The illusion of Japanese Culture: An introduction to nihonjinron

To set the tone of this series of articles straight away: the Japanese culture does not exist. Despite many ‘scientific’ attempts, all under the banner of nihonjinron, to describe and prove the uniqueness of Japanese culture and its people, there is no unique Japanese essence, passed on from time immemorial, that units each and every Japanese subject. The idea that there is something like such essence is no more than a fiction, an imaginary narrative construction. By categorizing the Japanese essence as a narrative construction, we imply that there is a constructing force behind this fiction, this nihonjinron.

In this first article, we want to introduce nihonjinron in general terms. In future articles we aim to get a deeper understanding of this nihonjinron, to explain the aspects of construction, and to underline the fictionality of any nationalism.

The root of nihonjinron

The roots of nihonjinron – which was most popular in the 60’s and 70’s, lie in the nationalistic discourse of kokutai than ran rampart in the greater part of the Meiji period. Kokutai – often translated as national body, national polity, refers to the fundamental spirit of the Japanese people. For the monarchical activists, this spirit, which defined Japan from the very beginning, was the form (tai) that pulled the country (koku) together and that what synthesized it into a single unity (Doak, 2007). For these activists, the synthesizing power was concentrated in the Tennô (Doak, 2007).


But other less radical ideas concerning Kokutai were also expressed. For the nationalist Itô Miyoji (伊東 巳代治, 1857-1934), for instance, kokutai was “that which the unbroken lineage of monarchs has governed over”, thus referring to the enduring cultural characteristics of Japan as such (Miyoji as cited by Doak, 2007). While a monarch was not necessary to safeguard this kokutai for Miyoji, others, like Iwakura Tomomi (岩倉具視, 1825 – 1883) and Itô Hirobumi (伊藤 博文, 1841 – 1909), advocated the necessity for a transcendental, sovereign monarch to ensure the unchanging character of the kokutai.

In the early Meiji period, the discussions concerning the function of the emperor were tightly attached to the question of which state structure and constitution the new Japan should have. In this ongoing westernization, kokutai was the true japaneseness that one sought to secure and safeguard from the Western Other.

The tendency to safeguard true Japaneseness didn’t die after Japan’s defeat and the total discrediting of the wartime imperial ideology in 1945. In our view, Nihonjinron is a kind of reformulation of this nationalistic reflex that underpinned the imperial ideology. It is the same nationalistic reflex against western modernity, but prepared with pseudo-scientific methods – the point was to prove Japaneseness, and served in scientific jargon. A new package, but with the same nationalistic/nativist content.

An explanation of Nihonjinron


Nihonjinron is the sum of all the discourses preoccupied with proving the uniqueness of the Japanese Other, culture in its most broadest sense, and thus the subjectivity of each subject subjected to this Other. The uniqueness was sought (and found) across a wide range of disciplines, such as anthropology, sociology, psychology, and linguistics.

In line with the intention of the researchers, these essentialist investigations revealed aspects corroborating the mono-ethnic and homogenous ‘nature’ of Japan – one nation, one people, one language, and one culture, and enabled the propagation of a “newly” constructed mono-image of Japan. Besides being homogeneous on a cultural level, the mono-image also implied implicitly that Japanese were homogeneous at a racial level. Furthermore the Japanese, all sharing an essence virtually unchanged from prehistoric times down to the present day, were presupposed to differ radically from everyone else (Dale, 1986).

A first critique on nihonjinron and nationalism

The image of homogeneous Japan has always been nothing more than just a fiction, a fiction propagated as the truth and professed as a shared illusion. This shared illusion, as Dale (1986) asserts, is hostile to both individual experience as well as internal socio-historical diversity. The first way to contradict this illusion is by mentioning the Ainu in Hokkaido and the Ryukyu-an in Okinawa, two ethnic minorities living on the Japanese islands.


But even if this shows that Japan is multi-ethnic and thus multi-cultured, our view on culture should be more radical. We need a radical view that stops effacing the subjectivity of the subjects who keep, by being born into language, the culture associated with it alive. As such, we propose that there can only be a mono-experience of a given cultural sphere. In other words, each subject experiences the culture they are born it in a subjective way – being born into a language and culture gives one a subjective position within that language and culture. Every subject reinvents one’s culture in an singular way. As such, a culture is by definition fragmented by the endless reinventions of the subjects subjected to the cultural discourses.

Based on the idea of cultural fragmentation, can the existence of nationalism be explained by the idea that the appearance of the foreign Other as a fictional homogeneous aitsura (they) makes that fragmented state of wareware (we) too sensible? If every culture is a fragmented, multi-subject-cultured entity to begin with, then nationalism seems to be nothing more than a way, mediated by the creation of a mono-cultural fiction, to channel the anxiety of being fragmented as subjects in a given cultural sphere and repress the radical subjective experience of the language and culture one is born in.

From this perspective it should be crystal clear that “The Japanese culture can never exist as there are only subjects reinterpreting and reinventing cultural discourses, which in their turn form a given multi-faceted cultural sphere.

Closing remarks: Future endeavors

In the future of this series, we will evaluate various theories that are/were categorized as Nihonjinron and provide commentaries on them and show which interpretations are possible, based on our view. By writing these commentaries and by showing the cultural diversity present in Japan, we aim to decompose the idea of a mono-cultural entity and put the fruitfulness of nationalism into question. Put in more psychoanalytic terms, this series will be a critically exploration of the notion of identification and identity.


Dale, P. (1986). The Myth of Japanese Uniqueness. Oxford, London. Nissan Institute, Croom Helm.

Bestor V., Bestor T. C., Yamagata A. (eds.). (2011). Routledge handbook of Japanese culture and society. London and New York: Routledge.

Doak, K. M. (2006) A history of nationalism in Modern Japan: Placing the People. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers.

Befu, H. (2009). Concepts of Japan, Japanese culture and the Japanese. In The cambridge Companion to Modern Japanese culture. p. 21-37


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Mio says:

    Whenn you say any nationalism, on the introduction,you mean any nacionalism on japanise culture or any and everyother culture/nationalism(And just choose ninjin-ron to desenvolve that)? Because aside being a very short “article” it sounded rather xenofobic as in denying japonise culture’s indentity.

    1. pvhaecke says:

      The point is that traditional culture is fictional in nature. It does not exist, as traditions and societal structures change.

      If I say that The Japanese culture does not exist, it is because Japanese culture has become so fragmented that one cannot possibly argue that Japanese culture is homogenous. Japanese culture lives individualized and particularized within the subject.

      Rather than offering a xenophobic view, I invite people to stop believing in the nationalistic image of Japanese harmony and meet the Japanese subject for what he us, someone who is radically different from his neighbour.

      (This is true for all kinds of nationalism. They efface difference by proposing a mendacious fiction of cultural homogeneity.)

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