Chapter 11(a) 

1. Nihonjin-ron (Theories to explain Japan)
2. A Moment of Inspiration.
3. Japan as a Tribe? 

4. Japan IS a Tribe!

5. The Role of Ideology 

6. Rationalisations versus Rules

7. Testing the Theory

8. Starting to Write
Invited to Write
The idea of writing a book about Japan had not been mine.
It had been put to me by a ski friend, Muramatsu Masumi (or MM as his friends called him), back in 1974 while I was still working as a correspondent in Japan.
MM was a skilled interpreter who had set up a very successful interpreting and translation company called Simul.
He had then expanded into book publishing. (Simul would later go bankrupt, mainly because of the over-expansion into book publishing).

Initially the book-publishing division had concentrated on translations of well-known Western books, including books from Australia, where MM had some good and sentimental connections. But gradually it began to commission books in its own right.

One day MM suggested that since I had been in Japan so long (all of four years) and had had so many ‘interesting experiences,’ maybe I would like to write a book about my impressions.

The ever-friendly and gregarious MM clearly liked the idea of getting one of his mates to write a book, best- seller or not.

I said yes, and not just to keep him happy. I had wanted to write a book about Japan anyway, for several reasons. 

Reasons to Write

One reason was that a lot had happened in the four years I had been in Japan – the Red Army, the Tanaka Kakuei affair, the opening to China, the oil shock, economic ups and downs, anti-Japan riots in Bangkok and Jakarta…

I had been involved in some of this. For the record, if nothing else, I wanted to write about it.

True, I also realized that four years is much less than the time needed to know and understand Japan. But since that consideration had not stopped quite a few other foreigners, many without even Japanese language or hands-on experience, from writing definitively about Japan I was less hesitant than maybe I should have been.


My experiences would be one thing. But my main topic would be an attempt to explain the Japanese personality.

I had been surprised by the emotionalism of the seemingly impassive Japanese – their propensity for bizarre nation-wide moods, booms, panics etc., and their highly subjective reactions to events.

(One of my first surprises was discovering that bike gangs were terrorizing entire towns. Meanwhile the police in this allegedly well-controlled nation would do nothing to stop them.)

Their strong groupist instincts also were curious (the bike gangs, for example), and the factionalism (Tokyo University’s earthquake prediction center had been paralysed for years by some obscure clash between two rival academic factions.) 

Human relations seemed to dominate all, often illogically (I once had a bank officer stand outside my office door for a week begging me to open an account with his bank. He gave me no reasons to use his bank. His just wanted to impress me with his sincerity.)

(Nor did he do anything later to help me maintain the account. Sincerity can be simply a ritual at times.)

In particular I had already sensed the strong differences between the Japanese and Chinese.

The Chinese were individualists. They told you frankly what they thought, what they liked and disliked. There was little Japanese-style ambiguity. 

Overall the Chinese seemed much more cerebral than the Japanese – with a genuine interest in ideas, debate, and logic, or else in making money, for example.

They had a strong sense of right and wrong, black and white, as shown by the intensity of their disputes and discontents. 

The Japanese were more submissive. In argument and debates they preferred color grey. Consensus, sometimes imposed, was the goal. Confrontations were to be avoided.

(An acquaintance had done quite well by setting up an institute to teach people the Western style of debate. TV debates were often little more than a polite exchanges of views.)

The weakness of ideology in Japan was another point, especially in comparison with the ideology-fixated Chinese I had met during the Cultural Revolution. 

In short, in their basic personality the Chinese seemed much more like us Westerners than they were like the Japanese. 

The same was true for the Koreans I had come across. They were like the Chinese, only slightly less abrasive.

(That many other Westerners working extensively in East Asia shared those views about Chinese and Koreans gave me much confidence. A point they often made was the way Chinese and Koreans shared our sense of humor.)

Why the differences? And why the extraordinary economic success in Japan?

I would try to find an answer.

I told MM that even though I was about to go back to Australia I would try to let him have his book as soon as I could. MM seemed satisfied.


1. Nihonjin-ron

To be honest I had another and even more compelling reason to want to write.

The early 1970’s had seen a spate of best-selling books by Japanese scholars seeking to explain the Japanese to themselves and the rest of the world.

Collectively, their various theories were known as Nihonjin-ron – theories to explain the Japanese people.

Prominent authors had included the sociologist, Nakane Chie (with a book analyzing the peculiarities of Japan’s ‘vertical, i.e hierarchal, society’), and Doi Takeo who claimed to have discovered the Japanese propensity for emotional indulgence –

(In fact the concept of
amae, and the word for it, had been lying around for a very long time, but no one had thought of using it to explain the Japanese as a people let alone write a book about it.)

(But it was so successful that the very title of the book –
amae no kozo, or structure of amae – has entered the Japanese language.)

A book published years later by a Tokyo University professor, Minami Hiroshi, identified well over one hundred different Nihonjin-ron theories in published circulation.

Western scholars have liked to dismiss all this self-interest as national narcissism. But it clearly went much deeper than that.

The Japanese rightly sensed they were different from other peoples, and wanted an explanation.

The problem, however, was in the nature of those explanations.

One scholar would insist that Japan was a highly egalitarian society. Another would say it was rigidly stratified. One would emphasise the emotional factor. Another would talk about the strict rules of behavior. And so on.

A favorite explanation said that the Japanese had a unique attachment to harmony (wa). Well in that case, I thought, how to explain the brutality of Japanese soldiers in warfare, or the intensity of faction fights?

All one could say was that there were times when the Japanese could be uniquely harmonious. But there were also times when they could be uniquely unharmonious.

One Nihonjin-ron that I liked said Japan was a
bokashi shakai – a society obscured.

Someone later was aptly to say that you could say anything you liked about the Japanese and you would probably be right. 


(Later I was to find the reason for all this confusion.) 

(As humans, we all share the same basic human qualities, including the Japanese.) 

(We are all, Japanese and non-Japanese, capable of hierarchy and equality, harmony and disharmony, friendship and hostility, cooperation and non-cooperation etc.) 

