Why Is Japan So … Different?

A brief history of leaving China, becoming the other, and turning Japanese.

Junko Kimura/Getty Images
Junko Kimura/Getty Images

On March 16, 1885, an editorial entitled "Leaving Asia" was published in the Japanese newspaper Jiji Shimpo. Now widely believed to have been written by Yukichi Fukuzawa, the intellectual giant of the 19th-century modernization movement that culminated in the Meiji Restoration, it argued that Japan could simply not afford to be held back by "feudalistic" China and Korea, and should therefore "leave the ranks of Asian nations and cast our lot with the civilized nations of the West."  

Japan’s break with China, a country it subsequently invaded and humiliated, is a story of sharp relevance today. Tensions between the two nations are extremely high. Chinese and Japanese ships and planes circle disputed islands in the East China Sea, with the ever-present danger of an accident or willful escalation. Leaders in both countries have started to compare the present with 1914 and 1939, when the world stood on the brink of war.

The principal cause of animosity is Japan’s invasion of China in the 1930s and 1940s, an unsuccessful attempt to colonize the Middle Kingdom in which millions were slaughtered. It can also be clearly traced to 1895, when Japan fought China in a brief war and annexed Chinese territory, including Taiwan, and claimed the Senkaku islands (which the Chinese call the Diaoyu), the focus of today’s territorial dispute. More subtly, however, the resentment between the two countries goes back further still, to Japan’s intellectual break with China, when it threw itself into a headlong effort to modernize and Europeanize.

China was once considered the fount of all knowledge for Japan, an isolated archipelago of islands sitting like an apostrophic afterthought off the eastern edge of the vast Eurasian landmass. Kyoto, founded in the 8th century and Japan’s imperial capital for a thousand years, was a replica of the Tang Dynasty capital Chang’an. Serious Japanese poets wrote in Chinese. Only women used the phonetic kana script — a lady-in-waiting at the imperial court composed the 11th-century Tale of Genji, considered the world’s first novel. For men, to be learned meant to be learned in Chinese.

But in subsequent centuries, the prestige of Chinese civilization began to slowly erode; it fell sharply in 1644 when the Ming Dynasty crumpled and the Han Chinese came under foreign control. This coincided with the early days of Japan’s Tokugawa period (1600-1868), when the ruling shoguns sought to protect the state, and themselves, from foreign influence, including Chinese. Intent on preserving its monopoly and wary of competing ideologies, the shogunate banned the Japanese, on pain of death, from leaving the country and returning. Traders from China were mostly restricted to a Chinese quarter in the city of Nagasaki.

For Japan to break with China was a traumatic decision. Most of what it valued culturally had come from the Chinese landmass: wet rice cultivation, the written script, concepts of Confucian hierarchy and filial piety, and techniques in the use of both bronze and iron. The historian George Sansom wrote that Buddhism, which also arrived in Japan from China (even though it originated in India) was "a great magic bird, flying on strong pinions across the ocean, [bringing] to Japan all the elements of a new life — a new morality, learning of all kinds, literature, the arts and crafts, and subtle metaphysics which had no counterpart in the native tradition." 

During the Tokugawa era, scholars of kokugaku, or "country learning," endeavored to revive nativist traditions and loosen the hold of Chinese influence. Helping these ideas take hold was the Opium War of 1839-1842, where a mere handful of British gunboats brought low the great civilization of the Middle Kingdom. China was in danger of being "cut up like a melon," as a 19th century expression had it. If Japan were to avoid a similar fate, it would have to embrace Western civilization and leave its Asian origins behind. Kokugaku scholars looked back to a pre-feudal classical Japan, a supposed golden age of literature and philosophy. They stressed the supposed purity of Japanese poetry, which, distinct from the classical Chinese forms, was meant to evoke nature and praise pure emotion.

Even today, such ideas resonate. Shintaro Ishihara, the former governor of Tokyo whose 2012 plan to buy and develop the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea triggered the current Sino-Japanese standoff, once told me proudly that Japanese poetry was unique. The novelist Andre Malraux, he said, had personally told him that the Japanese were "the only people who can grasp eternity in a single moment." Ishihara, blinking in his owlish way, went on, "The haiku is the shortest poetic style in the world. This was not created by the Chinese but by the Japanese."

Much of what we today consider quintessentially Japanese originated from this period of breaking with China. Ian Buruma, a brilliant scholar of China and Japan told me, "As knowledge of the world grew, the Japanese began to realize that China was not the center of world, and to recognize the weakness of China. So they thought, ‘We better start repositioning ourselves.’"

Similarly, much of Japan’s supposed exceptionalism was a modern construct, said Buruma. "The reason the Japanese nativists describe their own culture as completely different from China was a form of defensiveness." From the 1880s, after the overthrow of the shogun and the establishment of a modern state in the name of the emperor, history books were rewritten to begin not with the Stone Age, but with Japan’s own creation myth, tracing a supposedly unbroken imperial line from the sun goddess Amatarasu to the present day. Japanese Shintoism, an animist set of folkloric beliefs mixed with ancestor worship, was elevated to a state religion with the divine emperor at its center. Much of Japan’s supposed uniqueness, in other words, was propaganda; a political exercise in nation building and establishing Japan’s credentials as a standalone culture distinct from China.  

