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Rethinking the History of Japan – Part III

June 6, 2009

Growing Sub-Cultures in Japan
Is this the Closing of a Historical Parenthesis? 

An Optimistic View

Rethinking the History of Japan, Part I The Tale of the Lost Japonian Charter; Part II  The Myth of America’s Opening of Japan


Does Japans culture at the beginning of 21st century pick up some main socio-psychological traits of the late Edo period? Is Japan today in a phase of revival of its early 19th century popular culture? The late Edo period showed the emergence of what we call today civil society. This process started before the end of the 18th century but it was interrupted 1853 by Admiral Perry’s canon boat policy. Although the treaty of Kanagawa that was imposed to Japan by Perry in 1854 did not “open” Japan, as history textbooks still hold up the myth, the arrival of the Black Ships, the kurofune, came as a shock to the Japanese government and let many small spaces of freedom in Japan disappear. Most historians like Ian Buruma in his book Inventing Japan widely agree that this aggression had a huge and fundamentally bad influence on the following decades in Japanese politics. Thus, the new Meiji government was setup by a restoration of the old imperial power instead of a bourgeois revolution like in Great Britain, United States of America and France in the 17th and 18th century. More specifically the sense of vulnerability remained the intrinsic motivation of any political agenda. Even worse, this new approach proved to be extremely successful in the wars 1895 against China and 1905 against Russia.

Can we support the idea that just today, after more than 150 years, Japan is finally pulling out of something we could call its “historical parenthesis”? My impression is that Japan is going through a cultural revolution roughly since the first government of Koizumi. Learning more about Japanese history, especially from the late Edo period, I recognize a reappearance of some ancient behaviours, tastes and mindsets.

The German economist Kurt Singer, who lived in Japan between 1931 and 1939, complained in his excellent book Mirror, Sword and Jewel (London, 1973) the total absence of reflection and decision in Japanese culture. And he was convinced that the Japanese tradition of Buddhism was responsible for this absence of schemes of individuality. This might still be an acceptable explanation, yet there was a critical tradition within Japan unknown to Singer, starting at latest with the anti-Buddhist novels in the late 18th century. Hiraga Gennai, a physicist, pharmacist, inventor, painter and writer developed in his Furyo Shidoken den (1763) [The Dashing Life of Shidoken] a full-fledged satire that denounces the dullness of Buddhist education. His hero starts as a young man who is forced by his parents to enter a Buddhist monastery. One day during his boring studies a bird flies through the open window, sits down on his desk and drops an egg. The egg breaks up and a beautiful small woman appears. She shows the young monk the way to a hidden cave where a mysterious bump offers him a magic fan. With this fan he travels for many years through many fantastic countries – just like Swift’s Gulliver. In the end he even survives his journey to the Island of Women and returns to his home town as an old man. He has not reached any kind of satori, but instead he can tell a lot of fascinating stories about the human condition.

Politically Buddhism was an instrument to keep aristocracy under Tokugawa docile as much as Shinto became under the Meiji government instrumental to indoctrinate the military class and finally the whole people with eternal and unconditional loyalty to the emperor. Another cultural and social division in late Edo period existed between the refined and spiritually uplifting theatre for aristocrats and the much more spicy and popular Kabuki style of theatre. It was only in these years that also literature became popular with the circulation of Kyokutei Bakin’s Nansou Satomi Hakkenden, an engaging, thrilling and highly entertaining epic novel. It is about six “dog warriors” who bring peace and a full-fledged utopia to the province of Awa. Bakin was the first writer in Japan who could make a living with his books that where sold to common people on market places. Hakkenden, arguably the longest novel in world literature, was published in 106 woodprint booklets between 1814 and 1842. 

Mary Elizabeth Berry provides in her book Japan in Print. Information and Nation in the Early Modern Period (2006) a fascinating account of the conversion of the public from an object of state surveillance into a subject of self-knowledge. She identifies the traces of it in the circulation of commercially printed matters: maps, gazetteers, family encyclopedias, urban directories, travel guides, official personnel roasters, and instruction manuals for everything from farming to lovemaking. 

