Tradition and Modernity
The Ongoing Creation of Japanese Identity


 

Overcoming Denial
Contemporary Japan’s Quest for “Normalcy”
 
Takemikazuchi pinning the earthquake-causing catfish
Namazu under Kashima Shrine’s “Pinning Rock”


The question of Japan’s international ‘normalcy’ has been pervasive in politics, society, and culture since the early 1990s, and it remains unresolved to this day. For some commentators, the problem can usefully be phrased in terms of Japan’s twin deficits:
 
 
first, in terms of the absence of ‘normal’ capabilities
(that is, a powerful military together with legal mechanisms, and social will, to employ it) ...
 

 
and second, in terms of the absence of ‘normal’ legitimacy in the international system
(that is, the apparent failure of Japan to ‘come to terms with its past’ and to apologize to its neighbours). (Modern Japan, 126)
 

Since the end of the Cold War, the importance of addressing this legitimacy deficit has increased dramatically. Many of Japan’s attempts to develop a leadership role in the region have been undermined by the persistent suspicion that its imperial ambitions remain unreconstructed. ...
 

 
[T]here remain critics in East Asia who see all of Japan’s efforts at regional confidence-building and comprehensive security as little more than confidence tricks. Wherever they see the yen, they see the covert insinuation of a new kind of Japanese empire, sold to the world in the form of financial aid, Nissan cars, Sony Playstations. Sensitive to such fears, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has taken the question of image very seriously. In 2007, it launched the ‘Creative Japan’ campaign, in which it represented Japan as the home of artistic innovation and pop-culture phenomena, naming anime, manga, and video games, along with food, fashion, and architecture, as amongst its primary contributions to world culture. Unlike the USA, however, which has managed to attract people from all over the world to its brand of the ‘American dream’, Japan has yet to define a vision of itself that attracts others to it. (Modern Japan, 137-9)
 
 
Is there a “Japanese Dream”...
or will “Pop Culture” suffice?
 
 
As was the case in many nations around the world, the turn of the new millennium was an opportunity for reflection in Japan. The 20th century had witnessed its remarkable and tumultuous emergence as a leading, modern nation on the world stage. And yet surveys of public opinion and professional reflection revealed a less than bouyant atmosphere. The last hundred years had seen the establishment of a nation-state, the development of modern industry, a huge but ill-fated regional empire, devastation, and then miraculous economic success, but the heaviest shadow over the millennium was cast by the 1990s — the so-called ‘lost decade’. Indeed, far from being the post-industrial techno-utopia envisioned during the confident heights of the 1980s, Japanese society seemed wracked by anxieties and insecurities about its identity and place in the world. Various public surveys showed that levels of unhappiness and satisfaction were low, and suicide rates in Japan were among the highest in the world. (Modern Japan, 140)
 

 
What do we mean by the term “Japanese identity” ...
and what is Japan’s place in the world?

 
[I]t is interesting to reflect on the way the BBC represented Japan during the 2002 World Cup (in the introduction of this book). To some extent, the montage of the old and the new, the geisha and the bullet-train, Mount Fuji and neon streets, is actually a fairly accurate picture of some of the interleaving elements that comprise modern Japan. The key is to remember that this complicated and diverse society is not a fictional ‘Eastern’ society struggling with features of ‘Westernization’, but rather a modern society that is continuously negotiating its identity and role in a world of global capitalism. Its modernity is its own. Like many other such societies at the start of the 21st century, a pressing question for Japan is what happens after modernity, and what will be Japan’s role in finding out. (Modern Japan, 149)