The Rise of Japanese Nationalism

sumo.jpgAn interesting theme of A History of Modern Japan is the rise of Japanese nationalism. Not just the jingoistic variety of the 1930s, but the basic sense of nationhood that most of us take for granted. For example, one of America's heroic national myths is that a country of immigrants became a melting pot where we are all Americans first, overcoming our differences. In this post-colonial world, we have seen numerous countries struggle with the tension between nationalism and arbitrarily-drawn borders: think of the break-up of Yugoslavia or the violence in Iraq. We usually attribute this difficulty to the problem of merging such disparate racial/ethnic/religious groups under one umbrella.

It comes as a surprise then that a country like Japan, an island that has had a basically stable, homogeneous population for centuries, did not develop a true national identity until well into the 19th century. In discussing the "unequal treaties," imposed on Japan by the Western powers (like the Opium War treaties in China), Andrew Gordon emphasizes that the humiliation felt by the Japanese did not stem from deeply-felt nationalism:

[I]t would be misleading to conclude simply that these treaties trampled a preexisting national pride and sovereignty. Rather, from the early 1800s through the 1860s, the very process of dealing with the pushy barbarians created modern Japanese nationalism. Among shogunal officials, in daimyo castles, and in the private academies where politically concerned samurai debated history and policy, a new conception took hold of "Japan" as a single nation, to be defended and governed as such."

What this suggests is that national identity is only necessary, or even useful, in an oppositional relationship. It only makes sense to prioritize our status as Americans when our primary comparison is with non-Americans. Thus the revolutionary-era America sees most former colonists identifying strongly with their individual states rather than the new nation, and antebellum tensions inspired the Yankee and Dixie labels.

So long as Japan remained relatively isolated and free of foreign exposure, there was little need to define oneself as Japanese. Japanese as opposed to what? For the same reason, there was no need to explore what it even meant to be Japanese. It was much more important to identify with one's daimyo, the local feudal ruler. Only with the humiliation of the treaties, and the need to come to terms with this treatment at the hands of foreigners, did the Japanese become Japanese and start thinking about what that meant:

Beginning in the mid-1880s, a drive to preserve or revive a so-called traditional Japanese culture emerged in a mood of confrontation with Western-oriented reformers... As this happened, many older cultural forms were dramatically reshaped. Later generations came to view these as "traditional" and typically Japanese. In the process they articulated new concepts of "Japanese-ness." The Noh theater, for example, survived in part because government officials promoted it as a Japanese parallel to Western opera... Modern martial arts such as judo, sports such as sumo wrestling, and arts such as the cultivation of bonsai plants were both transformed in practice and took on symbolic meaning as emblems of Japanese-ness for the first time."

It is safe to say that these efforts were successful: Noh theater, sumo wrestling, and bonsai plants continue to be strongly symbolic of Japanese culture to this day. Of course, the character of this rising Japanese nationalism was not entirely benign. As the Japanese bridled against the influence of the colonial Western powers, many Japanese came to believe that Japan should not just be free of Western influence, but strong enough to emulate their imperialism:

[T]he Meiji rulers accepted a geopolitical logic that led inexorably toward either empire or subordination, with no middle ground possible. They saw the non-Western world being carved up into colonial possessions by the strong states of the West. They decided that Japan had no choice but to secure its independence by emulating the imperialists... As this doctrine took root in a world of competing powers, it contained a built-in logic of escalation. Conceivably Japanese leaders could have defended national independence and prosperity in Asia by promoting trade and emigration with both neighbors and distant nations, without seeking an imperial advantage. But no leaders believed this was possible. The behavior of other powers hardly encouraged them to change their minds.

While this does not justify the Japanese aggression to come, it raises interesting questions about the West's culpability in setting such poor precedents in its treatment of the world. How else should the Japanese have seen the interaction of nation-states other than through the ruler/ruled paradigm with which the Western powers divided up the world? As they developed their own sense of racial superiority vis-a-vis the rest of Asia, why shouldn't they take up the Japanese Man's Burden and dominate their inferior neighbors on the continent? Little surprise then that this is just what happened in the coming decades.