(But we all have a choice of doing these things in one or other of the two basic dimensions the human personality – the emotional/instinctive which all of us tend to use in small groups, versus a more principled/rationalistic dimension which most of us non-Japanese tend to use in larger groups.)

(The Japanese, whether in small or large groups, tend to do these things in the emotional/instinctive dimension.)

(More on all this later. But the result is that much of what the Japanese are doing – enterprise management, diplomacy, education, human relations and so on – will seem to us to be very different and unusual even though in fact they are simply trying to do what we do, but in a different dimension.)

(Meanwhile we are simply trying to do much of what they do, but in the principled/rationalistic dimension.)


Compounding the confusion was the way each Nihonjin-ron advocate would set out to focus on a particular quality of interest to him or her –
amae (indulgence), for example - and insist that not only was this unique to Japan but also that it explained everything else about Japan.

In fact, we are all capable of indulgence, but do not handle it in quite the emotional way that the Japanese do. (To his credit, Doi was later to realise this point.)

We all seek after hierarchy, but do not do seek in the Japanese way. And so on.

Worse, there was little attempt to explain why these various qualities existed in the first place. It was as if we were supposed to accept that they just existed, and that was that.

Which in turn seemed to underline yet another claimed Nihonjin-ron quality - phenomenalism: the ability just to accept things as they were without feeling any great need to look for reasons.) 


Encouraging me in my search for ways to understand Japan was the extraordinary success of a rather shallow book called ‘The Japanese and The Jews’ written by a scholar of Japanese classical literature, Yamamoto Shichihei.

To spike readers’ curiosity Yamamoto had used a Jewish pseudonym, Isaih Ben-darsan, for the authorship of his book.

He had pretended that Isaih was a Kobe-born Jew who had left Japan some years earlier to teach at an obscure mid-west US university and was hiding from publicity. Japan was so intrigued by all this that some media sent their reporters all the way to the US to try to track down this oracle of wisdom.

Needless to say, they were not very successful. But the book was; it sold in the millions.

Back in those early days the Japanese were fascinated, obsessed even, by the foreigner’s view of themselves. If Yamamoto had written under his own name his book would probably have been ignored.

But like most other Nihonjin-ron, Yamamoto’s description of Japanese qualities was very narrow.

And his effort to explain differences was even more bizarre than most. It was something along the lines of Japan having a lot of water and Israel having little.

Surely there was a market out there for a better book on the subject of the Japanese, I thought. And this time it would be written by a genuine foreigner - me.

In particular, it would try more systematically to cover all aspects of the Japanese - HOW they seemed to be different, and then WHY the differences.

(Maybe I too would sell in the millions?)

Why the Differences?

True, Japanese writers did not entirely ignore the WHY problem. But like Yamamoto’s water theory, most explanations were weird, confused, and often contradictory.

We were told, for example, that the Japanese were as they were because they ate rice (as if no one else did), battled typhoons and volcanoes, had a gentle climate and environment, spoke a unique language etc. etc.

One elderly scholar based in an expensive government-funded outfit called the International Japan Culture Research Center (set up by the conservative Nakasone establishment to explain Japan’s unique culture to the rest of us) was insisting that the Japanese were as they were because they had inherited the mysterious spirit-loving culture of their forest-dwelling Jomon ancestors 3,000 years earlier.

Another theory went even further in the vegetation direction.

Much of southern Japan, it noted, was covered by a variety of sub-tropical, darkly-lustrous leaved trees and shrubs (native camellias and camphor trees for example). This, it insisted, had created the dark emotionalism of the Japanese soul!

Even the more respectable theories being put forward by serious scholars like Nakane Chie seemed fairly weak – that Japan’s groupism was the result of rice growing collectivity, that living in confined valleys explained the narrowness of much Japanese thinking, that racial homogeneity explained the propensity for collectivist thinking, and so on.

One very popular theory to explain the lack of individualism in Japan was, and remains, Japan’s Shintoist polytheism -
yaoyorozu no kami.

Western and Middle Eastern religions have only one God, we were told. This meant that people could define their identity individually and directly in relation to that God.

The Japanese were said to have been denied that opportunity because of their confusion of gods. So they had ended up seeing identity in the collective.

There was only one problem with this theory, however, namely that the nation with arguably the most polytheistic of religions – India – had arguably the most highly individualistic of populations!

Perhaps the most pervasive of the various theories was the
fu-do-ron - air and land theory - of Watsuji Tetsuro, often seen as the founder of Nihonjin-ron. 

It says Japan’s ‘monsoon’ climate – the extreme variation between hot, wet summers and cold, dry winters - explains the emotionalism and violent mood changes in the Japanese personality.

Someone should ask these
fu-do-ron advocates if they know from where the term ‘monsoon’ derives, and whether the people in that country – India – resemble the Japanese personality.

fu-do-ron says Japan’s clearly defined seasonal changes affect the national personality, as if no other nation had clearly defined seasonal changes.

(This Japanese determination to believe there is something unique about their climate even leads them to use the term
Nippon-bare to describe a fine sunny day, as if no one else had fine sunny days.)

Anti- Nihonjin-ron

Unfortunately, the weaknesses, even absurdity, of Japan’s many Nihonjin-ron theories has convinced most Western scholars that the entire topic should be dismissed as an intellectual aberration.

In the books they write about Japan, often an entire chapter or at least many paragraphs ritually denouncing Nihonjin-ron seems obligatory.

Indeed, for some the mere mention of the word Nihonjin-ron invites spasms of angry denial. One can almost see their lips curl in ridicule as they spit out the very words – Nihonjin-ron.

The French, the Albanians, the Indonesians etc. all have their own very distinctive cultures, the critics tell us. But none of them claim to be uniquely different from everyone else.

They do not demand some kind of ‘ron’ or theory to explain themselves (though I sometimes think the French come quite close to it).

Nihonjin-ron efforts to explain the Japanese simply pander to Japan’s inherent racism, they say.

Worse, it is a revival of the prewar militarist
kokusui thinking that said Japan was both unique and specially favored by the gods.

