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Japanese Identity Essay

3650 words - 15 pages

Japanese Identity

Throughout its history, Japan has striven to define its national identity not by its own means, but by those predefined by foreign, and most recently, Western powers. Despite legends of the island archipelago being created by the sun goddess Amaterasu, Japan seems to have consistently maintained a indecisive self-image with respect to its neighbors. In the past, China had represented the pinnacle of culture and technology and had tremendously influenced other surrounding countries in Asia and in the world. Indeed, Japan owes its written language to imported and adapted Chinese characters. Without question, China remained for a long time the most influential force upon Japan. However, island nation maintained a rather precarious self-identity: How could a country like Japan, which was supposedly created by the gods and therefore a divine nation, consider itself the apex of the world, given China’s tremendous influence and power? Could Japan truly consider itself the greatest land in the world if China, or Chugoku in Japanese, literally meant “the central country?” For this reason, Japan never truly accepted a position of “belonging” to Asia. That is, despite a considerable amount of imported culture, Japan was still somehow inherently different from other Asian countries.

So, if Japan does not “belong” to Asia, does it belong to some other amorphous collection of nations, namely Europe or the West? Certainly in the modern post-WWII era Japan has seen phenomenal economic growth, even to the point of threatening the US as the primary global economic power during the height of the “bubble economy.” Some credit this success to the changes implemented during the US occupation. Undoubtedly without US assistance in rebuilding the country, Japan would not have been able to grow as dramatically as it did. Some aspects of Japanese life seem no different from Western/European standards; cars are ubiquitous, skyscrapers dominate metropolitan centers, and consumer culture drives the economy. As a member of the Western-dominated G8, should Japan be considered now a part of the West? Obviously many issues conflict with the assumption that Japan is not a part of Asia, but rather a part of the Western world.

Although there can be no definitive classification into one or the other of the imposed bifurcation of the world, Japan exhibits aspects of both. With this in mind,

“This feeling of unease has probably been expressed most clearly by the Japanese scholar Kosaka Masataka who proposed the view that Japan has historically shifted between being an annex of the East and of the West, where it stands today. Japan’s position is described as a ‘hanarezashiki,’ literally a detached room, implying that Japan has always kept its distance from China and later the West when taking over elements from their cultures. The ‘hanarezashiki’ comparison makes clear that latent ambiguity in Japan’s position, namely what while on the surface the...

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