Nakasone's remarks

An anti-Nihonjinron analysis

By William Wetherall

A critique of Edward C.P. Stewart
"Nakasone's remarks: A semantic and intercultural analysis"
Asahi Evening News, 5 November 1986, page 9

A version of this article appeared in two parts as follows:

"Nakasone's remarks: An anti-Nihonjinron analysis (1)"
Asahi Evening News, 4 December, page 7

"Nakasone's remarks: An anti-Nihonjinron analysis (2)"
Asahi Evening News, 5 December, page 15

Purple phrases were added to the AEN version.
Other phrasing may also differ from the AEN version.

The AEN version attracted one critical letter and my rebuttal (reproduced below).

Nakasone's remarks
An anti-Nihonjinron analysis (1)
By William Wetherall

"Nakasone's Remarks: A Semantic and Intercultural Analysis" (Nov. 5) perpetuates many stereotypes about the Japanese language and the Yamato ethnic majorities who speak it. Its author, International Christian University professor of intercultural communication Edward C.P. Stewart, seems to endorse many of the myths of Nihonjinron, that metascientific branch of Japanology which holds that Japan's cultural linguistics are very different from that of other societies.

"Semantically," Steward wrote, "the critical word used by the prime minister was 'intelligent' said in English."

Not true. Nakasone said "interijento-na sosaetii" in Japanese. Though this expression is not found in the Man'yoshu, Nakasone used it as a Japanese term to describe Japan. By it he meant that Japanese, by virtue of their closeness and energeticness, and their superior educations and mass media, seek, find, and absorb, on an average, more high quality information than people in the United States.

Stewart conjectured that "The ambiguity of (Nakasone's) remarks is a natural part of the Japanese style of communication," and he mentioned five "Japanese-American cultural barriers" by way exploring the "implications" of this conjecture.

Ambiguous language?

"Japanese is a language effectively used in small groups," Stewart claimed, because "The Japanese style of communication is . . . ambiguous and the Japanese distrust analysis and verbal communication."

In fact, Nakasone spoke before a party of hundreds which included dozens of journalists. His speech ran twenty minutes past the alloted time, and it was four times the length of the policy statement he made on September 12 before the 107th session of the National Diet before the entire nation and even the world.

Nakasone is known as a good speaker. And like anyone for whom the language is ultimately a professional tool, he speaks it as clearly as he wants to or needs to.

Certainly there was little need for him to be vague at Shizuoka. He was, after all, speaking before birds of a like political feather. His description of "international state Japan" (kokusai kokka Nippon) was more concise than in his recent Diet policy speech. If he left anything literally unstated, to be read between the lines, it was that Japanese are superior today because historically their racial society has been superior; and that as the just reelected head of the political party which aims to maintain the superiority of this racial society, he himself must be a pretty neat guy.

Nakasone's remarks were no more ambiguous than Darwin's theory of evolution, which he tried to debunk. His intended meaning was clear from the context if not from "interijento-na sosaetii" itself. He repeated the definitive words several times: close, vibrant society; high-level-information society; highly-educated society.

Family Secrets?

Stewart said that "Americans are more likely (than Japanese) to interpret verbal messages to be universal and appropriate for public disclosure."

Most journalists are reluctant to report words said in private by informants whose confidence they enjoy. But there is no taboo about reporting what a controversial politician like Nakasone says at a meeting as big as the annual Liberal Democratic Party National Seminar held in Shizuoka on September 22.

In the real world, remarks made by Japanese opinion leaders in private or semi-private are commonly disclosed. Nakasone's remarks, for that matter, were hardly ignored by the Japanese press.

The conservative Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's highest circulating national daily, highlighted Nakasone's remarks about Japanese women and American minorities in the "kisha techo" (journalist's notebook) box on the second page of its morning edition of September 23. The more liberal Asahi Shimbun did not immediately report what Nakasone said, though its subsequent coverage has been more complete.

Why, in any case, should journalists have reported Nakasone's remarks? Was not what he said both old and familiar, hence not news?

