My Tradition’s Bigger Than Your Tradition

In an argument about Japanese-American draft-resistor internees during WWII, Eric Muller wrote

in my book I argue that vocal and visible protest of government orders are more distinctive facets of American popular culture than of Japanese popular culture. (I do not suggest that protest is absent from Japanese tradition, or that compliance is absent from American tradition; I simply maintain that as a comparative matter, vocal public protest has a stronger American lineage than Japanese.)

Do you [ed.: Ken Masugi] see this as true?

If you think it false, would you share with us prominent examples of the protest tradition in Japanese culture that match the Boston Tea Party, “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death,” the National Woman’s Party, lunch counter protests and civil rights sit-ins, the Stonewall riots, the Wounded Knee protest, etc. etc. etc.

To be honest, I’m on Eric Muller’s side of this debate, but this passage rankled somewhat. Perhaps it’s my background in social history, my early exposure to Mikiso Hane (even before I found out that my wife knew him) or just my contrarian, blogger-nature, but I can’t just let it stand.

First, there’s the comparative history aspect: I can’t think of any other national history that has such a distinguished tradition of civil political protest: perhaps the English? The French get too revolutionary too easily. Ghandian India, or pre-1990 South Africa perhaps? In the last twenty years or so, the ubiquity of marches and demonstrations has taken some of the edge off, though if you limit the field to “events critiquing one’s own rulers” then you’ve a much smaller data set. Whether it rises to the level of a “tradition” in that exceptionalist American self-congratulatory sense is another question: I’m not sure that Muller’s list couldn’t be dismissed as “prominent examples” in contrast to a fairly conservative and gradualist tradition only recently challenged by strong civil rights movements.

There are, as Muller concedes “prominent examples of dissent in Japanese history.” Some would argue that there’s more than that: from the peasant uprisings of the Tokugawa era to the rice riots of 1919, demo against the Security Treaty, the lawsuits of Minamata, individual acts of self-destruction, literary and cultural satire, and speaker trucks, I think that there is a reasonably strong strain of public self-criticism and scolding, particularly given an environment of repression which (at most times in the last century and a half) goes well beyond that which has existed in the US, even during its colonial era.

What do you think?

Non Sequitur: Sumo Wrestlers in New York [registration required]. Wait, actually, it’s S.U.M.O., and the organizers swear it’s unscripted….


  1. As much as I respect Eric and his blog my first assumption was
    that he just does not know much about Japanese history and is
    buying into the whole “harmonious people” thing. Maybe he does
    know the secondary literature who knows? I’m not really
    interested in wipping out our national protest traditions to
    see whose is bigger, partly because it seems silly and partially
    because we would both lose to the Koreans.

    There is at least one obvious qualitatitve difference, however.
    I would argue that in the American democratic political tradition
    protests have to be big and protestors numerous to really have
    an impact. The point of a Million Man March is that there are
    a million people who have been locked out of the political
    system, and they matter because in a democracy numbers count.

    In at Tokugawa Japan you have the ideology of benevolent
    government, and in Meiji and after you have the harmonious race
    thing. In each case a protest gets power from willingness
    to disrupt consensus, and numbers matter less. Saburo Ienaga
    sitting outside courtrooms for 30 years to protest textbooks
    or the Osaka airport people protesting even after the thing
    is built are not nuts but serious protestors in part because
    protest draws power from the resolution of the individual
    and not just numbers. This is not alien to other traditions,
    of course. Only one person can write Letter from Birmingham
    Jail, but there does seem to be a qualitative difference.
    sitting in a cour

  2. Nicely put.

    I don’t think Eric’s got much of a background in Japanese history, except for what’s directly relevant to the internment history; I don’t think he needs it for what he does, except that he’s wandered a bit off his strengths in this debate (for the record, Ken Masugi doesn’t have any strengths in this area that I’m aware of). The relatively shallowness of knowledge of Japan (or China) in Asian-American history/sociology still strikes me as odd. The connections are pretty strong, if you know what you’re looking at; it’s the myths (compliant Japanese, stupid peasants, model minorities, etc.) which get in the way of understanding.

