallel to the “untouchables” of the Indian caste system, they were to a significant degree treated as nonpersons, and their presence considered a contamination.

This class system was abolished in 1866 as part of the Meiji Restoration, with quite some success. The samurai, and to a lesser extent the daimyo and noble families, were stripped of their titles and fiefs, and turned out with very little in the way of assistance. It is worth noting here that former samurai were also stripped of symbols of rank – the government forbade the wearing of topknot hairstyles and the carrying of the daisho, the two swords which had been made central to samurai identity (Najita 73). As Beth Conklin noted in her “Body Paint, Feathers, and VCRs”, there is a tendency in Western societies to attach the wearing of traditional clothing and accessories to ideas of cultural continuity and “authenticity” to traditional roles and outlooks, and it is possible that more than to disempower the higher classes, this policy, and the accompanying abandonment among high-profile Japanese of historically Japanese clothing like the kimono in favor of western business attire, was designed to play towards into this mindset, reflecting the definite break with previous culture and indicating the attempt to abandon a specifically Japanese identity, replacing it with a Western, or at least generally “modern” one.

While the samurai were stripped of their privileges, the other classes were freed of feudal obligations, formally granted the right to own land and possessions, and allowed to travel and marry freely and pursue any occupation. In the resultant realignment, many shizoku, or ex-samurai, became destitute, ill-equipped to compete with lifelong merchant families, and many formerly lower-class members rose to positions of prominence (Najita 74). At the same time, former eta were euphemistically redesignated as burakumin, which roughly translates as “people of the village”, and their status was in theory normalized, though their outcast status remained for several generations (Londo 278).

Surveys have shown that a majority of current Japanese claim to trace their lineage back to shizoku families. The small number of these lineages, plus the relatively small number of generations since the dissolution of the class system, would obviously indicate that this cannot be true. So the fact is that a significant amount of Japanese are falsely claiming samurai roots. While on the one hand this could be seen to indicate that samurai ancestry remains a mark of distinction, it is possible to imagine a society which embraces (imagined) aristocratic ancestry while rejecting aristocratic ideals – an inflated number of Americans, living in a society that is explicitly hostile to systems of inherited position and social rank, claim noble European heritage. In fact, it is precisely because of the egalitarian nature of American society that such claims can be made – in an antiaristocratic society, “regular people” can be descendants of nobility. Likewise, in Japan, intermarriage is common enough for claims of shizoku ancestry to be plausible, and in claiming such roots, Japanese may be identifying less with the bloodline itself than with the qualities that were ascribed to it. The association of bushido, the “traditional” virtues and way of life of the samurai, with business acumen and personal dedication, common in American business literature during Japan’s 1980s “bubble economy” period, did not originate there, but instead traces its roots to the early restoration period, with former peasants encouraged to identify with samurai while being exhorted to contribute to national strength.

What of the burakumin? Immediately after “emancipation”, there was little immediate change, despite a government-sponsored equality movement starting in the 1920s (Ohnuki-Tierney 42) However, two thirds of burakumin descendants recently surveyed say they have never experienced discrimination, and only 27% of burakumin marriages are to another burakumin (Londo 277). While to some degree this can be described as integration into a more tolerant society, it might be more accurate to attribute it to the near-complete dissolution of the identity itself. As fewer and fewer work in traditional occupations and live in all-burakumin enclaves, fewer and fewer Japanese consider the label relevant, with less than half of Japanese parents even making their children aware of the distinction (Londo 279). Burakumin organizations are now at the forefront of anti-discrimination movements addressing the status of other minority groups in Japan, like ethnic Koreans (Lee 182).

These two identities, previously identified as functions of one’s heritage, have in the absence of their economic basis either disappeared as functional identifiers, as in the case of the burakumin, or have at the least lost their association with birth - individuals claim a hereditary identity on the basis of the qualities ascribed to it, an inversion of the original ascription of those qualities to individuals born into the identity.

The Ainu, the next subject of focus, are a native group traditionally engaged in subsistence-level hunting and fishing on the northern island of Hokkaido and the northern regions of the main island of Honshu. They are widely believed to be descendants of the Jomon, the original inhabitants of Japan, and while many questions surround their origins and arrival in the region, it is known that they are of separate genetic stock from the Wajin, the (overwhelmingly) dominant Japanese ethnic group (oftentimes referred to as Yamato, as a nation).

The Ainu were long known to the Yamato – Wajin historians have described them as living on the archipelago “from time immemorial”, and they appear to be mentioned in the Chinese Account of the Three Kingdoms, which dates to the late third century A.D. (Sjöberg 93). A formal border between Yamato and Ainu territory has been dated to the fourth century, although it is described as somewhat porous, with intermarriages common among border residents (Sjöberg 97). As time went on, small amounts of Wajin would immigrate to Hokkaido (at the time known as Ezo), most often exiles who, having backed the losing side in one of the Japanese mainland’s many internal disputes, would retreat to Ezo to fortify and regroup. While the exiles were obviously focusing their attention on Yamato society and politics and maintained a distinct culture, trade with the Ainu flourished, and there were some cases of integration into Ainu society (Sjöberg 99).

