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Thread: The Development of National Identity in Japan2695 days old

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    Default The Development of National Identity in Japan

    Did you know about the information cointained in this article before? Japan apparently wasn't so homogeneous before the 1850's. Japanese homogeneity is a part of the nationalist myth and was basically enforced from the 1880's onward. Nowadays homogeneity is probably true and most Japanese don't know how differently their ancestors saw each other.

    In Brazil, for example, the Japanese immigrants at first tried to marry only with people that came from the same provinces (my grandparents did that). They stopped doing that only when it became impossible, due to the great fragmentation and unlikelihood of finding a suitable spouse from the same province.

    The Development of National Identity in Japan

    In 1850, someone was to walk through rural areas of the Japanese Islands and ask people “Are you Japanese?” the most common response would have been puzzlement. Although elite members of society would likely have possessed a vague sense of identity with “Japan” (or at least they would have had a concept of Japan as a specific geographical entity), the situation among ordinary people was different. Some residents of cities had probably developed a vague sense of “Japan” owing to the popular press. In rural areas, however, “Japan” would have been unknown to most people in 1850. Because most people in the Japanese Islands at this time lived in rural areas, it would be accurate to say that most Japanese in 1850 did not know that they were Japanese.

    With what did they identify, if not Japan? People in rural areas would have identified mainly with their village. They would have been aware of other, nearby villages, and perhaps the castle town of their domain. People located near major arteries of travel would likely have had a broader outlook on the world, as would those who had been on a religious pilgrimage. Nevertheless, their personal identity would have been local in nature. “Japan” would have been too broad and abstract.

    A common term for the warlord (daimyō) domains was kuni 国, which today means “country.” In some circumstances, it can also mean nation. Not only were personal identities local, but so was culture. In 1850, cultural differences from one domain to another could be vast. The most obvious difference to a traveler at the time would have been linguistic. Each locality had its own language. Sometimes this language was similar to that of the adjacent domains and changed only gradually across geographical distances. In other cases, linguistic change could be abrupt. For example, the residents of the domain of Higo (modern-day Kumamoto Prefecture) would not have been able to understand the speech of the residents of the adjacent domain of Satsuma (modern-day Kagoshima Prefecture). And there were many other cultural differences throughout the Japanese islands besides language. The warlords had to live in Edo every other year and their families lived there year-round. Therefore, the warlords and their entourages all became acculturated to the ways of Edo. Indeed, some of them were unfamiliar with the culture of their own domains. Ordinary people, however, rarely left their local areas in 1850. Unless they lived near Kyoto, it is unlikely that ordinary people would have known that there was an emperor. They would have been more likely to have possessed a vague sense that there was a shōgun, but the activities of this far-away figure meant little or nothing to most ordinary residents of the Japanese islands in 1850.

    Just for comparison, the situation in much of Europe at this time was similar to that of Japan. Italy, for example, became a state in 1860. It did not become a nation until later. Germany became a state even later than Italy. The German state then began a campaign to create a sense of national identity, which was largely successful by the start of the twentieth century.

    Japan became a state in 1868, and, much like the case of Italy and Germany, the leaders of the new Meiji state realized that they needed to inculcate a conscious sense of national identity in the new citizens of the newly-created Japan. At first, it was not easy to create this national identity, and the state made some false starts. For example, several leading government officials decided that Japan should create a national religion to serve as the centerpiece of national consciousness. But, in practice, the leading religious figures called together in a committee to create this national religion could not agree on anything. Religion did eventually become an important component of Japanese national identity, but not during the 1870s or 80s.

    Much more effective than religion in the early decades of the Meiji period was education. A state-run school system inculcated in the young both a consciousness of being Japanese and some basic points about what that identity meant. For example, schoolchildren developed a sense that they were part of a broader national family headed by an emperor. This sort of thing was still an abstraction, but coursework helped make it somewhat more concrete. Basic reading lessons, for example, included tales of bravery on the battlefield, in which ordinary Japanese gave their lives willingly to assist the emperor and thus the nation as a whole.

    By 1890, the Meiji state issued a formal statement of its educational ideology. This statement took the form of an imperial declaration (always called an "Imperial Rescript," or "chokugo" 勅語 in Japanese). The resulting Imperial Rescript on Education (kyōiku chokugo 教育勅語) became one of the most important public documents in prewar Japan. The full text of the Rescript is as follows:

    Know ye our Subjects:

    Our Imperial Ancestors have founded Our Empire on a basis broad and everlasting, and have deeply and firmly implanted virtue; Our subjects ever united in loyalty and filial piety have from generation to generation illustrated the beauty thereof. This is the glory of the fundamental character of Our Empire, and herein also lies the source of Our education. Ye, Our subjects, be filial to your parents, affectionate to your brothers and sisters; as husbands and wives be harmonious, as friends true; bear yourselves in modesty and moderation; extend your benevolence to all; pursue learning and cultivate arts, and thereby develop intellectual faculties and perfect moral powers; furthermore, advance public good and promote common interests; always respect the Constitution and observe the laws; should emergency arise, offer yourselves courageously to the State; and thus guard and maintain the prosperity of Our Imperial Throne coeval with heaven and earth. So shall ye not only be Our good and faithful subjects, but render illustrious the best traditions of your forefathers.

