III. Japan's Identity and What It
University of Tokyo
Not all countries feel a burning passion to clearly define their own national
identities, and fewer still are obsessed with this issue as much as Japan.
The Japanese search for a clear identity has not been a steady and continuous
one, though, and this pursuit has been characterized by a significant
ebb and flow.
The passion explicit in the Japanese search for national identity
likely stems from the fact that Japan lies on the outskirts of the Chinese cultural sphere
but has a strength and a distinct character that has never been completely overwhelmed by
the influence of China. At the core of great civilizations there has been little need to
inquire into an identity that is self-evident, and small dependent countries on the
outskirts of such great civilizations are seldom troubled by the issue of establishing
their own national identities.
It is when a country is confronted with new and fundamental challenges
that its pursuit of identity becomes most vigorous. Countries able adequately to handle
their domestic and foreign affairs through traditional approaches are unlikely to
undertake a serious examination of their own identities. Thus the search for national
identity is more of an effort to address new realities than a confirmation of traditions,
and today's search began in Japan as the country gained international influence in the
1980s and as history marked the end of the Cold War.
Be that as it may, the identity of any single country comprises an
enormous range of facets, making a simple definition impossible. For the time being,
therefore, I would like to begin by looking back over the history of Japan's groping for a
national identity. As starting this examination from ancient times would be too roundabout
an approach, I will limit my discussion here to the modern age.
The Quest for Identity in Modern Japan
The start of the modern age in Japan was marked by the shock of an encounter
with the West, but Japan's response was strikingly different from that
of China or Korea. Having maintained a certain distance in its contacts
with China, earlier seen as the center of culture itself, Japan was able
most importantly to maintain a similar distance in its dealings with the
West. Unlike China, self conceited in its conviction of its cultural superiority,
and Korea, which saw itself as the legitimate heir to Confucian culture,
Japan responded to this new challenge not with a knee-jerk overreaction
but in a relatively cool-headed manner on the basis of a comparatively
objective assessment of the West's power. The course that Japan chose
in light of the merciless advance of the West into a stagnant Asia was
defined by the concepts of fukoku kyohei (a rich country and a
strong military), bunmei kaika (civilization and enlightenment)
and datsu-a nyu-o (abandoning Asia and joining the West). As evident
in the case of Yukichi Fukuzawa, neither a simple infatuation with the
West nor a belief in the essential superiority of Western civilization
were behind this decision; objectively speaking, there was no other path
Japan could take.
The goal of datsu-a nyu-o was achieved for the most part with
the conclusion of an alliance between Japan and Great Britain in 1902 and Japan's victory
in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. In the opinion of Aritomo Yamagata, though, this
martial victory, however, far from demonstrating the superiority of the yellow race,
showed nothing more than that members of the yellow race who had acquired a thorough
knowledge of Western culture could defeat members of the white race who had not, and he
cautioned against rising nationalism.
While the end of World War I in 1918 saw Japan's status as a great
power further enhanced, it also created a number of thorny issues. Japan did gain
admission to the club of great powers, but it did so as the lowest ranking member in a
club devoid of a principle of racial equality. The termination of hostilities also brought
with it the collapse of both Germany and Russia, the end of militarism, and the advent of
an age of democracy. Though seen as a world power in the midst of these upheavals, Japan
still stood on very shaky foundations.
The unease that followed World War I became even more real in the early
years of the Showa era. Kazushige Ugaki remarked that Japan's difficulties lay in the fact
that it was surrounded by nothing but wayward countries-be it the US, the USSR, or
China-that did not recognize traditional foreign policy realities. All three of these
countries rejected the imperialistic policies of Japan, a country which had gained
admission to the great powers club, albeit at the lowest rank, through a traditional
It was in such a context that Asianism reemerged in Japan. When the US,
China, and the USSR each in their own way began expressing disapproval of Japan's special
rights and interests in China, Japan diverged from the policy of cooperation with the West
that it had maintained since the early years of the Meiji era, rejected the open
door policy, sought closer Japan-Manchurian-Chinese cooperation, and eventually
aimed for a New Order in East Asia and later a Greater East Asian
Addressing Fumimaro Konoe's confrontational attitude towards the
foreign policies of Great Britain and the US, Kinmochi Saionji, the last of the Meiji era
elder statesmen, argued that, since Great Britain and the US effectively dominated the
world, it would be to Japan's advantage to cooperate with these two powers and that to do
otherwise would be foolish. Nevertheless, Japan did indeed choose the path of
The Search in Post-War Japan
It was often suggested after World War II that Japan's future lay in becoming
a cultural nation, and a great number of people agreed that Japan should
become a pacifist cultural country even if it meant being a poor and small
one (similar to the small but brightly shining country spoken
of by Masayoshi Takemura several years ago). In the pacifism dispute that
began in 1950, many intellectuals advocated a peace with all (i.e., with
both the US and the USSR) and leveled criticisms at government policy.