    Thinking about it since I wrote the post, I think what really got me was the term “tradition.” It’s such a vague and unhelpful term in most historical debates (being, by definition, timeless and essential), and such a popular bludgeon (yet so easy to parry, if you know what you’re doing).

  3. Jonathan is right; I know very, very little about Japanese history. No, let me revise that: very, very, very little.

    I defer on these questions entirely to the experts, and I appreciate the education.

    I will say this, though: I was trying to communicate not so much something about the actual facts of Japanese vs. American history, but about how people’s takes on their own political and social history contributes to popular cultural self-definition and self-understanding.

    One can debate endlessly, I suppose whether Japanese or American history has a longer and more authentic tradition of protest and dissent. (As I said, I’m not qualified even to enter into such a debate on the Japanese side of the ledger.) But … my extensive personal experience of talking with Japanese Americans (Nisei, Sansei, and Yonsei) tells me very powerfully that whatever may be the historical truth, Japanese Americans believe that compliance with expectations, not making waves, not standing out in a crowd, and not complaining are huge components of their Japanese cultural and historical legacy. People have said this to me over and over and over again.

    I have not interviewed Americans not of Japanese ancestry about the subject, but I have a hard time believing that they/we would report the same thing.

    It was this distinction that I was trying to highlight, and to pursue with Masugi.

    (Incidentally, you’ll note that he never responded.)

    Am I correct in assuming, Jonathan and Alan, that you both would agree that the Japanese Americans who’ve reported this understanding of their cultural/historical legacy are not just making it up? That they’re talking about something that to them is real and not imagined?

    If so, then I guess my mistake was in asserting the difference as one grounded empirically in history, rather than in culture and/or psychology.

  4. Eric,

    You obviously know a lot more than I do about Japanese in America, and Jonathan knows a lot more that I do about Japan. I’m not sure whose protest tradition is bigger, but I would certainly disagree with the standard stereotype that Japan is a conformist culture. I’m not surprised that your informants told you that Japanese culture is conformist. They probably quoted you the old proverb “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” There is a lot of truth to this. At the very least, Japanese will tell you that Japan is a conformist culture, while Americans gab endlessly about how radically independent we are.
    I find that immigrants always have a distorted view of the old country, and usually idealize it in some way. If you want blarney about the ould sod don’t talk to the Irish, talk to an Irish-American. If you want to hear about the timeless and unchanging culture of China find an Overseas Chinese. They rarely seem up on anything that happened after their ancestors left. (Kang Youwei spent the years after 1911 trying to restore the Qing dynasty, and almost his only support came from overseas.) Plus their view of the culture they left behind tends to be purified (for better or worse.) I am exaggerating a bit, but there is really not a lot of motivation to learn a lot about the old country. It helps to learn some, but the purpose is to anchor yourself in your new society, not to really understand the old.
    The ‘harmonious people’ thing comes in part from attempts by the Japanese government to sell this idea to its people. Especially in the 20th century, but also long before the idea that Japanese people don’t revolt against their rulers. Of course one of the reasons that the state emphasizes this so much is that the Japanese people revolt against their rulers all the time.
    Part of the reason Japanese in America thought of Japan as a more conformist society was probably that in America the most important thing you were supposed to conform to, the family, did not really exist . (Meaning the family as a corporate group.) This would probably be a shock to anyone coming from a traditional society to a modern one. Also, to the extent that old traditions of protest were remembered they would not be much use. Peasant protest and rebellion was built around the village, which no longer existed. Urban protest in Japan was modernized by taking the traditional concept of the “right to benevolence” and mixing it with modern organizations. Benevolence not being a concept that translates well to the U.S. So I guess I would argue that your informants were only remembering part of the Japanese tradition, and that to the extent they did remember old traditions they were not likely to do them much good.

