Japan and Asia (2)

Japan and Asia? Japanese Orientalism

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared in
Mainichi Daily News, 4 September 1987, page 9

See also Japan and Korea and Alternative history

"What's in a name?" can have great political significance when the name is Asia, and when the question is whether or not ajia includes Japan.

Many Japanese use ajiajin in contexts which exclude themselves and forbid the unqualified use of "Asian" as a translation. "Japanese and Asians" and "Japanese and other Asians" are clearly different.

Many (other) Asians want Japan to identify with (the rest of) Asia, but not in the manner of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, in which Japan saw itself as an integral part of Asia, but an Asia which would be safer from the west if it were part of Japan. "Asia for the Asiatics" meant "Asia for 3an" in the idiom of prewar imperialists. And postwar Japan's return to the "leave Asia, join Europe" (datsua nyyo) ideal advocated by Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835-1901) resulted in Japan once more turning its back on (the rest of) Asia.

Ambivalence about Japan's identity with (the rest of) Asia is mutual. Some (other) Asians welcomed Japan's attempt to drive Europeans from (the rest of) Asia. But most saw Japan as a country ruled by men who believed in the superiority of their Yamato language, culture and genes, and who were obsessed with the dream of Yamatoizing (the rest of) Asia as a way of saving it from itself after rescuing it from western domination.

The (other) Asian countries which had been occupied by Japan were relieved to see the Japanese go. After years of "looking west" for their models of modernization, they are now turning back to Asia, inspired by Japan's success, but wary of a Japan that seems too proud when not unsure of itself as an "honorable western" nation.

Some of this pride appears in the form of renascent Yamatoism, which is increasingly evident in some government and private efforts to "internationalize" Japan. A case in point is Prime Minister Nakasone's vision of Japan as an "international" state in which Japanese would save the (rest of the) world by being more Japanese.

It is felt that if Japanese knew more about themselves, and if they were prouder of their racial history and culture, non-Japanese would naturally be impressed by Japan's superior morality and convert to Nihonism. No need to force them to love nature in order to become truly human. They'd know a good thing when they saw it.

All this smacks of "reverse orientalism", a term used by John Timothy Wixted, professor of Chinese literature at Arizona State University, in an address he made before the western Branch of the American Oriental Society in Boulder, colorado, on Nov. 1, 1985.

"Orientalism" as used in Edward Said's 1978 book with this title describes the habit of the west to map out the east into the near, middle and far coordinates of Eurocentric values. The west continues to nurture its superiority complex by viewing the east as inscrutably non-western, rather than as a human variation of something larger than itself.

Such orientalism is behind the west's (mis)understanding of Japan as an honorable member of its family. Journalist Karel van Wolferen contends that westerners who assume that Japan "is a sovereign state like any other" or that it belongs "in that loose category known as capitalist free-market economies" are wrong (Foreign Affairs, Winter 1986/1987). So closely do these westerners equate the forms of Japan's political and economic institutions with their own, that they cannot imagine Japan as a country with a (non) leader of a (non) government where the buck never stops, or as a country whose government does not really believe in free trade.

Japan is equally guilty of seeing (the rest of) the world in its own ideological light. It needs a monolithic "west" as a foil for its self-proclaimed "uniqueness" and "homogeneity" and "insularity" and "smallness" and "victimization". And ajia comes in handy when Japan feels lonely or wants somewhere to extend its goodwill.

Many Japanese say "we Japanese" to express a national uniformity which often has no basis in fact. The speaker is compelled by racialist ideology to assume that all Japanese are of the same historical and social experience and therefore one of a kind. The same narcissism can move many Japanese to claim "we Asians" when trying to appeal to a collective racial identity among (other) Asians.

Wixted said that Japanese tend to use "we Asians" when they want "to extend the scope of some flattering self-image, such as "We Asians have human feeling," and imply if not actually state the rest of this formulation, i.e., "westerners do not have human feeling." Wixted found it amusing "how the part of these formulations that includes other Asians is often misleading, debatable at best, or downright wrong."

But (other) Asians may not be amused if "we Asians" becomes a tool to facilitate a revision of the "peace constitution" and a reversion to military politics. Many (other) Asian countries want Japan to join them in "looking east" and building an "Asian community" that would pursue common economic and political interests vis-a-vis (the rest of) the world. But they are apprehensive about Japan returning to the Asian fold in a military role, even if limited to protecting the sea lanes.

Japan must prove that it can relate to (the rest of) Asia as a partner and not a patron. (Other) Asians have had their fill of Orientalism from the west, and don't need any more from Japan.