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ETHNOCULTURE  (Vol.2, 2010 pp. 54-60)


Yuki Hirano

Cross-Cultural Research Centre. Net

[email protected]


The signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, on September 8, 1951, marked the moment when Japan became an independent nation-state, free of the military occupation established on its soil by the United States and their Allies (New Zealand, United Kingdom, Australia, and India) at the end of World War II. However, ever since that moment, Japanese culture has continued to be strongly influenced by the West in general and by the US in particular, especially through the impact of the new Constitution, developed and introduced under the guidance of the occupying forces Supreme Commander, General Douglas MacArthur. In this paper, I examine post-war representations of Japanese identity in reference to the nationalistic feelings triggered by these influences.

What is the difference between ethnic solidarity and nationalism? I would argue that the way nationalism has been re-interpreted and re-defined in post-World War II Japan incorporates a strong feeling of "ethnic solidarity." In turn, this feeling has emerged in reaction to the process of rapid Westernization triggered by the post-war American occupation and kept going by continuing processes of economic globalization. Thus, the Japanese have distanced themselves from the type of nationalism correlated to their imperial past, and embraced a new form of it as "ethnic identity" assertion.

Varieties of nationalism

Nationalistic assumptions tend to coalesce into binary oppositions, such as us/them, right/wrong, left/right, war/peace, and, in the Japanese case, Japan/the West (or the US). This perspective has been widely used in the analysis of Japanese literature, animation and comic books, often with a critique of symbols of imperialism that are reminiscent of past wars. When doing an analysis of nationalism in Japan, a simple identification of nationalistic imperialism may replicate this process, excluding those of mixed cultural backgrounds or arbitrarily assigning them to one side. An example of how an analysis of culture can bring about an antithetical ideology is seen in the impact of Ruth Benedict's research on Japan.

When Ruth Benedict published an in-depth anthropological analysis of Japanese culture (1946), which had been commissioned by the American government in preparation for the allied occupation, the Japanese were described as a "group-oriented" people, while Americans were an "individual-oriented" people. According to social critic Michiaki Asaba, while Benedict positioned her research as a neutral, unbiased analysis of scholarly interest, post-war Japanese intellectuals did not receive it as such. Rather, they saw group-oriented socialization as proof of the social backwardness of the Japanese, and as an impediment to progress. They perceived it as reminiscent of the totalitarianism practiced in pre-modern Japan, and they thought that independence-fostering socialization practices, such as the ones said to be typically followed in the US and Europe, should be adopted instead. Asaba argues that Japanese intellectuals, particularly Marxists and modernists, thought that "independent socializing is what the Japanese should aim for, in order not to repeat the same shameful military defeat experience of the war" (Asaba 2004:221).

However, after a phase of intense Japanese self-criticism, there was a renewed support for the benefits of group-oriented socialization following the great success of the Japanese economy. In particular, many North American publications on Japanese culture celebrated group socialization, which boosted nationalistic pride within Japan. Many social analysis books, such as Ezra Vogel's Japan as Number One (1979), and various American texts examining in a complimentary way the Japanese traditional family structure of the ie, were often used in comparative studies of business practices. The Japanese people promulgating such views after they were endorsed by Westerners perhaps served the role of helping the Japanese in identity building, and in accepting themselves in cross-cultural contexts. However, this process could not be sustained only through the support of Western approval.

According to various contemporary scholars, Japanese nationalism was both challenged and supported by left-wing movements in Japan, particularly in regard to the dynamics of Western power. For example, the already mentioned Michiaki Asaba, as well as Kenji Suzuki, a writer who has served as political editor of one of the major Japanese newspapers, Mainichi Shimbun, since 1967, say that post-war Japanese nationalism was boosted by the left-wing movement, since Communists and progressives took the initiative in emphasizing the need to unify the Japanese "race" against US occupation (Suzuki 1997:157).

In support of this seemingly paradoxical argument, it is pointed out that in 1950, five years after the end of the war, a group song was created by the Japanese Communist Party with the specific purpose of "unifying" the population. It was a song titled "The Independent People's Leadership Party" and its text emphasizes the need for the unification of "the People" (understood as "nation" or "ethnic group" or "race") using concepts that give some insight into the popular tendency to identify ethnic solidarity with nationalism.

Song of the Independent People's Leadership Party
Lyrics by Akira Kishi. Music by Kazuo Okada. 1950.

