Othering and Uniting: The Death Management of Japan
For 2,000 years, Japan is the only country that has been one nation, in one place, using one language, with one ethnic group, under one emperor. It’s a great place. I’d love to hear if there is proof that claims otherwise — Taro Aso, Japanese Politician
In the previous chapter, we looked at how the presence of the “other” pushed one group into derogating and annihilating, unable to deal with their own death anxiety due to an absolute view of the world. This chapter will explore people who assimilate “others” in the face of an existential threat to calm their rampant death anxiety. Moreover, through this case of Imperial Japan, we will observe how this tide of conquest and colonialism not only fails to deal with death anxiety, but leads to the need for constant expansion and assimilation.
What makes Japan a unique case in world history is that for thousands of years, the inhabitants of the island constantly “othered” themselves from one another and claimed separate identities and worldviews. However, in a rapid wake of external threats, all of these diverse groups were hastily assimilated and unified into a nation we now call Japan. To this day, as seen through the opening quote from Japanese politician Taro Aso, this narrative of Japan being a homogenous nation continues to exist.
Not only is this idea of “homogeneity” untrue, it continues to cause much suffering, harm, and discrimination to those who are in fact different.
JAPANESE DIVERSITY AND ON SCHISMOGENESIS
Let’s begin by exploring the diversity of Japan, as I suspect not many readers know how truly diverse the island nation is. It is important to note here that I am suggesting a diversity on almost every front of how we categorize our societies. From ethnicity, race, gender, religion, political structure, sustenance, and more. Let’s begin with the group you are most familiar with and who have become the “face” of the Japanese: the Wajin.
The Wajin: Not Chinese, then what? And on why Soccer vs Football is such a big deal (it’s really not)
The group I am calling “Wajin” are the people you would imagine when thinking of a Japanese person. This group is thought to have first emerged from the mixing of rice farmers who emigrated onto the southern end of Japan and the earlier inhabitants of the island who arrived about 15,000 years ago. The rice farmers are thought to have begun arriving 3,3000~2,300 years ago who mixed, fought, and interacted with the people who were already living on the island. The initial inhabitants are called the Jōmon, who lived by foraging and small scale agriculture, but with the introduction of rice farming the population on the Japanese island bloomed greatly.
Alongside the arrival of agricultural practices, we begin to see clear signs of social hierarchy emerging such as great tombs and accumulation of wealth in one area. Most of the Wajin at this time were concentrated down south, growing from individual tribes and clans into larger social structures such as kingdoms. Jumping forward to the 6th and 7th century a powerful kingdom unified under an emperor, called the Yamato kingdom, consolidates its power. These Wajin groups borrowed largely from the Chinese, learning from their political, religious, and social structures such as the implementation of Buddhism.
However, this inflow of foreign influence did not go without opposition. Although some Wajin were accepting of the Chinese way, many were cautious about openly welcoming in such alien ideas and structures. Rampant debates, conflicts, and even wars emerged from disagreements about what religion to follow or how to structure their social hierarchy. The main reason for such debate was the need for the Wajin people to create a unique identity separate from that of the Chinese, and simply borrowing from their ideas defeats this purpose. This process is called “schismogenesis,” coined by anthropologist Gregory Bateson. To get a better grip on what this process is, let’s go on a short tangent and explore the difference between Football and Soccer.
When I first arrived in the United States, I distinctly remember an episode that occurred at a small worn-down Mexican restaurant. I sat there with my teammates after practice, listening to a growingly intense argument on whether to call our sport “soccer” or “football”. One side — consisting of Europeans and South Americans — were passionately making a case that the original name of the game is football. They added: “Mate! We play with our feet, so it only makes sense to call it football”. The other side — consisting of North American players — argued that the sport needed to be called “soccer” so as not to confuse it with “football” that uses an egg-shaped ball. They said, “when in Rome, people, just use our language.” So, which side is correct? Or is there even a right answer? Turns out to answer this, we have to learn about an odd cultural phenomenon called “schismogenesis”
The word schismogenesis literally means “the creation of division,” and was applied to how different social groups deliberately choose to “other” themselves from their neighbors. This is fundamentally an identity creation project, such as when siblings refuse to wear the same clothes. The division between using the terms “football” or “soccer” to refer to the same sport was born through this process of schismogenesis.
