Superb Japan!? ― 日本礼賛の幻想

Here is Japan's Greatness Shining in the WorldRecently there has been a boom in books and TV shows on a distinctive feature of contemporary Japan, to wit: lauding Japanese superiority.1  This type of immodest claims to superiority was popular in wartime, as the historian John W. Dower noted: “Poets, priests, and propagandists alike extolled the superiority of the ‘Yamato race’ and the sublime destiny of the Imperial Way.”2  A vivid historical example is an appendix to the monthly magazine Hinode (Sunrise) revealingly titled Here is Japan’s Greatness Shining in the World  ― vaunting the world’s top military strength, indomitable spirit, etc.

This perspective gained great popularity in 1933, the very year Japan’s isolation became more pronounced when the country withdrew from the League of Nations due to international criticism in the wake of the Manchurian Incident.3  Akutagawa Prize winning author Tanabe Seiko articulates her discomfort with such peculiar self-glorification, which evokes memories of forced-fed propaganda about Japanese intelligence and might (e.g. high IQ and physical prowess as well as superior eye color) on the eve of World War II (Addendum).4  My question is simply: Where does this kind of parochial conceit or smugness come from?  Is this one of “the signs society gives out cryptically”?5  What does this tell us about our society?  I think it has something to do with the poverty of Japan’s democracy, however, looking elsewhere (cf. Aryan supremacy), there is reason to conclude that it is not limited to my native country.

Yet, if there is a distinctive feature, it is perhaps the lack of political breadth.  Writing in Foreign Affairs (January/February, 2015), Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Gregory F. Treverton equate Japan’s “lack of political variability” with “long-term dominance by a single party” which they identify as a source of fragility.6  Taleb and Treverton address countries’ fragility as follows:

Contrary to conventional wisdom, genuinely stable countries experience moderate political changes, continually switching governments and reversing their political orientations. … It is political variability that makes democracies less fragile than autocracies.7

Indeed, Japan has had “the same conservative political lineage”8 for long continuity as well as the disparity in vote values between districts.  For example, in the lower house election in December of 2014, the government gained a majority victory with 76% of the seats, only receiving 24.7% of the total voters’ support (merely 17.4% for the Liberal Democratic Party or the LDP in proportional representation), in the lowest turnout (52.7%) in postwar politics.9 This figure translates into approximately one in six people voted for the LDP, giving them disproportionate power thanks to the disparity in vote values, record-high abstention, and opposition party failure.

In addition to one party predominance,10 what is striking is growing ethnocentricism.  The assertion of Japanese supremacy requires the idea and images of allegedly unique Japaneseness distinguishing the nation from ‘other countries,’ touted as ‘the essence of Japanese culture,’ ‘Japan-specific,’ ‘quintessentially Japanese,’ ‘traditionally Japanese,’ or the like. Such essentialist attributes have to be identified, foregrounded, and developed into a widespread popular notion through extensive ideological socializations and indoctrination.  In addition, it is well documented that championing superiority is associated with imperial ventures, which prepared people to live and sacrifice in the name of nation.  This leads us to look to particularistic identities for belligerency and collective allegiances.

In his book Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, Amartya Sen challenges a “‘solitarist’ approach to human identity” which typically divides and reduces people into a single dimension linked to civilization or religion (e.g. the misguided “Clash of Civilizations” of Samuel Huntington) and, in doing so, creates the illusion of an exclusive sense of belonging to a unique group, engulfed by a shell of a choiceless singular affiliation.11  Often, differences highlighted and riven by singular identities are exploited to generate fear and hostility, thus inciting a sense of inevitability about the steep slope from division to violence.12

