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Trapped by Its Own Invention: Japan's Myth of Homogeneity
by Maki Morinaga
Maki Morinaga is a writer/researcher at NIRA (National Institute for Research Advancement).

In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the myth of homogeneity in Japanese society stubbornly lives on. The ubiquity of this myth throughout the Japanese general public is well known, but the myth has also found support among the Japanese political elite; time and time again veteran politicians throw their weight behind half-baked notions of uniqueness supposedly arising from the sameness of the people. This phenomenon appears to have hindered Japan's capability in dealing with the complex array of cultural issues the country faces today.

As the world shrinks ever smaller with the onslaught of communications and other information technology, cross-cultural openness and understanding are no longer optional for Japanese. The myth of Japan's homogeneity has hindered such conceptualization given that, by definition, cross-cultural concepts are heterogeneous in nature. Japanese politicians and public figures continue to make statements that reflect this myth and thus continue to cause international outcry.

In the social realm, a myth is a most effective means of governing people; it does not matter whether or not the myth has any basis in reality. The important thing is that people to whom the myth applies behave as though it were true. Using another famous Japanese example, John Owen Haley has shown how a myth governs people who are ignorant of its mechanics. Haley shows that the myth of Japanese being nonlitigious has no historical basis, but writes that "[l]ike most myths, this one too has elements of truth." People trapped by a myth, Haley writes, are expected to behave unconsciously as though it were true. Thus the process becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Influenced by the myth of dislike of litigation the Japanese eventually come to believe--historical proof be damned--that "the Japanese, being Japanese, think suing is un-Japanese."1

The same comment applies to the homogeneous myth. The myth forces people to behave as though they were homogeneous, and, in the end, people come to believe it. Who created the myth? Who benefits from it? Why was it created? How does the myth work in society? Questions like these are very difficult to answer: if such mechanics were visible, a "myth" would not--indeed could not--work socially. And a myth that does not function socially is no longer a myth. We should thus begin with the question of what caused the myth.

One possible factor is the idea of Japanese being "pragmatic." Each individual identifies himself or herself based on a relationship with society. As a result, the interests of society come first. Such a principle prefers a homogeneous matrix--it is a much more efficient way of mobilizing the interests of the nation. This feature, combined with a certain political intention to unify citizens, could have helped create and foster this myth of homogeneity.

An important key to the origins of the myth lies in the momentous social changes surrounding the 1868 Meiji Restoration. Prior to this, Japanese had been divided into relatively independent feudal groups (han) with wide powers of discretion. Han from different regions had limited contact with one another, and saw little in common. With the end of the feudal order, however, the Meiji leaders recognized the advantages of a more unified country, and set about stressing the idea that the Japanese people were in fact one big extended family. Hence the gradual recognition of being "homogeneous" might have resulted from a national push for unity around this time. The Meijians even had to invent hyojungo, an Esperanto-like language linking the many assorted Japanese dialects, just to communicate. It must have been confusing to the many people who had placed their loyalties in a feudal lord or a shogun, or both; they were now suddenly expected to regard an emperor--whom many Japanese had scarcely heard of, let alone attached any reverence or loyalty to--as the "father of the entire nation." The diverse society that had classified people based on social standing, occupation, regions, "ethnicity,"2 and many other factors suddenly became a "family."

This social upheaval was not only drastic, it was tactically brilliant in the eyes of the Meiji leaders. Although they claimed the events to be a "restoration" of traditional Japan, "traditional Japan" used in this sense was an invention, one that fit the goals of the coup d'etat quite nicely. Surely a "restored" traditional Japan would have accounted for all previous female emperors? Starting from the Meiji period, the "restored" imperial household has systematically denied its maternal lineage and future female emperors. Why did the Meijians produce an artificial common language to unify the country? Why did Japanese nationalism suddenly appear, quite out of the blue, from the process of this coup d'etat?

All the answers to these questions tell us that traditional Japan, which the Meiji revolution claimed to restore, was actually an artificial image created from various "traditional-like" elements that had existed in the country. With the emergence of a "father" of the nation, female emperors suddenly disappeared. The diverse dialects of premodern Japanese all but prevented communication. Nationalism had to be created as a political necessity. The Japanese people suddenly became a big family, and thus automatically fostered feelings of homogeneity. Most important, it has been claimed that all the momentous changes brought about by the de facto revolution were really just a "restoration." In this regard, the very naming of the 1868 coup d'etat as the "Meiji Restoration" was itself a superior spin to make it appear traditional.

The Meiji Restoration was therefore quite creative; the major players involved must have been very creative individuals who possessed an extraordinarily in-depth and thorough understanding of their culture. Japan's history of manufactured homogeneity thus appears today to be one of its most efficient, successful, and most traditional-like inventions. It is also one of the more toxic concepts the Meiji Restoration seems to have produced. It is ironic, to say the least, that the process of revolution created the homogeneous myth that has hindered Japan's ability to deal with the myriad complexities of global and transnational cultural today.



1. Haley, John Owen, Authority without Power: Law and the Japanese Paradox (Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 83-119.

2. Contrary to the myth, it has been convincingly demonstrated that Japan has had an ethnic diversity, something modern Japanese politicians seem reluctant to accept. Their political predecessors, too, have misled the public on this issue--although in a reverse way--by claiming that buraku (outcasts who made their living through leather work, slaughtering animals, and other death-related work) constituents were ethnically different from other Japanese. Modern scholarship has exposed these claims as demonstrably false.


Taken from NIRA review, autumn 1995.