When one examines Japan's immense and complex history, it's easy to see why the culture of the island nation is so unique and unlike that of any other country on Earth. Thousands of years of tradition were flipped upside down in 1853 when Commodore Perry arrived in Tokyo Bay and forced Japan to open itself to the world again for the first time in centuries. The subsequent Meiji Restoration catapulted Japan to the tier of being a major world power, and Western culture mingled with ancient tradition to create a modernized and innovative society that remained ethnically and culturally homogenous, a large contrast to the also rapidly growing United States.
The effects of the American Occupation following WWII were also unprecedented. Japan now sits in a peculiar position, where it still sits at the will of the US Military, is governed by a Constitution written by foreigners, and has experienced explosive growth (and subsequent stagnation) in its economy. No other country in the world faces the same set of unique challenges as Japan, because no other country has the same history as Japan does.
Tradition and modernity in Japan have successfully mingled for centuries, but now the nation must decide how much to prioritize each over the other. It is traditional for women to stay at home and tend to their families, but in 2017, the economy's growth depends on women working in high-paying jobs. Historical emphasis on honor and loyalty to one's firm have caused Japanese people to be some of the most overworked employees in the world, leading to health and social issues for the population. An aging population leaves a gap in the workforce, but allowing immigrants to come work in the country would contradict the ethnic homogeneity Japan has had for thousands of years. This constant back and forth is what is so interesting about Japanese history to me.
The nation is at a crossroads once again, which is one it has faced before; the question of how much to isolate and maintain tradition or to socially progress with the rest of the world comes back into play. This has caused a resurgence in Japanese nationalism not seen since the 1930s. What will happen to Japan is uncertain, but it will certainly be, once again, unprecedented.
A response to: Yoshio Sugimoto, “Nation and Nationalism in Contemporary Japan,” Sage Handbook of Nations and Nationalism (2006), pp. 473-487.
In “Nation and Nationalism in Contemporary Japan”, Sugimoto proposes that four main variants of modern nationalism exist in Japan, all of which have slightly different interpretations as to what it means to be Japanese. One of Sugimoto’s main arguments is that multicultural nationalism has been on the rise in Japan since the 1980’s, and that the incorporation of differing ideas and interpretations of “Japanese-ness” can be a form of nationalism in and of itself. I agree that this is not contradictory to the fundamental ideas of nationalism, and that multiculturalism is also a popular tool of American nationalism as well.
From an early age, children in the United States are taught that the country is a nation of immigrants, and that our differences make us a more unique and powerful nation. However, upon closer examination, it can be seen that such immigrants from which mainstream American “pride” is derived are those who emigrated from Western Europe in the 19th Century. Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty serve as patriotic reminders of the brave ancestors who traveled to America to start their own businesses, work in factories, and assimilate into American culture. Obviously, numerous Americans’ ancestors came from places all over the world, but these immigrants are not recognized as frequently in the mainstream media’s coverage of America as “a nation of immigrants”. Instead, having ancestors from Ireland, Germany, or The United Kingdom is seen as something inherently American, but what about people whose ancestors were sent to the United States on slave ships, or those whose ancestors had been on “American” land long before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock? Are they seen as less American?
While multiculturalism is celebrated as part of American nationalism on the surface, in reality it is hardly intersectional or inclusive, and still plays into the “us vs. them” mentality that is so integral to actual nationalism. Differences are celebrated, but only within certain bounds. The so-called “Nation of Immigrants” passed laws banning Chinese immigrants from entering the US in the 19th century, and is currently grappling with the idea of building a physical wall to bar Mexican immigrants from entering the country, yet millions of its citizens celebrate their Irish heritage on St. Patrick’s Day each year. The hypocrisy is obvious and concerning to some while being unimportant to others; this is where the idea of what it means to be “American” splinters into several factions, and where a uniform definition of nationalism becomes harder to outline. There is a fine line between where differences strengthen the nation and where they begin to weaken it.
In theory, multiculturalism can be a key part of nationalism, but in practice, it has been difficult for traditionalists to get on board. Without a consensus, the idea further divides the people in a nation as opposed to bringing them together, causing the ultimate goal of unity to be left out of reach.
When I was in high school, I finally began to analyze my identity more closely; as a collection of parts as opposed to a big picture. I also started to think about what those parts meant, or why they were a part of my identity. Some were easier to define and understand (I was white, American, female, straight, etc.), while others had changed over the course of my life (my level of education, my interests, my beliefs). When I reached college, however, I not only had to analyze myself, but I also had to see how I fit into my community, and what privileges I had that others did not.
Analyzing my personal lens and biases has made me more mindful of the world around me, but my observed perceptions of the world have been mostly experienced in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Abroad, my actions and identity could have completely different interpretations. A major part of my lens is that I was born and raised in the US by parents who had experienced the same. Currently, the world’s perception of America is rapidly changing, and as our nation becomes seemingly more divided, the stereotypes or perceptions of Americans are becoming more confusing and inaccurate. I believe that this will certainly be a major theme in my time abroad, not just because national identity will be a topic of study, but because I and many others are questioning what it really means to be an American as of late.
Some of my personal views contradict those held by both American and Japanese societies at times. I strongly believe in social and educational equality of the sexes, but women’s treatment in Japan is very different than it is in Seattle. For example, only a third of Waseda undergraduate students are female (at Tokyo University, Japan’s top school, only a fifth are female). Women rarely hold managerial or high-ranking executive positions, and the social expectations for women are very similar to what they were decades ago (where they are expected to take care of their children and husbands). In the United States, educational statistics are very different, but women still face discrimination, especially under new proposed government policies. While more people may identify as ‘feminist’ at UW or in Seattle, this is not how the rest of the US or Japan is, and I will have to learn how to handle that as an observer.
I’m very excited to be able to return to Japan, this time as a student instead of a tourist. I will have to constantly see myself and my new environment from an analytical, yet open-minded viewpoint.
My name is Ann, and this is a blog chronicling my time in Japan during August-September 2017. I will be studying with the University of Washington Honors Program in Collaboration with Waseda University. I'm super excited to go on this journey and share it with all of you!
I'm currently finishing up my sophomore year at UW, and I'm pursuing a major in molecular biology and a minor in international studies. I'm also a DJ for the student-run radio station on campus and I'm very passionate about the Seattle music scene and college radio.
I visited Tokyo and Kyoto with my family 2 years ago on vacation and have wanted to go back ever since. I'm so grateful to have the opportunity to return to Japan as a student this time as opposed to a tourist!
I will be documenting my time in Japan on this blog, as well as recording class discussions and assignments. Happy reading!