In today’s Japan, the cultivation of solitarist illusion is increasingly commonplace, as those who think differently, disagree with government decisions, or offer counter-arguments, are derided, denigrated, and misnamed as anti-Japanese (hannichi 反日), regardless of whether they are Japanese nationals.  They include zainichi (在日), generally referring to foreign citizens and residents living in Japan, particularly Koreans and Korean-Japanese including second, third and fourth generations, traitors (baikokudo 売国奴, kokuzoku 国賊), or unpatriotic individuals (hikokumin 非国民).13 These terms, which evoke distrust and rejection of foreign ideas and concepts, and prompt subservient allegiance to the state and self-righteousness, were used in wartime to denounce those who did not conform to collective norms, allowing no identity other than Japanese and, especially barred the languages of enemies (tekiseigo 敵性語) (especially English).  It is interesting to recall that the Japanese tongue, including the medium of government, makes extensive use of Chinese characters (kanji 漢字) coming from Ancient China, and other terms derived from elsewhere, in addition to Japanese script, hiragana and katakana.  The Japanese language and culture thus have long been greatly enriched by interactive cultural interplay, including the introduction of numerous foreign origin words and ideas with kanji in particular providing a vivid everyday sense of Asian identity.14 With a rise in hate speech, however, the lines of dichotomy reduce our variegated identities to specious binary oppositions that impel people to choose one and only one (e.g. evil or good, them or us). Moreover, words like 中立 (politically neutral)15 or 公正 (fairness)16 are lamely used to discipline ordinary citizen activists and media outlets to be anodyne in the name of nonpartisan objectivity.  On February 8, 2016, Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Takaichi Sanae evoked the possibility of ordering suspension from the radio waves for broadcasters such as TV stations in case of repeated failure to be “politically neutral.”17 Of late, the two big divider words are 左翼 (leftwing) or 右翼 (rightwing), fracturing personhood into two categories.

This type of unilateral identity partitioning, however, fails to acknowledge the myriad affinities and identities within one person ― for example, Asian, Japanese, capability theorist, mixture of three cultures (Japan, EU, U.S.), citizen of polyglot Luxembourg, fan of Tanabe literature, feminist, open source believer, woman, to name a few. And, of course, nobody lives in singly compartmentalized identity.  People’s identities are not static nor singular, but alterable, changing, and plural entities.  Identities are also the exercise not of descent/destiny but of choice about how we define ourselves in relation to affiliations and associations, where we articulate different priorities, dimensions/degrees, and references to respective identities. Thus, mutable identities take multiple forms.  Nonetheless, this type of solitarist exercise on the basis of singularity has divisive effects, thus making our society particularly vulnerable to the exploitation of identity divisions and ideologies of hate.18

Hence, Sen warns against the lines of identity divisions as follows:

They can nevertheless hugely contribute to generating a political climate in which the most peaceful of people come to tolerate the most egregious acts of intolerance and brutality, on some hazily perceived grounds of ‘self-defence,’ or ‘just retaliation,’ against the wrong-doing ‘enemy.’19

Such tolerance of political intolerance and brutality is notable in relation to the Okinawa problem or Okinawa Mondai.  Okinawans experience the US-Japan heavy-handed pressure to override their democratic will together with the political failure to fulfil their demands for justice.  In parallel, in mainland Japan, a US base-tolerating spirit coexists as many ordinary Japanese people, unversed in the hardships endured in Okinawa, are indifferent to the brutality towards anti-base activitists in Henoko.  Although Henoko is presented as a security-related ‘choiceless’ matter, it is not the only available option.  In addition, the term Okinawa mondai can lead toward a politics of division ― divide and conquer, inducing Japanese to see the problem of US bases as one limited to a single peripheral locality rather than as a nationally shared problem.  Here, solitarist exercise comes into play with divisive politics, distortions, or demagoguery to apply heavy pressure to mute criticisms, whereby peace activists are unjustly branded as “traitors.”  Furthermore, sectarian tension gives rise to discriminatory hate speech, hate books20 (with Chinese, Koreans, refugees, or welfare recipients cast as illegitimate freeloaders), in Asahi Shimbun bashing,21 in attacks on “comfort women,” and so on.  Hate speech groups use the aforementioned stereotyping words of evocative historical enmities,22 which usher in divisions to gratuitous humiliations and hatred; while ignoring our shared commonalities as Japanese or the like, they undermine the creative exchange and nurture of social diversity to better society.

Hence, advocacy of hate can be linked up with the self-praise claims noted above.  In my view, the concurrent boom in anti-Chinese and anti-Korean books as well as in books on Japanese self-admiration are two sides of the same coin of interrelated distortions, although they appear to be opposite.  The two booms share the same one-dimensional simplifications of a country, fashioning solitarist views: one predominantly self-adulatory; and the obverse exclusively hate-inducing and fear-inspiring.  It pleases the Japanese to be praised, as Tanabe has observed, but at the same time it should give cause for cautious fear and miasma as a course that can lead to heightened antagonisms and pave the road to aggression.

