John Lie on the Uniqueness Myth

12 Jun

“Most assertions of Japanese difference or uniqueness are empirically false or unverifiable. At times they merely demonstrate the authors’ ignorance and prejudice. Miri Mikisaburou (1971: 11) confesses that he thought that only Japanese called leprosy as Hansen’s Disease. In 1993, I was shocked by a distinguished Japanese sociologist’s assertion that only Japanese criminals cover their face because Japan has a unique culture of shame. When I pointed out that South Korean criminals act in a similar fashion, he replied that, somehow, they must be different. Such a patently non-logical or non-empirical assertion is, however, often taken as yet another characteristic of Japaneseness. According to Yamamoto Shichihei, the proponent of Japanese religion (Nihonkyou), Japanese place feeling over logic (Yamamoto and Komuro 1981: 1).

“…If many descriptions of Japanese difference or uniqueness are problematic, then the same can be said for their cause. A commonly given explanation for Japanese difference is that Japan experienced nearly three centuries of seclusion (sakoku) during the Tokugawa period. Hence, the Japanese are ‘insular’: ‘History and geographic isolation have been combined with this racial unity to fuel a strong sense of national identity’ (Buckley 1990: 82). In fact, sakoku implied the state monopoly of trade and foreign relations, not complete seclusion of society from foreign influences. As Yamaguchi Keizou (1993: 41-7) argues, virtually all East Asian states featured states monopoly of trade and the Tokugawa state had extensive contact with other sovereign states. In addition, Tokugawa-era intellectuals had extensive knowledge of the world beyond the [sic] Japan, and eagerly sought Chinese and, later, Western knowledge. The very idea of sakoku only became popular after the Meiji Restoration to distinguish the premodern period from the modern period of enlightenment and civilization (Arano 1988: ii). Furthermore, the fact of being surrounded by ocean actually encouraged intercultural contact before the Meiji era; water transportation is, in fact, much more useful than land transportation in the reugged terrain that characterizes much of Japan” (John Lie, “The discourse of Japaneseness,” in Japan and Global Migration: Foreign Workers and the Advent of a Multicultural Society. Eds. Mike Douglass and Glenda S. Roberts, Hawaii: Univ. of Hawaii Press, 2003. 70-90, 86).


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