Old Myths, New Myths: Problems of Informed Punditry

The Asia/Pacific Journal, aka Japan Focus, has a fascinating interview with Heinrich Reinfried, Senior Lecturer in East Asian Studies at the University St. Gallen, Switzerland, conducted by a Swiss weekly. “Sushi and Samurai: Western Stereotypes and the (Mis)Understanding of Post-Tsunami Japan” begins and ends with a credible historical and thematic deconstruction of some of the less helpful stereotypes of Japan: Japan as samurai state, kamikaze, zen masters. I particularly liked the short bit on Herrigel

Nazi Germany made use of the samurai ideal of one who obeys orders unconditionally, who sacrifices himself on orders from above, who although not a Christian has a noble soul. This is the ideological basis of Zen in the Art of Archery by the Nazi Eugen Herrigel, a book which has exerted a powerful influence over the years. Some Swiss still today regard this book as the open sesame to Japan. It is amusing to hear of Europeans with an anti-authoritarian upbringing who go to Japan to let a Zen master hit them should they doze off during meditation.

He mentions early 20th century ideas about national character, and Saidian othering

we use Japan as a negative role model incorporating the opposite of the positive qualities we attribute to ourselves.

And he talks about the Cold War re-exoticisation of Japan as a land of Geisha and gardens, class-less capitalism. I’m not sure Henry Luce is as much to blame as Reinfried, nor am I terribly convinced by his analysis of Japan’s response/role in the process:

Reinfried: Japanese are quick to realize what others see in them. They are eager to incorporate foreign images into their self-image, above all, of course, those which are self-aggrandizing. This is what happened during the Cold War when Japanese adapted and subsequently internalized the positive image that the Western world had propagated in order to mark Japan off from communist China. This self-perception enabled the country to reach the goal it had envisaged since the Meiji-Period, namely to “catch up to and go beyond“ the West. It made Japan unique but also nurtured its own brand of nationalism.

DM: There are those who maintain that Japanese just love playing the exotic role assigned to them by foreigners.

Reinfried: To some extent every country puts on a show for others. That is part of the success story of many nations. We Swiss, too, like to pretend that we are cowherds addicted to cheese. It is only when disaster occurs that we take note of the fact that we all live in one and the same world. Exceptionalist claims regarding culture then immediately fade into irrelevance.

There’s an argument to be made there, I suppose, but there’s too much going on here which glosses over complications: tourism, nationalism, the extent to which Japan’s self-image created or was created by foreign discourses, and the China-Japan cultural tension which was over a half-century old before the Cold War started.

This is typical, though, of the middle section of the interview, in which Reinfried engages in substantial myth-making and othering of his own. Aside from a well-earned swipe at foreign journalists shallow reportage, there’s a whole litany of chestnuts, conventional images of Japan, highly questionable generalizations presented as nearly-universal truths about all Japanese, without a hint of the critical perspective of the rest of the article. Most of them are about Japan as a collective, connected society. For example:

  • “In Japan, even a disaster is handled in an organized manner. Japan is generally characterized by a very high degree of organization. This also applies to disaster management. Japanese rely heavily on organization, simply because they do not see any real alternative to getting themselves organized.”
  • “People in the Western world basically believe in their capability to live on their own, whereas Japanese tend to see themselves as part of a system. They do not see themselves as being capable of existing without an external system such as the state.”
  • “In Japan, man and nature are not in contradiction, since in their view man was not blessed by God with a mind and then placed in Nature. In Japan, man and what we call Nature together form a unity. This realm can be either orderly or chaotic, bestowing blessings at times, at other times demonstrating that its might cannot be controlled, such as when it produces huge tsunami or rattles the earth. At the same time, the conviction that man can keep the dangers of Nature at bay with the help of technology is being nurtured. Scientists refer to a disaster as an “occurrence.“ A disaster is the result of the fact that man settled in places he is not intended to settle.”
  • “Religious beliefs are a strictly private concern. There is, however, a strong link with one’s ancestors, to whom Japanese feel very close. Religious feelings do exist in the form of gratefulness towards them as well as towards fellow human beings in general. The notion is widely accepted that in a society based on division of labor, one’s existence depends precariously on one’s fellow citizens doing their jobs properly. This, in essence, is the least common denominator in Japanese religion.”
  • “In Japan there is the view that man is neither good nor bad, but malleable: Just as water assumes the form of the vessel it is contained in, man must always be embedded in a vessel, be it family, community or company.”
  • “In Japan, public discourse constitutes mainly an exchange of factual information, not of worldviews or personal convictions. … Japanese public debates on TV generally run in orderly fashion. In Japan, differences of opinion are attributed to differences in the level of information and not to ideological differences. We have behind us a long tradition of disputes between believers and non-believers. In Japan, there are only those who know and those who do not. In case of disagreement, people do not raise their voices to outshout each other but go home to recheck the vital facts. Saying this, I don’t in any way want to suggest that Japanese are unable to raise their voices in a quarrel if they feel the need.”
  • “Japanese are not successful because they are ready to die for their company. Japanese are successful because they think in terms of systems. The individual is of little importance in this dimension of strategic thinking, so these handbooks are misleading. In Japan, everything is conceived as a system. Individuals and their achievements are of secondary importance.”

I could go on. The idea of Japan as a systematic, organized society has deep roots, and there are ways in which these statements could be construed as true, with caveats, limitations, and an awareness of the way in which these ideas serve the needs of the state and a kind of social order. What’s most odd, I suppose, is the degree to which Reinfried fails to recognize that these are cultural tropes of great power as well as fairly commonplace images of Japan, both within and abroad. There’s a saying I heard once, and can’t find a source for, that man for man, the Chinese can beat the Japanese, but that four Japanese can beat four Chinese because they work together.1 There have been movies2 and books galore on these themes, not to mention a whole cottage industry of debunking scholarship on most of them.

This ended up being a very frustrating article to read, because it started out so well….

  1. I’m pretty sure I heard it about economic productivity regarding Japan and the US, too. If anyone can find sources, I’d be interested to see them.  

  2. Gung Ho, among others  


  1. The list you provided was more than enough for me. I commend you for reading through the entire article, for after reading those quotes, I don’t know if I would have be able to stomach it. The response to 3/11 was far from organized. There was infighting in the government, officials shirking from making executive decisions for fear of taking responsibility if they were wrong, and a lack of transparency regarding the dilemma at Fukushima. I will admit that things in Tokyo remained “orderly”, and it was a little surreal to watch people (including myself) trying to get along with their daily lives. However, that list of quotes paints an incredibly warped picture of Japan… and I have to wonder if Reinfred has actually lived in Japan for an extended period of time.

  2. As part of his critique of foreign journalists who show up on the scene and provide a flawed, partial image of Japan, he says, without a hint of irony or self-criticism, that he gets most of his up-to-date information on Japan from Japanese-language satellite TV programming….

  3. As a extra, you get this at the bottom of the page:

    “This is an abbreviated version of an article published in German in Das Magazin (English: “The magazine”).”

    which for some reason I find hilariously funny.

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