From our present vantage we can see that their idea was an unfeasible
argument which signified nothing more than a wish to prolong the state
of peace that Japan enjoyed, but there were many who wanted to distance
Japan from the realities of the Cold War and who were unhappy with Japan's
continued subservience to the US.
The Diplomatic Bluebook of 1957 is famous for setting forth the three
principles of subsequent Japanese foreign policy-diplomacy centered on the United Nations,
membership in the Asian community, and maintenance of cooperation with the free world-with
the ties between Japan and the free world listed third. Japan's policy was one of
cooperation with the free world and relatively few Japanese saw their country
as an integral part of this democratic camp. Japan had just achieved its long cherished
hope of UN membership in December 1956 and been first elected as a non permanent member of
the UN Security Council, and the excitement over this no doubt played a part in this
foreign policy decision. The 1960 protests over the Japan-US security treaty also showed
that opposition to the US was still strong among intellectuals and students.
The sense of connectedness with Asia gradually faded away, however, as
the rapid economic growth continued in the 1960s. The debates over Japan's identity soon
died down. Substantive arguments such as those made in Tadao Umesao's 1956 Bunmei no
Seitaishikan Josetsu (An Introduction to the Bionomical View of Civilizations)
and Masataka Kosaka's 1964 work Kaiyo Kokka Nihon no Koso (The Vision of The
Maritime Nation of Japan) as well as modernization theories imported in the 1960s were
all arguments emphasizing the differences and disparities between Japan and Asia against a
background of economic growth. Strong interest in Asia did reappear to a degree in 1972
when Japan and China restored diplomatic relations but only temporarily.
Increasingly from the latter half of the 1960s questions about the
essential characteristics of Japan or those aspects of Japan that were especially
praiseworthy were answered with the comment that Japan had become an economic power. The
economic strength of Japan was frequently cited as a key element in Japan's identity,
disregarding the military, political, and cultural aspects of identity to which countries
Acknowledgment of Japan as an ally of the West in the Cold War among a
somewhat larger segment of the Japanese public came at the end of the 1970s under the
Ohira administration. Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Japan took part in the
economic sanctions against the USSR by the West and boycotted the Moscow Olympics. These
actions were deemed proper policy by the Japanese people, and the groundwork for such
public approval had been laid in the summit meetings between heads of state from the West
and the Japanese prime minister held annually from 1975.
Although the policy of placing Japan within the Western camp did come
under pressure during the Suzuki administration, it regained solid footing under the
Nakasone administration. At the Williamsburg summit, Prime Minister Nakasone declared that
security was indivisible and that Japan was a member of the Western security alliance. The
term military alliance even came to be accepted without much opposition.
The sharp climb in Japan's economic status in the 1980s became a source
of increased friction between the US and Japan, and there was much discussion over what
Japan's place should be, given its economic size. The need for an expansion of imports was
pointed out, and Japan-US structural talks even went so far as to address structural
issues within Japanese society itself.
The end of the Cold War and the Gulf War had an even greater impact on
Japan. Until that time, Japan had for its own protection been an integral part of the
framework of the Western security alliance. As the threat from the Soviet Union and then
Russia diminished, though, Japan was brought to keenly realize the obvious fact that
limiting its concerns to domestic affairs would make it difficult to fulfill its
obligations to the international community. The expression a normal country
popularized by Ichiro Ozawa is one that appears at first glance to run counter to the idea
of a distinctly separate identity, but in fact Ozawa criticized the concept of identity
held theretofore that was overly biased towards Japan's economic status and stressed that
Japan could only define its identity after fulfilling the role of a normal country.
Identity and Japan's Political System
The above sketch reveals that the search for identity has not simply been
a matter of intellectual or cultural interest but rather is an issue requiring
serious choices in the realm of international politics. Consequently this
issue is connected with the debates over Japan's political system and
who should run it; let us examine this point from a historical perspective.
The crisis that Japan faced at the end of the Edo Period was first and
foremost a foreign policy concern and thus was clearly seen as a matter to be resolved by
the shogunate. Doubts about this responsibility were rare even for some time after the
arrival of Commodore Perry's black ships; this was most certainly an occasion
requiring the exercise of power by the shogun. The shogunate, however, had seen a
considerable decline in its military strength, while the various clans were similarly
weakened by corruption among their more privileged members. In the end the Satsuma and
Choshu clans, the two clans who had most effectively utilized the human resources
available to them, took up the symbol of the emperor and rose to national prominence.
