Tokyo Notes

Is Japan ‘Different’?

Are Japanese different from everyone else? And does it matter if they think so?

A concept that often emerges when analyzing the apparent enigma of Japan is 'nihonjinron'. Essentially, it’s the idea that there’s something special about the Japanese and their ‘homogenous’ nation.

The fact that books that depict the Japanese in such a way have a domestic market indicates that a certain segment of the population is interested in this topic. Perhaps some of these Japanese readers find it a source of comfort or reassurance to feel that they are, after all, ‘different’ from other peoples of the world. For many Western writers, though, nihonjinron is seen as a kind of misleading nationalistic drum for pushing the right's agenda.

Writing in The Asia Pacific Journal, Chris Burgess picks up this theme. It’s a lengthy piece with an academic tone, but it does make some interesting points. Burgess wants to move away from the idea of nihonjinron in binary terms as either total myth or reality. As common sense would suggest, the truth is somewhere between.

'What is striking in all of this, is the (often patronising) way popular representations tend to be dismissed as "false", "inaccurate", or "illusory", even while acknowledging that they constitute a widespread assumption that many Japanese believe form a key part of the experience of being Japanese…the nation that is Japan–or any other nation for that matter–is a discourse, an imaginative construct held together by "myth" and "tradition".'

While all nations may have some kind of less-than-historically-accurate national ‘discourse’ on what it is to be part of that nation, there’s certainly more of a market among Japanese for books on the special nature of being Japanese, than there is, say, among Brits for the special nature of being British.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

But an element I’d like to see explored a little in this kind of analysis is the role played by the Japanese language itself. When a speaker of Japanese is constantly having to make a decision on the status of the other person in a conversation, and constantly having to define and redefine the groups to which they do or do not belong, is it any wonder that speakers of that language might have a stronger tendency to define themselves as a group at the national level?