Review and Historical Analysis of "Nationalism in Japan"

Updated on March 26, 2018

Nationalism is always a strange thing, and it is especially strange in examining its presence in others. There is often a tendency to ascribe negatives in others to nationalism : for us, that is a radical fringe movement, and certainly not patriotism like us. But even beyond this, explaining the phenomena and attempting to lay it precisely into the sweep of history is hard, and prone to problems, as testified by this book. Following the end of the Second World War and in the context of the Early Cold War, Delmer Myers Brown in his book Nationalism in Japan An Introductory Historical Analysis attempts to set out to explain the reasons for Japan's development of nationalism, how it manifested itself, and to discuss its effects and to engage in speculation about its potential impacts. In doing so, Brown is actually much more of a demonstration to cold war politics and a demonstration of the spirit of the times, rather than being a truthful and effective representation.

Chapter 1 "Introduction" starts with an analysis of the factors of nationalism, and their presence in Japan : the author takes a position of Japanese nationalism as being especially strong due to the confluence of factors integral to Japan, such as the emperor, Shinto, its geographic location, the Japanese language, and the homogeneity of the Japanese people. He does allow for the importance of institutional building factors and the construction of nationalism, but he emphasizes these organic factors in relation to Japan and the strength of Japanese nationalism. Chapter 2, "National Consciousness", concerns the development of the early Japanese state, the "Yamato state", religion in Japan, and a historical development up to 1543, where the author emphasizes the advances or regressions of the principle of national unity - highs such as the Mongol invasion, lows such as the Ashikaga shogunate. Chapter 3, "Articulate National Consciousness", which deals with the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate, and intellectual trends via neo-Confucianism (the Teishu school) which married Confucianism with Shinto principles. These intellectual trends gradually emphasized loyalty to the emperor over loyalty to the shogun, and some of the principles of nationalist historiography were established by Tokugawa Mitsukuni (1628-1700) who spent more than half his life composing Dai Nihon Shi, a history of Japan rejecting the focus placed upon study of China, and focusing on Japan instead. Kamo Mabuchi followed a similar path, vaunting the traditional purity and ideals of Japan, corrupted by foreign influences (particularly Chinese). From these principles emerged the revere the emperor movement, to "restore" the emperor as the ruler of the country : this is partly the subject of Chapter 4, "Emperorism and Antiforeignism". It also discusses the reaction and relation to Russian, British, and then of course American (Commodore Perry) forays into Japan, ultimately culminating with the restoration of the emperor.

Chapter 5, "National reforms", deals with the reforms occasioned by the Meiji restoration. These included education, economics, communications, and spiritual (the establishment of State Shinto as a national relgiion) changes. Chapter 6, Preservation of "Japanese national essence"" opens with the failure of treaty revision in 1887 and subsequent Japanese opposition and unhappiness with their government and a focus on discovering and preserving the Japanese national essence. Thus the chapter explores shintoism and confucianism and their relationships, but also art in Japan, where Japanese style painting was revalorized. Its main focus is however, upon Japanese foreign policy and ultra-nationalist societies internally. Chapter 7, "Japanism" continues discussion of the veneration of Japanese culture, but was mostly about the foreign policy and patriotism occasioned by the Russo-Japanese war between Russia and Japan. "National Confidence" as portrayed in chapter 8 provides the vaunted confidence which the Japanese felt after their victory over Russia, where Japan emerged as a great power despite having not gained all she desired from the peace treaty. During this period more free experimentation with internationalism and western imported ideologies like socialism, indiviualism, democracy, began to trickle into Japan, and Japan felt a great degree of confidence and self-satisfaction in its position. Chapter 9, "National Reconstruction", deals with the travails of the Japanese economy after the Great War, but mostly is dedicated to Japanese relations to China and secret societies in Japan. Chapter 10, "Ultranatioanlism" is devoted both to international concerns and patriotism in war timem, but places also great emphasis upon secret-nationalist societies during the period before the war as well. Finally, "New Nationalism" follows the Japanese dealing with the wreckage of defeat after 1945, including their own responses, policies imposed by American occupation forces, nationalist societies, internal political events,

This book is very old. Nearly 70 years old, being published in 1955. Sometimes book stand up well against time, but this one has not. There has been a tremendous amount of work published on what constitutes nationalism : Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson is the most famous and relevant, but there is also Nations and Nationalism by Ernest Gellner, or Miroslav Hroch and Social Preconditions of National Revival in Europe: A Comparative Analysis of the Social Composition of Patriotic Groups among the Smaller European Nations, just to name a few, which have done much to revolutionize our understanding of nations and nation states. Books written before their publication, before the understanding has focused upon the idea of nations as defined as an imaginary group which feels a shared sense of nationhood, rather than being the organic products of various immemorial factors of identity, are operating in a fundamentally different frame and experience. A book can still be useful from before such a revolution occurred in the way in which nations and nationalism are covered, but it will make different conclusions and have different processes, which have to be taken into account by the reader.

