The Japan Foundation Newsletter
The Human-Relations Society and the Ideological Society
Most students of Japan sense that aspects of the Japa- nese personality are quite
different from anything found elsewhere. But what do these differences mean? Are
they hangovers from a feudal past? Exotic outgrowths from a Chinese culture pattern?
Or do we have to accept the often-claimed but little-explained theories about Japanese
uniqueness that in Japan go under the collective title of nihonjin-ron.1
My interest in this subject is rather accidental. Some four years ago I was asked
to write a book about impressions of Japan. But it seemed pointless simply to describe
Japanese differences without trying to explain them. I had come to Japanese studies
by way of China and was convinced that the Chinese cultural influence was not the
answer; the Chinese seemed much closer to the Western pattern and I found much to
support this view, in particular the excellent material produced by the University
of Hawaii East-West Philosophers' Conference series. Similar differences between
the Japanese and the Koreans seemed to confirm the weakness of the idea that cultural
imports have moulded the Japanese personality. At the same time it seemed hard to
accept that the differences were simply a hangover from the Tokugawa era. More than
one hundred years of heavy Westernization and modernization have left the Japanese
as Japanese as they have ever been.
But view of their differences from other peoples, there had to be a fairly convincing
reason why these traits were found only in Japan. The various nihonjin-ron did not
provide such an answer. Many ignore or only partly touch on the question. Others
put forward reasons which - to the Western mind at least - seem quite unacceptable.
For example, it seems pointless to talk of Japan being unique because it has a nOkö
(settled agricultural) society, when most of Europe has had settled agriculture for
longer than Japan. The rice-culture argument is even less convincing, particularly
as Korea grows rice under much more severe conditions than Japan. "Island country"
isolation and racial homogeneity - two other often-used arguments - are found in
Equally unacceptable were the theories of those Western scholars who see the Japanese
way of raising children as unique and the key to the Japanese personality. Even if
it were unique (which it is not) we would still need to know why parents behaved
that way. Culture makes parents, not vice versa. The same applies to the arguments
that stress Japan's allegedly unique language. As for claims that the Japanese soul
is moulded by uniquely difficult physical conditions, one can only observe that Japanese
scholars explain our Western individualism as the result of our supposedly constant
battle with a harsh physical environment.
1. Literally, discussions of the Japanese people, a flourishing industry for Japanese
My approach was first to isolate factors in Japan's history which set it firmly apart
from other peoples, including the Chinese and the Koreans. There seemed to be only
one such factor - the fact that until quite recently the Japanese had no significant
and prolonged experience of foreign war or the threat of foreign war.2 But what was
the connection between this and the state of the Japanese soul?
Like many others, I had assumed that because Japan's group-centered, instinctive
and familial values seemed both unusual and unique something must have happened to
Japanese society to produce them. But why do we assume this? If A is different from
X, Y or Z it could be because of something that happened to A. But in logic it is
equally possible that it is because of something that happened to X, Y and Z. Why,
in fact, must we assume that Japanesestyle values are unusual? It seems far simpler
and more logical to assume that Japan has simply retained and developed the family-tribal
values that characterize the origins of all societies. What needs to be explained
is why the rest of us, including the Chinese and Koreans, have moved from this to
more individualistic and moralistic values.
But relating foreign war experience to the state of the non-Japanese personality
was not easy either. A crucial breakthrough for me was the concept of the ideological
society. One of Japan's many 'uniquenesses' is its weak attachment to the more formal
ideologies; politically it remains eclectic and organised religion makes little impression,
to give but two examples. Why do the rest of us take such an interest in ideology?
Because, I suggest, those foreign wars led us to do so. No nation can maintain its
identity and assert its superiority in such conflicts unless it has a firmly based
ideology. Particularistic, groupcentered values and institutions are almost useless
for this purpose: they make no claim of universalistic validity, constitute no part
of a formal body of ideology representing itself as objective truth.
It is the need to claim validity and truth that forces the principal changes in our
values. At first we rely heavily on dogma to 'prove' our assertions. But over time
there is pressure to give these assertions the semblance of rational arguments. This
in turn helps to elevate the pursuit of the rational (or the seemingly rational)
to quite an important value in its own right. Ancient Greece was probably one of
the best examples. But whether we embrace dogma or logic, we come to look down on
those who continue to operate in terms of feelings, instincts, and other unargued,
unrationalized, non-universalistic values. And this is true even when we come to
develop the advanced ideologies - the humanisms and internationalisrns - which deny
the very basis of the crude national or political dogmas with which we began.
2. Some say Japan was heavily involved in wars on the Korean peninsula in the fourth
and fifth centuries. But this does not weaken the argument, as will be explained
We must still cling to our ideologies. For our very identity and raison d'etre we
must feel that we can adhere to a body of objectively valid principles with which
to explain the universe and our own role in it.