    The Way here set forth is indeed the teaching bequeathed by Our Imperial Ancestors, to be observed alike by Their Descendants and the subjects, infallible for all ages and true in all places. It is Our wish to lay it to heart in all reverence, in common with you, Our subjects, that we may all attain to the same virtue. (Quoted in Ryusaku Tsunoda, Wm. Theodore de Bary, and Donald Keene, comps., Sources of Japanese Tradition, Volume 2 [New York: Columbia University Press, 1958], pp. 139-140.)
    First, notice the several aspects of national consciousness exhibited in this document. Especially important in the context of modern Japan is the emphasis on the emperor and his allegedly unbroken line of succession extending back before historical time. In modern ideology, he literally embodied the essence of Japan as a nation (kokutai 国体, the "national body"). Some historians of modern Japan and other commentators tend to speak of the emperor and the modern emperor system as some sort of an anachronism, a holdover from a "feudal" past. On the contrary, however, Japan's Meiji-era emperor system was a modern institution par excellence. It was instrumental in the process of making Japan into a nation-state and its residents into Japanese.

    Once the text of the Rescript moves into specific virtues and behaviors, it seems relatively typical of the kinds of lofty pronouncements and rhetoric in which most modern states of the late nineteenth century frequently indulged. We should bear in mind, in other words, that schools systems everywhere in the industrialized world served to inculcate in students a sense of nation and a set of state-approved moral values. Indeed, education still functions in precisely this way. What is especially important and distinctive about the Imperial Rescript on Education was not so much its content, but the way in which the document itself came to function within Japanese life. Specifically, it soon became a fetish object. The central government sent copies of the Rescript, along with portraits (later photographs) of the emperor and empress to schools throughout the country. It soon became common practice to house the imperial image in a small shrine within the school grounds and to begin each day with a solemn recitation of the Rescript (which all students were required to memorize) and a group bow to the imperial images.

    Teacher training also received considerable attention in the late 1880s and early 1890s. Teacher training courses began to include military-style training and indoctrination. Under Mori Arinori 森有礼, Japan's first Minister of Education, the government declared teachers to be officers of the state and thus prohibited them from participating in political activities.

    Below is a list of major developments in the early educational system that had an effect on the development of national consciousness:

    Early 1890s: There is a general tendency at all levels of Japanese society to reject "western" culture, at least in many of its superficial aspects. For example, the lyrics to a popular song from the time go:

    This thoughtless imitation of the west . . .

    Not drinking Japanese sake

    But beer, brandy, and vermouth

    Stuffing your stomach with strange foreign foods . . .

    Somebody drinking coffee . . . how funny . . .
    1888: Education Minister Mori declares that "What is to be done [in education] is not for the sake of pupils, but for the sake of the nation-state." Incidentally, a politically-motivated assassin murdered Mori for pursuing what the assassin regarded as excessively liberal policies (and, specifically, for allegedly showing disrespect to an important imperial shrine).

    1889: Practice of sending imperial portraits to the schools begins

    1890: Elementary school regulations specify the following priority of objectives: 1) moral training; 2) development of a distinctive national essence; 3) cultivation of skills and knowledge

    1890: Imperial Rescript on Education is promulgated

    1891: copies of the Rescript are sent to all schools, where it joined the imperial portraits as an object of veneration

    1893: Controversy flares up between two well known intellectuals Uchimura Kanzō and Inoue Tetsujirō over the question "Is it possible for Christians to be truly patriotic?" Inoue concluded that Jesus was opposed to the principles of "loyalty and filial piety"—(“loyalty and filial piety” had become a potent this rhetorical figure in Japanese self-definitions). Therefore, he argued, Christianity and Japanese education are in conflict.

    By 1900: The majority of Japanese have received formal education from the state. Completion of compulsory education becomes the norm.

    It is important to point out that the system of education described here did not make Japan and its people into a single-minded group, robot-like in their views and deeds. Perhaps some of the Meiji ideologues would have wanted such a result, but as powerful as state-directed indoctrination was, it was not powerful enough to do away with individual thought. The spread of basic literacy virtually assured that most Japanese would encounter views different from those sanctioned by the state. By 1900, however, virtually everyone in Japan thought of him- or herself as Japanese and regarded this identity as significant.

    On a practical level, the centralized education system promoted a basic common culture throughout the country, including the teaching of a standardized “national language” (kokugo 国語). This standardized language was derived from the speech of well-to-do residents of Tokyo. As a “national language” it was a somewhat artificial construct and lacked the flair and flavor of local dialects and languages. It was very effective, however, in promoting the efficient communications on which a modern society depends. Moreover, as Japanese from all walks of life and all parts of the country became able to communicate with each other, it became easier to imagine Japan as a nation with a common cultural identity.

    The other institution that was especially effective during the Meiji period for inculcating a strong sense of national identity was the military. Ordinary Japanese from many walks of life and from all parts of the country entered the army or navy for basic training, advanced training, and, sometimes, to fight battles. In such an environment, regional differences in culture and identity became less important than a sense of Japanese identity.

    In terms of an overall timeline, we can say that the first signs of national identity in Japan began to emerge in the 1850s. By the 1880s, most Japanese thought of themselves as Japanese and regarded this identity as personally significant. By 1900, a strong sense of national identity was nearly universal in Japan.
    But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

    - John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

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    Quote Originally Posted by Malcolm Z View Post
    Just for comparison, the situation in much of Europe at this time was similar to that of Japan. Italy, for example, became a state in 1860. It did not become a nation until later. Germany became a state even later than Italy. The German state then began a campaign to create a sense of national identity, which was largely successful by the start of the twentieth century.
    Hm, I don't think this is really correct. People like Mozart, for example, already had a "sense for national identity" as he called himself a "Teutscher". One could argue it's more an ethnical than a national identity, but I think this is already nitpicking.

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