Review of Multicultural Japan:

Palaeolithic to Postmodern

by Steve McCarty

Original print publication (shorter, with Chinese characters included):

Japan Journal of Multilingualism and Multiculturalism, 3 (1), 57-59 (October 1997).

MULTICULTURAL JAPAN: Palaeolithic to Postmodern.

Edited by Donald Denoon, Mark Hudson, Gavan McCormack, and Tessa Morris-Suzuki. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996. ISBN 0 521 55067 X Hardback.

This collection of papers brings together the powerful tools of historiography, archaeological evidence, linguistics and postmodern critical theory to demolish the modern nationalistic ideology of a monocultural Japan projected back into the past.

The editors are based at the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University (ANU), where geographical and economic imperatives have resulted in leading initiatives such as the Asian Studies World Wide Web Virtual Library. This collection of papers was commissioned in connection with a 1993 academic conference on Japanese identity at ANU in Canberra. The book is therefore best understood as a conference proceedings. That takes away the expectation of systematic or exhaustive treatment of themes along with the suitability of the collection as a textbook. Concise chapters give deep insight into areas each author has researched. Readers are expected to have a basic understanding of Japanese time periods, but otherwise specialist jargon is used sparingly. But again, the proceedings would not serve well as an introduction to Japanese culture, because the reader needs to place many powerful insights in perspective without becoming too disillusioned about Japanese scholarship to study original sources any further.

For despite pulling their punches, the overall findings of these Japanese as well as non-Japanese authors can be rather devastating. Instead of welcoming the latest archaeological discovery on the front page of the vernacular dailies, the reader may start to wince at the tendentious attempts to read a distinctive Japaneseness into roots without grounds. Having taken the trouble, for example, to read what Japanese archaeologists are telling the public, one could feel duped by assertions such as that the Jomon period people were identical to the Japanese today. When the Yayoi people trotted in from the Asian mainland with rice cultivating and metalworking technologies, it is most likely that the New Stone Age Jomon people did most of the assimilating. Then again with the Kofun Period there was apparently a large migration from the Korean peninsula, so each new prehistoric era represented a cultural or ethnic change in a multicultural archipelago. Among the resultant ironies, the authors believe that the decultured Ainu and the marginalized Okinawans are closest to the original inhabitants. When there was finally a Japan to speak of, it was apparently united in response to mainland trends, and the authors believe that Imperial tombs are closed to investigation to hide the Korean origins of the Imperial family. The authors thus expose the official self-image of Japan as riddled with historical ironies, some in nearly every paper in the collection, others left to the reader to adduce. The ultimate irony to this reader is that everything hyped as most Japanese owes most to foreign influence if not substantial migration.

What is most present in the collection is a clear consensus on disinterested scholarly objectivity. Yet while the Japanese contributors agree with the Australians and others, they also seem to realize that such a volume, in English no less, cannot surmount the well-funded orthodoxy that colludes with the official view of the nation. If anything is missing in the collection it is less the bulk of material evidence available than a regional East Asian perspective that would clarify who came to Japan from where and with what. These are among the impressions left with one student of Japan, and it would take a far longer review to summarize each paper, let alone share fascinating quotations therein. A recommendation to order the book must suffice to augment the brief summary as follows.

What most of the papers have in common is the attempt to examine the Japanese identity, autochthonous vs. influenced from overseas, officially perceived vs. actual, at different times and places in the archipelago. The book is divided into five parts, however, reflecting the diverse themes and disciplinary approaches of the papers received: Part 1 "Archaeology and Identity" (Chapters 1-4), Part 2 "Centre and Periphery" (Chapters 5-7), Part 3 "Contact with the Outside" (Chapters 8-11), Part 4 "The Japanese Family" (Chapters 12-13), and Part 5 "Culture and Ideology" (Chapters 14-16).

Gavan McCormack provides the "Introduction" as well as the last paper, "Kokusaika: impediments in Japan's deep structure," neither of which offers much realistic hope for change. Post-War soft treatment of the Imperial institution combined with assimilationist policies ignoring minority aspirations have allowed deep-rooted assumptions about Japaneseness to survive intact. A recent worldwide trend to identity politics in Japan's case has moreover led to ambivalence whether to open or to close, with internationalization so far losing out to renewed insularity.

Chapter 1, "The Japanese as an Asia-Pacific Population," by Katayama Kazumichi, provides the most essential data about the land bridges from the continent and the people who crossed them, beginning with homo erectus from China 500,000 years ago. He traces the Jomon people to southern China and the taller Yayoi people to northern China or northeast Asia. East Asians and Malaysians are very close in body form and genetically, whereas Jomon/Ainu and Taiwanese aborigines resemble some Polynesian and Micronesian groups. Since Pacific islanders are closer to Japanese genetically than are American Indians, they also probably originated in the vicinity of southern China.

Chapter 2, "North Kyushu Creole: A language-contact model for the origins of Japanese," by John Maher, is the only paper in the volume focusing on (socio-)linguistics. He accounts for the conglomerated quality of the Japanese language by concluding that it was originally a lingua franca or pidgin between Austronesian-based (Malayo-Polynesian) Jomon languages and the dialects of the powerful Yayoi immigrants. Creolization or pidginization, a form of speech accomodation, explains the fact that Japanese resembles Austronesian languages in some ways and Altaic ones in other ways.

