Nihonjinron – dangerous illusion or harmless cliché?
Updated: Apr 23, 2022
This essay was one of twelve I wrote for the 'Studies of Asia' specialisation at the School of Education, Flinders University Adelaide. Although written almost a decade ago, there is still some relevance to the themes I examined. I'm reposting it here lest anyone think that I am an uncritical fan of Japanese culture.
In fact the whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people.
Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying – An Observation (1889)
Almost as remarkable as their post-War reconstruction has been the post-War rehabilitation of Japan in the Western psyche. From enemy, to trading partner, to friend and finally source of ‘cool’ in less than a generation, Japan is often characterised as the most socially and technologically advanced of the Asian cultures.
But how do the Japanese see themselves? One of the most intriguing windows into the Japanese psyche is a body of writing which has become known as ‘Nihonjinron’ 日本人論. Nihonjinron are, on the surface, simply investigations into Japan and the Japanese. However upon closer examination it becomes clear that there is a propagandistic aspect to Nihonjinron. What in isolation seem to be straightforward ‘texts’, viewed in context are revealed to be part of a tendentious project that asserts Japanese identity and culture, usually in comparison to an historical, geographical, linguistic, social and psychological Other. Nihonjinron place the Japanese apart from the rest of the world, even while declaring enthusiastic support for “international exchange” and “globalisation” (Dale 1986). At their core, Nihonjinron are intentionally and unapologetically racist. Whether this is dangerous, destructive or merely unpleasant is the issue at question.
This essay will look at the Nihonjinron and its origins, the various areas of inquiry that it covers, and some of the key markers of Nihonjinron content. It is hoped that the reader will gain some understanding of the significance of Nihonjinron both to the Japanese and our region, and the ways in which Nihonjinron continues to play a part in studies of Japanese culture, including the beliefs of everyday Japanese people.
Taken apart, the term “Ni hon jin ron” contains several simple building blocks. Placed together, the meaning becomes at once more precise and more elusive.
The last kanji, ron 論 means a discussion, a theory or a doctrine. Interestingly the term ron does not, as do the three English equivalents above, distinguish degrees of dogmatism. Like much of the Japanese language it is dependent on context. This approach to meaning shies away from the openly proscriptive, yet allows for the presence of a rigidity which at first does not seem present. In other words the unsuspecting participant might feel they are engaged in a free and open discussion, when in fact there are quite rigid rules governing what is and is not being said. To a new-comer this can come across as disingenuousness.
Nihonjin 日本人 means Japanese person/people, so literally Nihonjinron is discussions or theories about the Japanese people. However the Japanese term nihonjin, even though it seems to translate directly, contains numerous inflections. Firstly, what Nihonjinron do is to examine the Japanese people through perceived points-of-difference with other cultures or peoples. It is therefore a discussion of Japanese-ness. This discussion is not, however, limited to cultural differences, as a similar discussion would be of Australian-ness, or English-ness. Nihonjin it should be noted, also contains the inflection of ‘the Japanese race’. Such a discussion of culture-as-a-product-of-race is neither discredited nor taboo in Japan, as it is in the Western world. Imagine a German academic trying to publish a research paper positing the racial ‘uniqueness’ of the German people — the outcry would be deafening and rightly so. Similar assertions in Nihonjinron garner no such condemnation, at least not amongst the Japanese themselves, and few non-Japanese speakers are aware of the extent of this kind of thinking in Japan.
To interrogate the term completely, one would have to say that what Nihonjinron deals with is Theories of Japanese Uniqueness. It is (usually, but not always) left to the reader to infer ‘superiority’ as the writing’s aim.
Tenets of Nihonjinron
Some of the basic theses of Nihonjinron can be summarised as follows:
The Japanese are racially unique. The term for this (mythic) tribe is yamato 大和.
Japanese physiology is therefore distinct from other homo sapiens, e.g. digestive tract, brain.