Tokyo used that propaganda to create support for Japan’s imperial ambitions, based on the supposed superiority of the Japanese, who were closer to the divine emperor than foreigners. Japan’s "civilizing" mission was elevated to an idea that was worth dying — and killing — for. Things were very different, of course, after the war. Years later, in 1971, Henry Kissinger told then-Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai that Japan’s "tribal outlook" made it capable of rapid change. "Japan believes that their society is so different that they can adjust to anything and preserve their national essence," he said. "Therefore the Japanese are capable of sudden explosive changes. They went from feudalism to emperor worship in two to three years. They went from emperor worship to democracy in three months."

Some foreign observers have been as enthusiastic about promoting Japan’s alleged uniqueness as the Japanese themselves. Of course, all nations are unique, but in Japan this truism became a fetish. The Japanese developed a form, which dates back to the Tokugawa era but which flourished in the post-World War II period, of quasi-philosophical writing called Nihonjinron, or "essays on the essence of Japaneseness." Written by both Japanese and foreigners, these tracts sought to explain what made the Japanese unique and how they differed from foreigners, who were, all too often, lumped into one homogeneous category. Such lines of inquiry often settled on a description of the Japanese as cooperative, sedentary rice farmers who use instinct and heart rather than cold, Western logic. Unlike Western hunter-gatherers, the Japanese were seen as having a unique sensitivity to nature, an ability to communicate without language through a sort of social telepathy, and a rarefied artistic awareness.

In 1946, U.S. anthropologist Ruth Benedict made it respectable to see the Japanese as a race apart with the publication of her classic study of Japanese culture, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. She described a highly codified society operating with conventions all-but-incomprehensible to outsiders. Her work paved the way for shelf after shelf of Nihonjinron texts by Japanese authors. These multiplied with Japan’s post-war economic success, which the Japanese and foreigners alike began to attribute to the country’s supposedly unique organizational and social structures. Gavan McCormack, an Australian academic, describes Benedict’s book as "one of the greatest propaganda coups of the century." In stoking Japan’s own sense of its own uniqueness, he argues, the book helped sever Japan’s psychological ties with its Asian neighbors. "What they believed to be ancient tradition," he writes, "was quintessentially modern ideology."

Japan’s perception of itself as isolated and different persists to this day, often to its disadvantage. It has, for example, hampered the country’s electronics industry: Japanese manufacturers often produce goods perfectly adapted to Japanese customers but of little global reach. It yearns for what it sees as its rightful place in the hierarchy of nations — it has for years waged a campaign to obtain a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. But whether defending whaling, or the rights of its leaders to worship at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which houses the "souls" of more than 2 million dead Japanese soldiers, including 14 class-A war criminals from World War II, Japan often has a hard time explaining itself to the rest of the world.

Some in Japan, however, especially on the right, seem bent on preserving the mystique of a country that is somehow unintelligible to outsiders. Masahiko Fujiwara, a right-wing author (and mathematician), suggested only half-jokingly in a popular 2005 book that the Japanese should stop trying to learn English altogether as this would help preserve a barrier between their own exceptional culture and the rest of the world. He told me that when non-English-speaking Japanese went abroad, they preserved the mystique of a profound culture beyond the grasp of foreigners to understand. As soon as they spoke in English, he said, the illusion was broken and foreigners realized the Japanese had nothing to say.

Donald Keene, perhaps the greatest post-war U.S. scholar of Japanese literature, told me a similar story from the other direction. His lectures in Tokyo, mostly in Japanese, are invariably standing-room only as Japanese students flock to learn from his encyclopedic knowledge of Japanese language and literature. Yet as soon as he draws on the board a simple kanji –the multi-stroke characters derived from Chinese — there are often gasps of amazement from members of the audience astonished that a foreigner has penetrated Japanese hieroglyphics.

In Bending Adversity, my book on Japan, Toshiaki Miura, a shy and thoughtful commentator on the left-of-center newspaper Asahi Shimbun, summed up Japan’s sense of geographical, even psychological, isolation, coupled with its long-frustrated attempt to find a place in the hierarchy of nations. "Our psyche is very insular, but we always see ourselves reflected in the mirror outside," said Miura of the twin impulses to be isolated and yet to be internationally respected. "One of the tragedies of Japan’s position in international society is that we have no neighbors of the same size or the same level of industry. If Japan were placed in Europe," he said, airing that 19th-century impulse to leave Asia, "it would have Germany, Italy and England to get along with, and we could learn how to coexist with countries of the same strength."

But Japan is not in Europe. It lies next door to China, the fount of much of its civilization, and a country that Japan invaded when China was weak. It must now watch in alarm as China, which has neither forgotten nor forgiven, grows stronger. 

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