Meanwhile, the non-ideological society simply stays with the values of its original,
family-tribal society. Obviously it will seek to develop and codify them, to meet
the needs of a larger and more complicated society. But it is under no pressure,
and it sees little need, to abandon them.
Even today the resemblance between modern Japanese values and the values of the family
or tribal unit is striking. Individualism is subordinated to group interests. Consensus
and communality are stressed. Age and sex determine hierarchies. Religions are weakly
developed. Morality is group-centered and based on customs and conventions rather
than universalistic ideologies. Situations and human relations have precedence over
abstract laws and principles. Practical solutions are preferred to abstract theorizing.
Feelings and instincts are important guides to action.
Nor is it simply the values that are similar. In the structure of its society Japan
remains essentially a collection of groups and sub-groups, held together by tight
emotional, human-relations bonds. And the smaller the group the stronger its binding
force. This is a major reason why Japan at times seems capable of such anarchistic
It is different in ideological societies, where principles, laws and contracts replace
personal relations as the binding agents both for groups and the society. On this
basis societies advance from feudalism to modern nation-statehood. At the feudal
stage, rulers rule through chains of direct and indirect person-to-person relationships.
But there are physical limits to the length and strength of those chains. Ideology,
and the principles derived from it, allow the creation of a centralised state in
which the rulers can relate to the ruled on something other than an immediate personal
basis. If this is a one-way process, with the rulers using the ideology to demand
obedience, it is a despotic state. If there is a two-way interfiow of rights and
obligations, it is a democratic state. But either way, the essence remains the same:
relations between rulers and ruled are based on abstract principles rather than direct
or indirect human relationships.
Seen in this light, it is hardly surprising that Marxist historians especially have
had such problems trying to relate Japan's social development to the fairly clear
stages found in most other advanced societies. It is easier to see why the term "feudal"
is used to describe many of Japan's present structures and attitudes. The importation
of Western democracy has done little to change the picture; it has simply been grafted
onto the original group democracy of Japan. Japan still lacks a strong central government
with vertical lines of authority. It remains
basically a cellular society, which is a source of both
strength and weakness.
By now the reader may feel there is one major flaw in this line of argument: why
did the most obvious expression of what has been called "Japanist" values
coincide with the period that saw Japan at its most militarist and expansionist?
The very word "Japanist" provides the answer, in that this was Japan's
attempt to provide itself with an ideology, an 'ism.' The mid-nineteenth century
saw Japan exposed to a quite considerable foreign threat, and even occasional attack.
In terms of my argument, it responded with complete predictability: it sought to
turn itself into an ideological state which could compete with the Western ideological
states. It imported the tools of such a state: a legal system, the concept of central
government, a healthy imperialist appetite. It also developed its own tools on the
Western model: a state religion, and a powerful emperor system. But it also needed
an ideology and it could only turn to its uniquely Japanese values. The result was
a hopeless confusion. It was trying to do in seventy years what the rest of the ideological
world had had thousands of years to acquire. Inevitably it fell into an emotional
and disastrous militarism.
The shock of defeat, I believe, sent Japan firmly back to its original non-ideological
attitudes. The emotional and instinctive pacifism that now pervades most of the society
is one result. So, too, are the passive youth, the nonideological politicians, negative
foreign policy, the volatile press and the waves of moods and booms that sweep Japan
so easily. Outsiders often look with scorn on this 'tribalism.' Many like to give
advice on how Japan should "shoulder its global responsibilities" and "play
a role in world affairs." But Japan, as it is today, is much closer to its true
character than it would be if the Japanist ideologists were to return to the centre
of the stage. It is a choice of one or the other, and this is a dilemma which Japan's
progressive intellectuals may not have fully realized as they seek to remould Japan
in the Western image.
There have been other periods when Japan has experimented with the ideological model.
Ritsuryo Japan of the seventh and eighth centuries, with the centralised bureaucracy
and attempts at national ideology which followed upon an extensive exposure to Chinese
and Korean influence, was one example. But here too Japan could not sustain the experiment.
With the Heian period it lapsed naturally back into its original patterns. The Tokugawa
era also saw some attempt to reintroduce ideological (Confucian) values and institutions.
The weakness of those institutions was shown by the ease with which the Meiji Restoration
The importance of these attempts to import ideas and structures should not be underestimated,
however. Indeed, they point to the key to understanding Japan's uniqueness.
Tribes remain tribes because group-centered, human-relations values do not lend themselves
easily to social and economic change. The stimulation of outside ideas is required.
If ideas can penetrate, however, so too can foreign armies. The tribes have little
choice but to turn themselves into ideological nations if they wish to survive. Japan
was unique because of its unusual position in the lee of China, an ideologically
advanced nation, which was also relatively non-aggressive because its humanistic
ideologies were developed mainly in response to attacks from rather than upon - foreigners.
