What's in a word?

Or how to slap a Yamatoist and get away with it

By William Wetherall

First drafted April 1989
First posted 17 March 2007
Last updated 15 April 2017

Yano Tooru on the origins of "Yamatoist"
Chieko Mulhern on the origins of "Yamatoism"
Ian Buruma on the origins of "Yamatoist"
William Wetherall on the "Y" words and "J" words
"Yamatoism" and "Yamatoist" defined
"Anti-Yamatoism" and other spinoffs

Related article
"Zainichiism": The racialist legacy of a divided "liberation"

The clap of one hand slapping

One of my favorite jokes is about the Soviet general, Hungarian revolutionary, and sweet young thing on the Orient Express. The train enters a tunnel and the lights go out. The sound of a kiss is followed by the sound of a slap. The woman wonders why the handsome revolutionary kissed the aging Russian instead of her. The officer is puzzled but flattered that the woman slapped him instead of the Hungarian. The Hungarian applauds himself for kissing the back of his hand, slapping a Soviet officer, and getting away with it.

The origins of "Yamatoism" and "Yamatoist"

"Yamatoism" and "Yamatoist" in Latin script draw a few dozen hits on Google. ヤマト主義 (Yamato shugi) and ヤマト主義者 (Yamato shugi sha) draw a similar number of hits. 大和主義 (Yamato shugi) draws nearly two-hundred hits.

There are also a few examples of 新大和主義者 (shin Yamato shugi sha), as in the Chinese expression 新大和主義者在國, meaning (There are neo-Yamatoists in the country).

There is even a "yamatoism" blog, and someone on it goes by the handle "yamatoist" on Yahoo! Japan.

So it seems the words are here to stay. Where, though, did they come from?


Yano Tooru on the origins of "Yamatoist"

Yano Tooru (1936-1999) -- the late professor of political science at Kyoto University, who specialized in Southeast Asia area studies and passed away after losing a lawsuit protesting sexual harrassment charges -- was the first Japanese member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Wearing one hat or the other, he was a common figure in media as a commentator on Japan, Southeast Asia, and Nobel prizes.

Yano had this to say about Ian Buruma and "Yamatoist" in an op-ed called "A new nationalism?" in The Japan Times on 28 July 1987 (page 16, purple emphasis added).

Ian Buruma, a British correspondent stationed in Hong Kong, has written twice this year about the "new Japanese nationalism" (Far Eastern Economic Riview, February 19 and the New York Times Magazine, April 12) and caused quite a stir in Japanese academic and literary circles.

Both articles focused on the establishment of the International Research Center for Japanese Stuides in Kyoto and attributed its founding to Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone's influence. The author describes the start of the center as symbolizing the "new Japanese nationalism" that will develop from the current mainstream of Japanese political thought.

The "Kyoto School" is then introduced and several scholars associated with Kyoto University are accused of directing Japanese thought toward ultranationalism through their extreme-right writings. In the New York Times Magazine piece, Mr. Buruma coined the term "Yamatoist" to describe these scholars and labeled the first director of the new research center, Professor Takeshi Umehara, the best example among them.

The op-ed shifts to a more critical vein as Yano introduces Umehara's August 1987 Chuo Koron critique (see below) of Buruma's articles. Not only did Umehara find the articles full of factual errors and misunderstandings, fallacious interpretations, and faulty logic, he felt that something more sinister lay behind them.

The two articles are seen by Professor Umehara as "intriques in which Japanese hide behind foreigners to publish criticism that they are not courageous enough to publish under their own names." It seems there are Japanese who are feeding information to foreign journalists about Prime Minister Nakasone's "conspiracy" with the Kyoto School. Professor Umehara does not recognize Mr. Buruma's articles as legitimate examples of journalism.


Chieko Mulhern on the origins of "Yamatoist"

Umehara attempted to discredit Buruma by faulting his accuracy and methods as a journalist -- mostly in an effort to draw attention away the fact that Buruma had simply stated the obvious. Umehara, a romantic Jomonist scholar, had been cozy with Nakasone, a Mishima-generation Yamatoist politician. And Umehara now had a plum post as head of a national research center one purpose of which was to help development a correct view of Japan -- thus fulfilling Nakasone's desire to improve the world's understanding of Japan as an "international state" (kokusai kokka).

