Japan and Modernity

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 16 October 2016

Japan and Modernity

From the ruins of defeat Japan endured after the World War II, the country has become one of the most influential nations today. For a country that is easily dwarfed by say China and North America, Japan has risen to be a successful industrial power. Surprisingly, majority of the changes that happened in the country took place following the occupation reforms. While the United States’ occupation of Japan lasted only seven years, the country’s history had been altered (Fairbank, Reischauer and Craig 817).

From a country that was once under self-isolation, trailing behind Western countries, Japan has become one of the most, if not, the most technologically advanced nation today. Any gadget labeled ‘Made in Japan” is synonymous to high quality. Japan postwar had become an urban nation, where Japanese did not only experience city expansion buy economic growth as well. Such changes, some debate, would not have been possible had the country not been under occupation (817).

However, it may also be possible that such changes are attributed to the spirit of the Japanese society and not the American occupation. Postwar Japan occupation, after all, is divided into three phases: Love/Hate towards America, American Penetration, and period wherein America was seen simply as a source of information and not something that the Japanese craved for (Yoshimi 433-434). Americanism in Japan proved to be the period where Japanese were able to rebuild their national identity. There is what the Japanese termed as nihonjinron, alluding to anything Japanese.

It is the Japanese way to define their history, culture and ultimately, the Japanese identity. And the period of Americanism was not only a period of modernization but a time when Japan laid cemented its sense of uniqueness. Literally, nihonjinron may be meant to refer to discussion of anything Japanese (Reischauer 395). The origins of nihonjinron may be rooted in the following ideas: the country’s history of isolation, distinguished culture, unusual language and rather complicated writing system, and deep-seated patterns of group organizations (395).

The Japanese, for one, unreservedly presume that they are a culturally and socially homogenous race and that they are different from the other races and as such, the Japanese believe that there is Japan and the rest, that one is either Japanese or not. If one for instance would go to Japan, he or she would be surprised that the Japanese possesses an overwhelming degree of nationalistic pride. It is perhaps the same factor that helped Japan rise up from the remnants of the war, the result of which affected the Japanese attitude toward America: desire or indifference.

Prior to World War II, the connection between Japanese and the Westerners was nil. In fact, it was said that when they first met Portuguese back in the sixteenth century, the Japanese were to say the least shocked. They found their blue eyes and red hair disgusting (Reischauer 397). Their red hair particularly was repulsive for the Japanese especially since it was usually ascribed to refer to goblin (397). Furthermore, the Japanese attitude toward black or colored races was more inferior that the Caucasians 9397).

What is surprising is that this sense of discrimination and repulsion extends more to their Chinese and Korean neighbors. Majority of the Japanese believe that marriage with a Chinese or Korean would automatically define them as outcasts or burakumin (397). This is just an example of ‘we vs. they’ ideology that prevails in Japan. There is a distinct line between uchi and soto, inside and outside (396). This national identity and sense of distinctiveness that Japan embraced fervently was exploited during the occupation reforms.

Anticipating a stringent American occupation, the Japanese deemed it “benevolent” (Fairbank, Reischauer and Craig 817). They were scared to be under a cruel regime, but the Japanese found it positive. For it was under these scenarios that the Japanese sense of duty enabled them to be upbeat and even liaise with the new authority (817). The shift toward democracy was further bolstered when the Japanese found that instead of being admired by the countries part of the Co-Prosperity Sphere, they were ostracized. It seemed that Japan, for the first time, was amenable to change.

But it may also be deduced that the Japanese survived and thrived, perhaps even better than the Western countries, precisely because they were doing it at the expense of national interest. America occupied Japan because the country thought that a democratic Japan would not be mull over colonizing Asia (Fairbank, Reischauer and Craig 818). Furthermore, it was hinted that America was trying to mold Japan after its own likeness (818). In doing so, the US would have an ally in Japan when the Cold War would sweep in. Unlike other typical occupation, Japan was not governed by foreign troops.