Still worse, hate speech sometimes seems to be considered permissible within the purview of toleration of free speech.  Or, the word “freedom” is simply misused.  Such misperceived “freedom” for example to harass a minority group, is precisely a violation of human rights under the aegis of the Japanese Constitution.  Moreover, it is the very opposite of human development, a shared vision of the United Nation countries.  In his Capability Approach (CA), Sen defines human development as enlarging people’s freedoms or “reducing the unfreedoms and insecurities of various kinds that plague human lives”23 which is viewed both as the primary aim and the important means for social arrangements.  Thus, in his terms, capabilities do not include freedom to harm or imperil others,24 for hate speech is distinct from the freedom to think differently or to dissent.  Freedom of speech not only affords the right to voice opinions without suppression, it also means that the expressed ideas are themselves open to clarifications, intelligent scrutiny, and debate.  Hence, it is not appropriate to conflate propagandists’ misnamed “freedoms” with the ethics of substantial freedoms (enjoyed by people as valuable things).  In this context, the government’s laissez-faire approach to hate speech/writings and threats to free speech can be linked back to the lines of division and political intolerance.

As a result of such a policy, divisive lines of thinking actually make it difficult for the Opposition to unite and alternative initiatives to emerge.  Also, political violence is evident in the way new legislation is forced through the Diet rather than passed and immediately later treated as a fait accompli by the media,25 e.g. the recent security-related changes in the Constitution.  As made public at the Lower House Commission on the Constitution on June 4, 2015, three eminent legal scholars testified that the proposed law was unconstitutional in light of the war-renouncing clause, and the preponderance of law professors and practitioners supported this view.26 Above all, nationwide public protests were mounted against the bills.  Still, the government rammed through the package of 11 war bills in the face of successive demonstrations, without thorough explanation or justification of its choice of military over civil paths to security.  Meanwhile, people’s fears have been exploited with “threat theory,”27 and “on some hazily perceived grounds of ‘self-defence,’”28 while multidimensional security is simplistically reduced to the application of military power.

Here we take note of the narrowness of the security notion in general.  Sen states that security is ultimately a people-centered matter, hence “national security” is merely “one component of human security.”29 In fact, security as framed by the political elite does not necessarily prioritize “the massive toll of human neglect”30 of significant insecurity in Fukushima and growing impoverishment in general, and that of the relocated victims of the 3.11 triple disaster in particular.  In government parlance on these issues, the word ‘security’ is sometimes used hand in hand with the watchword jiko sekinin (自己責任), emphasizing the idea of self-responsibility which admonishes individuals to take full responsibility for their own welfare, rather than public welfare.31Public welfare is predicated on the right of people to prioritize human security.  Indeed, the provision of human security should be quite familiar to Japan, since the notion was proposed by then Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo and further developed by the Commission on Human Security within the United Nations framework in 2003, which was co-chaired by Amartya Sen and Ogata Sadako.32

Under present circumstances, right-wing voices are working closely with Nippon Kaigi,33 a nationalist organization that is deeply embedded at the highest level of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.  Nippon Kaigi fosters a particularly belligerent identity, impervious to diverse values articulated and shaped in public discussions.  Its populist catchwords such as “national interests,” “national security,” “patriotic,” or “Tomodachi” may be employed in a manner that nobody would reasonably oppose.  But, their meaning can be altered, reinterpreted, and reoriented at their discretion, quite other than their announced aims, as members seek to revise the Constitution by returning the locus of sovereignty from the people to the emperor, fostering a singular identity grounded in filial piety and emperor/Shinto worship, suppression of human rights and freedoms, and prioritizing self-sacrifice.34 This is regrettable as John Dower observes: “no one makes more of a fetish of the supposed singularity of the national character and the national experience than the country’s own cultural essentialists and neonationalists [emphasis added].”35 Such “supposed singularity of the national character”36 has been, in essence, presented and associated with Japanese superiority in its self-congratulatory literature, TV programs, and so on.37

Dower reminds us of the wartime fixations as follows:

The Japanese populace was bombarded with propaganda about [racial and cultural superiority]. …Why were the Japanese destined to be the leading race (shidō minzoku) of Asia, and perhaps of the whole world? Because, the ideologues declared, the Japanese people exemplified values and talents no other people possessed or could ever hope to possess in like manner.