The sport we call football/soccer for the majority of its history was not clearly defined by international rules and organizations as it is today. Originating in England, there was great regional variation where some people played the game with a large group, while others played with a predetermined limit to the number of people on the field. Moreover, some only used their hands, others used their feet, and some used both. However, as the game gained popularity and different schools or villages wanted to play against the team on the other side of the river, a set of rules needed to be established before this was possible. So beginning in the early 19th century, different groups began to pen down set rules on how to play this famous game. But a conflict emerged. Some groups made rules that permitted the use of hands, while another group made rules that did not allow the use of hands. So as to settle this dispute, the two groups split.
In 1871, various teams and groups who used their hands came together and established the Rugby Football Union, calling their game “rugger” and later “rugby” or “football”. The other group who used their feet came together as the Association Football (later as the Football Association), and called their sport “soccer” — derived from the word as-soc-iation. This is where things become international.
Through colonial activities, this sport had become popularized and was played on almost every corner of the globe, including the United States. Well into the late 20th century, both England and the United States used the word “soccer” to refer to the variation where we only use feet. However, in the 1980s, the National American Soccer League (NASL) gained much prominence and even threatened the “original” English soccer leagues. Dr. Szymanski at the University of Michigan observes that the British stopped using the word in reaction to this threat of success. Moreover, the Americans derogated soccer into “a sport for patsies, for fakers — for women” (Markovits 2010:208), and consecrated their identity into their “own” sport now called “American Football”.
Like this, from things as obscure as a sport that has the same origin, we attempt to differentiate ourselves from those who we consider “others” or rivals to solidify a group identity.
Now, how does this all connect to the early Wajin groups of the 7th century? It is because they did exactly the same thing.
One of the main reasons the Chinese expanded their influence to the Japanese archipelago is due to the incredible growth they experienced. Often dubbed the “Golden Age,” through this incredible growth in technology and literature, China soon became the most populous nation in the world at the time. This period, ruled by the Tang Dynasty, was so much farther developed than the Wajin the Chinese called them the “Barbarians of the East.” Although the Wajin quickly borrowed much of the Tang Dynasty’s ways — such as creating their capital based on the capital of China — they also needed to create their own identity, choosing to diverge based on their collective symbol.
As the Chinese consolidated its influence and power, they began to use the beautiful plum blossom as a symbol of unification. The plum blossom also grows across the Japanese archipelago, but the Wajin did not borrow this from the Chinese. Instead, the Wajin decided to use the cherry blossom as their symbol for unification. A quick Google search will show how minute the difference is between the cherry and plum blossom. One emphasized difference is that the cherry blossom has a split petal, while the plum blossoms do not. Although many won’t notice this difference at first, it was crucial for the creation of the Wajin identity in contrast to the powerful Chinese.
This identity around the cherry blossom that was created in reaction to the “plum blossom people” continues to this day; going to see and picnicking under cherry blossom trees are a crucial part of the Japanese culture. As such, the Wajin engaged in what Gregory Bateson called "symmetrical schismogenesis,” which emerges from a competitive differentiation of social groups (also seen in the “othering” of soccer and football). But the Wajin also began to engage in another form of schismogenesis called “complementary schismogenesis.
Complementary schismogenesis occurs when categorically unequal people engage in a process of “othering”, often at the cost of those who have less power or influence. We observed a good example of this in the upbringing of Napoleon when he isolated himself from his French peers. They emphasized the lesser Corsican “other” in contrast to the dominant French — although Napoleon eventually became “greater”.
In the case of the Wajin, they did this internally through the creation of the caste system. Largely influenced by Confucian philosophy and Buddhist dogmas, the Wajin established a 4 tier caste system: the nobility, the warrior (i.e Samurai), the farmers, and the merchants.
However, as in most caste systems, there is also an “outcaste” group. Throughout centuries, these people took on various names such as Eta, Hinin (translates to non-human), or more recently as Burakumin.
This outcaste group was given the role of initially dealing with death (such as cleansing rituals to ward off bad spirits or dead animals) and then later to embody the idea of death entirely. Not only did their jobs involve death (such as executing people, burying the dead, or creating animal products), the Burakumin were ostracized and “othered” as an untouchable group. This presence of another who embodies the idea of death can also help in managing death anxiety.