    Some bibliography

    Tetsuo Najita and J. Victor Koschmann Conflict in Modern Japanese History: The Neglected Tradition Princeton U.P. 1982

    Sheldon Garon Molding Japanese Minds: The State in Everyday Life Princeton U.P. 1998

    Almost anything by Mikiso Hane

    Karl van Wolferen The Enigma of Japanese Power : People and Politics in a Stateless Nation, Vintage, 1990 Yes, a popular book, but I like it.

  5. Thanks, Alan, for stepping in while I was otherwise occupied.

    There’s two other things to consider, historically. First is that the vast majority of Japanese immigrants to the US came from relatively small rural areas of Japan, areas that were, initially at least, picked for the physical strength and social calm of the inhabitants. (political connections played a role as well, but if the emigrants from these regions hadn’t worked out, the recruiters would have looked elsewhere). In spite of that, Japanese workers in Hawaii quickly gained a reputation as pretty hard bargainers, and labor agitators (see the scholarship on strikes in Hawaii in the early 20th century by Okihiro and Duus).

    Second is that racism against Japanese in the US in the early 20th century helped to emphasize the “keep your head down” aspects of Japanese tradition, as the old saw about the hammer and nail was at least as true of Japanese in the US as it ever was about Japanese in Japan. (See Odo’s oral history of the 442nd, particularly the chapters on the 1920s and 1930s)

  6. Just to make the whole thing more interesting, one more opinion.
    (For the record, I have not read the book and would be grateful for some information about it such as title etc. I just read both blogs today)

    “First, there’s the comparative history aspect: I can’t think of any other national history that has such a distinguished tradition of civil political protest: perhaps the English? ”

    Seen from an americans perspective I guess?
    I would like to answer this quoted question by asking for the defenitions on “distinguished”. How do you rank? Do we ask the Swedish people (I am swedish if any did not know) of which nation that had the most “distinguished tradition of national protest” and mentioning Gandhi-India, French revolution and Boston tea party, the answer would not be in americans favour. Most people would not even know what the Boston Tea party is, or about. Thus for americans the Boston tea party may be very distinguished, but does it automatically be distinguished for other nations? and thus comparable? This of course equals other “distinguished” actions for other nations as well.

    What I would like to say is that it is quite impossible to compare traditions like this. India and America can be compared since both were brittish colonies. Japan on the other hand has a different background and thus could not be compared (at least according to me) without definitions which would make the result useless. Or one will need to make it too general and thus anything can be put into the discussion.
    Hope I got my message through in a clear and understandable way?

    IF one has to make a comparison of which nation has the biggest **** (read: distinguished tradition of civil political protest) the japanese are not without their own. According to research, being conducted in Japan at the moment from what he said he was doing (if I understood correctly), we have to take a new look at the peasant rebellions during the edo period. The picture that a group of peasant armed with tourches and weapons burn and pillage might not be true. According to the material he used, some of which I have seen, many rebellions were acctually non-violent actions that resulted in stored rice being thrown to the ground and houses might just have been damaged and destroyed in some way. Stealing rice or hurting people seems not be the primary objectives. Thus, if only half of the peasant rebellions were like this, then more than 1000 over 250 year were conducted. Does this count as civil political protest and, if so, how do you compare this with the Boston Tea Party?

    I would like to keep much of the above mentioned research somewhat cloudy for the sake of the conducting person.

    Finally, (this comment has become a long one…)
    “The comment: you still have not identified a single place, anywhere in my writings on Japanese Americans, in which I compare the heroism of those who complied with the draft and those who resisted it. Instead, in all of the places where I write about this, I do the opposite: I refuse to compare them, or to fall into the 60-year-old trap that one must place one above the other.”
    Great! I support you in this totaly and hope to read your book someday!

  7. Thomas,

    Since I’ve since mostly given up on the concept of a “tradition” of protest as a meaningful heuristic, I’m not going to defend myself too strongly. I would say, though, that I think the US does have a history which is replete with political and social movements “against the grain.” I thought about some of the examples you cite, but in most of those cases (except perhaps the French, who revolt at the drop of a tri-colour) they are single movements rather than a “tradition” in the sense of an active cultural habit.