Umehara pointed out, among other errors, that Buruma had referred to the Kyoto School philosopher Kōyama Iwao (1905-1993) as "Iwao Takayama" (Chuo Koron, August 1987, pages 247-248). Chieko Mulhern, in an article which appeared in the November 1987 issue of the same monthly magazine, a month after Buruma's rebuttal to Umehara (see sources at end), made the following observation partly in Buruma's defense (pages 76-77, my translation, purple emphasis added).

Buruma's article an orthodox approach

Two books on topics suggesting international journalism have appeared. John W. Dower, "War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War" (Pantheon Books, 1986) [specifics on Japanese edition omitted], and Peter N. Dale, "The Myth of Japanese Uniqueness" (Croom Helm / University of Oxford, 1986).


For example, concering the Kyoto School faction that contributed to the intellectual framework that structured the [prewar and wartime Japan's] ethnonationalism [minzoku shugi], both authors [Dower and Dale] touched upon [this]. In particular Dower commented on the word 大和 (Daiwa, Yamato) [Mulhern's readers; Dower 1986:227 has "Taiwa"] provided by Mulhern; Dower ], which had been tied with the concept of "sekaishi teki minzoku" ["world-historical race", Dower, ibid.], and Dale analyzed and criticized the notion of Yamato kotoba. In Dower's book [the familiy name of] one member [of the Kyoto school] 高山岩男 is correctly spelled Kōyama, but in Ian Buruma's article in the 19 February [1987] Far Eastern Economic Review it becomes Takayama. That Burma, rather than copying Dower, newly reexamined the Kyoto School, is clear from the point that [he] purused original sources with his own eyes and from the kanji directly spelled the family name as it is usually read, and from the point that [he] directly cited words of Kōyama that were not in Dower. Dower, too, explains [Japan's prewar and wartime] ethnonational faction [minzokuha] in Nazi terms, and Dale similarly uses the expression Japanism [Jyapanizumu], but as far as I know Yamatoism appears to be Buruma's original neologism. In fact Buruma's article takes the orthodox approach, from the usual path of Western European journalism, in which one sets out to make one's own contribution, whereby after consuming and inhaling the work of scholars, the writer fleshes out the theory and adds [the flavor of] contemporality [modernity] with reportage that disclosesnames.


Ian Buruma on the origins of "Yamatoist"

At the time all this was going on, Buruma had been working on a book that Farrar, Straus and Giroux brought out in 1989, called God's Dust: A Modern Asian Journey. The book has five chapter, the first three on Burma and Thailand, The Philippines, and Malaysia and Singapore, the fourth on Taiwan and South Korea as parts of the Old Japanese Empire, and the last on Japan, called "Searching for Soul".

Buruma gives a few pages of the last chapter to the problem of ethnoracial nationalism in Japan. As though to address Yano's and Mulhern's remarks that he created the words "Yamatoism" and "Yamatoist", he makes the following disclosure (page 244, purple emphasis added).

Nakasone and like-minded politicians believe in the superiority of the "mono-racial state." Umehara and like-minded scholars believe in the pure Japanese spirit. They may differ in terms of political aims or terminology, but the ideal of a pure minzoku is rarely in doubt. Minzoku, unlike minshu (masses) or kokumin (national populace), is somewhat akin to the Nazi use of the word Volk. It implies blood purity and spiritual unity. It is the kind of national mysticism that appeals to people still deeply anxious about their place in the world, and who, periodically, seek to retreat from modern confusion into the secrutiy of the "mono-racial state." The late Terayama Shuji, playwright, novelist, filmmaker, once likened his country to a gloass dome, transparent but impenetrable to outsiders. The glass wall is the mystique that envelops the Japanese Volk, or, as nationalists like Nakasone prefer to call it, the Yamato minzoku, after the ancient clan that unified Japan as a kingdom around the fifth century, a period associated with pristine Japanese values (not by Umehara, though; to him, a Jomonist, the Yamato people were already tainted by foreign influence). As a collective term for these völkisch nationalists, the American scholar William Wetherall coined the phrase "Yamatoists."