Most of Nakasone's highly informed subjects must already have known (as he himself did) that black and Hispanic Americans score lower than others on most so-called "intelligence" and "achievement" tests. They (and he) probably also know that as a group, Asian (especially Japanese) Americans score higher, and are more likely to have finished high school and gone to college, and hold a professional job and even (in some reports) earn more.

Nakasone's remarks
An anti-Nihonjinron analysis (2)
By William Wetherall

"Japanese race" concrete?

Stewart argued that "For the Japanese, race refers primarily to the inclusive primordial sentiment of identity, the 'Yamato People.' But for majority of European Americans, identity is rooted in the individual, and race is exclusive, referring to other groups. The Japanese do not use abstract concepts of minority or racial groups as Americans do."

But the history of ethnic relations in all countries shows that groups include insiders and exclude outsiders, and Japan is no exception. Thus Yamato people exclude from their group those who do not have the proper ethnic emblems, while European Americans include in their ethnic clubs only their own kind. The history of ethnic relations in all countries shows that ethnic groups include insiders and exclude outsiders, and Japan is no exception.

Nakasone's "Japanese race" (Nippon minzoku), a term he used at the end of his Shizuoka speech, is a purely abstract concept because it only exists in his racial ideology and in related social policies. No such thing exists in biological, demographic, or other "actual" as opposed to "mythical" realities. Ditto for "monoracial state" (tan'itsu minzoku kokka), another of his favorite expressions.

Stewart also stated that "The Japanese probably are interested in American minority groups to the degree that Japanese economic interests are affected."

Again, not true. Every year, hundreds of books and dozens of TV programs and movies are published or produced in Japan on American minorities. In recent years, many have been about Japanese immigrants and their descendants in America. These Japanese Americans tend to be seen as members of the "Japanese race" living overseas, and the discrimination which they have had to bear in white America is vicariously equated with the discrimination which Japanese feel that they continue to face in a hostile white world dominated by America.

No myths about self?

Stewart's thesis that "Japanese integrate social relations and establish homogeneity, in part, by constructing myths of the enemy on the outside" simply ignores the greater importance of Yamato Japanese myths about themselves.

Indeed, the way Nakasone would maintain "ethnic unity" and "ethnic allegiance" is to perpetuate Nihonjinronist myths about his own country, and about the nature of the "Japanese race" whose interests he believes the LDP must serve. This is clear to anyone who has read a transcript of Nakasone's Shizuoka speech such as appeared in the November issue of Chuo Koron.

Ironically, Nakasone mentioned "even Ainu studies" as one source of the self-understanding and identity which he believes members of the "Japanese race" must have in order to teach people in other countries about Japan's true racial history. Fathoming Japan's identity "is also important from aspects like the honor of the Japanese race, the height of (our racial) spirituality, and academic interest in knowing our (racial) origins," he concluded in Shizuoka.

From what Nakasone later said about Ainu Japanese, one wonders if he is poorly informed or just refuses to take of his blinders. Every year, hundreds of books are published, in Japanese, on Japanese and foreign ethnic and social minority groups in Japan. The existence of these groups are also given publicity in daily papers and weekly magazines, and in TV programs and movies.

One needs more than the fingers and toes of both hands and feet to count the different kinds of minority groups in Japan. They total several million people, and no ideology of homogeneity can hide them.

Goodness absolute?

Stewart contended that "The Japanese find it virtually impossible to reach a conclusion or make a judgment without comparing like things with each other. . . . To make an absolute judgment using an abstract criterion such as goodness or efficiency for judging is almost incomprehensible."

Can absolute judgments be made without comparing like things? This is hot because that is cold. That is bad because this is less than absolutely good. Japanese are more literate because not as many Americans learn to read and write as well as Japanese.

And is not "purity" an absolute when Japan is called "homogeneous" despite the presence in Japanese society of Japanese citizens and foreign nationals of Ainu, Gilyak, Orok, Okinawan, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Nigerian, French, German, Brazilian, American, Filipino, Cambodian, Russian, Indian, Canadian, Italian, Hungarian, Dutch, and dozens of other ancestries? What is it if not a purely abstract and absolute criterion which moves some people to believe that "Japan" is an exclusively Yamato trademark?