However, as time went on, the war and political instability of the Muromachi era (1336-1573), plus the severely limited amount of arable land on Honshu, led to increased rates of immigration, bringing the Yamato and the Ainu into direct competition for resources, which prompted efforts by the Ainu to attempt to expel the Wajin residing in Ezo. After an extended period of conflict, the Yamato negotiated peace in the mid 1600s, and immigration resumed.

For the next two centuries, the relationship between the Honshu and Hokkaido took a form approaching that of classic colonialism – Wajin immigration continued, and the “colony” began to export agricultural goods and raw materials in large quantities, receiving finished goods in return. However, the Ainu were still recognized as a distinct people, and their land akin to that of a foreign nation – steps were taken to attempt to limit contact between the two cultures, and to prevent the encroachment of Yamato settlements on Ainu land.

However, the first major shift in identity began in the late 1700s, when Russia began to take interest in Ezo, introducing Christian missionaries and assuming a posture to claim the island as their own. Simultaneously, as agricultural production of the less fertile, contested mainland regions began to approach limited capacity, Ezo was becoming an important source of food for the less fertile mainland (Hokkaido is now Japan’s largest agriculture-producing region). With severely limited manpower to devote to cultivation, and a desire to avoid Russian control of the island, the obvious answer was to bring the Ainu on board, and programs to that effect were quickly put into place. Official barriers preventing Wajin-Ainu contact and the adoption of Yamato roles and customs by Ainu were removed, intermarriage was supported, and efforts were made to introduce Buddhism and the Japanese language. A system of Yamato law was constructed, and the conception of the Ainu as sovereign nation was dealt a severe blow.

The next major change followed in the nationalistic upheaval of the Meiji Restoration, with Ezo formally annexed in 1868 and renamed Hokkaido, and the incorporation of the Ainu into the new Japan. Given the mainland’s effective domination of Hokkaido’s trade and organization, this seems to be somewhat of a formality, serving to establish a formal claim for the purpose of international politics. However, borders, as representations of national identity and affiliation, can by serving as identifiers for these concepts shape them, and the physical incorporation of the island into the territory of Japan also served to denote an inclusion of the people and culture associated with the island into the social construct of “Japan”. This point was made more obviously shortly after when the government declared that Ainu were now classified under the designations Nihonjin (“Japanese”) and even Nikkeijin (“of Japanese descent”) (Sjöberg 138). Large-scale government activity followed, as Hokkaido was integrated into the Japanese economy and society. It is worth noting that the overall Ainu attitude of the time with regards to integration and acculturation was a positive one, with many Ainu embracing the Nihonjin identity.

At the turn of the century, schools were created to serve Ainu children, which were mostly staffed by Wajin educators. Ainu schooling, in theory compulsory, included Japanese-language instruction, and focused on “Wajin history and glory”, while rarely touching on Ainu history or culture (Sjöberg 128). As Arjun Appadurai notes in “Patriotism and its Futures”, the modern, post-tribal nation-state is born of a common context of media and culture, and the introduction of Japanese-language and Wajin history education to Ainu children was an effort to create an environment in which the Ainu would be brought into the common media context, and in doing so fully join the nation.

After a century and a half, what has become of the Ainu? One telling fact is that in the mid-1980s, only around 24,000 inhabitants of Hokkaido have registered (in a voluntary registry) as Ainu, although some Ainu claim that if every person of Ainu ancestry registered, the number would be around 300,000. The obvious explanation for this discrepancy would be that many Japanese of Ainu ancestry do not identify as such, and in fact, this is the exact point claimed by representatives for the Hokkaido Utari Kyokai, a Wajin-dominated government social agency for Ainu. This could be seen as a sign of the declining importance of Ainu heritage as an identifier, but this seems somewhat odd when contrasted with the concurrent rise in Ainu-oriented historical and cultural organizations. Some Ainu have described this as a vote of no confidence in government policies, but what appears most likely is the explanation others offer, political apathy (Sjöberg 138).

As for personal experience, 73% of Ainu report experiencing discrimination in their lifetimes, and modern Ainu rely on government assistance for survival at a rate 3 times that of Wajin Japanese (Sjöberg 142). However, many argue that this may be more attributable to the “rural poor” identity of many Ainu, rather than their ethnic identities, noting that many modern Ainu remain in the relatively poor regions of Hokkaido or western Honshu. As it has been pointed out, where poverty is correlated with identification with an ethnic group, there is a tendency to consider ethnicity the constant, the “prime mover” (Comaroff 47).

