Visualizing Japan: Contemporary History and Nihonjinron

August 25, 2014
Modern-day Tokyo, Japan. Modern-day Tokyo, Japan.

Japan has long been a solitary nation, isolated by both its geography and intentional politics. But in today's globalized world, it's become important to understand cultures that were once inaccessible. Japanese society has undergone some large changes over the past few generations as its culture was influenced by the outside world and its people carved out their own niche in that global culture. Shōwa and Heisei are the most recent periods of Japanese history. Heisei began on January 1, 1989 and continues through the present day; Shōwa immediately precedes it, beginning on December 25, 1926. These eras correspond with the rule of the two most recent Japanese emperors. Shōwa was a long period, full of change and unrest. Divided by into pre- and post-war terms by World War II, Shōwa was at first marked by a rejection of outside culture in favor of Japanese society and a strong sense of nationalism, culminating in Japan’s invasion of China in 1937. But this proud nationalism diminished after the end of World War II, leaving behind a fear of and distaste for Western customs as Japan was occupied by Allied powers. Symbolically, the Japanese emperor was reduced to a figurehead, and a western-style prime minister was elected. Despite the occupation and cultural shift, Japan recovered, building a capitalist economy and even rebuilding its military. By the end of the Shōwa Period, Japan’s economy was only smaller than the United States’, and the Heisei Period began on a strong note. The Heisei period is named for the hopeful idea of "peace everywhere.” However, the beginning of this era was plagued by an economic downturn and natural disasters, as several earthquakes struck. The first ten years of the Heisei period came to be known as the “Lost Decade” due to the poor economy, but over time the country recovered. And as Japan faced the same struggles as the outside world, connected to it instead of in a state of isolation, new cultural shifts reflected the people’s processing of these new international relationships and influences.

Utamaro’s Lovers, a Japanese print from 1797 that remains popular today. Utamaro’s Lovers, a Japanese print from 1797 that remains popular today.

The Japanese have always been aware of their unique culture, and have studied it for centuries. Nihonjinron, literally meaning "theories and discussions about the Japanese," has been an important effort in a meta-examination of the Japanese way of life. Mostly written by Japanese scholars for Japanese readers, ancient nihonjinron thought emphasized the uniqueness of the Japanese people, and was full of nationalist and isolationist rhetoric. Contemporary nihonjinron works are more concerned with comparing traditional Japanese culture and mindsets with that of the United States or cultural powers in Europe. There is a focus on exploring comparison and contrast within the same world, instead of perpetuating the secluded attitude Japan held for so long. Contemporary writers have made a concerted effort to cultivate public interest in Japan's own society and relationships with other cultures. Nihonjinron has been divided into many subcategories, building theories about philosophy, culture, science, and the economy in a Japanese context. Today, contemporary scholars examine the Japanese national identity through these lenses, with a large focus on the country’s rejuvenation after World War II. The shift from a fervent nationalism to a more moderate approach to outside influences marks a significant turning point in Japanese culture, and nihonjinron’s self-analysis proved especially useful in this pursuit. Peter Dale breaks Japan’s recent history, the end of the Shōwa period and the current Heisei period, into three phases of nihonjinron thought. The first, from 1945-1960, directly follows Japan’s defeat, and is marked by strong Western influences and an acceptance of this foreign lifestyle.  As Japan was occupied by foreign powers, its intense pride and traditions were muffled—but not muted.  Over the course of the second period, from 1960-1970, there was a resurgence of traditional Japanese culture, as a balance between domestic and foreign culture emerged.  Although the Japanese adopted many Western habits, after the subdued first phase came to a close, many people were critical of aspects of foreign culture and returned to their Japanese roots. The blending of traditional and foreign civilizations was a difficult process, but found some stability as the third phase began in the 1970s. At this point, more people became proud of their Japanese take on Western culture, and grew to appreciate the unique combination of cultures and traditions that yielded a positive, modern, and global perspective. At this point, Dale’s nihonjinron theory recognizes a new attitude towards “Japaneseness” and “foreignness.” Instead of labeling one as positive and one as negative, at this point, new combinations of the two were accepted as useful and effective in the global and contemporary world.

Taiko, traditional Japanese drumming, is experiencing a revival in today’s world. Taiko, traditional Japanese drumming, is experiencing a revival in today’s world.

While nihonjinron thinking is known for recognizing Japan’s isolationist policies as a part of its cultural self-analysis, Japan’s presence in an interconnected, global civilization now raises questions for current scholars of nihonjinron and curious outsiders as well.  What happened before the post-war Shōwa period? How did Japan’s isolationist policies influence its approach to modernity and Western culture? How can anyone best learn about Japan’s history?

Further Explorations:

HarvardX and MITx are collaborating on a free online course this fall: Visualizing Japan (1850s-1930s): Westernization, Protest, Modernity. Suitable for both scholars and independent learners with no background in history, this course opens windows on Japan’s transition into the modern world through the historical visual record. Based on the Visualizing Cultures class taught at MIT, this edX course emphasizes historical exploration through accessible digital media.  Visualizing Japan can be audited with no commitment to completing assignments, or taken with the goal of earning a personalized certificate of achievement.  After an introductory segment designed to familiarize students with the many ways historians “visualize” the past, Visualizing Japan breaks into three modules. These subjects, “Black Ships & Samurai,” “Social Protest in Imperial Japan: The Hibiya Riot of 1905,” and “Modernity in Interwar Japan: Shiseido & Consumer Culture” approach specific moments in modern Japanese history through visual sources made accessible in digital formats. Explore the course website through edX here. Visualizing Japan begins on September 3, 2014 and runs for five weeks. visualizing_japan