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Japan’s split identity

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A national identity began to emerge in Japan in about the 3rd century around the time of Himiko, a shaman queen of Yamataikoku in ancient Wa (Japan).  The Japanese developed their first inklings that they lived in a country on the periphery of the Chinese world.  This is the thesis of Japanese writer and professor Tatsuru Uchida in his best selling book, “Nihon Henkyoron” (Japan as a Peripheral Country).

Thus, Japan was a vassal state of China, the source of its civilization.  The ancient Japanese would take things from China, and then adapt them and adopt them as their own.  In terms of learning and adapting, Japan was genius nation.  It could take abstract and innovative ideas and transform them into concrete, practical and useful things.  But it could not create new things or make cultural breakthroughs.  

This gave rise to a dichotomy in the Japanese mind.  There was an “outer self” which was open to new ideas.  And an “inner self” which was irrational and xenophobic because it feels insecure, vulnerable and helpless.  The coexistence of the outer- and inner-selves was very stressful and full of contradictions.  The Japanese were incapable of choosing between the two selves and learnt to keep a delicate balance. 

But this balance was very fragile.  The balance could be broken when the outer self dominated the inner self – for example when Japan attached itself to a great power as a vassal state and can no longer rationally analyze the relationship. 

The history of Japan (and each Japanese person) is a battle between the inner and outer selves.  One example is the period after 1955 when there was a battle between those who wanted to revise the constitution and rebuild the military (the inner self dominating) and those who wanted to maintain pacifist policies (the outer self dominating).  The compromise was to build up self defense forces, but restrict their actions.  This suited the Americans.

Another example is the Koizumi period, which was the best period for US/Japan relations in the post war era.  Koizumi was the first to support George Bush’s invasion of Iraq, even though most people could see that it was irrational.  At the same time, Koizumi insisted on visiting Yasukuni Shrine which enshrines Class A war criminals, determined to be Class A war criminals by the US after World War 2.  But George Bush could not complain because of Koizumi’s support for his Iraq war  Uchida argues that all of Koizumi’s reforms were imported US policies, and failed – thus discrediting the notion of importing further US policies!

Uchida also argues that relations between China, Japan and the US are a zero sum game.  After World War 2, the US replaced China as the centre of the universe.  Then in the 1970s, when Japan established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, anti-Americanism was strong, as the US was bogged down in the Vietnam war.  Then in the Koizumi period when US/Japan relations were very close, there were strong tensions with China.  Now with the election of the Democratic Party of Japan and Prime Minister Hatoyama, the pendulum may be swinging back towards China.  Fundamentally, Japan has a closer relationship with China, with which it has a 2000 year relationship.  It can be more open and frank with China than with Japan.

Unlike other countries, Japan’s absorption capacity has many benefits.  Unlike other countries which have seen their cultures and languages destroyed, Japan has developed a hybrid culture which absorbs new elements, while retaining indigenous culture.

Uchida does not explore the effect of globalization on Japan’s identity.  Geography now matters much less than it used to.  There is really no periphery any more.  Japan is no longer on the edge of the universe, even if it still feels that way.  It can now be part of us all, if it wants to.  But Japan still does not know what it wants.  Also, defining itself relative to one big power no longer makes much sense, in a multi-polar world where small countries should have many friends, and even build alliances with other small countries.

It’s easy to forget what a dramatic effect isolation has had on the Japanese mind, and how this effect may well linger well beyond isolation.  This has been evident in Japan's foreign policy.  This has always been dominated by the desire to secure and maintain political independence and economic security, and have respectable status. 

One issue closer to the present that has not been taken up by Uchida is Japan's openness and dependence on the rest of the world for natural resources since the black ships of Commodore Perry opened Japan 150 years ago.

During Japan's Edo period from 1603 to 1867, the ruling Tokugawa shoguns closed the country to rest of the world.  Japan had to be self sufficient.  It was not possible to import food, energy, minerals and other raw materials. 

Japan’s population stayed at around 30 million over this period.  It was limited by its resources, the number of mouths that it could feed.  After all, 73% of Japan's territory is mountainous, and the country has few natural resources.  Although Japan was stagnating, it was not vulnerable to resource supply disruptions.

Perry's opening of Japan meant that the country could import food and other resources which it paid for by exports.  This allowed a dramatic increase in Japan's population which is now at 127 million more than four times bigger than at the end of Edo. 

But this means that the country is both much more open and vulnerable than during the Edo period.  Japan has the lowest level of resources self sufficiency of the advanced world.  Less than 15% of Japan's land is arable, and its overall agricultural self-sufficiency rate is only 40% (on a calorific basis).  Japan normally produces a slight surplus of rice but imports large quantities of wheat, corn, sorghum, and soybeans.  Japan maintains one of the world's largest fishing fleets and accounts for nearly 15% of the global catch.

Japan is also almost totally dependent on the rest of the world for supplies of energy, timber and minerals.  Although it has reduced consumption of petroleum, it still needs to import coal, liquefied natural gas, and uranium.  Deposits of gold, magnesium, and silver supply current industrial demands, but Japan is dependent on foreign sources for many of the minerals essential to modern industry. Iron ore, coke, copper, and bauxite must be imported, as must many forest products.

Securing supplies of natural resources was one of the driving factors in Japan's militarism and colonization of some of its Asian neighbours in the lead-up to World War.  Today, a major focus of foreign policy is minimizing this vulnerability through protecting open sea lanes, minimizing dependence on imported petroleum, fostering relations with shady countries like Iran. 

Unfortunately, security of supply is often used as an argument for protecting Japan's agriculture.  The result of very high protection is that the agricultural sector is very inefficient and arguably makes Japan even more dependent on imports.

This vulnerability to disruptions in the supply of its natural resources is another factor underlying the dichotomy in the Japanese mind between the inner self and the outer self. 



U.S. Department of State.  Background Note: Japan.  March 2010.