The Japanese, the anti-Nihonjinron critics insist, are just like the rest of us but do not want to admit it. 

Attempts to say otherwise are quite unscientific.*

Easing the Confusion

One move in helping to clear up the Nihonjin-ron confusion would be to realize that when we talk about Japan being unique or unusual we are not talking about its culture being uniquely different from all others.

We are talking about its value system being different.

Culture and values are or should be two very different things.

True, the term culture in its common use often includes values. And there are usually aspects of the culture that are influenced by the values. But strictly the two should be separated.

(Perhaps one answer would be to use the concept of national personality, since that covers the value system but also includes the aspects of the culture related to that value system.)

For example, Japanese culture has much in common with Chinese culture – the use of kanji (often with identical meanings and similar pronunciations), the Confucian borrowings in the value system, education in the Chinese classics, and so on. But few familiar with both peoples will doubt the difference in national personality.

The challenge is to define that difference.


(Someone should tell the anti-Nihonjin-ron people that the ultimate in unscientific behavior is closing one’s mind to anything that contradicts one’s own subjective thinking.)

(Scholars used to dismiss as evidentially absurd the continental drift theory that said South America was once part of Africa.)

(Today, not only do we accept there was a drifting; an understanding of plate tectonics is crucial to any understanding of our physical world.)

(In the same way it is not impossible that one day an understanding of Japan’s peculiarities will be crucial to understanding our own social world.)

(One area where Japan is already useful is in helping to explain the mechanism of the booms and moods which infect all societies.)

(A personal note: I was a university student of geography in Oxford when the continental drift theory was first introduced.)

(Even though it explained things the critics could not – the symmetrical chains of volcanoes and ocean canyons across the earth’s surface, for example - it was dismissed with  contempt by serious scholars.)

(The experience taught me to welcome anything which challenges conventional wisdoms.)


The anti-Nihonjinron critics are not just unscientific. They can also be devious.

For having blasted Nihonjin-ron, they usually end up trying to produce their own theories to explain Japan.

In other words, their Nihonjin-ron is right and everyone else is wrong –without, in many cases, their even bothering to try to tell us why they alone are correct.  

Even one of the more respected of the US Japanologists, Chalmers Johnson, in his book ‘Japan – Who Governs’ manages to criticize Nihonjin-ron but then gives us an entire chapter on
Omote/Ura – the outside face versus the inner reality – and an important aspect of the value system. 

(He and his followers were dubbed 'revisionists' because they were using the fact of Japan's large export surpluses to challenge the idea that Japan was a normal society seeking a normal place in the world.)

(For them Japan’s large export surpluses were a mercantilist plot.)

(Unfortunately, while they were strong in plot theories, they were weak in economics. They had yet to realise that any fast growing economy, like China today, is bound to rely on exports to fuel its economic progress since domestic demand is always slow to catch up.)

(One of their most fervent plot theorists was a Dutchman who had managed to spend 25 years in Japan without learning the language and who, after making the usual harsh condemnations of Nihonjin-ron, then went on to say that they - the Japanese - were controlled by some mysterious ‘system.’)

(To anyone who knew Japan, talk of some nebulous ‘system’ was pure nonsense, unless one was simply saying that the Japanese had their own value system, and that, as in any other society, those values influenced the Japanese.)

(If anything it is the lack of a “system” in the sense of not having a guiding national ideology that distinguishes Japan from most other culturally advanced societies.)

(Too much is left to haphazard circumstance, or the mood of the moment.)

(Said would-be Japanologist went on to claim that this ‘system’ was so pervasive and controlling that the government even had special schools to which Japanese children who had spent time abroad allegedly had to be sent in order to re-indoctrinate them back into the ‘system’ after they returned.)

(True, there are, and were, special schools to help the children coming back to Japan to catch up in their studies and rediscover the culture, but they certainly were not compulsory. In fact they were very hard to get into, as I discovered when I tried to get entry for my own children after they had spent some time abroad.)

(Variations on the ‘system’ concept color many other Western explanations of Japan.)


Nonsense and bias seemed to be regular fare in that intellectually undeveloped field called Japanology. Very few of the people writing so authoritatively about Japan knew Japan or spoke Japanese well. 

But the world, knowing even less about Japan, often accepted what they have to say.

Even some Japanese, it seemed, could be bamboozled into accepting the views of these people, so eager were they to have themselves explained.

If and when I wrote my book I would put an end to all this charlatanism, I told myself.

But first I had to get my own ideas into shape.


2. A Moment of Inspiration. 

I remember the day it happened.

I had just settled into my Canberra house with its large garden and was waiting for my family to arrive from Japan.

Patti Warn of the ALP had dropped in to discuss some policy question worrying the Labor faithful.

We were out in the back-garden drinking wine in the autumn sun.

I had told her earlier about my hopes to write a book about Japan, and she was pressing me on it.

Japan was a big topic in Australia, she said. There was a market for a book that explained Japan and the Japanese. I should get started quickly.

I agreed. But I had already decided that writing a book simply to say the Japanese were this or that was meaningless.

There were already too many books of that variety anyway.

One had to explain not just HOW the Japanese were as they, but also WHY they were as they were.

And when it came to the WHY of it all I had to admit I was flummoxed. None of the Nihonjin-ron theories to date had made sense.


Lying on the lawn, thinking about it all, it suddenly occurred to me.

To date everyone had assumed that since the Japanese seemed strange something had happened to make them as they were. People were spending a lot of time trying to find that something.

But why not put everything in reverse? 

Instead of looking for something that had happened to make the Japanese as they were why not look for something that had made the rest of us as we were. 

There seemed to be very little unusual in Japan’s background – history, geography, climate etc. – that would push their national personality into strange directions.

True, there had been the three hundred or so years of sakoku (closed nation isolation). But that seemed hardly adequate as a distorting factor. 

But thinking about it I realized there was one thing that had happened to the rest of us and which did NOT happen to Japan, namely a history of war, conflict and competition with other peoples. 

Could this possibly be the reason why Japan might have developed in a direction that seemed so unusually different? 