Japan proceeded further in this direction from the Meiji Restoration,
as the sonno-joi (revere the emperor, expel the barbarians) movement came to stand
for the creation of a unified state headed by the emperor that could stand on equal terms
with the Western countries.
In adopting this course, Japan took a number of excessive measures and
even revised its reading of history to suit its new purposes. One of these measures
involved the status of the emperor. Excepting ancient times, the emperor had generally
been regarded as a powerless symbolic presence, but the Meiji leaders altered the state
structure in such a way that the emperor would possess the same power and authority as
European kings and emperors. Particularly noteworthy here is that the emperor was given
supreme command of the armed forces in imitation of the major European powers of the day.
The Japanese emperor has throughout history been a symbol of the civilian ruling class,
not the warrior class, but the new state nonetheless placed the emperor in the unnatural
position of supreme military commander.
The idea that Japan had a time-honored tradition of universal
conscription, too, was a fiction. Warriors accounted for no more than around 10% of the
general population, and many of these had already forgotten their pride as members of the
military caste and become remiss in obeying their martial code of conduct. Masujiro Omura
and Aritomo Yamagata, the principal architects of the Meiji military system, were scornful
of the upper echelons of the warrior caste and this sentiment led them to advocate the
abolition of the warrior as a social class.
Military service was a concept foreign to the vast majority of Japanese
not of the samurai class. By confiscating the weapons of farmers in his famous sword
hunt, Hideyoshi Toyotomi had also freed the farmers from any obligation to perform
military service. Thus, when universal conscription was introduced in the Meiji era, it
naturally met with considerable resistance.
Be that as it may, the West was used as a model in creating the Meiji
state and various traditions reinterpreted or used in ways suited to the founders'
purposes. This system bolstered Japan through the Russo-Japanese War.
World War I offered the first challenge to this system. As
democratization gained ground worldwide, Japan found it necessary to dispel its image as
the Prussia of Asia and the formation of a new cabinet by Takashi Hara near the end of WWI
was truly symbolic of this. The phrase kensei no jodo (regular procedures of
constitutional government) became fashionable and Tatsukichi Minobe's
emperor-as-organ-of-the-state theory gained wide acceptance, and neither of
these arose from a strict interpretation of the Meiji Constitution. Thus Japan once again
adapted itself to the trend of the times by reinterpreting its traditions.
With the 1930s and the collapse of the international framework for
cooperation came calls for a stronger governmental structure to lead Japan as the world
became involved in bare-faced power struggles. Though these calls ultimately went
unanswered, they did at the very least bring about an end to party government.
One reason for this is the crucial fact that the US, a model for Japan,
appeared to have met its ruin. For Japanese intellectuals heavily influenced by Marxism,
the start of the Great Depression in 1929 was seen as the first step in the historical
inevitability of capitalism's collapse. The future was thought to lie with
government by strong leaders, be it Stalinism, Nazism or fascism.
In the post-WWII era, to summarize very briefly, the 1955
system under which the Liberal Democratic Party controlled the government, kept in
check by the Socialist Party, was very much in line with Japan's sentimental commitment to
unarmed neutrality and its glorification of economic prosperity. Hence Japan has always
had a domestic political system corresponding to its place and identity within the
Government by Harmony and Leadership
In this fashion Japan has responded to trends in the international community
by reinterpreting its own traditions, altering its perspective on its
own identity, and changing its political system. This has been far more
difficult than simply changing foreign policies under the existing political
system, but the needed changes in foreign policies were in fact so formidable
that they necessitated changes in the political system.
Professor Masataka Kosaka once stated that the first article in a truly
Japanese constitution would be Harmony must be respected. Arriving at a
consensus and proceeding smoothly from that consensus with as little friction and dispute
as possible is a fundamental rule in Japan, and a political culture imbued with this
principle makes it tough to effect major changes.
Major changes have been nonetheless necessary, though, and several of
the leaders who guided Japan through these transitions-Toshimichi Okubo, Takashi Hara, and
Osachi Hamaguchi-met their end at the hands of assassins. In the post-WWII era, Shigeru
Yoshida, regarded highly by later generations, was at the time of his resignation the
object of severe public criticism.
The 1955 system brought with it a diminishing of strong
leadership, a decentralization of authority, and greater equalization within parties. With
the exception of Tanzan Ishibashi (who retired due to illness), every President of the
Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) between 1955 and 1972 served more than one term; Nobusuke
Kishi was elected twice, Hayato Ikeda three times, and Eisaku Sato four times. However,
only one of the Presidents serving between 1972 and 1993 won reelection.
Promotion within the party and to the cabinet came to be based on the
number of times a politician had won reelection, with anyone who had emerged victorious in
six or seven elections eligible for a cabinet position. Frequent reshuffling of cabinets
became customary and ministers served an average term of only 11 months. The usual means
of forming cabinets in Japan thus differed substantially from the standard practice
worldwide of forming the strongest cabinet possible with the most capable members of the
ruling party, who then seek to hold on to their posts as long as possible.