China's presence also delayed the pressure from more distant and more aggressive
ideological powers. Japan could take ideas and study examples without being attacked.
If it had been closer to China it would have been forced into the ideological pattern
of Korea or Vietnam. If it had been further away it would have remained backward.
Perhaps the only other similar example in history was Minoan Crete. There are some
surprising similarities in the two cultures. To some extent South-East Asia also
had the same experience, though it was further away from China and was more vulnerable
to attack and proselytisation from the ideological powers outside the region. Even
so, many of the values, particularly of the Philippines and Indonesia, show remarkable
similarities with Japan's.
This, at least, was how I developed the argument in the book which I published in
Japanese in April 1977, to be followed later by the English-language original. But
the reaction to the book and the opportunity to do more research on the subject has
opened up several new lines of development. A revised English-language edition is
now being prepared.
Perhaps the main advance has been to reduce Japanese and non-Japanese differences
to psychological terms. The ideological bias is in effect an emphasis on the intellectual
dimension of the personality the ability to operate in terms of abstract concepts
and principles. The instinctive, group-oriented approach is essentially the emphasis
on the emotional side of the personality.
The concept of Japan as being group-oriented was the key to this simplification.
All societies have groups. What differs is the basis on which they form those groups.
If Japanese groups seem stronger and more pervasive it is because they are based
on direct human attachments. But there are groups elsewhere more powerful than anything
found in Japan - religions, trade unions, political parties, classes, castes, clans
and so on. The difference is that such groups are formed on the basis of attachment
to the abstract concept(s) that underlie them. They do not depend on direct human
and emotional contact. There is the often-quoted example of the Japanese truck-driver
who, when asked what he does, says he works for XX company. We see the response as
proof of an unusual group identification. But we ignore the far more significant
implication of the non-Japanese who says simply that he is a truck-driver. Instead
of seeking identity in his emotional human environment, our non-Japanese truck-driver
finds identity in his role, which becomes his personal ideology. He can turn away
from the normal impulse to attach to other human beings (the emotional), and attach
himself to an abstract concept (the intellectual). That, surely, is a quite remarkable
Seen in these terms the concept of intellectuality takes on a new and important meaning.
Normally we associate it with the rational and the scientific realms of thought.
But by my definition it is a much more neutral quality. Obviously, the propensity
to pursue abstract concepts is vital to scientific inquiry; it may be no coincidence
that the area of the world which saw the most violent and repeated national conflicts
Western Europe - produced the scientific revolution. But the same area has also seen
the most violent attachment to dogmatic beliefs.
I do not mean to imply that non-Japanese have greater intellectual capacities than
the Japanese. It is propensity, not ability, that is all important. We all possess
both the emotional and the intellectual dimensions. But our cultural conditioning
leads us to give more emphasis and priority to one rather than the other. For example,
given a choice of protecting small business or accepting the principle of free competition,
the Japanese intellectual will easily urge the former. The Western intellectual would
prefer to remain loyal to the principle.
The process of civilization obviously requires that we give more emphasis to the
intellectual; operating from their emotional base the Japanese are quite capable
of doing this if and when they sense the need to do so. We non-Japanese on the other
hand are quite capable of operating emotionally, even if we sometimes try to rationalize
what we are doing with arguments and principles. Indeed we can be more emotionally
demonstrative since we have no delicate fabric of emotional values and controls to
protect. Both approaches provide a basis on which people can live and work together.
Both also have their cultural merits: the refined intellectuality of the Western
sciences or the Indian and Chinese philosophies is matched by the refined emotionality
of Japanese society and its arts. But the essence of the two approaches is fundamentally
A further point is that the emotional does not of course deny the spiritual and the
metaphysical. Primitive religions and superstitions are found in all pre-ideological
societies. But the important thing is that these beliefs remain this way. No attempt
is made to rationalize them and give them a body of principles and doctrine, as we
find in ideological societies. The instinctiveness and anti-doctrinal nature of Zen
is a good example.
This simplified approach allows many Japanese differences to be explained with much
greater ease and symmetry. It explains the surprising non-intellectualism of the
Japanese, who make no secret of preferring the practical to the theoretical, the
concrete to the abstract. It explains also how they can remain surprisingly open
to outside ideas while being so exclusive towards outsiders. In effect they are exclusive
at the level where they seek their identity, and open at the other level. We non-Japanese
are the reverse. We resist the easy inflow of foreign ideas and words, for example,
because they threaten our intellectual identity. But we do not mind foreigners living
and working in our midst since we are less sensitive to disruption at the human relations
level. This in turn explains why the Japanese abroad go so easily from the extreme
of complete non-integration in the local community (as in the Little Japans of Bangkok
and New York) to complete integration (as in Brazil). We non-Japanese can steer a
more middle course since we can maintain our identity abroad by clinging to our nationalistic
and cultural abstractions.