Ernest Becker called this “transference,” in which we transfer the idea of death to something imaginable, tangible, and most importantly, conquerable. Historically death has been transferred to symbols or ideas such as the devil, sin, poverty, disease, primitiveness, purposelessness, and as seen through the case of the Wajin, to other human beings. We are able to manage our death anxiety and become a “hero” by defying, curing, or conquering this “other” who has become the equal to death.
In such ways, the Wajin created their own identity through the means of “othering” themselves both externally (the Chinese) and internally (caste system). However, it was not only the Wajin who looked to assert their distinct identity on the Japanese archipelago, there were many more.
Othering in Times of Unity: The Ambiguity of the Matsumae
While the Wajin were focused down south for much of their history — creating kingdoms and stories that maintained their unique identity — there was a distinct group to the northeast of the Wajin called “Emishi.” This term, which can literally translate to “Shrimp Barbarian,” was a derogatory term used to refer to the northern inhabitants of mainland Japan by the Wajin.
The Emishi are considered to be people who are genetically and ethnically closely related to the earlier inhabitants of Japan before the rice farmers began mixing. These people are often depicted to look distinctly different from the Wajin, notably being more hairy. They also intermixed and fought with the rice farmers and subsequently the Wajin, but they maintained their distinct identity from the Wajin.
Unlike their Wajin counterparts down south, the Emishi clans did not unify under a single political entity until the 11th century, when a powerful half Wajin, half Emishi warrior came to prominence. Although the main island of Japan (the one that looks like a sausage) entered a time of relative political stability as the north and south “unified”, it soon gave way to nearly 2 centuries of war and turmoil.
Around the time the Emishi clans were becoming united up north, the Wajin societies were becoming increasingly wealthy and began to bargain for greater control over their peripheral areas. The emperor of the Wajin was losing influence, and became a symbolic figure who gave power to generals called the “shogun” (think of the Pope blessing a European king). Moreover, as trade with China (now the Ming Dynasty) became more affluent and local lords (called daimyo) were able to gain more wealth, even the shogun began to lose their grip over land and people.
These daimyos came into conflict with each other, especially as earthquakes, famines, or political struggles left their people destitute and hungry. As seen in the first chapter, this is when raiding and conquest become viable options for survival. Such conflicts and economic turmoil erupted into a large scale war in the mid 16th century, triggering what historians call the “Sengoku Jidai” (Warring States Period). A power vacuum ensued and every local lord or clan began to seek to grab more power and land through conquest. Each small group “othered” themselves as the better, more powerful, and righteous ruler of their neighbor.
Of course, the northern Emishi (now largely a ‘mixed race’ group of Emishi and Wajin) were swept up in this turmoil that lasted well into the beginning of the 17th century. However, with the introduction fo firearms from Portuguese imports, the entire balance of fighting shifted. In a quick succession of wars, the entire island came under the power of Tokugawa Ieyasu — a powerful general who establishes the Tokugawa shogunate.
Having come out of 200 years of constant political and social turmoil, the new leaders of the island eagerly attempted to stabilize the various clans. They did so powerfully by stamping out anyone who may cause trouble, and famously banned Christianity from being practiced or preached. Moreover, the Tokugawa shogunate cautiously monitored trade with foreign entities — especially those of European origin. The later end of the Warring States Period is famously called the “Unification Period of Japan.” Now, you may imagine that Japan as a “nation” had emerged from this, but that is far from the truth. The state of the island at this point is a diverse array of independent political, social, and cultural groups being unified under the grip of a powerful leader. To see this, let’s look at one of these groups, who were unique to in the way that they continued to assert their difference all the way until Japan actually became a “nation.”
A “nation” is defined as “a territorially bounded sovereign polity that is ruled in the name of a community of citizens who identify themselves as a nation” (Britannica). What is key in the idea of a nation is that the citizens of the nation believe that they belong in any area within their boundaries. For example, Californias will believe they belong in New York, or people from Moscow can feel “at home” on the island of Sakhalin, and so on. So now, did the newly unified clans of Japan feel they belonged in land on the other side of the island? Not at all. Each clan that had been fighting each other for 200 years still felt as foreign to each other as France is to Italy.
The Matsumae domain is one great example of this, as although they pledged their loyalty to the Tokugawa shogunate, they staunchly sought to maintain their autonomy and unique identity.
The Matsumae family, who were initially a “secondary” family in terms of political presence, came to great power during the years of the unification of Japan. Through bouts of savvy negotiations and successful war contributions, the Matsumae were elevated to take control of the northern most end of mainland Japan.