William Wetherall on the "Y" words and "J" words

The plot thickens, and it appears I have no choice but to comment. The short response is to admit that, as far as I know, Buruma is right -- I coined the terms Yamatoism and Yamatoist -- and also Jomonism and Jomonist.

Buruma was my editor at the Far Eastern Economic Review when the proverbial manure hit the fan. At the time his articles appeared, he was FEER's Arts and Society editor, assisted by Margaret Scott. Contrary to what Yano believed, he was not a "correspondent" and he was not "stationed" in Hong Kong. He was fluent in Chinese and Japanese, and had lived and worked in Japan for over a decade before taking the editorial post at FEER in 1983.

Buruma and I became acquainted in the late 1970s and shared interests in popular culture, social issues, and nationalism. When he took the FEER job in 1983, he asked me to contribute articles on Japan. Mostly I came up with my own stories, ran them by him, and he accepted what he could. Now and then he proposed a story or sent me a book to review.

FEER covered all of East Asia, but also other parts of Asia, and Japan content had to be kept in balance. I generally filed directly with Buruma in Hong Kong, then with Margaret Scott when he left. Only one of my FEER reports was handled by the magazine's Tokyo Bureau, which covered mostly political and economic news.

"Nakasone's Neo-Nationalism" stories

The cover story of the 19 February 1987 issue of Far Eastern Economic Review was called "Nakasone's Neo-Nationalism". The issue inclued six in-depth reports on neo-nationalism centuring on Nakasone.

Buruma wrote two of the six articles: "The Right argument: Preserving the past to reclaim Japanese 'supremacy'" and "Intellectuals and the West they love to hate". Susumu Awanohara wrote two more: "An agenda for action" and "Obstacles along the long road to fascism". Gebhard Hielscher wrote a "5th Column" tie-in called "Nobody asks: 'What did you do in the war, Daddy?'". I wrote the feature on Nakasone himself: "Nakasone promotes pride and prejudice".

All articles except Heilscher's ran in Buruma's "Arts & Society" section. I say "his" because the entire section was his editorial turf. It was not a news section but a place for feature stories broadly related to the arts and society, and reviews of books and films and the like. Articles could be planned and lined up well in advance of an issue because, even when hooked to current events, they were not breaking news.

Journalistic cause for FEER cover story

Nakasone had been Japan's prime minister since 27 November 1982 and would remain so until 6 November 1987. He was therefore in office during the war of words between Umehara and Buruma in the August and October 1987 issues of Chuo Koron.

The "Nakasone's Neo-Nationalism" issue was planned late in 1986 after Nakasone had became the center of a huge controversy that cast doubt on his "social intelligence" if not also that of his cultural brains -- the scholars and intellectuals who inspired if not encouraged his thinking.

In late September 1986, Nakasone had incited the wrath of blacks, Puerto Ricans, and Mexicans in the United States by naming them as the reason he felt America's social intelligence was lower than Japan's. My impression is that his remarks were partly based on figures from the United States, reported in Japan, showing that African Americans and Hispanics scored lower on achievement tests. Nakasone was boasting about Japan's historically high literacy rates and its more recent attainments as a "high-level-information society".

Nakasone then aroused the anger of minorities in Japan when he defended his comments about the United States by saying it was easier for Japan to become an "intelligent society" because it was a "monoethnic state". When Ainu Japanese protested, Nakasone threw oil on the fire by remarking that his bushy brows could well have come from Ainu blood in his own ancestral veins.

Japan Times "intelligent society" story

I became involved in the cover story at FEER because I had, for many years, been clipping reports on Nakasone's activities and remarks, and had several thick files and books from which to glean a clear pattern of his ethnonationalist leanings. He was dubbed a "neonationalist" not because his nationalism was old -- but because much of it had remained dormant until he gained influence and power within the Liberal Democratic Party.

