Tradition and Modernity
The Ongoing Creation of Japanese Identity

Japanese identity card with the English words "Japanese identity?"
 
Godzilla image with the words "Godzilla: King of the Monsters"
Overcoming Denial
Contemporary Japan’s Quest for “Normalcy”
 
Woodblock print of Takemikazuchi pinning the earthquake-causing catfish Namazu under Kashima Shrine’s “Pinning Rock”
Takemikazuchi pinning the earthquake-causing catfish
Namazu under Kashima Shrine’s “Pinning Rock”

 
[A]s early as the 1970s in Japan the psychologist Kishida Shu theorized modern Japan’s condition as schizophrenic. In the 1990s, Kishida’s view was adopted by the controversial and highly influential intellectual Kato Norihiro, who similarly ‘diagnosed’ Japan’s postwar ‘illness’ as that of schizophrenia, arguing powerfully that Japan’s ‘personality’ really had been splintered into an inner and outer self by the contradictions inherent in the US occupation of Japan after the war. For him, postwar Japan had been placed in an impossible position, between the need to become democratic and the realization that democracy was being imposed by the former enemy. The result of this dilemma, which he expresses in his famous book Nihon no mushiso (Japan’s Thoughtlessness, 1999), is that the ‘public Japan’ accepted the desires and directives of the USA (notably pacifism and democracy) as its own, whilst the ‘private Japan’ maintained a divergent and often contradictorily nationalistic self-image with some elements of continuity with the imperial period. ...
 
Japanese Prime MInisters (left to right) Koizumi Junichiro, Abe Shinzo, and Suga Yoshihide
 
The task of the historical subject debate, then, was to find a way to construct a modern, authentic, unitary, non-pathological national subject that would be able to take responsibility for its own historical transgressions. ... Kato’s controversial position in the 1990s suggests that Japanese penitence in the postwar has indeed been inauthentic in a number of very important (and rather fundamental) ways: public penitence by Japan has been merely an aspect of its adopted, ‘US-friendly’, politically correct personality. Rather than being a highpoint of the expression of sincere penitence during the ‘fin de millenaire fever for atonement’, the 1990s represent a real (even clinical) crisis of disingenuousness.
Victimhood
From this perspective, the meaning and significance of ‘coming to terms with the past’, or even feeling penitence for it, shifts: it is no longer about seeking forgiveness from those who were wronged or about humbling yourself before them and granting them power over you (that is, the power of forgiveness) — indeed, it is not about them at all — but rather it is about healing and transforming yourself. In other words, the popular and influential schizophrenic thesis regarding the inauthenticity of Japan’s postwar penitence actually inverts the historical and moral issue, transforming Japan into the principal victim of World War II and making the subsequent attempts to come to terms with that war into efforts to heal and rebuild Japan itself. Critics, both inside and outside Japan, have been quick to point out that this image is sustained by Japan’s persistent reluctance to formally acknowledge (or pay reparations to) the so-called ‘comfort women’, largely Korean and Chinese women who were exploited as the ‘sex slaves’ of the Imperial Army. (Modern Japan, 130-6)
Godzilla Icon
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) ...
 
Photo of Japanese Self-Defense Forces
Godzilla Icon
Chinese person burning a Japanese flag
 
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)
 
Koreans protesting with signs saying "boycott Japanese goods"
Godzilla icon
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. ...
 
Chart showing Asian views about each other's nations
 
[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)
 
Image representing the "Japanese Dream"
 
Is there a "Japanese Dream"...
or will "Pop Culture" suffice?
 
Image representing Japanese pop culture
 
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)
 
Image representing "Nihonjinron" (discussions of Japaneseness)
 
What do we mean by the term "Japanese identity" ...
and what is Japan's place in the world?

 
Map of Japan superimposed on a map of the world
"Godzilla" icon
[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)


Construction site with a sign saying "Under Construction"
Godzilla and King Kong destroying a Japanese building