The Japanese are descended from a distinct primate ancestor.
Originating on an island country has enabled the Japanese to remain racially pure. Furthermore the uniqueness of Japan’s climate and its four distinct seasons has lead to an unprecedented interdependence of the Japanese people with nature. As a result the Japanese are uniquely sensitive to nature and the natural world.
The cultivation of rice as a staple food has caused the Japanese to evolve unique systems of social interaction, walking and music (Shepherd, 1992), among other things.
The Japanese language is uniquely vague and its nuances can never be fully understood by non-Japanese. Its peculiar structure engenders different ways of thinking, which in turn requires unique models of analysis which the current social and natural sciences, being developed by non-Japanese (i.e. Westerners) cannot provide. (Doi, 1986) This last fact renders any non-Japanese analysis of Japan and the Japanese inadequate.
Although nationalist tendencies have been present in Japanese thought and literature for as long as the country (and idea) of Japan has been in existence, the distinct term Nihonjinron has only been in use since World War II.
The voices of nationalistic pride were silenced, seemingly forever, by the sound of the Emperor’s voice heard for the first time by ordinary Japanese, broadcast on the radio. The sight of the Emperor-God Hirohito photographed standing to attention, dwarfed by the relaxed figure of MacArthur, later compounded this message. As it had during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), foreign culture once again became preferable to Japanese culture, and this was no doubt aided by the stick-and-carrot of US influence: on the one hand the restrictive laws and attitudes of GHQ, and on the other the affluence and allure of US culture.
However within three decades of their surrender Japan had ‘caught up’, and Nihonjinron emerged as an assertion of nationalist pride. The trajectory of the life of Nobel prize nominee Mishima Yukio could be said to prefigure almost exactly the post-war path of sentiment amongst Japanese elites at this time: an early embrace of Western values and modes gradually overtaken by a more and more overtly traditionalist stance. The extreme to which Mishima took his own nationalist ethos has always sounded a warning to the dark potential of Nihonjinron. He parted ways with the establishment only in the degree to which he took his views, not in their substance.
In the 1980s, with a trade surplus that made Japan the world’s leading creditor nation, skyrocketing real estate values and a great deal of surplus individual wealth, the term “Japan as Number One” came into usage. Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro made several controversial visits to Yasukuni Shrine to honour Japanese War Dead (including several class A war criminals) as well as making some breathtakingly racist remarks about American society. This nationalism reasserted itself as a result of Japan’s economic strength (Sugimoto, 2003), and success seemed to prove the supremacy of “Japan Inc”. Nihonjinron at this time were particularly lacking in circumspection, and it is from this period that some of the most egregious examples of pseudo-scholarship can be found.
Now, in the 21st century, Japan’s economic miracle has faltered, and its society is fracturing. The family unit is changing along similar lines to the rest of the developed world: greater fragmentation, higher percentage of single-person households, women choosing to have children older or not at all. (Sugimoto, 2003) Young Japanese, far outnumbered by their elders but with no real desire to follow in their footsteps, are choosing new pathways and letting old traditions die out. Such trends are most often portrayed by Nihonjinron as a degeneration that must be remedied with a return to past, more ‘Japanese’ values (Burgess, 2004), rather than as new ways of being that are dictated by a new and unprecedented reality.
The Chrysanthemum and the Sword
Special mention must be made of Ruth Benedict’s post-war analysis of the Japanese, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. In many ways it allowed the American reader to move beyond basic wartime stereotypes of the Japanese as monsters, and granted the Japanese the dignity of an in-depth, sincere and sympathetic analysis. However C&S was not without points of contention. Benedict’s basic thesis was that Japanese culture was ‘shame-based’ whereas Western (i.e. US) culture was ‘guilt-based’. This lead many to interpret an unstated hierarchy in Benedict’s thesis implying that Western culture was superior to the Japanese. A ‘shame culture’ was only concerned about questions of right and wrong if there was external monitoring, i.e. if someone else was aware of your behaviour. In a ‘guilt culture’ the individual’s conscience was self-monitoring. The implication was that people of a shame-based culture would be less trustworthy. In Benedict’s writing we can see a mirror of Nihonjinron: a kind of “Amerikajinron” that was a summation of the Japanese, written by their conquerors.