I had also been keeping track of scholars like Umesao Tadao and Umehara Takeshi -- both of whom had considerable influence on Nakasone's views of Japanese history and religiosity. Umehara had even been dubbed Nakasone's "cultural brain" (see Umehara's romantic naturalism).

The media response to Nakasone's controversial remarks about "intelligence" consumed me. It was hard to tell what he really said, or why he had said it, even from Japanese reports, which were skimpy to say the least. I was determined to shed more light on both his remarks and their context.

A full transcript of the speech with the "intelligence" remarks was published in the November 1986 issue of Chuo Koron, which came out in mid October. As soon as I bought a copy, I translated and commented on the relevant parts in order to clarify what Nakasone had actually said.

I submitted my manuscript to the The Japan Times on 22 October. Practically ever word and subtitle in my draft came out in the 26 November 1986 issue under the title What Prime Minister Nakasone really said about intelligence. A full-page version of the same article went out to the world in the 13 December 1986 international airmail edition of the paper.

Semi-official response

The phone rang at lot in late November and early December. The deputy managing editor, Shimada Shigeo, introduced me to the president and managing editor, Suzuki Junichiro, who accompanied me to the corporate office of the paper's publisher and chairman, Ogasawara Toshiaki. Ogasawara, a friend of Nakasone, had sent Nakasone a copy of my article.

Ogasawara told me that Nakasone -- who had been actively expressing his views in English since he became a politician during the Allied Occupation -- had stayed up late with his dictionary reading my article. He said Nakasone had asked him to convey his thanks for so faithfully translating his views. He also conveyed his own thanks to me by inviting me to write more for The Japan Times.

I also got a call from Nakasone's foreign affairs advisor, Kunihiro Michihiko, who conveyed Nakasone's thanks by taking me out to dinner at a restaurant where the menus had no prices. Prior to becoming Nakasone's advisor, Kunihiro had been number two at Japan's Embassy in the United States. He later became Japan's ambassador to the People's Republic of China.

So there I was, basking in secondary limelight -- or whatever one would call doubly reflected glory. The prime minister was grateful because I had make his life in the critical glare of the world a bit easier -- or so he seems to have thought.

Laying foundations

I have no idea whether Nakasone, or even Kunihiro, knew who I was. The Japan Times people were aware I was an outlaw of sorts. I had been in the news, written many letters to the editor -- and recently I had published a rather silly (looking back) half-page op-ed about anti-fingerprinting.

The Japan Times editors knew I had sued the state over sexual discrimination in the Nationality Law, and had been convicted of violating the Alien Registration Law by refusing to register my children. They also knew that, at the time I wrote the article on Nakasone, I was both a publicist for, and practioneer of, civil disobedience in the form of refusing to be fingerprinted, also in violation of the Alien Registration Law.

If in Nakasone's mind my translation helped set the record straight about what he had actually said -- in my mind, the article was intended to lay a foundation for a more extensive examination of his romantic nationalism -- and that of his scholar mentors. And that foundation was the springboard for the FEER cover story.

The "eulogy" and the "eulogist"

The cover story was Buruma's idea. While the story about Nakasone was central, Buruma wanted to show the broader stage of neo-nationalism on which Nakasone was just one actor. Buruma took on the Kyoto School since he was personally interested in the intellectual sources and reaches of neo-nationalism -- not only in Japan, but in Germany and elsewhere.

So where did Buruma come up with "Yamatoism"? For one thing, I had used the word in the draft of my contribution to the FEER cover story. When editing my draft, he cut the paragraph with "Yamatoism" (see Nakasone promotes pride and prejudice for the published article with cuts restored).

But I had also used both "Yamatoism" and "Yamatoist" previously, in conversations with Buruma and others, as well as in my own notes. In the late 1970s and early 1980s I had flirted with "Yamato" as a term for ethnic majorities in Japan -- before coming to the conclusion that, since "Japanese" was not a race, mainstream Japanese should not be racialized. However, I needed a label for ethnonationalism that eulogizes the "Yamato race" -- as Nakasone had been doing for years. "Yamatoism" and "Yamatoist" were the obvious terms for the ideology and the ideologist.

