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  • A Genealogy of "Japanese" Self-images
  • Walter Edwards (bio)
A Genealogy of "Japanese" Self-images. By Eiji Oguma; translated by David Askew. Trans Pacific Press Pty. Ltd., Rosanna, 2002. xxxvi, 435 pages. $69.95, cloth; $29.95, paper.

The title of this English translation is taken from the subtitle of Oguma Eiji's Japanese original: Tan'itsu minzoku shinwa no kigen: "Nihonjin" no jigazō no keifu (Origin of the myth of the homogenous nation: A genealogy of "Japanese" self-images) (Shinyōsha, 1995). While Oguma specifically names this myth of homogeneity as the claim found in much of Nihonjinron literature, his intent is not to examine Nihonjinron discourse per se, but rather to trace out a "genealogy of the consciousness of identity" of the Japanese from the start of the modern era, up through the Pacific War and into the early postwar years. The result is a sweeping intellectual history, examining the views held by anthropologists, historians, linguists, legal scholars, [End Page 440] government officials, and other writers from the Edo period through the first half of the twentieth century on the nature of Japanese ethnic identity. In contrast to assertions of homogeneity, which indeed characterize Nihonjinron writings of the 1970s in particular, Oguma documents the broad diversity of perspectives held in prewar Japan on the nature of the Japanese and their origins.

Oguma points out two distinct currents emerging early in theories of Japanese origins and serving to summarize the majority of positions taken up to the annexation of Korea in 1910. At one extreme were interpretations rooted in Edo-period nativist traditions and developed by late nineteenth-century National Polity (kokutai) theorists such as Hozumi Yatsuka and Inoue Tetsujirō, who hewed close to a literal reading of ancient mythology. The notion proposed by these figures of Japan as a Family State, a cornerstone of Meiji ideology, took the entire nation as descended from the imperial line, hence of "pure blood" and as having inhabited the Japanese homeland from great antiquity. Equally prevalent, however, were those who regarded the Japanese as a mixture of races, with a significant portion of the ancestral population entering the archipelago recently, certainly later than the Ainu. Proponents of this view included modern academic figures such as anthropologist Tsuboi Shōgorō and historians Hoshino Hisashi and Kume Kunitake, as well as Christian intellectuals.

The annexation of Korea served as occasion for the mixed nation view to attain a position of dominance, notes Oguma, with the majority of opinions expressed at the time drawing on its imagery to justify the move. Some argued that governance and assimilation would be easy because of the common ancestry and racial similarities of the two nations. Others took past successes in assimilating indigenous peoples (such as the Kumaso, Hayato, and Emishi) and immigrant Koreans and Chinese as indicating the superiority of the Japanese, thus justifying expansion beyond the archipelago. But the change in status to empire, with Taiwan and Korea now representing a large percentage of its population, also prompted National Polity thinkers to revise their theories. The image of Japan as a Family State could be maintained as valid ideology, it turned out, by any of three solutions proposed to the question of how to treat alien peoples, varying in their attitude to the threat of alien blood. At one extreme was Kanokogi Kazunobu, a realpolitik proponent who argued for continual expansion through rule by force, with no assimilation of foreign populations. Another singular view, proposed by Tanaka Chigaku and elaborated by his son Satomi Kishio, took the Japanese kokutai as a universal ethic destined to extend to all peoples regardless of racial identity. By contrast, more orthodox National Polity theorists like Hozumi shifted the Family State metaphor to include fictive kinship relations, asserting the priority of a sense of identity as Japanese over actual blood ties. Watari Shōzaburō elaborated this position in 1928 by arguing [End Page 441] that ancestor worship has historically been an "open blood-family organization," allowing in-marrying spouses and adopted children to become family members by venerating a common ancestor. Outsiders have always been welcome to join the family, in other words, as long as they gave deference to...


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