May 20, 2000
The Japanese sense of homogeneity has been present for a very long time. This collectivist cultural value has long been integral to the identity of being Japanese; it has been an inseparable part of Japaneseness. The reason why stability has historically been valued so highly in Japan, even at the expense of progressive change, is probably that progress would have required exposure to outside influence — and outsiders. This has been most profoundly demonstrated by the Tokugawa Shogunate's prolonged isolationism (perhaps, xenophobia) and especially strict maintenance of social orders. During this period before Japan was forcibly opened up from outside, cultural and technological change was as static as possible, the price of sameness. More recently, this sense for sameness has been evident in both the atrocities committed in World War II and the more "enlightened" modern period. Hatred of Chinese and Koreans as "outsiders" in the way of Japanese expansion was one shade of this. Though molded most directly by the manipulation of militarist rulers, this was still but a darker manifestation of the same persisting thread, the attitude that sameness, specifically sameness which is culturally Japanese, is the great virtue, from the world scale even down to the scale of personal behavior.
That this is relenting today in the realm of superficial personal expression is encouraging. Youth subcultures are a remarkable diversification compared to the rest of Japanese history. But, is this merely a fracturing of a widespread cultural collective and sameness into smaller examples of a similar attitude? Or can it be the beginning of a new Japaneseness, one that is more culturally flexible and less collectivist? This may be the eventual legacy of continued exposure of Japan to the world at large, which Japan has never before experienced for so long and with such intensity.
We may be also be encouraged by the evidence of another cultural trait in Japan, a very worthy capacity for rapid, pragmatic adaptation. Examples of this include accelerated modernization at the time of the Edo Revolution (commonly known in the west as the Restoration), acceptance of a transition to peaceful trade after the Imperial Japanese defeat in WWII, and incorporation of the efficient manufacturing methods initially rejected in America.
One day, to be Japanese might become a descriptive term of cultural origin, and a continuation of the best aspects of the Japanese cultural heritage, rather than a limitation to identity, change, and individualism. In the future, Promethean efforts in Japan must take care that instead of the homogeneity which has been responsible for stagnancy and imperialism under the banner of the rising sun (and might be again), the myth of a collective focus of life is exploded, a dynamic diversity takes the place of sameness, and a sense of individual life rises to ascendancy.
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on May 20, 2000