February 17, 2008


. . . and now for somewhere completely different (David Pilling, February 15 2008, Financial Times)

I got to thinking about the question of Japan’s uniqueness after reading Japan Through the Looking Glass. Its author, Cambridge anthropologist Alan Macfarlane, contends that Japan is not just “trivially different from the west and other civilisations, but different at such a deep level that the very tools of understanding we normally use prove inadequate”. When I called him at his home in England, he professed to be just as confused after 15 years of thinking about Japan as Hearn was. “In Japan, I start off with a feeling of similarity and then, growingly, things become more strange,” he said. “Japan is unique in that it combines two different sides: the surface of a modern, rational economy with politics and law and so on, but behind that a set of social norms and religious beliefs that are totally at variance with that. Almost every aspect of life, from sumo wrestling and tea ceremony, even business, has a feeling of something other than itself, beyond itself.”

I had been confronted with the idea that Japan was different – differently different – even before I set foot there as the FT’s correspondent five years ago. Back then I had read, as everybody does, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, the classic western anthropological study of the country by Ruth Benedict. The first sentence of the book is an affirmation of strangeness: “The Japanese were the most alien enemy the United States had ever fought.”

Based on interviews with Japanese immigrants, Benedict describes a society operating on entirely different lines. She famously characterises it as a culture of shame rather than of (Christian-style) guilt, one with a samurai-derived honour code of mysterious (and not straightforwardly translatable) principles of giri, on, haji and gimu. We learn of the honour of the vendetta and seppuku (belly-slitting suicide), and the shame of surrender. Reading the book, by no means discredited today, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that Japan is another world.

To lay my cards on the table, I have always been suspicious of this view. I start from the principle that people are people and that any attempt to render them otherwise probably has an ulterior motive, such as laying the groundwork to fight them. To start with the conclusion first, my basic view still holds that Japan is no more different than Guatemala or Madagascar or Britain. But my conviction has been sorely tested.

When I arrived in Tokyo in 2002, there were a few things to get used to besides blue trees. Early on, for example, when I was taking a distinguished TV presenter of advancing years out to lunch, I horrified restaurant staff by plonking myself down in the seat furthest from the door. This seat, known as oku, is for honoured guests. My appropriation of it was roughly the equivalent of pouring a pint of beer over the well-known personage’s head. (The host is supposed to sit with his back to the door, the position that in ancient times was most vulnerable to ninja attack.)

There were other things. Building workers did group calisthenics to piped music outside my house at 6am – something you don’t see often in west London. I grappled too with a language that, in every way, seemed back to front and set with social landmines. I wondered at people’s obsessive punctuality, politeness, cleanliness and the absolute seriousness with which they conducted every activity. I struggled to make anything but polite acquaintances, or even to make eye contact in the street.

More than these minor adjustments of culture, I was told almost daily by Japanese acquaintances that it was “difficult for westerners to understand Japan”. Though sometimes purely an interviewee’s attempt at obfuscation, there did seem to be a genuinely held belief that – in matters of economic and family relations, and in the spheres of aesthetics, morality and seating arrangements – Japan was radically different. No one bangs the drum of Japanese uniqueness more than the Japanese themselves.

So-called Nihonjinron, or meditations on Japaneseness, has a long tradition that reached fever pitch in the 1980s when some Japanese became convinced that their innate superiority was playing out on the stage of global capitalism. At its worst, Nihonjinron builds on the phoney concept of a racially homogenous society – look at the faces on any Tokyo subway to dispel this myth – to create a thesis of a race apart. This would have it that the Japanese are co-operative rice farmers not garrulous hunter-gatherers; have unique sensitivities to nature; communicate without language; use instinct and “heart” rather than cold logic, and have a rarefied artistic awareness. Many people who know Japan would recognise some half-truths in these observations, but Nihonjinron elevates them into a world view.

Yet, just because the discussion can be taken to ridiculous, even objectionable, extremes, doesn’t mean we should shun it altogether. Macfarlane’s book made me think I should tackle the subject afresh.

It's no coincidence that just about the only useful book about Japan from the 80s was Bill Emmott's Sun Also Sets, which calmly described why Japanophobia was misplaced and how the "differences" in the culture were pretty much all flaws.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 17, 2008 10:32 AM

How flaws? The culture flawed, the interpretation flawed?

Posted by: erp at February 17, 2008 2:12 PM
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