Although the book was widely read in the US (its intended audience), the Japanese translation, published in 1948, was even more popular, and by a wide margin. It is clear that the Japanese were intensely interested in how they were perceived by others, especially the Americans. Perhaps more than any other single book, C&S has been the catalyst for a great deal of Nihonjinron polemic, as the Japanese sought to unpack the meaning and implications of Benedict’s work. In spite of its contentiousness, some Japanese found Benedict’s analysis to be carefully thought out and intuitively correct. (Ryang, 2004)
Tropes of Nihonjinron
It is important to keep in mind that Nihonjinron as a descriptor is not limited to pseudo academic work outside the popular sphere. There is something of a two-way flow of influence between ‘academic’ Nihonjinron and popular opinion. They appear to feed each other. To imagine an equivalent, think of marketing demographics in this country and the constant attempts to attribute certain traits to “Baby Boomers” as opposed to “Generation X”, and “Generation Y”. There is very little objective reality to these generalisations, yet this does not stop them being the subject of endless media discussion. The best thing one can say about these throw-away categories is that they are rarely granted serious consideration as anthropology. The same can’t be said of Nihonjinron.
In his work The Myth of Japanese Uniqueness, Peter Dale has compiled what he has termed a “Dialectic of Difference”— twenty-nine pairs of opposites that frequently appear in Nihonjinron to delineate Japanese uniqueness in contradistinction to a Western ‘equivalent’ in each of six sociological divisions. Dale has distilled these terms from his reading of a wide range of Nihonjinron texts, and in doing so has been able to unearth recurrent themes and inconsistencies. Reproduced below is one of the six divisions, what Dale calls the “Socio-Cultural Mode”.
reproduced after Dale (1986, chpt 4, p45)
One can immediately see that these descriptors are ahistorical and essentialised, even ludicrously so. One can also see a subtle chauvinism at play, payment in kind as it were, for Benedict’s bias in C&S.
The “West” that Nihonjinron describe is undoubtedly an Occidentalist construct, but curiously the Nihonjinron-ist view of the Japanese themselves is also a reductive cliché.
Only one of the above dichotomies could be considered empirically sound, the “monotheistic/animist”, the rest are clearly ridiculous. They are, however, representative of the lack of intellectual rigour found in Nihonjinron polemic. Indeed each one of the descriptors on the ‘Japan’ side of the ledger represents a fault line in the landscape of Nihonjinron thinking. Reversing the stereotypes would provide a richer point of departure for critical analysis of the Japanese psyche, e.g. “In what ways does intolerance operate in contemporary Japanese society?” The critical approach is, almost by definition, absent in Nihonjinron.
Complicity of everyday Japanese people
One of the most curious aspects of the Nihonjinron phenomenon is the complicity of ordinary Japanese in the propagandisation of their own story. To understand this, we need to understand two Japanese concepts: honne and tatemae. Tatemae is the acceptable “public” explanation or stance on a particular issue, whereas honne is one’s personal opinion only revealed in private. This tendency towards compliance with “the party line” regardless of one’s own opinion helps to perpetuate truisms that few may believe in, but which everyone expresses support for. As tatemae is connected to the Japanese sense of obligation or duty (Doi, 1986), it is quite possible for most Japanese to dedicate their lives to supporting a notion which may not reflect their own experience. For instance all Japanese would enthusiastically affirm the notion that they are, individually and collectively, nature-loving. And yet any visitor to Japan will have seen for themselves that post-war urban development has paid scant regarding to preserving nature either within or between cities. One is more forcefully struck by the absence of nature in the lives of the urban Japanese than by evidence of their affinity with it. (Kerr, 2001)
Moderating voices: two examples
Generally the debate has produced polarity of attitudes, with critics of the Nihonjinron generally coming from outside Japan, and the majority of Nihonjinron sympathizers being (although definitely not limited to) Japanese. 