All manner of “evidence” was evoked in support of such ultranationalistic palaver.38

The superiority propaganda is, ipso facto, capable of fostering dangerous beliefs and strategies of communication which can be radically altered and mobilized to exploit differences between people (religion, nationality/culture) for nurturing conflicts and violence directed toward the imposition and demands of singular identity.  As noted: “Indeed, many of the conflicts and barbarities in the world are sustained through the illusion of a unique and choiceless identity.”39

Finally, it should be emphasized that Japanese self-deluding superiority over Asian neighbours was specifically targeted for exploitation by the Western powers in the postwar period.  As Dower writes on foreign distrust of postsurrender Japan:

When the issue of Japan’s trustworthiness came up in conversations with the British early in 1951, [John Foster] Dulles suggested that the United States and England should make every effort to assure Japan’s allegiance by exploiting the Japanese feeling of superiority toward other Asians.  The Western alliance, as Dulles described it, was essentially “an elite Anglo-Saxon club,” and it could be hoped that the Japanese would be more attracted to the “social prestige” of being associated with the Anglo-Saxons and their accomplishments rather than with the less developed masses of Asia. … More concretely, the United States resolved the dilemma of needing Japan as a remilitarized ally while still mistrusting the Japanese by structuring the U.S.-Japan security alliance in such a manner that it ensured Japan’s permanent military insubordination to the United States.40

It is ironic that Japanese claims of racial hierarchy and superiority have left the country a long-lasting postwar legacy of problems including the unequal U.S.-Japan alliance.

To sum up, Japan’s party politics long dominated by the LDP sharply limits political freedoms.  In the absence of political plurality, a reductionist division of people and state-reinforced confrontations can manufacture a poisonous political atmosphere and pressures for conformity.  In reality, high abstention is a reflection of political resignation that seems to have pervaded fatalistic attitudes, je-m’en-foutisme (don’t-give-a-damn) about (seemingly ill-fated) Japan’s future, or nonchalant apolitical attitudes.  A consciousness of helplessness prevails over people’s freedom of choice/collective agency to prevent faits accomplis from being questioned.  We thus have reason to take note of Japan’s lack of political pluralism given the history of nationalism and militarism.  We can nevertheless seek alternative arrangements capable of fostering democratic tendencies and improving Japan’s relations with neighbouring countries through dialogue.  As for security, which we deservedly expect from a responsible government, let us first think about the “concept of human security, which equates security with people.”41



女の口髭 文春文庫 1987年 116~118頁


と思ったこと、二つ三つ。       (中略)



Tanabe Seiko (1928 -), award-winning writer from Osaka, has published numerous novels and essays, covering a wide range of topics. This prolific author also has translated classical literature (e.g. The Tale of Genji) into two modern languages, sophisticated standard Japanese and hilariously funny Kansai dialect.

She perceives the so-called superiority theory as symptomatic of overworked war rhetoric, where people can be indoctrinated to identify with their nation and to believe in their superiority, so that they are prepared to fight and sacrifice. In her essay, she gives a few examples in her comical Osaka lilt, punctuated with her warning word, kishoku waru (creepy; disgusting; revolting), grounded in her experience during WWII.

Acknowledgement: I would like to thank professors Mark Selden and Uchida Tatsuru for the generous help and advice that they have provided.  Also, I am profoundly grateful for insightful comments and warm encouragement from Vincent Porro, Guido Bosch, Okuizumi Keiko, Roger Lu, and Wang-Ju Tsai.  I thank Norimatsu Satoko for her feedback as well.


[2] Dower, John. 1999. Embracing Defeat, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, p. 22.

[3] Funabiki, Takeo. 2015. “Boukyaku no kehai. Sengo 70 nenn. Nippon wa sugoi” in Chunichi Shimbun, June 4, p.1.

[4] Tanabe, Seiko. 1987. “Kishoku waru (Creepy)” in Onna no kuchihige. Tokyo: Bungeishunju bunko, pp.116-120.