In Chapters 3 and 4, respectively, Simon Kaner and Clare Fawcett cover the first eras of nation-building from Yamato to Asuka, now subject to much nostalgia and used politically to cement a national identity. But the authors point out the co-existence of diverse ethnic groups and regional cultures throughout those periods and beyond.

In Part 2, Chapter 5, Tessa Morris-Suzuki shows how the Chinese way of thinking of one's own nation as the center was taken on in Japan, so peripheral areas including Ainu lands and the Ryukyus were considered foreign until the modern era. The Japanization of the Hokkaido area was a response to the Russification of the Kuriles. Assimilationist policies were later extended from Japan's periphery to its colonies abroad. The Western-introduced idea of civilization (bummei) allowed the periphery to be reinterpreted not as foreign spatially but merely as backward temporally.

In Chapter 6, Richard Pearson examines the role of Okinawa since humans arrived there over 30,000 years ago. This paper is more technically detailed than the others. The Ryukyuans enjoyed a tightly-knit communal society and engaged in seafaring trade, independent from--and at times an intermediary between--China and Japan, particularly from the 12th through the 16th centuries.

In Chapter 7 (translated by Mark Hudson), Hanazaki Kohei outlines the history of the downtrodden Ainu up to their recent revival from the brink of cultural genocide. The Ainu protested former Prime Minister Nakasone's gaffe that Japan has no minorities to drag down its educational level, and since the publication of this book Ainu culture has finally been officially recognized.

In Part 3 on foreign contacts, Derek Massarella provides some regional perspective in Chapter 8, not so much as he purports on 18th-19th Century East Asian identity formation itself as to rectify Eurocentric perceptions and historical terminology thereof. Chapter 9 by Ishii Yoneo provides a very brief account of premodern contacts between Japan and Siam.

In Chapter 10 (translated by Sakai Minako and Tessa Morris-Suzuki), Goto Ken'ichi focuses on Japan's colonial attitudes, particularly its designs on Indonesia's resources. Southeast Asia--except for Vietnam--had been viewed as barbarian, and esteem for China plummeted with the Opium War. Japan's growing power earned its representatives the status of 'honorary whites" in Western-controlled Southeast Asia. Japan tried to withdraw from Asia, but was not accepted as a Western nation, a sense of isolation that fueled the Pacific War. Yet Japan's decision to fight the Allies presupposed--with makeshift planning--that oil could be obtained from Indonesia. Goto concludes that today, ever after acknowledging the bondage of Southeast Asian 'comfort women' and developing strong pan-Asian economic bonds, there still remains a Japanese belief in the low cultural level of Southeast Asians.

In Chapter 11 (translated by Meredith Patton), Utsumi Aiko details the wartime internment policies for civilians as well as enemy soldiers, noting that the Japanese public knows less about this than about Auschwitz. A policy for treatment of the roughly 100,000 prisoners, of whom about 10% died, was virtually nonexistent. Low-ranking Japanese soldiers were treated abusively enough themselves and apparently had no conception of the dignity of prisoners, much less about international agreements. There were 'White Comfort Stations,' families separated, and in Java every adult had to pledge loyalty and carry at all times an alien registration certificate not unlike today's. The original paper of this chapter is slated to appear in a world history series published by Tokyo University.

Part 4, with two papers on the Japanese family, begins with Chapter 12, by Ueno Chizuko. She shows that the patrilineal extended family system (ie) was an invented tradition by the Meiji government. The 90% non-samurai had practiced matrilineal succession in the feudal era, yet ironically the actual tradition of the vast majority was dismissed as barbarian. In competition with new Western conceptions as well, Confucian ideologues won out. By linking the family to the state, the former was brought out more in public to be controlled by the latter. Ueno also finds Japanese femininity a modern construct, with romanticism trapping women into internalizing the patriarchical social norm.

In Chapter 13 (translated by Sakai Minako and Gavan McCormack), Nishikawa Yuko traces the concepts of household, house and home from Meiji to the present. The patrilineal (ie) system was Constitutionally abolished after the War, with the household (katei) supposedly moving to the center. But to this reviewer the primacy of the eldest son still has the force of custom.

Part 5 provides a powerful conclusion, some of which has been mentioned earlier. In Chapter 14 (translated by Gavan McCormack), Amino Yoshihiko finds that the Emperor system and rice have been lent exaggerated importance since the Yamato era by an official Confucian agricultural fundamentalism that insisted on rice as a currency for taxation. Commoners were all considered farmers, when they were actually engaged in a variety of commerce. There was a waterborne communications society by the 10th Century with little sense of national boundaries. After the 10th Century Imperial rites were strongly Buddhist, while the Emperor had always accepted offerings from sea and mountain areas in addition to rice harvest rites. The reactionary modern state relinked rice with the Emperor, so the public retains a deep-seated false consciousness in this respect.

In Chapter 15 (translated by Murata Mikiko and Gavan McCormack), Nishikawa Nagao criticizes the commandeering of culture as always a national culture, in Japan's case an extensive genre of Japanese culture discourse (Nihonjinron). Amid static, nationalistic notions of pure origins, a view of culture as interactive and transformative remains unorthodox. Yet in a global age one has to change oneself in order to understand and accept a foreign culture. On such a note of multiculturalism, let this review conclude.

Updated on 26 March 2003

Make a link or a bookmark
to tour this Website again as it expands!
(^_^) /

Click to e-mail Steve McCarty

Proceed to the Bilingualism and Japanology Intersection