“The sharpest evidence for a public sphere of opinion in early modernity comes from the academy, where scholars of disparate station and philosophy sustained critiques of virtually all aspects of the polity: fiscal and monetary policy, taxation, international trade, defense and foreign relations, criteria of official appointment, the rationale for samurai privilege. The sharpest evidence for a public sphere of protest comes from the village, where farmers across the country used suits, petitions, and uprisings to oppose any variety of perceived misrule: high taxes, corvée levies, commercial and transport monopolies, usurious lending rates, and the personal ignorance and misconduct of local officials. And the sharpest evidence of a public sphere of letters comes from vernacular playwrights and storytellers who veiled as fiction a reality that made no sense: samurai reduced to tawdry vendettas, peasants compelled to sell daughters, honest merchants in hock, charlatans in glory.”

These are just some of the many traces of a surprisingly blooming culture of individualism in a country that is today stereotypically known for collectivist attitudes. One of the reasons for the possibility of such an expansion of popular and more individualistic culture was the existence of some relatively big urban centres. From the early 17th century on the Tokugawa Shogunate established 24 licensed quarters for prostitution all over the country, the biggest ones being Shimabara for Kyoto, Shinmachi for Osaka and Yoshiwara for Edo. The main reason for establishing these nightless cities was to prevent the nouveau riche chōnin (townsmen) from political intrigue. Especially Yoshiwara in Edo was such a city of its own within the Asakusa district. They were “walled, moated, glittering islands of style and panache in the dreary, gray seas of Confucian social order” (William Lindsay). But they catered more than just prostitution. In Asakusa there were also theatres and dance shows; pilgrims, artists and writers from all corners of the countries met in this world of amusement and joy. The shogunate even banned Kabuki theatre that had become too popular and socially too critical into these districts. But now there was more than just entertainment. This district has become a kind of rather exotic civil society. The writer Yasunari Kawabata described this vibrant atmosphere some decades later in his early book The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa (1929). Even ordinary people during the first half of the 19th century noticed how the self-image of Japan and its public order under Tokugawa government had become increasingly obsolete in the light of daily life and social reality. The inferior merchant class had accumulated some prosperity and could enjoy a lifestyle of which most members of the samurai class could but dream. Samurai where about to become pitiful and even ridiculous beings in a public order that seemed to lose its axis and legitimacy.

This gap is the very beginning of political reflection and individuality. The Japanese subjects became aware that there is an alternative to the existing public order. And as soon as human beings are able to think in terms of options, they necessarily start to contest the necessity of the present public order. This reflection on public order typically accompanies the emergence of a public sphere as Jürgen Habermas described it in his famous book Structural Transformation of Public Sphere (1962). At the same time it is the core process that creates individuality, political subjectivity and modern political citizenship. This was not yet given in the 18th century. Marius B. Jansen explained in Changing Japanese Attitudes Toward Modernization how the dominating mindset even among early intellectuals was gratefulness for this long lasting period of peace and the relaxed way of life that Tokugawa government granted to many of its subjects.

Yet many of today’s historians and socials scientist have difficulties with recognizing some early civil society that could have led to a bourgeois revolution in Japan. In The State of Civil Society in Japan (2003) Susan Pharr (ed.) defines the topic of her investigation as follows: “Civil society consists of sustained, organized social activity that occurs in groups that are formed outside the state, the market and the family”. The following sentence is even more important: “Cumulatively, such activity creates a public sphere outside the state, a space in which groups and individuals engage in public discourse.” There is no mentioning of amusement districts, controlled prostitution and growing urban life under Tokugawa government as a springboard of civil society. Rather the opposite end of the social spectrum is considered as being more important. After pointing at the numerous academies of learning and the philanthropic associations of merchants, Sheldon Garon goes even further: “We do not usually think of rural society as a prime site of civil society. However, in the waning decades of Tokugawa rule, prosperous farmers and rural entrepreneurs (gōnō) increasingly crossed village boundaries to form regional and even national networks of production, credit, and sociability”.  My suspicion is that political scientists and sociologist stick too much to a supposedly inherent moral value of the concept of civil society and it is difficult for them to find this noble pattern of action in amusement districts.