As mentioned briefly above, the new Tokugawa shogunate was eager to maintain stability on the island and were direly cautious of foreign invasions from their northern and southernmost borders. In accordance with these worries, the Matsumae were tasked with two duties: protect and oversee trade on the northern border.
When you look at a map of Japan today, a large diamond shaped island on the northern end is incorporated as Japanese land. However, at this point in the history of the island, this area was considered foreign land. Moreover, anything north of the Matsumae domain was such a mystery, that it brewed much fear and caution from many of the leaders of the main island. Protecting this border was perceived as such an important task that the Matsumae were exempt from many of the obligations other domains had to perform for the Tokugawa shogunate. Some of these tasks were a heavy tax called the kokudaka and a brutal system called sankin-kotai. Sankin-kotai was a system in which local lords were forced to live in the capital (called Edo) every other year. In addition, the family of the lords was required to live in the capital, essentially held captive as hostages. This was a system imposed to maintain the stability of the island and discourage revolts to disturb the “peace”. The Matsumae was exempt from both of these requirements due to the perceived threat of the northern mysteries and dangers, and the importance the Tokugawa felt to maintain this new era of peace. But the question is — was there really a threat?
The people who inhabited the land north of the Matsumae are now called “Ainu”, and will be the focus of the next section. Simply put, at this point in history, the Ainu were peaceful groups of people that posed and intended no threat to the Tokugawa borders. In reality, the northern threat was almost entirely made up. The threat came from the imagination of the Tokugawa leaders, who reminisced about the barbaric northern people that fought off the mighty Mongols and their own Wajin predecessors more than 300 years ago. The Matsumae took advantage of this fear, by depicted the inhabitants to the north of their land as aggressive and barbaric beings, needing the control and “iron fist” of the Matsumae to keep them in check.
In fact, the Matsumae knew how little of a threat the Ainu posed to the Tokugawa regime and peace. We can infer this by the army the Matsumae held to “protect” the northern border. Typically, you would imagine that a group whose main role is to protect a border will have a large military ready for combat.
Instead, the Matsumae had no military at all. They only held a small group of warrior class aristocrats and even banned all of their citizens (who consisted mainly of merchants to trade with the Ainu) from holding any weapons. If there was any form of invasion, the Matsumae were the last people you would want to defend your borders. So then, why did the Matsumae build their power and legitimacy on such lies? For economic hegemony and again, schismogenesis.
First, the Matsumae had much to gain by keeping the northern border a mystery. By becoming the “experts” of the northern land and people, they also gained a monopoly over all the trade with the Ainu people. The Ainu provided valuable resources such as animal products, lumber, and even traded goods from mainland China into Japan. In addition to this, the Matsumae were exempt from the obligation of cultivating rice. This was largely undesirable for many northern domains as the climate was harsher and made rice cultivation exceedingly difficult.
Second, and possibly more important to the Matsumae, this ambiguous status they maintained with the Tokugawa allowed them to feel independent from the rest. As seen in the case of the Wajin, the Matsumae also identified themselves through “othering.” This unique identity most likely stemmed from their categorical difference of a strong Emishi influence.
For example in 1618, Jeronimo de Angelis, a Portuguese missionary to Japan, met with many of the feudal lords of the Tokugawa shogunate. When he met with Matsumae Yoshihiro, the missionary records that the Matsumae boasted how they were not part of the Tokugawa. This perception of otherness continued well into the Tokugawa era, as almost 200 years later, a Matsumae lord is recorded to have continuously asserted their otherness and their land as “foreign” to Japan (Walker 2001:41).
In such ways, although the island of Japan was “unified” under a powerful leader, groups such as the Matsumae went to extended efforts to maintain their autonomy and “foreignness”.
The Intentionally Forgotten Others: the Ainu and Ryukyu Islanders
Throughout all of this Wajin and Emishi history, there are more distinct groups who thrived on the land we now consider to be Japanese. Notable among them are the Ainu and Ryukyu Islanders, two groups who lived in the northern and southernmost edges of modern Japanese land. Let’s begin with the Ainu.
Today, the Ainu are recognized as the Indigenous group to northern Japan, yet we know that these people have lived on the northern end of Honshu, Hokkaido, Sakhalin, Kuril Islands, and Kamchatka for about 13,000 years (the latter three are now Russian territory). However “Ainu” is a blanket term used to categorize and homogenize the diverse culture, language, and customs that were erased from history during the Japanese colonial era.