Similarly with the contradiction between Japanese emotionalism and Japanese pragmatism
that surprises so many non-Japanese. The emotionalism occurs when they ignore rational
principles in favour of irrational feelings and instincts -- for example, in committing
themselves to war with the United States, in the belief that the strength of the
Japanese soul would compensate for material weakness. The pragmatism occurs when
they ignore principles in favour of commonsense feelings for example, in ignoring
the post-war theories that said an absence of raw materials would be a fatal economic
handicap, and gambling on the strength of the Japanese worker and manager. We non-Japanese
show exactly the same magnitude of contradiction in the intellectual realm. Our propensity
to pursue principles rationally allows us to create highly rational sciences and
philosophies. But our equal propensity to attach ourselves firmly to irrational principles
allows us to fall into destructive dogmatisms.
The puzzling volatility of Japanese society occurs when moods and feelings change
in situations where we would tend to stick to principles. The puzzling conservatism
of Japanese society occurs when the Japanese prefer to remain with the outdated but
familiar in situations where our principles would demand change.
The model also helps greatly to resolve the many contradictions in the various
nihonjin-ron as they seek to explain how the Japanese are supposed to be so different
from the rest of us. The "vertical" society of Nakane Chie, the amae society
of Doi Takeo, the kökishin (curiosity) society of Tsunami Kazuko, the giri-ninjo
and shame society of Ruth Benedict and the soto-uchi or omote-ura society of other
theorists are really no more than different aspects of the same phenomenon. It is
rather like the debate on how to define and explain a fish, with one scientist saying
it is the gills that make fish uniquely different from land animals, another saying
it is the blood circulation system and another pointing to the fins and tail. All
the details mentioned exist. But the reason why they exist is because of a much more
basic difference, namely, that fish live in water and have adapted to this environment
in these various ways. In the same way, the Japanese live in an environment that
gives emphasis to the emotional side of the personality. As a result they possess
certain values and attitudes. But no single one of them can be isolated and held
up as defining the basic difference between Japanese and non-Japanese, no matter
how important or interesting it seems to be.
In explaining why the Japanese are different, several Japanese scholars have put
forward ideas rather similar to my own. Nakamura Hajime, for example, comes close
to my approach when he emphasises conflict between rival nomadic groups as the reason
why Chinese values developed so differently from Japanese values. Tsurumi Kazuko's
concept of Japan today being open to outside ideas because it received rather than
developed much of its culture is also relevant. Then there are the revolutionary
concepts of Tsunoda Tadanobu whose recently-published diagnosis of Japanese/non-Japanese
differences is very similar to mine, but who believes that the origin lies in the
unusual use of vowels in the Japanese language 3. Let us hope some reader will be
inspired to adjudicate these various claims.
If my argument is correct it could explain an interesting phenomenon in Western
societies. Throughout our recent history there have been repeated attempts to move
back to an idealized version of pre-ideological society. Thomas More and the utopians,
Jean Jacques Rousseau and the idealists, and the communist ideologists have all believed
that man in his natural, primitive state behaves better than when he advances to
what I have called ideological society. All have put forward schemes for man to return-
is happier condition. But there has always been a fundamental and fatal flaw in their
schemes: they want us to return to pre-ideological society by way of new ideologies
and principles. It is a contradiction in terms.
This is not to suggest that the Japanese are automatically better and happier. In
effect, all efforts to develop the values needed for large societies .- whether emotional
4 or ideological - force both Japanese and non-Japanese societies into serious excesses.
However, it could be easier for the Japanese to remove their excesses. They sense
that their taboos and instinctive discriminations, their emotionalism and the abuses
of power represent the darker and more backward side of their society. They are working
slowly to remove them. We are less willing to realise that our excesses - our dry
intellectualism and ideological fanaticism, our denial of personal bonds, our excessive
legalism and other weaknesses - are in fact backward. We are still programmed to
see the ideological as superior to the emotional.
However, there are signs of a unconscious reversion to pre-ideological values. The
moves to greater worker involvement, for example, are a tacit admission that a dry
principle - the work contract - needs some emotional content if people are to work
productively. The disillusionment with centralized government, the "small is
beautiful" movement, the interest in humanistic Oriental religions and even
the so-called encounter group movement in the U.S. all represent a groping towards
a more human or emotional alternative. Meanwhile, of course, the Japanese are groping
through the current boom in books on the chiteki or "intellectual" way
of life. Perhaps we will all meet somewhere in the middle, eventually.
3 See April-May Issue of the Japan Foundation Newsletter.
4. It should by now be clear that I am using emotional in the broad, colloquial sense
of that word, to include the human and the instinctive.