There was a fierce inter-service rivalry between the Imperial Army and
Navy before WWII. Military officials from both branches fought bitterly over budgets and
prerogatives, and the nation's security became of secondary concern. As a result,
compromise and consensus between the two services was accorded an even higher priority
than the avoidance or successful prosecution of wars. While the LDP-led government has
experienced nowhere near this degree of rivalry, there is little difference between this
government and the pre-war Army and Navy in their emphasis on harmony within and between
organizations to the detriment of the ultimate mission, in the LDP's case the creation of
a capable administration.
Great respect for harmony is a Japanese tradition and certainly an
important element in Japan's identity. Nevertheless, it will be difficult with that alone
to maintain a practical Japanese identity that defines a place for Japan within the
Japan and Asia's Identity
One feature of the
post-Cold War age has been the revival of a form of Asianism. A few years ago, as Asia's
economies roared ahead, many people argued for an Asian politics and
Asian economy. However I have strong doubt as to where and to what degree Asia
and Japan shared elements in common politically and economically.
Take the idea of top-down modernization, for instance. The
Japanese government might well be said to have provided stronger leadership from above in
this regard compared with its Western counterparts, but it played a rather limited role in
comparison to other Asian governments. It was not through the amount of capital invested
but instead through the suggestions and guidance offered the private sector on areas of
pursuit worthy of attention that the Japanese government contributed most to
modernization. Top-down guidance combined with bottom-up initiatives made possible Japan's
particular style of development. Japan's government only began taking a strong and active
role in national economic development from the 1930s, so this should not be viewed as an
enduring characteristic of Japan.
There are significant differences with Asia in political systems as
well. Since the formation of the first national political party, the Liberal Party, in
1881, party politics have enjoyed a 117- year history in Japan.
Japan's first parliamentary government was not far at all behind its
contemporaries. The Diet opened in 1890, featuring a House of Representatives with
considerable legislative authority and with stronger budgetary authority than that granted
the lower house of parliament in the Prussian constitution. Only a few years after the
Diet opened cabinet ministers were being selected from among the political parties, and
the Diet's eleventh year saw the leader of a political party named prime minister.
This contrasts starkly with the governments of many Asian nations.
Singapore, for example, with a standard of living only second to Japan in Asia, has since
its foundation had a government ruled by the People's Action Party and opposition parties
have found it nearly impossible to survive long. While Singapore does conduct free
elections, the election system is weighed heavily in favor of the government.
Democratization is to a great degree an inevitable
process, and the Japanese experiment in democratic government has been
ongoing for more than 100 years.
While no reliable predictions can be made on how the world will change
in the 21st century, the greatest common divisors in the kind of world
we would like to see might be the following.
One is the peaceful resolution of extreme disparities in wealth, such
as that exemplified in the North-South issue. Bringing about peaceful change to the status
quo has always been challenging and, to that end, development in the South through its own
efforts is absolutely essential. In this regard, Japan might serve as a useful model of
self-reliant development in the face of pressure from developed countries.
Another is the co-existence of a variety of cultures as a certain
degree of convergence occurs. Many cultures in the modern world will not likely be able to
co-exist in their present form. Certain Islamic customs, for example, will have to be
abolished and authoritarian regimes will have no choice but to move towards greater
liberalization. Crony capitalism and similar systems will find themselves increasingly
uncompetitive in a competitive world. As a country long torn between the maintenance of
traditions and Westernization, Japan has confronted such issues for nearly 150 years.
Our predecessors in the Meiji era advocated the idea of Japan as a
bridge between the West and the East, and the core of Japan's identity lies in the fact
that the country sits on the outskirts of Western civilization but continues to thrive as
an independent civilization not completely overwhelmed by Western culture. This example
itself is perhaps the most important message that Japan can send to other cultures.
As has been discussed thus far, the difficulty here is that the
Japanese are apt to shut themselves off from the outside and find their peace within
harmony. Consequently, our Meiji forefathers stressed kaikoku shinshu (the need to
open the country to the outside). In drafting the Meiji Constitution, Hirobumi Ito thought
that the only way to prevent political disputes from turning into unprincipled compromises
(harmony) or limitless competition was to make the imperial household the axis of the new
Today it is very difficult to say just where the axis of the state or
the roots of the Japanese community are to be found. Nevertheless, while it may appear a
tautology, the very affirmation of the fact that Japan has developed as an independent
presence on the outskirts of Chinese civilization and as an entity independent of Western
civilization as well is a prerequisite to any attempt at discovery.
Japan Forum on International Relations (JFIR)