Of the moderating voices, one of the most notable is Professor Yoshio Sugimoto, who has written a number of books and articles criticising the limitations of Nihonjinron. Sugimoto has done this without the strident tone of other Nihonjinron critics, relying instead on data gleaned from public sources, and analysed with an outsider’s eye for inconsistency, but with a native’s familiarity with language and milieu. His practice is to carefully outline all the arguments in any particular debate without taking a particular position, and then examining available data to discover where inconsistencies lie. In particular he successfully breaks apart the notion that Japanese are an homogenous race that live in harmonious quiescence. He examines minorities such as the burakumin (Untouchables) and zainichi (Japanese of Korean decent) and their continuing exclusion from the mainstream, as well as their struggles for recognition and equality. He also looks closely at how elites in journalism, commerce and Government control the master narratives that form the basis of Nihonjinron. In short, Sugimoto’s analysis confirms what Oscar Wilde observed about the Japanese more than a hundred years ago:
The Japanese people are the deliberate self-conscious creation of certain individual artists. If you set a picture by Hokusai, or Hokkei, or any of the great native painters, beside a real Japanese gentleman or lady, you will see that there is not the slightest resemblance between them. The actual people who live in Japan are not unlike the general run of English people; that is to say, they are extremely commonplace, and have nothing curious or extraordinary about them. (ibid)
One could suggest that Sugimoto needed to leave Japan to develop the kind of perspective that he brings to his research, and that this simply reinforces the insider/outsider dynamic of Nihonjinron. Another voice to bring some semblance of balance and analysis to the contentious theme of immigration policy in Japan is Sakanaka Hidenori. Before setting up the independent think-tank the Japan Immigration Policy Institute, Sakanaka spent 35 years as an immigration officer working for the Justice Ministry. This makes him most decidedly an ‘insider’ from the point of view of most Nihonjinron commentators. Sakanaka’s memoir of that time, entitled Immigration Battle Diary (Nyukan Senki 入管戦記) gives a sometimes sensational description of dealing with the “underworld” of illegal immigrants, drugs and human trafficking. However the book provides less solace for the anti-immigration nationalists than one might expect and takes an open-minded look at the complex web of issues at play. Sakanaka describes in detail his interaction with the ethnic Korean community in particular and how their experiences of institutional injustice lead him to reassess the workability of Japan’s current, highly discriminatory immigration policies. He cleverly uses the imperative of Japan’s declining birth-rate as leverage for inserting into the mainstream agenda ideas of openness/inclusiveness that would ordinarily be dismissed out of hand.
I think we are entering an era of revolutionary change. Our views on how the nation should be and our views on foreigners need to change in order to maintain our society. (Sakanaka, 2007)
So where does this leave the possibility of research? How can one avoid falling into the trap of contributing to the Nihonjinron monologue? To answer these questions we should conclude by examining where the distinction lies between qualitatively good and bad research into Japanese culture.
Nihonjinron differ from serious academic research in three main areas:
a) lack of logical conclusions drawn from demonstrable and verifiable data,
b) absence of a critical approach to received wisdom and normative discourses (cliché, stereotypes, double-standards),
c) a tendency towards essentialisation and generalisation, and
d) a hostility to non-Japanese commentary or analytic method.
Where Nihonjinron become sinister is where it can be detected that they reflect the opinion of the ruling elites, as became clear during the time of the Nakasone administration (1982-87), when Nihonjinron became de-facto Government policy. While it is certainly a source of valuable scholarship in a manner of fields, Nichibunken still has the appearance to Japan’s neighbours and outside observers of a nationalist think-tank. It will take many years of high-quality, critical research to debunk this view.