3. Japan is a Tribe?

Once again some reverse logic was needed.

Till that time the Nihonjin-ron advocates, myself included, had spent much time poking around the seemingly exotic aspects of the Japanese personality looking for hints to explain Japan.

But if the Japanese were emotional, groupist, non-ideological, non-rationalistic, indulgent (amae), mood-driven etc then why did they have to be explained?

These were all basic, human instincts, even if in Japan they had been refined and codified to a level where at times they seemed unnatural.

Indeed, they were qualities that could be found in any small-group or primary group society - the tribe, village or family for example.

In that case, we did not need elaborate theories to explain the Japanese.

They had begun existence like the rest of us, as a tribal, clan, village, familial society.

Thanks to relative isolation from foreign conflicts and occupation, including that
sakoku period, they had just stayed that way, with refinements tacked on as they progressed.

What we needed to explain, I began to realize, was how and why we non-Japanese had got to be the way we were.

We assumed that the way we were – individualistic, rationalistic, argumentative, with a liking for logic, debate, and principles - was the norm, that these things were crucial to social progress, and that anyone different had to be explained. But it could all be in reverse?

To come back to my own personal hangups, if we Westerners were so logical, for example, from where had we got the twisted thinking that led to our wars and confrontations?

Where had we got our class and caste systems? Why did we have such problems holding our societies together?

Meanwhile, and as others had noted, there was so much about Japan – the honesty and politeness, natural cooperation in the group – that seemed normal, very normal.

Maybe there was a lot to be said for being tribally Japanese, even if at times the Japanese too had had their aberrations – their conscienceless brutality and lack of remorse in their war against China for example.

But then again, maybe that too could have been tribal. Tribes also are not known to have any restraining morality when they are in conflict with rival tribes.

The Nakane Chie Input

To be honest, even before returning to Canberra the concept of Japan as a ‘tribal’ society had been in my mind for some time, ever since listening to a 1973 talk by Nakane Chie to foreign correspondents in Tokyo.

Nakane was the Tokyo University sociologist who had earlier made waves in a Newsweek interview about Japan’s trade disputes. In it she had said ‘we Japanese have no principles.’

The foreign correspondents had invited her to come and explain the ‘no principles’ statement.

At first, she tried to back-track somewhat.

What she really meant, she said, was that Japan lacked the firm guiding religious and other principles found in other culturally advanced societies, including Asian societies like India and China.

Lacking this, Japan had come to place less emphasis on the kind of over-riding principles we Westerners saw as important. 

I was shocked. Surely, I asked, and on the record, a society without guiding principles was no more than a tribe.

Nakane replied ambiguously, saying that even tribes had their merits as societies and left it at that.

Now, two years later, I was beginning to realize she had been saying something important.


4. Japan IS a Tribe!

For a while I tried to grapple with the implications of my new emerging concept of a Japan as a nation which had simply retained values of its original tribal-village society.

It seemed so contrary to the conventional wisdom of the day, which saw Japan as having a highly developed economy – one about to overtake the West - and a refined, sophisticated culture, over-refined if anything and certainly far from tribal backwardness.

But the more I thought about it the more I realized it could make sense. After all, why cannot a ‘tribal’ culture also be refined to meet the demands of progress? 


Soon I began to realise that a lot of other ‘tribal’ pointers existed to explain Japan.

For example: Taboos and rituals are a mark of any tribal society. For a culturally advanced society,  Japan remains remarkably prone to various taboos – instinctive and unexplained bans on discussing certain sensitive topics.

Rituals, rights of passage etc. too are important, as in Japan.

A tribe by definition is groupist. So too was Japan, to the point where
shudan-shugi (groupism) was a term in constant use. 

True, other societies also had groups – trade unions, religions, political parties, castes, classes etc. But as discussed later, the basis of those groups – attribute - is different from what we see in Japan where groups are much more locational (enterprises, schools, etc.)

(Attribute is a Nakane term. Significantly, she noted how it is important for group formation, also in China and India. What she did not mention, however, is that it is the non-Japanese way of rationalising - i.e. providing a principle - as the basis of group formation.)

Tribal peoples claim to be able to relate to each other instinctively. So too did the Japanese, with the then-popular talk about instinctive communication and decision-making (ishin denshin) being one of the many ways in which Japanese management was supposed to differ from that in the West where communication was more verbal. 

Tribes have instinctive hierarchies. Their rules of behavior are traditional and unexplained. So too in Japan. 

Indeed, the more I thought about it the more almost everything seen as unusual about Japan, including even the art and literature with its emphasis on the subtle and unexplained, seemed to fit a pattern where people did not require logic and principles – as in the tribe also.

Here, thanks to the simple use of reverse logic, I was finally getting close to my holy grail of explaining Japan.

All I had to do now was explain how the rest of us had got to be as we were!

5. The Role of Ideology

Connecting the Dots

 As already mentioned, to date we have all assumed that the pressure to progress would force any society to abandon its original, primitive tribal-village values and move to what I would call more principled or rationalistic values – reasoned systems of science, law, economy, technology, debate, government etc.

But Japan had progressed quite well without making that move.

 True, in order to progress it had needed the ‘by-products’ of these more reasoned or principled values. But it had been able to import them for much of its history – the systems of government, law, economy and technology borrowed first from Korea and China and then from the West.

But that still did not explain why we non-Japanese, including the advanced continental Asian peoples, were able to create these ‘by-products’.  

How could a history of wars, conflicts etc. with foreigners lead us non-Japanese to achieve what we had?

Here the crucial clue for me was the curious weakness of ideology in Japan – ideology in the strict sense of being a set of beliefs and rules claiming objective and therefore universalistic validity. 

This weakness is something quite unique among all the culturally advanced peoples. It cries out for explanation. 

(Maybe it would have had more attention if our Nihonjin-ron and anti-Nihonjin-ron scholars had not been rushing off in other directions.) 

Japan – The Non-Ideological Society.

True, the Japanese have imported, studied and used various religious and political ideologies – Buddhism, Confucianism, democracy, communism, socialism etc – at different stages of their history.  