The occupation was ruled under the Japanese administration (818). The occupation, as stated earlier, had one direct objective: to democratize Japan. The assumption was that Japan, as a feudal society, was militaristic in nature, thus was prone to initiate an antagonistic confrontation (819). In hindsight, it seems that this is merely an exaggeration. While America’s democratizing Japan sometimes became too radical, at that time, the results were more or less positive. For one, Japan was able to bounce back economically.

By 1972, Japan’s per capita income had risen to $2000, up from $395 in 1960 (825). Furthermore, an economist was been quoted as saying that postwar Japan had the “most extraordinary success story in all economic history” (826). At that time, Japan had already zoomed to the top 3 most powerful economic players in the world, lagging behind the United States and the Soviet Union (826). But it was not only the country’s economy that had started to perk up, culturally, Japan was experiencing a surge. Traditional Japanese music was more active and Japanese films were being shown abroad.

A Japanese writer, Kawabata Yasunori even won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968 (Reischauer 117). Japan was on a roll. While the 70s and 80s saw a protracted growth, Japan was already on the road to having a sense of stability and well-being (117). For one, the country had finally become at par with Western nations. This had made the Japanese more proud, sometimes to the point of appearing egotistical to others. While the influence of America could not be discounted, the success as the Japanese would say, is purely Japanese. It all comes back to the nihonjinron.

At a time when the United States had unleashed its Americanization of Japan, the country had managed to become more nationalistic. Their sense of self-consciousness, the -‘we-ness’ was glaring over the ‘they-ness’. There was a time when Western countries demanded an economic reciprocity from Japan, which was then placed under a “restrictionist policies” (Reischauer 119). But Japan was already reaping the result of the strict policy and had become an economic power. Most European countries expressed enmity toward Japan but the Japanese saw it differently.

Since the country had a thin geographical base, they felt threatened by external force. Japan had already reduced the tariff barriers to level with countries below industrialization (119). What is more interesting is that the Japanese put the blame on America, reasoning that the problem was rooted at the Americans’ incompetence. They blamed the American industry, they inability to learn and speak the Japanese language and follow the Japanese business ethics (119). Again, the distinctiveness and nationalism, the nihonjinron came into practice.

Yet, the spirit of nationalism and self- consciousness had taken a new level. Prior to the war, the main ideology in Japan was the emperor. When the occupation broke out, the Japanese culture had started to welcome Western influences. However, unlike other countries, Japan was able to integrate the West without losing their traditions. What it did was simply underpin the democratic pluralism in the Japanese culture. For example, in prewar Japan, education was hierarchical and compartmentalized, something very traditional.

In the 70s, an estimated 92 percent of Japanese had gone to senior high school while 34 percent were pursuing college and university degrees (Fairbank, Reischauer and Craig 855). This would suggest that education had revolved in Japan, changing the nature of the Japanese society. During the Americanization of Japan, the United States bombarded the country with anything American-Reader’s Digest, Disney, Popeye, jazz Coca-cola, jeans, and pro wrestling (Yoshimi 434). Okinawa, a Japan island, was even separated from Japan politically when it was placed under the U. S. administration (Kazuhiro 7).

Among all the Japanese, the Okinawans were under the direct influence of American culture, using American canned goods and paying in U. S. dollars (7). But through all this, nihonjinron had prevailed. They were able to have an open-minded view of life, embracing them. Postwar Japan is different since the Meiji Restoration but one facet stood out- the country’s uniqueness. The existence of the rubric nihonjinron is the reason why the Americanization of Japan took a long time.

Even until now, the Japan experiences of modern development, while peppered with Western ideologies, is still different from the rest. It seems that the nationalism, intellectual and cultural life of the Japanese is something else. Outsiders may probably have difficulty coming to grips with the components of nihonjinron. To say that Japan is a uniform society is wrong, too when in fact the country is a complex society comprising millions of Japanese showing various attitudes in accordance to their age group and roles in society (Reischauer 126).

But it is the complexity that makes the country unique and unified. The country was already cohesive thus when the United States entered, there was none of the ethnic diversity emphasized in other countries that were also occupied with the U. S. , like the Philippines for instance. From America the ideal, it had become something less direct (Yoshimi 444). The conscious ingraining of Americanization had done the opposite- instead of Japan adopting the American culture; it had emerged into a nation of national distinctiveness.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 16 October 2016

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