Minzoku no jiyû wo mamore
  (Protect the freedom of our People)
Kekkiseyo sokokuno rôdôsha
  (Stand up, workers of our homeland)
Haearu kakumei no dentô wo mamore
  (Protect the rich tradition of the revolution)
Chishio niwa seigi no chishio mote tatakidase
  (Pursue justice by fighting for blood)
Minzoku no teki kuni wo uru inudomo wo
  (The enemies of our people are dogs selling our country)
Susume susume danketsu kataku
  (Get up, get up; we are tightly united)
Minzoku dokuritsu kôdôtai mae e mae e susume
  (Go forward, go forward with the Independent People's Leadership Party)
Minzoku dokuritsu kachitore
  (Win the People's independence)
Furusato nanbu kogyo chitai
  (Capture the industrial belt of the homeland)
Futatabi shôdo no gen to kasuna
  (Don't turn it into the source of scorched earth)
Bôryoku no chikara niwa danketsu no chikara mote tatakidase
  (Take the power of unity to overcome violence)
Minzoku no teki kuni wo uru inudomo wo
  (The enemies of our People are dogs selling our country)
Susume susume danketsu kataku
  (Get up, get up; we are tightly united)
Minzoku dokuritsu kôdôtai mae e mae e susume
  (Go forward, go forward with the Independent People's Leadership Party)

While the song's content strongly emphasizes "peoplehood," it also addresses issues of symbolic resistance from the communist perspective. Asaba suggests that this song sounds very much like a typical right-wing, nationalistic song. However, even though the tone of this song may be similar to that of many Japanese war songs, with the "Get up, Get up" phrase often used to refer to soldiers walking in line together, it is also perhaps true that, as Asaba says (2006), ethnicity as a political symbol started to be used by left-wing activists when they were resisting Japanese Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, who was serving during the US occupation of Japan. Yoshida was the one popularly portrayed as selling the country to the US during the occupation.

Left-wing resistance and the rise of Japanese identity-building is supposed to have been triggered by a process that occurred at the end of the war, when the US wanted to force Japan to become a non-militaristic country. The American army liberated many Japanese communists from prison, supported their unionization, and even guaranteed their freedom to engage in communist activities. Japanese communists then called American soldiers a "liberation army." However, following the establishment of the communist state in the People's Republic of China in 1949, the start of the Korean War 1950, and the growing threat of Russian power, the US started its "reverse course" Red Purge and put more than 10,000 Japanese socialists and communists out of jobs. Then, the Japanese left-wing attacked Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida for offering Japanese lands to the US as bases for the American military.

The argument left-wingers built at this juncture was that it was crucial to re-unify the Japanese ethnic group in order to resist international aggression. Thus, even though at this time Japan was experiencing enormous economic growth and was being considered one of the most rapidly developing countries, the left wing saw these achievements as not being fundamentally autonomous. In particular, the left wing kept arguing against the Americanization forced on Japan, and they worked strenuously against Article 9 of the new Japanese constitution, supporting demilitarization and the renunciation of war—a provision they saw as a reminder of US occupation and "colonization."

Ethnic consciousness was raised and celebrated by left-wing activists and it was strengthen by a song. Songs have been popularly used in many cultures to unify groups and catalyze action. Even presently, historically significant songs are sung at karaoke bars and drinking places by ex-soldiers who are now in their 80s and 90s. By singing such songs they are not necessarily expressing nationalistic feelings, but this phenomenon is a good example of how certain cultural mechanisms continue to be used with or without recognizing their ideological content. Quite intriguingly, the very song mentioned above has recently been re-written and sung by a well known right-wing party (Suzuki 1997:162). Also, supporting article 9 as a means of protecting Japan from militarization has recently become one of the slogans of the Japanese Community Party, when Prime Minister Koizumi decided to send Japanese self-defense forces to Afghanistan. These rather surprising shifts are indicative of how political and ideological stances can affect cultural dynamics, leading to complete reversals of meaning in symbolic interaction.

Furthermore, extraneous historical circumstances may catalyze social action which then becomes ideologically symbolic. For example, the peace movement was utilized in Japan as a way of resisting American power and raising a stronger Japanese national consciousness among the general public. Japanese women, particularly wives, were considered to be strong supporters of anti-Americanism and of the Japanese nationalist movement, particularly in reference to the Americans use of the defoliant Agent Orange. While contextualizing their protest as a concern with pollution, these women rapidly became recognized as "kitchen nationalists" (Suzuki 1997). According to Suzuki, during the American occupation MacArthur was controlling the media, once making a major newspaper stop publishing altogether because it had printed a subtle critique of the US. Following this incident, many other newspapers chose to survive by strictly following GHQ guidelines, so that the opinions of writers were routinely and heavily self-censored. However, because this censorship was hidden, the rise of resistance to the US and a growing nationalist identity were not easily organized. Thus, Japanese nationalism and opposition toward the US, emerged popularly under the guise of peace and anti-pollution movements.

Turning now to the other side of the political spectrum, it is also clear that members of right wing parties like to use popular culture and controversial public-opinion issues in order to stir up nationalistic feelings. Shintaro Ishihara, a leading statesman and long-time mayor of Tokyo, who first acquired international notoriety for writing, and getting published in the US, an abrasive nationalistic pamphlet titled The Japan That Can Say No (1991), has recently been enthusiastically inviting foreigners to visit Japan, in spite of the fact that he often expresses derogatory feelings toward immigrants.1 He exemplifies a typical national ambiguity; while there is strong public-opinion disapproval for non-Japanese ethnic groups living in Japan, a distinguishing line is drawn between "the foreigners who wish to stay in Japan for a long time" and "the foreigners that can help advertise the powerfully attractive image of Japan as an international country" (Asaba 2006).