They also have two native ideologies – Bushido and Shinto. 

But ideological attachments in the sense of firm beliefs in the principles of one or other of those various ideologies  – either religious and political - are very weak.

The average Japanese is born into a society with some vaguely Confucianist values, will attend a secularist (though sometimes nominally Christian) school or university, has a choice of a Shinto or Christian wedding (many choose both), works in a capitalistic Westernised society, and is buried under Buddhist rites.

As for Japan’s allegedly native-born Shinto, it does little more than tell us that sprits existed in the plants and the rocks. By definition almost, it is an animistic ‘tribal’ religion. 

True, native-born Bushido has more content. But essentially it is no more than a collection of rules of behavior and attitudes inherited from feudal times. It has no doctrines or priests. It relies almost entirely on exhortations written in the feudal past.


But the key element in all this for me at the time was the lack of ideological dogmatism – there is nothing in Japan to say that if one believes one’s ideology is correct then one cannot accept the beliefs and trappings of a rival ideology. 

In surveys most Japanese would say they believed in both Shinto and Buddhism. Shinto and Buddhist shrines and temples would sometimes exist side by side in the same location.

The contrast with Korea was remarkable. There, not only did the Confucian and Buddhist believers clearly separate themselves from each other. 

Meanwhile Christianity, arguably one of the more dogmatic and strictly observant religions, claimed support from almost a quarter of the population.

In Japan the few who had embraced Christianity (less than one percent) could hardly be called devout. Many were willing to observe Buddhist or Shinto rites also. 


Ideology also seemed to play little real role in Japanese politics. Factional imperatives were usually far more important.

Rightwing and leftwing parties would happily cooperate, if convenient.

(I once had the chance to ask publicly the very progressive-minded and former senior politician, Nonaka Hiromu, how the Liberal Democratic Party in which he played a prominent role could combine people like himself with others clearly rightwing and nationalistic.)

(He replied that anything was possible if it allowed the party to hold power, which it had already done for over fifty years.) 

Even the socialists and communists were doctrinally weak. How else could one explain their strange determination to claw each other out of existence despite having very similar leftwing ideologies? 

In election after election it was clear that if they cooperated they could easily win many seats, especially under Japan’s former multi-seat electorate system where a mere twenty percent of the vote was often enough to guarantee a seat. 

But no. They preferred to crash together to defeat rather than cooperate for victory.

Japan`s politics seemed to oscillate between close cooperation at times, and intense rivalry at other times, regardless of ideological conviction. The human or practical exigencies of the moment were more important.* 

*(An event that made a very strong impression at the time came after some bitterly fought upper house elections in the early seventies.)

(TV post-election coverage showed members of the rival parties and factions all having an onsen bath together, laughing over defeats and congratulating each other over victories.)

Ideology. Is it Normal?

Like myself at that Nakane Chie lecture, most assume that ideologies with their strong guiding principles are part and parcel of any culturally advanced society, and that the lack of them is abnormal.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my own experience said otherwise.

My first contact with ideology had been with the strict Irish Catholicism of my youth then strong in Australia. I could hardly regard that experience as normal.

Then there was the ideological bombardment I had suffered in Moscow, followed by the nonsense of China’s Cultural Revolution.

Finally I had had to suffer our fanatical Western anti- communism over Vietnam and elsewhere.

Only in Japan with its then relative lack of dogmatic ideology had I began to feel normality. 

So it was not difficult for me to begin to realise that something abnormal may have existed to make us non-Japanese want to attach so rigidly to our doctrinaire religious and political ideologies.

In short, instead of looking for something that had pushed Japan in its non- ideological direction, we should be looking for factors that had pushed us non-Japanese in the ideological direction.

Wars, Conflicts and Ideology
From there it was only a short step for me to go back to the foreign war, conflict and competition connection.

These things force peoples to unify in the face of the rival foreigner. People need to develop reasons and rationales for who and what they are relative to those foreigners.

Ideologies, whether borrowed or self-created, provide those reasons and rationales. 

Even more importantly, they provide the basis for establishing the strong governments and centralized bureaucracies needed for people to unify and organize themselves in the face of enemies and competitors.  

The ideologies may be borrowed from others and adapted. Or they may be no more than a codified and then dogmatized version of the mores and myths, superstitions and customs of the original tribal-village-clan society. 

Either way they can be crucial to national survival. They help greatly to explain why our side is superior, the other side is inferior, and why our side deserves to win out.


Religious ideologies are especially useful for these purposes.

In the Krakow museum - the town where the former pope spent much of his early life - they hang a tapestry commemorating a Polish victory over the Turks in some ancient battle.

A luminous God stands behind the Polish forces massed at the bank of a wide river. The defeated Turks are furiously trying to escape in canoes.

And at the back of each canoe, paddling even harder than the Turks, is none other than the Devil himself!

Having God on one’s side is a powerful weapon.

Nor is it just God. Having democracy, communism or any other ideology claiming truth and wisdom on our side can be can be crucial to our efforts to resist, subjugate or otherwise deal with foreigners.

Even Japan during its brief militaristic era of the thirties felt the need for an ideology to justify its efforts to subjugate other Asian peoples. Rushed and immature efforts to create a nationalist ideology based on Emperor worship were one result.

Another was the attempt to create a State Shintoism claiming universalistic truth and the right to suppress rival religions. Not surprisingly, the efforts to push that immature ideology down the throats of subjected Asian peoples were not very successful. 

And yet another was the famous wartime Nippon Times editorial claiming that if the Asians could see the pure while of a Japanese
daikon (turnip) and savor the smell of miso (bean curd) soup they would realize the superiority of Japanese culture!

(Hangovers of this naïve approach continue today in more nationalistic circles.)

Ideological Byproducts
Ideologies claiming universal validity can change societies, including the very basis of our identities. 

We begin life by seeing ourselves simply as members of the family, village, clan or tribe around us.

But ideology allows us to expand that original small-group identity into a much larger group identity - to the region or nation, for example. We see ourselves as members of a group claiming a shared ideological identity.