The Imperial institution in Japan has changed dramatically over time, and reading it simply as an element of national unity is impossible.
The Imperial institution in Japan has changed dramatically over time, and reading it simply as an element of national unity is impossible.

We can see that here easily in the way in which the author constructs his belief upon factors making the Japanese pre-disposed towards nationalism. The immemorial presence of the customs such as shinto, the Japanese language, geography, homogeneity, combine to make Japan a nation unusually predisposed towards nationalism : unfortunately, such conclusions are spurious or irrelevant. The imperial line varied dramatically in its authority and power throughout history, and even had a brief schism with two groups, just like in Europe where there were two popes for a brief period. Shinto did not become a unified faith until recently, the Japanese language included different dialects that were absorbed into the modern tongue, and ethnically Japan has had distinct groups like the Joman or the Ainu. These are much more in the way of banners and emblems of nations rather than what creates them : France was a linguistically highly diverse, ethnically chaotic, religiously torn, and geographically hazy, and yet it formed the first European nation-state. The author made the mistake of confusing the myths and legends which are mobilized in defense of an idea of an immemorial nation, into the presence of national unity throughout time. he does admit that the amount of national unity varied, but this is basically seeing it as always being present in different forms, instead of seeing it developing vitally different forms over time. The emperor has always existed in Japan : the emperor being a conception and an impulse for nationalism is a distinctly modern phenomena.

Ignoring the fundamental conclusions made by the author, what about the book's actual treatment of the subject matter? Here as well, the book has a great share of problems. It devotes much of its discussion to foreign affairs, when properly speaking these should be treated as ancillary to the question of nationalism in Japan : certainly they cannot be avoided in some cases and should receive their due discussion (such as the opening of Japan in 1853), but much of what he covers - the politics in regards to China, the Russians, the Americans, the Western Powers - have little relevance to what he is supposed to be discussing, nationalism in Japan. This is not a book which is supposed to be a history of Japanese foreign relations, but it often reads as one, as a general history of Japan. Furthermore, its depictions are often uncritical of the Japanese : it makes little mention of Japanese atrocities in the Second World War, it paints their actions in China in a sympathetic light, it does not dissect and examine critically the statements and proposals made by Japanese leaders, even when they were as bizarre as the idea that war with China in 1895 was necessary for the "preservation" of peace in Asia - what an incredible oxymoron! Japan's actions are, if not excused, left unchallenged. Internally, it focuses insufficient attention upon anything beyond a small group of elite figures in regards to nationalism : we hear almost nothing about it from the lower classes, and even from we do hear from they tend to be almost exclusively a limited intellectual and cultural segment, ignoring diverse voices in Japan, such as the countryside. Japan is treated as a monolithic being, instead of having any regions and differences. Japanese interest groups receive little discussion, and at most we receive a thin scattering of parties. Intellectual history as presented is shallow, and focused just on a few themes. The book as a whole spreads itself thinly, and fails to answer anything decisively.

Japanese history has less importance for this book than the US-Japan 1951 Security Treaty.
Japanese history has less importance for this book than the US-Japan 1951 Security Treaty.

For in fact, this book is not really about nationalism in Japan : it is a book which it is intended to attempt to rehabilitate Japan in the eyes of the United States in the context of an emerging cold war, by downplaying Japanese crimes during the Second World War, emphasizing repeatedly the opposition of a true Japan to socialism and communism, Japanese potential strength and determination, and that Japan is a useful partner to be trusted against the USSR. Sometimes this becomes almost painfully evident, such as at the beginning and at the end when it speculates about the relationships of the US to Japan, and of Japanese relations to Russia, but it is a theme which comes throughout throughout. It makes for a book which has outlived its time, for the purpose which it was initially conceived.

With all of this said contrary to the book, what sort of benefits does it bring? It does present a passably good general-political history book, although there are better ones now, ones which place them more into the context of the Japanese situation. There are quite extensive amounts of quotes, which is always something to be treasured concerning foreign language works for those studying without a comprehension of the language. But its most relevant factor is that it makes a good primary source : it provides an example of what contextualization of nationalism was before books such as Imagined Communities were created, and it demonstrates the evolving and changing American view of Japan in the 1950s. Furthermore, it demonstrates some of the historiographical evolution of the treatment of Japan. Does that make it a good book? No, it is ultimately not a very useful one, let down by its failings and shortcomings. But it does have some interest to those intrigued by the portrayal of Japan by the United States in the early years of the Cold War, in those interested in the historiography of Japan, and for those who might find it useful as a primary source for critical examination of Japan. These are not what the author intended in writing it, but the book has been surpassed by time, and finds different purposes, much removed from the original intent.

2 stars for Nationalism in Japan: An Introductory Historical Analysi

© 2018 Ryan Thomas


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