Although I don’t agree with this moralistic approach of this book, I welcome the conclusion of the editors who consider “1990 as a watershed”.  They explain how the Hanshin-Awahi Earthquake in Kobe 1995 showed the embarrassing incapacity of straitjacket-ruled public services to respond the needs of this catastrophic situation. At the same time private initiatives of Japanese people and volunteers more than compensated this failure of the public service. After that incident there was a “volunteer [borantia] revolution” and a “NPO [non-profit-organization] boom”. I also believe that towards the end of the 1990s something changed fundamentally. But my claim pushes the topic much further as I want to suggest that the new civil society is growing out of the fields of culture, amusement and entertainment. It starts again where it has been stopped at the end of the Edo period. In this sense the past few years could represent the starting point in the process of closing a historical parenthesis. This parenthesis includes all the political, social and economic mistakes induced by the paranoia of being a vulnerable country, by the incapacity of acting in a self-determined way, by the feeling of being a rabbit under the eyes of many foreign snakes and in the end by the belief that Japan was the biggest rabbit that can protect the other small Asian rabbits from all the Western snakes.

The first emergence of a civil society within and on the fringe of the walled gardens of the red-light-districts is followed by a second one today, yet in another dress and outside of the old boundaries. This is not to say that the zoku, the urban tribes of young Japanese are signs of a fully achieved individualism and mature citizenship, let alone the lonesome hikikomori,the otaku, goth, gyaru, NEET and Freeter. But by realizing that the adherence to such groups is an individual choice that has also other options, that makes the big difference to the human self-understanding as a social and political being.

I believe that the conservative and rather militaristically inspired string of culture that had its hegemony in Japan from mid-Meiji period through about the 1990s, this string of culture is running out of supporters. Too many employees have dropped out of the lifetime employment scheme and too many young people are not prepared any more to go for a salary-man’s life or to find their harbour in a career as bureaucrats. And labour force becoming scarce due to demography, Japanese business and administration need to look for a much better and more efficient allocation of this unique source of national income. Symptomatically 2008 was the first year in which no graduate of Tokyo University applied for a career at the Ministry of Finance. Even the young elite students sneak out.

In 1867/68, there was the surprising and most popular Eijanaika movement, a “cheerful disorder of milleniarist inspiration” as the French historian Jean-Marie Bouissou wrote. It was said to have no political agenda and thus it was of no use for the analysis of the emergence of civil society. Yet maybe the Japanese director Shohei Imamura reached in his movie Eijanaika (1981) a more fertile understanding of this phenomenon by describing it as a kind of proto-political awakening.

But beyond these proto-political activities, and this is my hypothesis, the new civil society seems to be growing even more out of the fields of culture, amusement and entertainment. It starts again where it has been stopped at the end of the Edo period. In this sense the past few years could represent the starting point in the process of closing a historical parenthesis. This parenthesis includes many of the political, social and economic mistakes induced by the paranoia of being a vulnerable country, by the incapacity of acting in a self-determined way. The young people growing up now in Japan seem to be lost as future supporters of this fearful and overcompensating culture. They don’t do this in the classical western way that social scientists have canonized with the concept of civil society. Instead of saying a rebellious, highly politicized “No!” they remain typical Japanese in at least this respect by just not responding to the expectations any more. Japanese teens and twens increasingly focus on themselves and their limited communities and refuse to join the national consensus that was fabricated throughout the last 150 years. They just don’t care any more. Eijanaika! They watch closely the failure of the “grand design” and of the Japanese civil ideology that had not changed fundamentally after WW II. They also see the failure of their absent fathers who had passed their lives in corporate slavery and are spit out by their families as sodaigumi [bulky waste] when they retire. The Japanese youth is finally executing the secret and unfulfilled desires not only of their parents, but also of their grand- and even grand-grand-parents. Today, this new cultural basis has reached global recognition through the huge success of manga, electronic entertainment and the new narrations connected to virtual reality. It may sound odd, but the revolutionary power of individualism seems to have a totally different origin when compared to Europe and North America. It’s coming late but it might be very powerful. Thus, the actual cultural evolution in Japanese society should be interpreted as some kind of progress and Masao Miyamoto could be right with the concluding words in his scandalizing book Straitjacket Society (1994): “Instead of valuing the masochistic pleasure of messhi hoko [self-sacrifice for the sake of the group], if the Japanese focus on the pleasure of freedom, they can hatch from their adolescent shells and become independent adults. Freed from the constraints of the bureaucracy, they will then be able to lead richer, more meaningful lives”.

© Reginald Grünenberg is an author and publisher in Berlin/Germany. He attended the European Commission’s ETP Executive Training Programme in 2008 at Waseda University ( His historical novel Shiboruto about Philipp Franz von Siebold will be published in 2009 in Germany.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 7, 2009 3:11 pm

    Brilliant !

    Waseda module is approaching and we are all packing to Japan at the moment.

    ETP 27 has been great so far.



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