The result is nationalism - the nation-tribe held together with some ideology claiming some kind of validity. 

It can be stronger than the instinctive nation-tribe identity of the Japanese.


For a while in the seventies Japan used to have a Japan Inc. reputation - a nation that bound closely together to pursue the national interest. In fact, that only happens when the nation-tribe feels under threat from outside, as it did during the trade debates of that era.

Indeed, the lack of a binding national ideology leads to the very interesting
shoeki rather than kokueki problem - putting the interests of one ministry ahead of the national interest. Priority instinctively goes to the tribe that is closest to one.

Kokueki (national interest) can be surprisingly unimportant at times.

(Some, puzzled by the lack of binding ideology in Japan, used to argue that ‘Japanism’ – pride in Japanese culture – played that role.)

The final and more advanced stage comes when identity can focus entirely on the abstract ideas of the ideology, religious or political - Islam, Communism - and ignore the fact that we belong to some crude nation-tribe. 

Ironically, we nation-tribe Westerners like to look down on those who seek this more advanced stage, not realising that it is we who are still backward. We have yet to unify on the basis of shared values, though the Europeans are trying. 

We more primitive Anglosaxons still cling to nation-tribalism.

*( Anyone who doubts the strong human instinctive desire for attachments to sustain identity should study soccer team fanaticisms.)

(Those teams are constantly changing ownership, coaches, players, locations, even costumes, mainly for financial reasons.)

(They bear almost relationship to the regions they originally were supposed to represent.)

(Even so they can attract and hold fans in their tens of thousands.)

(Many of our ideological attachments are just as emotional and irrational as those fan-football attachments.)

(One Japanese observer called Japan's group instinct the 'longing for belonging' - an apt phrase that applies to us all.

6. Rationalisations Versus Rules

When we attach to ideologies we begin to need explanations for our values.

Most of our basic values are instinctive in origin - love, anger, hatred etc are shared by all human beings. 

But as we begin to attach to ideology we begin to want to explain, to rationalise, those values. 

For example, friendship and cooperation are values crucial and instinctive to the survival of any group, ‘tribal’ or otherwise. But we non-Japanese will try to find a reason for those values - God says ‘love they neighbor as thyself,’ for example. 

The simple and obvious need for hygiene becomes rationalized as ‘cleanliness is close to Godliness.’

(In a non-ideological society such as Japan’s it remains simple commonsense, or traditional commonsense, that you will cooperate with neighbors and be tidy.)

Another example: In every society there is an obvious and instinctive need for hierarchy. In Japan it remains instinctive, based largely, though not entirely, on sex and seniority.

(The curious fascination the Japanese have for the way the monkey groups organize themselves in Japan’s zoos is one result).

Non-Japanese usually try to find a principle to justify hierarchical order – alleged merit, for example, religious integrity, skill, etc. It is hard to imagine them going to the local zoo for hints.

In fact, either approach is valid, even if both are very different.

When we see the Japanese approach we assume they are a very hierarchical society.  When they see our approach, for example professors not mixing with students, they think we are being unnecessarily hierarchical. 


A problem that puzzled me at the time was the concept of ‘shame.’ 

I had become aware of it from that famous book by Ruth Benedict “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”, long the textbook for those of us studying Japan.

It had led to the concept of Japan as a ‘haji shakai’- shame society. 

(Before coming to study Japan Benedict had long studied the tribal societies in the South Pacific where no doubt she had seen the same emphasis on shame.) 

At first I had doubted her claims. I assumed that by definition shame could only operate as a restraining force if other people saw one’s bad behavior - within the family or friends, for example, or even among crowds. 

So how could a shame-based morality explain the many examples of good behavior in Japan when others were not watching – handing in lost property, for example, or the much-quoted example of a pedestrian observing traffic lights on a deserted road in the rain late at night?

For a time I was even tempted to think there really was some indoctrinating ‘system’ forcing people to behave in this unusual manner. 

Only later did I realize that this too was part of the ‘shame society’ syndrome.

If people see their identity within a society in familial i.e. ‘tribal’  terms   they will naturally and instinctively want to obey the rules of that society just as we all naturally and instinctively want to obey the rules of our families or friends. 

Failure to do so threatens our sense of membership, and that is something we do not want to lose.  No man can stand alone, as the saying goes.. 

In this situation people do not need to have laws or other kinds of principles to make them behave. Rules, obeyed naturally and instinctively, without questioning or asking why, are enough.

Relevant here, I guessed, was the strong emphasis in the Japanese education system and elsewhere on not causing
meiwaku (inconvenience) to others. 

The ‘haji shakai’
was more complex and interesting than I had realized.
(In fact we all share some of this haji shakai morality when we abstain naturally from littering public places - though in Singapore, significantly, they feel they also need fines to persuade people to behave.)

(And talking of traffic lights, the nonchalance with which the Chinese used to ignore traffic lights even when police were watching was remarkable.)

(The Chinese lie at the other end of the shame spectrum it seems.) 

True, the willingness of the Japanese to dump really evil garbage along deserted roadsides suggests Japan’s shame morality becomes much weaker when people feel they are outside the bounds of the society.

The same applies to the behavior of some Japanese tourists abroad – ‘discard shame when you go on a journey’ as the Japanese saying puts it.

And needless to say it applies strongly to the behavior of Japanese soldiers in their recent wars.


Guilt is the principled, rationalistic alternative to shame. Bad behavior is punished or criticized not because it flouts the instinctive rules of the society, but because it flouts the principles of God, law or some other ideology.

So if I steal from someone I will go to hell, or jail, or have my hand chopped off.

Japan is remarkable in that, within the limits of Japanese society at least, it has been able to take the shame approach that we all use naturally and instinctively in small-groups, and somehow make it apply not just to family, friends etc but to the entire nation-group
even when they are not watching.

To a surprising extent it does not have to create principles to tell people why they have to behave properly. The reasons do not have to explained or rationalized.


This non-rationalisation process is true for the many other traditional Japanese values -
giri, gimu, ninjo, and so on – that have long fascinated students of Japan, including Benedict. 