Modern government relations with the Ainu appear to reflect this interpretation, dealing only tangentially with issues of identity or culture, and have instead been primarily economic in nature, aimed at increasing production, strengthening infrastructure, decreasing unemployment, and raising income (Sjöberg 118). Indeed, of Ainu complaints about the Wajin-led agencies’ actions, the most prominent take issue not with the quality of services, but rather fault them for being too culturally agnostic, little more than a “welfare system, consisting of the building of houses and money to pay the rent” (Sjöberg 131). Such an interpretation of the Ainu relationship with the Wajin-dominated government would tend to suggest that Japanese culture has to some extent abandoned ethnic identity as a guiding principle when approaching the Ainu.

The aim of the Meiji Restoration was, before all else, to secure a place for Japan on the world stage, a goal which required it to create a drive to act for the good of the state and its triumph over other states – in short, patriotism, and patriotism “thrives only on the level of the nation-state” (Appadurai 160). For the Meiji-era government to reach its goal, it needed to create an identity at the national level, with individual ethnic identities for the most part rendered irrelevant. The fact that this goal was achieved in such a brief time serves to emphasize the manner in which these naturalized identities were to a significant extent products of a specific set of conditions, the alteration of which would create a redefinition of identity.

In observing the reintegration of the burakumin, the ability of a society to absorb a group whose identity had been defined as an unsuitability for acceptance in society speaks of the malleability of identity. Likewise, its original exclusion as a hereditary group on the sole basis of occupational role highlights the manner in which concepts of ethnicity can and do arise from the economic position of social groups. The dissolution of the samurai as an identity group echoes the same themes, with such a rapid fall into irrelevance and functional dissolution representing the fluidity of identity roles, and the fact that it died as a result of an economic reorganization illustrates the manner in which roles and identity exist within a specific context. The incorporation of the Ainu into Japan likewise illustrates the extent to which identity is a function of the relationship between “us” and “them”, both of which can be freely renegotiated as conditions change.

The Japanese experience would also appear to lend validity to the theory of identity as defined in response and opposition to threats and rivals. It was in response to Russian pressure that an Ainu identity was first created that linked it to the mainland, and it was only in joining the world of the 1800s, a world of nation-states, that Japan defined itself as a nation, independent of former feudal, ethnic, or class-based ties. “Now,” it could say, “all of Japan is Japanese, and it is rival nations which are the other.” Later, in its expansionstic period, when Western powers attempted to constrain Japan’s aspirations to Asian dominance, it would create the rhetoric of the “Co-Prosperity Sphere”, attempting to recenter the question of identity on a dichotomy of Asia against the Western powers.

Despite such attempts to redefine its identity, but it would appear that for now at least, it remains focused on a national level. Japan to this day classifies all of its native inhabitants, including the Ainu, as members of a single race (Nihonjin), although some suggest that the reason for maintaining this distinction may now be to avoid UN treaty obligations relating to the status of minorities (Sjöberg 138). However, overseas minorities, including Westerners, Brazilian “guest workers” (including, in both groups, those of Japanese ancestry), and ethnic Koreans are categorized separately, and members of each category can point to severe cultural and legal obstacles to societal integration (Lee 134, Pang 83, Yamashita 14). However, as the drastic changes of the Meiji era point out, it is entirely possible that future events may prompt another reassessment of Japanese identity and once again dramatically alter the meaning of being Japanese.

Works Cited
1. Appadurai, Arjun. “Patriotism and Its Futures.” Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
2. Comaroff, Jean and John Comaroff. “Of Totemism and Ethnicity.” Ethnography and the Historical Imagination. Boulder: Westview Press, 1992.
3. Conklin, Beth A. “Body Paint, Feathers, and VCRs: Aesthetics and Authenticity in Amazonian Activism”. American Ethnologist 24(4). 711-737.
4. Lee, Changsoo and George De Vos, ed. Koreans in Japan: Ethnic Conflict and Accommodation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.
5. Londo, William, ed. EALC 150 Article Packet. University of Illinois, 2000. (actually, this is a stand-in for the less professional-sounding “a bunch of RimRod’s nodes”)
6. Najita, Tetsuo. Japan: The Intellectual Foundations of Modern Japanese Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
7. Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. "The Agrarian Japanese, the Ainu, and the Special-Status People." Making Majorities. Ed. Dru C. Gladney. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998. 31-51
8. Pang, Ching Lin. Negotiating Identity in Contemporary Japan. New York: Kegan Paul International, 2000.
9. Sjöberg, Katarina V. The Return of the Ainu: Cultural Mobilization and the Practice of Ethnicity in Japan. Langhorne, PA: Harwood Academic Publishers GmbH, 1993.
10. Yamashita, Karen Tei. Circle K Cycles. Coffee House Press, 2001.

Further Reading
Ahmed, Imtiaz. The Construction of Diaspora: South Asians Living in Japan.
Shimazu, Naoko. Japan, Race and Equality: The Racial Equality Proposal of 1919. New York: Routledge, 1998.

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