On Buruma's characterization of Umehara

Buruma did his own leg work in Japan. We shared some materials. As he was no longer based in Japan, I supplied him with some materials he would not easily have found in Hong Kong. But he also came to Japan to gather information for himself, and to interview people he felt he needed to speak with personally.

Umehara was upsest that Buruma didn't personally visit him, or request materials on the International Research Center for Japanese Studies. The fact is, I had already provided Buruma with materials on the research center. And I can't think of anything Buruma would have gained from a personal interview with Umehara -- except to discover that he was actually a Jomonist and not a Yamatoist.

After Umehara's article came out in Chuo Koron, denying he was a Yamatoist and questioning Buruma's qualifications and ethics as a journalist, Buruma and I discussed how best to reply. First I told Buruma that Umehara was right to deny the charge of being a "Yamatoist" -- for he was in fact a "Jomonist". But then I said the argument could be made that Umehara's "Jomonism" -- his belief that the Jomon people had embraced a spiritually natural culture, and that their spiritual purity partly survives in Okinawan and Ainu culture, and in Shinto practices still kept alive by the emperor -- fed "Yamatoism" and otherwise inspired "Yamatoists" like Nakasone in their racioethnic nationalism.

Buruma had his work cut out -- to defend himself against both substantive and ad hominem charges. Undoubtedly he invited Umehara's "smiling" wrath on himself -- as not everything he said about Umehara was factual, and his comment about Umehara's "smile" was arguably unbecoming of a non-tabloid rag like The New York Times Magazine.

In his published rebuttal, Buruma concluded that Umehara was, after all, a Yamatoist -- even if strictly speaking he was only a Jomonist. The rebuttal is full of the feints, dodges, parries, and thrusts that characterize defensive arguments. Buruma does some damage but does not penetrate any vital organs. Umehara is left alive, if bleeding, with the charge that his romantic naturalism is not as innocent of political consequences as he would like to believe -- or at least have others believe.


"Yamatoism" and "Yamatoist" defined

One reference to "Yamatoist" in my published writing comes in an article called "Japanese Attitudes Toward Jews", written by Jennifer Golub, a research analyst at the American Jewish Committee's Department of Reserach and Publications, and published in August 1992 by the Pacific Rim Institute of the American Jewish Committee.

Japan, which developed in isolation as an island nation, is intensely nationalistic. William Wetherall notes:

Uno's racialism closely resembles the Yamatoist beliefs [a xenophobic ideology] that are alive and well in the minds of some of Japan's most prominent politicians and intellectuals. Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone has expressed his beliefs in the superiority of Japanese spirituality and morality and of Japan's monoethnic social policies. And he has been encouraged in his . . . thinking by scholars who have curried his friendship to get his support for the building of a government-run International Research Center for Japanese Studies. [Note 24]

Note 24: Japan Times, Oct. 3, 1987

The 3 October 1987 date may refer to the lighter tabloid-sized International Edition of The Japan Times. The article posted on this website as Jewish peril" bestsellers in Japan filled the entire Focus page of the heavier broadsheet edition on 9 September 1987 (page 16).

"xenophobic Yamatoist sentiments"

Golub's bracketed gloss -- "a xenophobic ideology" -- reflects a remark I made later in the article about "xenophobic Yamatoist sentiments". The gloss also takes into account the following paragraph, in which I introduced the idea of "Yamatoism" in the context of the racioethnic supremicism that was fashionable in Japan before World War II -- and continues to be a problem today.

Uno's cries of "Jewish peril" to stimulate Japanese patriotism are hardly new. Russian-style anti-Semitism took root in Japan in the early 1920s. Nazi ideology thrived beside Yamatoism in the 1930s and early 1940s, during Japan's alliance with Germany, when all Japanese, including colonial minorities like Koreans and Taiwanese, were taught to believe that the majority "Yamato race" was spiritually superior to other peoples. But there was never a holocaust in the Japanese Empire, which accepted thousands of Jewish refugees from Europe.