As an another example of this ambiguity, which seems aimed at "domesticating" Westernization, Junichirô Koizumi, the leader of the Republican Party in 2005-6 and the first prime minister to support the legal registration of the Japanese army, expressed his sympathies toward American popular culture by wearing cow-boy shirts and Elvis Presley sunglasses. On the other hand, Japanese comic books (manga), incorporating Disney animation techniques and often expressing anti-nationalist feelings, are now used as a tool by Republican politicians such as Taro Aso, the prime minister in 2008-9, and Ishihara himself, both of whom flaunt the world-wide success of this new "Japanese cultural treasure" to call for a return of the Olympic Games to Tokyo and to invite more foreign students to Japanese universities.

In fact, Ishihara, as one of the first to plan for this return of the Olympics to Japan, described a main part of his proposed opening ceremony this way: have a human fly through the air, in imitation of the comic book character popularly known in the US as Astro Boy, the flying robot, in order to emphasize the excellence of Japanese technology and its promise "to bring the future to life" (Ishihara 2001). On his part, Aso has been emphasizing his hobby of reading Japanese manga, which is believed to be a tool for appealing to young voters, and has proposed the building of a 14 million dollar Manga Museum in Tokyo to serve as an attraction for the proposed Tokyo Olympics.

Coincidentally or not, two other prime ministers, Shinzo Abe (2006-7) and Yoshiro Mori (2001-2), have also been emphasizing sports, especially the Olympics, as one of the best tools to increase Japanese national pride. Abe said that the Japanese have become allergic to nationalism after losing World War II, and that sports are the only way to develop a new, healthy type of nationalism (Abe 2006). Mori has been working as the chair of the Japanese sports committee, making important decisions to approve sporting events, including football, baseball and rugby, creating and supporting a tiny population of Japanese rugby fans at the cost of billions of dollars. All of this is not surprising, since the mass media are full of references to manga and sports as core aspects of everyday culture for the Japanese people and they are repeatedly discussed as tools to unify Japanese ethnic identity and to enhance nationalism (Shimada 2003).


Anthony D. Smith argues that ethnic solidarity is at the root of all nationalism. The rhetoric of nationalism is built around the recognition of "peoplehood"; it conceives of the members of the nation both as the people and as a people—that is, as a separate ethnie with a distinctive history and culture, inhabiting a specific ancestral territory (2004:32). This argument sounds valid for the case of Japan, since it helps understand that focusing on the unity of the Japanese as one ethnic group has been a long-term theme taken for granted and emphasized in public discourse by a number of Japanese leaders all through the post-war period.

This would certainly also explain why nationalism has been promoted and practiced by members of both right-wing and left-wings parties (Asaba 2006). In fact, historically, Japanese nationalism cannot be discussed without mentioning the contributions of left-wing activists. Indeed, Yoshiyuki Tsurumi, an activist in the group called Beheiren (Peace to Vietnam) that emerged in 1965, claims that the Japanese peace movement should include a willingness to give up Japanese nationality altogether: "The Japanese peace movement needs to be framed so that it is completely different from the group demonstrations or hegemony battles against opposite groups typical of other movements. The fundamental point is to give up Japanese citizenship" (Tsurumi 2002:222).Tsurumi seems to reject the type of group activities that tend to strengthen national or ethnic consciousness. He argues that peace can be supported only if the Japanese relinquish their sense of ethnic solidarity as a group.

Certainly, defeat in Word War II and subsequent American occupation and Westernization seem to have reframed Japanese nationalism in terms of a rediscovery of "ethnic solidarity"—articulated through the idiom of popular culture, and seen through the mirror of globalization. From this point of view, Japanese nationalism—as representation of the nation to itself—seems to be profoundly affected by the dynamics of cross-cultural relations. Perhaps this is true of all nation-building processes; the national identity of a people gets honed through encountering relevant "others." Specifically, the identity of the colonized gets defined and re-defined by adjusting to internal explorations catalyzed by external resistance.


1. Ishihara gave a speech at an event for the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force in Tokyo on April 9, 2000 and warned the Japanese by saying that "Sankokujin" (discriminatory word referring to Taiwanese or Koreans who were brought into Japan as colonial subjects during the early phases of World War II) were committing crimes in Japan and living illegally. On May 8th, 2001, he commented in Sankei Newspaper that Japanese society might be at risk of being changed by the Chinese who leave their ethnic-specific DNA at the scene of their crimes (Takahashi 2007, also see:
According to Ryogo Mabuchi, professor of sociology at Kansai University, the rate of felonious offenses committed by foreigners in Japan is similar to that of the Japanese but the rates of other types of crimes are clearly lower. Therefore, it cannot be claimed that foreigners are more violent than the Japanese (


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