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  • Cultural Relativism and the Construction of Culture: An Examination of Japan
  • Annette Marfording (bio)

I. Introduction

This article suggests a new approach to the human rights debate on the issue of universalism versus cultural relativism of human rights, which has reached an impasse. Proponents of the universality of human rights rely on the International Bill of Rights incorporating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1 and the International Human Rights Covenants, 2 and argue that the rights incorporated in these international treaties are so fundamental as to constitute natural law that is universal to human kind. 3 Cultural relativism can be traced back to anthropologist scholars such as Melville [End Page 431] Herskovits 4 and Adamantia Pollis and Peter Schwab, 5 who contended that the international human rights treaties reflect ethnocentric Western perspectives and that the imposition of these external standards on other cultures which uphold different values is wrong. In more recent times some Asian government leaders have eagerly adopted the cultural relativism theory, and have voiced their opposition to the universality of human rights at recent forums such as the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993 6 and the ASEAN-EU meeting in Bangkok in March 1996. 7 Their argument is essentially that Western human rights principles are based on the notion of individualism, which is inappropriate for Asian societies, where the interests of the community or the group are given priority over those of the individual. 8

Persuasive arguments can be made in favor of either theory. Relativism seems preferable at first sight, in light of the history of Western colonialism and imperialism, and the ensuing destruction of many cultures. The values espoused in the International Bill of Rights may not be shared by all cultures, and why should different value systems be denied equal validity? Does not the experience of the Third Reich and of the more recent Bosnian crisis suggest that tolerance for diversity is not merely an important value in itself, but a condition precedent to the survival of human life and humanity? On the other hand, the fundamental aim of human rights is to protect the individual from the exercise of public power. In view of the worldwide growth of the modern state, and the ensuing heightened vulnerability of the individual to the exercise of its power, human rights principles and protections have become even more important.

In my view there are two reasons why the universalism versus cultural relativism debate has reached an impasse. The first is the apparently equal validity and persuasiveness of arguments for either side. But more importantly, the debate has taken place at a very generalized level. This article suggests that a more constructive approach lies in a sustained examination [End Page 432] of the formation of culture in specific societies. I contend that cultural relativism is not a valid proposition if political and social power structures artificially construct “culture.” If cultural values are not determined by the respective population, but rather by these power structures, cultural relativism gives credence to cultural ideology rather than to culture, and thereby opens the door to state oppression. Thus, my approach to determining the validity of the two theories requires a detailed examination of the formation of culture in each society.

In response to Adamantia Pollis’ recent contention that “[t]he limited scope of individual human rights [in Japan] is a result of the psychological imperatives of Japanese values and not a consequence of state coercion,” 9 the subject of this article will be Japan. The question is whether the Japanese people have determined their cultural values for themselves or whether a cultural ideology has been imposed upon them from above. Even though Japan and its legal system have been the subjects of my research for several years now, I am nevertheless an external observer and thus acknowledge the potential for misinterpretation. To reduce this risk, this article relies predominantly on scholarly writing from within Japan.

II. Culture in Japan

There is a vast body of literature, referred to in Japanese as nihonjinron, on Japanese culture and distinctive Japanese patterns of behavior and thought. The gist of this literature is that Japanese society is very homogenous, characterized by...

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