"Anti-Yamatoism" and other spinoffs

"Yamatoism" and "Yamatoist" have cropped up in a number of Japanese terms not directly relalated to their original introduction through English.

"Yamatoism" meaning "Yamatoesque"

Some people have written 大和流 (Yamatoryu) and shown in furigana or parentheses that it is meant to be read ヤマトイズム (Yamatoizumu). Here "Yamatoism" would refer to a fashion, vogue, style, or fad.

This use of Yamatoism is essentially a morph of expressions like Nihonshiki, Nihonfu, and Nihonryu -- all meaning Japanese style, way, fashion, manner. It might also include what is called "Japanesque" (Japanesuku) or neo-Japanesque (neo-Japanesuku) -- meaning a very modern "Shin Nihon yoshiki" or "new-Japanese-style".

I have used "Yamatoesque" in notes and articles as a Yamatoist morph of "Nihonfu-na" and other adjectives meaning "Japanese-style" -- as in "Japanese-style name". As a legal term, a "Japanese style name" would mean only that a name that is expressed in two parts -- a family name followed by a personal name -- and written in standard kanji or kana -- without regard to the putative ethnicity of the names. Whereas "Yamatoesque name" would imply a "Japanese-style name" that someone might associated with Yamato (as opposed to, say, Ainu or Okinawan, among other) naming traditions in Japan.

"Anti-Yamatoism" as in "Anti-Semitism"

The expression アンチ・ヤマトイズム (anchi-Yamatoizumu), inspired by アンチ・セミチズム (anchi-Semichizumu) or "anti-Semitism", appears in the title and text of the following pamphlet.

40 ページ、パンフレット

Takemoto Tadao
Anchi-Yamatoizumu o tomeyo!
(Chugoku ni fuwaraido suru Furansu no han-Nichi media ni kogi)
[Stop anti-Yamatoism: A protest of the anti-Japan media in France that bindly follows China]
Tokyo: Japan Policy Institute (JPI), 2005
40 pages, pamphlet

The expression "anchi-Yamatoizumu" semantically parses as "antiyamato-ism" or "fanatical opposition to Yamato (Japan) -- rather than as "anti-yamatoism" or "opposition to Yamato fanaticism". Takemoto coined the expression to label what he considers the "jinshu sabetsu teki" (racially discriminatory) variety of "han-Nichi-shugi" (anti-Japan-ism) he describes in China and France (page 4).

The Japan Policy Institute (JPI) -- not to be confused with Chalmers Johnson's Japan Policy Research Institute (JPRI) in Encinitas, California -- cranks out all kinds of material related to China-Japan and Korea-Japan issues going back to the start of the century. It is one of several organizations that undertake to present alternative views of issues like the Annexation of Korea, Nanjing, Ianfu, Yasukuni, and the Tokyo Tribunal.


Related articles on Yosha Bunko
Reports from early records: Natives and barbarians at the dawn of Japanese history



John W. Dower
War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War
New York: Pantheon Books, 1986

Ian Buruma
Far Eastern Economic Review
19 February 1987, 135(8)
(1) "The Right argument" (pages 82-84)
(2) "Intellectuals and the West they love to hate" (pages 82-83)
Parts of cover story on "Nakasone's Neo-Nationalism"

Ian Buruma
"A New Japanese Nationalism"
The New York Times Magazine
12 April 1987 (Section 6, cover story)
Pages 22-27, 29, 38

Umehara Takeshi
"Watakushi wa Yamatoisuto de wa nai"
[I am not a Yamatoist]
Chuo Koron, August 1987, 102(10)1224, pages 242-257

Ian Buruma [Ian Buruma]
"Umehara Takeshi wa yahari Yamatoisuto"
[Umehara Takeshi is in fact a Yamatoist]
Chuo Koron, October 1987, 102(12)1226, pages 236-243

Chieko Muruhaan [Chieko (Irie) Mulhern]
"Kokusai jyaanarizumu wa senkoku jidai"
[International journalism is the Waring States period]
Chuo Koron, November 1987, 102(13)1227, pages 70-79