In essence Japan has simply taken the instinctive values one can find in any simple small group society and refined or codified them (partly through Bushido) so they can apply, firstly to the feudal society and then to the advanced nation-state society we see today.

But even at nation-state level there is no attempt to explain why they should be used or observed (which is why conservatives today, alarmed by the breakdown in values among the young, are trying so hard to revive respect for the feudal Bushido ethic*). 

It is just taken for granted that one should obey them if one wants to retain one’s membership in the society around oneself. 

Failure to observe their rules can lead to
mura hachibu – being excluded from the group. 

(In traditional Australian aborigine society it is called ‘pointing the bone.’ When the tribal witch doctor points a bone at the miscreant he/she is expected to just go off and die. In Japan, they rely on the mood - the
kuuki – to tell you when have behaved badly and it is time for you to disappear from the public eye.)

(Later I was to discover its power of
kuuki when some rather unpleasant rightwing people decided that my criticisms of their policy to North Korea meant I should suffer mura-hachibu exclusion – more on that later.)

*(One problem is that values which rely on rules or simply the mood of the society -  the
kuuki, or  atmosphere - can be very vulnerable. As in real life, when the atmosphere disappears, you are left with a vacuum, which is where many of Japan's youth are today.)


True, some Japanese values are also taken from Confucianism –
chu – loyalty to one’s lord, or ko, filial piety, for example. But that owes much to the feudalistic origins of Confucianism coinciding with and reinforcing Japan’s feudal values.

Confucian values differ importantly from Bushido values, however, in that over many, many years and conflicts they have been argued out to the point where they are no longer unexplained rules. They have become principles claiming universality and logicality. People adhere to them on that basis.


To summarise, the Japanese value system is essentially an unrationalised version of the natural, instinctive values found in any primary group society. 

The rest of us use the principles of our ideologies (including Confucianism) to rationalize the values we inherited from our original society, or even to create new values. 

Which approach is better or more effective can be argued. 

Shame is not very effective when it comes to having to apologise for former war atrocities; the foreigners who have been abused can easily be placed outside the range of one’s group consciousness and responsibility. Even within the society it can have flaws. On the other hand, shame seems to be more effective than guilt when it comes to keeping people xxhonest and well-behaved in the in day-to-day affairs with fellow citizens. 

(Indeed, the honesty of the ordinary Japanese in personal affairs, with magazines kept on open street-front display, or shop-keepers chasing you down the street to give you change you forgot to collect, is quite remarkable.) 

(It should normally be a topic of intense interest and study – and would be if those anti-Nihonjinron people had not already told us that it was the result of some demonic ‘system’ imposing good behavior, or worse that was wrong to even think there was something unusual about Japan even as they themselves walked by those bookstores with material on open display.)


The same is true for the lack of individualism in Japan. 

Many of the anti-Nihonjinron people like to think that Japan’s lack of individualism is inculcated from birth, as part of some demonic or nebulous ‘system’ that is supposed to control Japan. 

In fact if anything it is the reverse. 

Japanese basic education simply builds on the natural grouping instinct that all children have. As someone once said, teachers act like surrogate parents. 

Indeed, primary school education is often praised for the seamless way it acts to socialize children, though it is true that at a later stage the education system should be doing much more to encourage independent thinking. 

It is our non-Japanese, mainly Western, education systems that go out of their way, rightly or wrongly, from the beginning to encourage people to act and think for themselves. 

We become more ‘individualistic’ as a result, though in fact much of what has happened is that we become less dependent on group relationships for identity, and more dependent on our ideologies or other attributes for identity. 

We like to think that we enjoy the principle of individual freedom. But in reality we remain just as much slaves to the ideologies that support our societies as the Japanese are bound by their group relations. 

They suffer
mura-hachibu if they seem to flout the rules and mood of the group. Our societies can be just as ruthless in excluding people who seem to go against ideological fads and doctrines of the day.

Deep down we all remain ‘tribal.’ What differs is the way we show our ‘tribalism.’

Scientific Progress

But for all its negatives, the emphasis on ideology could explain the scientific and other forms of progress we had seen in the West and the continental Asian societies.

Normally attachment to rigid ideologies, religious ideologies especially, would seem to be contrary to scientific and other progress.

But if ideologies force us to argue and justify behavior, we are already on the way to using reasons and principles to explain the world around us. 

And even if those reasons and principles are heavily dogmatic to begin with, we have at least managed to move away from the simple, unexplained rules, traditions, taboos and situational attitudes of the original tribal, village society.

We have learned to argue the arguable and explore the unexplored.

(Japan’s weakness in this area was once heavily criticized by the famous physicist and Nobel Prize winner, Yukawa Hideki, in that classic but little remembered 1964 volume ‘The Japanese Mind’). 

Gradually we learn to refine those arguments and explorations. When we do that we are already on the path to developing logical and scientific thinking.

For example, religion once led us to wonder about the earth in relation to the sun. To begin with we simply rationalised the instincts of our senses and insisted dogmatically that the sun went around the earth.

But this in turn encouraged some others to think about it all more deeply, and to put forward the more reasoned view that said the earth went around the sun. 

And so the science of astronomy was born. But would it have been born but for that original dogmatic belief the Bible had told us the sun moved around the earth? 

 Indeed, the end result of this kind of questioning against dogmatic unscientific principles could well be the advanced scientific thinking that leads us to deny those very ideologies.

(However the ability of some leading scientific thinkers to embrace dogmatic ideologies never ceases to surprise ).

(The search for absolutes can move intelligent people in both directions, and often in the totally wrong direction, as I had already discovered during my anti-Vietnam war days.)

Older Civilisations

This in turn, I also realized, could explain the past superior scientific, philosophical and mathematical achievements of the older civilizations - the continental Asian societies of China, India and the Middle East. 

They had come under pressure to develop ideologies long before us Westerners, us northern Europeans especially.

This had then encouraged the spirit of enquiry that allowed them to realize their various achievements, both political and scientific, well before us Westerners (with the exception of the southern Europeans of course whose early progress relied on much the same factors as those causing Middle Eastern Islamic progress).