    I’d agree that the Edo protest tradition does qualify, at least to some extent, which is why I took up the question in the first place.

    Eric’s book is here.

  8. Jonathan、

    I think I have been a little missundderstod or else I misunderstood you in the first place. I do not say that US has no tradition of political and social movements. What I opposed was the quote I mentioned. Which I interpreted that no other nation was as distinguished as the US in terms of political and social movements. Just as the discussion goes back to Eric and if he had or had not, compared the rank of heroism. What he tried to avoid is something very subjective, and thus should be avoided.
    The examples I took up, except for the Edo-period protests, were the same as you mentioned in your text.

    Unless you want critical comments like mine to your texts I suggest you stay away from very subjective questions like the one I quoted in my former comment. The only real critisism I have is that you obviously place US as the most “distinguished” (in the world?), which is a term of strong subjective value.

    To add a subjective touch just for the sake of it.
    Sweden does not have a tradition of social protests, very bad in swedish history though, yet we have, according to global surveys, advanced equallity between sexes in the world. This without revolutions and civil wars.. Even so maybe a third of the women still do not consider them equal to men and the social movements preasure in the political arena continues.
    Is it even possible to rank movements like this with the US protests? I would say not. Therefore, avoid ranking globally. Place Boston Tea Party as the most distinguished in US, then I do not disagree.

    Subjective and objective comments alike, nothing personal. Just the way I was taught to react against subjective formulations.

  9. I’m going to have to say that Ameirca has a far bigger (but obviously shorter) history of speaking out against authority. Ameirca was founded because people disagreed with British rule, and desire to speak out do it is built right into the US constitution. America also has many more people who have either the free time to complain or the diversity of throught to bring them into conflict with authority.

    In Japan, on the other hand, people are often eithr too busy to complain very much or are too much of the mind to let themselves be governed even if they disagree with the way that it is done.

  10. Reply to ACB,

    As noted above about the Edo period peseant uprising, which in total was more than 3000, was done with no weapons and with awareness that several of them would be killed. Even then would they protest, not with words but with action.
    Yes America stood up against the British empire, with the help of France, if I am not mistaken. They were prepared for war and had the possibility to conduct war, which Edo pesants did not.

    To the end it seems that I failed yet another time to explain the true purpose. What I detest is the comparison between different countries of which is the biggest. There are several uprisings in european countries at several times, even before the USA were created. Further the “freedom of speech” was an addition to the contitution on the revision of jefferson, thus not something from the begining and the freedom is not unheard of in Sweden or other european countries.
    Further, the Americans may complain more than the japanese, but does that make them “better”. The French are “known” revolutionaries but when was the last time they made a revolution?

    To make a compaitative statement of which tradition is the most “distinguished” you have to, for it to be academically accepted, add every nations history and make clear definition of “speaking out against authority”.
    I eagerly await the multi-volume research.

  11. Thomas,

    The point of my post was to question the putatively quantitative comparison in Muller’s argument with Masugi. Since then, Eric, Alan and I have had a lovely discussion of culture, immigration and context. You’re fixating on something that was “thinking out loud” rather than some kind of authoritative dictate.

    There are meaningful cultural and social and structural differences between societies, and the “multi-volume research” you “eagerly await” isn’t ever going to appear if we don’t start asking these questions. I admit that “distinguished” is a fuzzy term, but then so is the concept of protest and civil society. Precise definitions are sometimes useful and sometimes they are a way of shutting off debate just when it gets interesting.

  12. I can at least ask for forgiveness. Due to stupidity, lesser ability in English or what ever the answer might be I must have totaly missed the point with your “thinking out loud” and ruined your discussion. My sincere appologies. The only thing I can say to my defence is that there are too many things like that which are seriously stated and it might seem that I have got too much of automatic respons.

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