Speech not racial?

Stewart stated that "Responses to (Nakasone's) remarks have introduced the issue of race, which I do not think was originally intended." He concluded that it is unfair and unjust to think that Nakasone's comments were "racist" or "cast slurs on minority American groups."

Toward the end of his Shizuoka speech, Nakasone said that in the past Japan had higher literacy rates than Europe, and that even today there are many American blacks who cannot read or write (ji o shiranai). After this he expressed his belief that the African Australopithecus which some anthropologists think may have been the earliest human being, and Neanderthal man and Peking man, developed "synchronously and poly-occurrently" (doji tahatsu), which all but espouses a polygenic theory of racial origins.

Next Nakasone refuted Darwin by arguing that different animals coexist in separate habitats. In his words: "Lions live in a world of lions, zebras live in a world of zebras, and rhinoceroses live in a world of rhinoceroses."

The Shizuoka speech clearly shows that Nakasone made numerous direct or elliptical references to race which allow for a racialistic interpretation of his remark that Japan is an "interijento-na sosaetii" compared to America. In other ways, too, Stewart's seemingly a priori hunches about Nakasone's speech and reactions to it are not supported by observable evidence.

Apparently even the Japanese government had reason to believe that Nakasone's comments could be taken racialistically. Otherwise it would not have tried to appease the Mexican government by explaining that the prime minister was taking only about Mexicans in America.

Are words slurs only when they are consciously cast to disparage? Are they never so because they contain the potential to offend?

Something for all communications experts to ponder.


A letter to the editor criticizing the above critique, signed by "Bart Aisnworth, Tokyo", appeared under the heading "Communication difficulties" in Asahi Evening News, 9 January 1987, page 5.

My rebuttal appeared in Asahi Evening News, 16 January 1987, page 7, as follows.

A major irritant

I thank Bart Ainsworth for his comments regarding my rebuttal to Edward Stewart's "analysis" of Nakasone's remarks. But I stand by every word, however "rife with vilification" and "derogatory" Ainsworth may find them.

Stewart analyzed neither Nakasone's remarks nor Nakasone himself. Instead, he lectured on the "cultural barriers" which I associate with stereotypes about "intercultural communication" in Japan.

Stewart's "central assertion" that "intercultural communication can be difficult" is no doubt "valid" as Ainsworth claims. But such assertions are trite and irresponsible when made by way of glossing over the racialism in the philosophy of a country's prime minister.

Let Ainsworth join Stewart in trying to stem all the negative tides he want to. I am more interested in solving international problems by facing facts.

The fact is that racialism continues to be a major irritant in Japan-America relations. Some leading politicians on both sides persist in viewing the world with racial criteria that no pop theory of intercultural communication should be allowed to apologize for.

Ainsworth is free to "surmise" what Nakasone "probably" meant to say in his Shizuoka speech. But Nakasone did not attribute Japan's alleged superiority in education and information to its putative monoethnicity until after the speech. Whether a society is unilingual (apart from whether it is monoethnic) does not, in any case, seem to be a crucial factor in whether a given individual does well in school or absorbs information through other media. Though the members of most social and ethnic minority groups in Japan are native speakers of Japanese, most groups average lower levels of completed education and higher rates of illiteracy than the general population.

Even among Yamato majorities, family background is probably the biggest single factor in academic achievement. This is true in the United States, too, where the chances are that blacks and Hispanics in medical schools were not born in slums or raised in broken homes, and Asian immigrants tend to get good educations despite language and racial barriers. Family solidarity and ambition seem to provide most of the drive and direction a child needs to achieve in school.

After family dynamics comes social organization and integration, without regard to ethnic or linguistic composition. Singapore, which unlike Japan is proud of its multiethnicity, does well educationally and also has relatively low crime rates.

America has nothing to compare with Japan's Ministry of Education or National Police Agency, both of which set high, rigid and uniform nationwide standards. Educational goals and incentives vary, as in each family, from poor to excellent according to state and locality. Even when excellent, in America just as in Japan, some minority individuals are deprived or discouraged by discrimination, while others are somehow challenged to overcome discrimination.

William Wetherall