They had developed strong central governments, bureaucratic and legal systems. In many areas of science and math they were remarkably advanced. 

True, they had since gone into decline (or so it seemed at the time of my book project, though later I was to discover the basis of their current rapid progress). 

But one could not deny their past achievement.

7. Testing the Theory

As scientists tell us, the test of any theory is to see if it produces the same results when the factors underlying the theory are subjected to the same conditions.

Crucial to my theory had been the idea that people left in island isolation would produce a society like Japan’s, provided they could import outside ideologies.

(Ability to import ideologies is crucial. Otherwise societies simply remain in their original tribal condition. True, they can also try to create their own ideologies but this requires time and usually outside pressure.)

Japan had been in the ideal situation in this respect. It was just the right distance from the Asian mainland to be able import mature Asian ideologies, without (unlike Korea) coming to be dominated by those ideologies. 

And it was furthest removed from our less mature and therefore highly aggressive Western ideologies to avoid being dominated and colonized from that direction too. 

(Colonisation chops off the natural development of the original tribal/village/clam values into feudal values and then nation/group values.)

In this sense Japan truly was ‘unique’ – a term for which I was later to use and be held very much into account for.

Indonesia was one example of a nation being able for much of its history to develop under something like those conditions. 

Many of its values were similar to Japan’s – cooperation, consensus etc. (and including also the propensity for cruelty and violent mood changes at times).

Before colonization, in Bali especially, there had been an advanced feudal society very similar to Japan’s Tokugawa society. 

Which leaves open the tantalizing possibility that if Indonesia had not been colonized could it have developed like Japan? Bali, the last area of Indonesia to be colonized, provides part of the answer. 

The Philippines, lacking for much of its history the chance to develop its own advanced feudal society, could only go part of the way along the Indonesian route. Even so, many of its barrio (expanded village) values have similarities with Japan’s
giri, ninjo etc. .

But today, both Indonesia and the Philippines continue to suffer the problem that Japan was so fortunate to avoid – the colonization that imposes conflicting rationalistic values from above and which kills the natural maturation of village and feudal values.

But that is the subject of a later chapter. 

North Europe is Tribal? 

A major break-through which came much later in my thinking was realising that there also were many similarities between Japan and Britain (and the rest of north Europe to some extent), and that this also was the result of relative isolation from the civilization mainstream to the south.

(At first I mistakenly had tried to explain north European rationalism, and therefore scientific and industrial progress, as the result of intense conflict and competition between peoples in a crowded area.) 

This favorable location had encouraged the growth of advanced feudal societies and values similar to that of Japan (chivalry being the equivalent of bushido, and so on).

This in turn was to give me the clues to realize that the factors behind the industrialisation of Japan and north Europe had been more similar than many realised, even if at the time Japan seemed to be doing better. 

They included natural cooperation and trust, attention to detail, a liking for making things, a dislike for excessive intellectuality and bureaucracy.

(The trust factor was later to be picked up by US scholar, Lawrence Harrision, and then hi-jacked by the rather opportunistic Francis Fukuyama. More on that later.)

But Japan had taken all this even further than the north Europeans had, right through to the present day. 

Japan was the tribe that had become a nation, and a very successful nation at that. The rest of us, to a greater or lesser extent, had had to rely on more rationalistic factors. 


8. Beginning to Write

‘Japan – the tribe-nation’, I decided, would be the basic theme of my book.

 I would flesh it out with the various experiences I had had while working in Japan.

The final product would be an improvement on most Nihonjin-ron. 

And it would certainly be lot better than the mythical Isaih ben Darsan’s ‘Japanese and the Jews’, I told myself.


The words did not come easily. I was trying to explain not just Japan but also how the rest of us thought and acted, and why.

I was trying to write the history of the human race – a project for which I was, and remain, less than greatly qualified.

And I was trying to cover everything from economics and enterprise management to politics, history and foreign policy. 

 I also had to do a crash course in sociology if I was to handle some of the concepts I was trying to bandy around.

 Fortunately I had no problem getting the number of words needed for a book – too many in fact.

Many of them went to describing the events I had reported on while in Japan before 1975 – the Tanaka Kakuei affair, the Red Army revolt etc* in the hope that they would help prove my basic thesis – the ‘tribal’ emotionality and groupism of Japanese society.

(Unfortunately, the one event which really did help to prove the emotionality and lack of principle in Japan’s foreign policies - Tokyo’s extraordinary behavior in negotiating its territorial dispute with Moscow - had to be excluded from the final draft, at MM’s insistence.)

(MM did not want to upset the Foreign Ministry bureaucrats from whom he got much of his interpreting work.)

(But a few years later I would have more than enough chances to get my material into print.)


For convenience, I had described Japan as a ‘ningen kankei shakai’ – a human relations society. Our non-Japanese societies I described as
genri gensoku shakai (principled societies).

After publication, the Japanese appraisers were to like that wording, and it stuck. They did not seem to mind being called non-principled. 

It was only later that I came to use terms like rationalistic, instinctive, particularistic etc, as I explain later.

But for the moment my main aim had been simply to explain how and why ‘tribal’ Japan was so different, and could teach us much about our less ‘tribal’ societies. 

Explaining the Economy?
One area where the book is weak is my attempt to explain Japan’s economic success.

My original guess was that it had something to do with the ‘informationalisation’ of Japanese society - its wealth of publications, gossip etc.,

This in turn I saw as due to the lack of individualistic barriers.

But since then I have come to realise that this is a quite minor factor. There are quite a few other ‘tribal’ factors at work to explain Japan’s economic progress – the strong workplace identity and cooperation, a skill and liking for making things (monozukuri), attention to detail – all factors that I later realized also helped underlie the progress in the north European culture societies.

But that is another story, albeit a very large story.


Gradually a rough draft emerged.

A loyal secretary in my Canberra government office helped with the many manuscript re-types.

And so, with the heap of pages that would change my life, and very much for the better, I set off for Tokyo.

It was April, 1976.