[5] In correspondence between two Nobel Prize winning writers, Nadine Gordimer and Oe Kenzaburo on the question of violence, Gordimer noted: “It is the recognition of writers’ inescapable need to read the signs society gives out cryptically and to try to make sense of what these really mean.” Quoted in Sen, Amartya. 2011. “Violence and Civil Society,” in Peace and Democratic Society. Cambridge: OpenBook Publishers, p. 9.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Dower, John. 2012. Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering. New York: The New Press, p. 108.

[10] Reflecting on political variability, Professor of Humanities, Uchida Tatsuru points out certain strengths of feudal Japan that resided in Tokugawa governance (1603 - around 1867) based on and enlivened via 300 decentralized local governing units called han (藩).  Such milieu was conceivably conducive to regional diversities in economies, ecologies, decision-making, local languages, and so on.  (In Taleb’s risk analysis, a system built on smaller decentralized units ― de facto more local ― helps to prevent larger calamities, defects, and erroneous directions, which may go undetected and thus unremedied in a centralized governing system. See Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. 2012. Antifragile. Things That Gain from Disorder. New York: Random House.)  Uchida suspects that the diminished variability in governing through centralization during the Meiji period seriously weakened the ability to resist intolerant doctrines, such as nationalist fervour, which led ultimately to Japan’s imperial ventures ending in disaster.  In this way, Uchida implies the adverse consequences of diminished pluralist grounds for decision-making/governing, identities, and ways of life. In addition, we can note ideological centralization and forced assimilations of Ainu, Ryukyuan, Korean, and other groups of people, thereby helping to forge an image of Japanese unity and uniqueness as further evidence of diminished plurality. For details, see

[11] Sen. 2011. “Violence and Civil Society,” p. 12, and Sen, Amartya. 2006. Identity and Violence. New York: Norton.

[12] Sen. 2006. Identity and Violence.

[13] Magosaki, Ukeru and Martin Fackler. 2015. Gakeppuchi kokka. Nihon no ketsudan. Tokyo: Nihon bungei sha.

[14] Many words have been Japanized by being transposed into sinicized Japanese neologisms, or otherwise transformed. See: ).

[15] Saito, Minako. 2015. “Churitsutte nanisa” in Tokyo Shimbun, October 28, p. 27.

[16] A Reuters article observed of the snap election of 2014: “Late last year, a ruling party aide to Abe wrote to television broadcasters ahead of an election demanding fair coverage.  Many journalists took the letter as a signal they should dampen criticism or risk losing access to officials [emphasis added].”  The article thus points out: “Worries are growing in Japan about a trend of media self-censorship as journalists and experts say news organisations are toning down criticism of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government for fear of sparking ire and losing access to sources.” This was followed by the tide of resignations of outspoken news anchors such as Okoshi Kensuke, Kishii Shigetada, Furutachi Ichiro, and Kuniya Hiroko. Linda Sieg: and Martin Fackler:

[18] See Sen. 2006. Identity and Violence, Chapters 1 and 8.

[19] Sen. 2011. “Violence and Civil Society,” p. 1.

[21] Aoki, Osamu. 2014. “Asahi bashing no haikei to honshitsu,” in Sekai, 11, pp. 130-137.

[23] Sen, Amartya. 2005. “Principal Voices” in TIME magazine, November 21, p. 13.

[24] Alkire, Sabina. 2005. “Why the Capability Approach?” in Journal of Human Development. Volume 6, Issue 1, p. 121.

[28] Sen. 2011. “Violence and Civil Society,” p. 1.

[30] Sen, Amartya. 2005. “Principal Voices” in Time, November 21, p. 13.

[35] Dower. 1999. Embracing Defeat, p. 29.

[36] Ibid.

[37] It is interesting to recollect ‘the supposed singularity’ on which then Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications, Aso Taro made remarks in 2005: “One single-nation country, one civilization, one language, one culture, one ethnicity. Looking for other countries, there is no country [like Japan].”京都新聞 電子版.htm

[38] Dower. 2012. Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering, pp. 81-82.

[39] Sen. 2006. Identity and Violence, p. xv.

[40] Dower, John. 1986. War Without Mercy. New York: Pantheon Books, p.311


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"Superb Japan!? ― 日本礼賛の幻想" by Sachie MIZOHATA is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at Japan ― 日本礼賛の幻想.

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Sachie Mizohata, "Superb Japan!? ― 日本礼賛の幻想," March 30, 2016. (date accessed).

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