At the level of everyday life, institutionalized xenophobia based on Nihonjinron-informed thinking is sadly widespread, to the extent that life in Japan is made needlessly difficult for foreigners over the medium to long term, no matter how sympathetic or well-connected they might be to their own particular milieu. (Carron, 2003). In this era of increased interconnectedness and hyper-rapid information exchange, the extent of Japan’s remaining parochialism is either astounding or entirely understandable, depending on one’s own opinion of the effects of globalisation. Nihonjinron reinforce Japanese insularity and fear of the outside world and in doing so, rob the Japanese of the opportunity to seize the cultural moment. (Mishima K., 2000)
The unstated aim, or honne, of Nihonjinron is to assert the essential unknowability of Japanese-ness, and thereby create an unassailable value for that Japanese-ness. It is no less than the cliché of the inscrutable Oriental. However this unknowability is based on numerous false assumptions, spurious comparisons and gross generalisations. Much of what is false and spurious within Nihonjinron actually diminishes the Japanese: minorities disappear, alternative views are silenced, and double-standards go unexamined. The Japanese are more than just “the Japanese”, more than a singular, undifferentiated mass. They are certainly more than the glib truisms uttered and re-uttered without reflection in the popular media. As they struggle to deal with urgent, seismic shifts in their social landscape, one must conclude that the people who should fear Nihonjinron most are not necessarily the Chinese or Koreans but the Japanese themselves.
 (Nihonjinron are) …a fictional mentality constructed by innumerable thinkers and writers over a considerable length of time, through whose lens, due to the impact of constant discussion and exposure, the people often tend to interpret their world. (Dale, 1986).  Some other sub-categories of Nihonjinron are: shinfūdoron (新風土論) "new theories on climate" or the influence of climate on peoples; nihonbunkaron (日本文化論) "theories on Japanese culture"; nihonshakairon (日本社会論) "theories on Japanese society"; nihonron (日本論) "theories on Japan"; nihonkeizairon (日本経済論) “theories on the Japanese economy"  Mishima took his own life by re-enactment of the historical tradition of seppuku, or ritual suicide, after leading a failed coup attempt against the commanders of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces on 25 November 1970.  Not the least of which was the fact that Benedict herself never visited Japan but wrote C&S based on interviews with Japanese-Americans.  In the U.S., C&S sold approx. 23,000 copies to 1971. In Japan, up to 1984, it had sold 2.1 million (Ryang, 2004)  Some Nihonjinron are written unwittingly by foreign writers enamoured of Japanese culture who can see no wrong in anything the Japanese do, say or make. These texts are not as egregious as the worst Nihonjinron written in Japanese, but they can be used, simply by their existence, to support more overtly nationalistic arguments by Japanese writers.  Supporters have sometimes been found in unlikely places. Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mohamed Mahatir formed a Nihonjinron-inspired alliance with Japanese nationalist and Governor of Tokyo Ishihara Shintaro in order to promote “Eastern” values (groupism, harmonious capitulation to authority) in opposition the perceived hegemony of “Western” values (individualism, democracy).  The International Research Centre for Japanese Studies (Kokusai Nihon Bunka Kenkyu Senta 国際日本文化研究センター), known as Nichibunken, is a research centre established in Kyoto in 1987 by the Japanese Prime Minister Nakasone.  see the work of David Aldwinckle, a.k.a Arudou Debito, a controversial activist for equal rights for non-Japanese in Japan – http://www.debito.org  One of the many ways that the Japanese like to distinguish themselves is through the division of “East and West”. Easterners (from Tokyo) are stereotypically uptight, proper, and restrained, whereas Westerners (from Osaka) are considered laid-back, lewd and hedonistic. In fact the Japanese mass media rely for a large amount of their entertainment content on examining regional differences in Japanese character, language and cuisine. This differentiation among the Yamato people underscores the point that the Japanese themselves see there as being a great deal of difference within their supposed homogeneity.
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