The descendants of the Ainu themselves took on the name of “Ainu” in the 20th century as a way to assert their identity in a world that continued to marginalize them. Historically, most Ainu groups lived in small villages and spoke a distinct language from the Japanese. It is estimated that there are about 19 various languages these peoples used, now clumped together as a single Ainu language with differing dialects. The diversity of the Ainu goes beyond the language into sustenance practices and even religious beliefs. Some groups farmed, others bred horses, while certain groups relied largely on foraging. Notably, the Ainu also have a distinct “look” from the Wajin and many early anthropologists/ethnographers thought they had a European heritage.
The other unique group lived down south, notably on the famous island of Okinawa. These people — often referred to as “Ryukyu Islanders,” derived from the Ryukyu Kingdom that emerged on these islands — are also culturally and ethnically distinct from that of the Wajin. Similar to the Wajin treatment of the Emishi and Ainu, the Ryukyu people were often depicted as barbaric and lesser than themselves. Regardless, for hundreds of years the people who inhabited these islands staunchly asserted their own identity and autonomy in the face of major foreign powers such as the Wajin, Koreans, and Chinese.
The Ainu and Ryukyuans maintained their autonomy well into the 19th century, alongside many other Wajin domains under the siege of the Tokugawa regime. Each group told their own stories and found a place to belong in this mortal world separately. However, a sudden and immense existential threat towered over the Japanese, breaking the relative peace that existed for the past 250 years.
THE BLACK SHIPS AND DREAMING OF PEACE THROUGH CONQUEST
By the end of the 18th century, the internal workings of the Tokugawa regime began to weaken. Reminiscent of the thermodynamic principle of entropy, the once stable island was entering into a state of chaos. People were becoming increasingly irritated about the powerful grip and strict hierarchy of the shogunate. Groups wanted to become independent and gain autonomy. However, much more consequentially for the Tokugawa regime, external threats ripped apart their illusion of peace, unity, and immortality.
The first great threat was the Opium War, erupting in 1839. The Opium War was a conflict between China (now the Qing Dynasty) and Britain, in which the British ended up claiming Hong Kong as their own in 1842. This greatly startled the Wajin, as China was a powerful nation they idealized in many ways. As aristocrats and intellectuals began speculating on what had happened in China, the second major threat quickly came. In 1853, Commodore Matthew C. Perry from the U.S. Navy arrived at the coast of Tokugawa’s capital to make an ultimatum. Perry had come in massive black warships, far more powerful than anything Japan had at that time (in fact, residents of Japan were still using the firearms they got from Portugal 200 years ago). The commodore put forward two options for the Tokugawa: open to trade with the “west,” or get attacked by the powerful warships the Wajin had no chance fighting against. The Tokugawa yielded to the powers of the United States in order to survive, but this decision erupted into more internal dysfunction and chaos. The 250 years of unity was instantly broken up into various groups; some wished to learn from the west, others greatly opposed the ceding to the Americans, while some merely looked to consolidate their own power in midst of such chaos.
The islanders needed a new story to tell themselves if they were to stand a chance against the new western threats. For the entirety of their history they were involved in a complex process of schismogenesis to maintain their unique identity from each other; now being threatened to all be squandered by powerful black ships and superior technology. The complete breakdown of what managed their death anxiety and provided them with meaning was imminent.
The New Immortality Story: Reviving the Emperor and the Japanese Enlightenment
Those who rose to power in this time were a group of young aristocrats backed by the support of the long-neglected Yamato emperor. Their goal — similar to that of Napoleon’s — was not to accommodate to the new powers but to quickly industrialize, westernize, and withstand the powers that so threaten them. They chose the slogan “Fukoku kyohei,” which translates to “Rich country, Powerful army,” to propel the island forward into an industrialized powerhouse. This was a complex process that first needed to establish a sense of “nationhood,” something that was greatly lacking in the minds of the people who lived on the Japanese islands. They needed to essentially undo the millennia deep processes of schismogenesis.
This “revolution” of the island is called the “Meiji Restoration,” which coupled many of the western ideas of progress with uniquely “Wajin” symbols and identities such as their emperor or cherry blossoms. As it may be inferred from this, it was the southern Wajin who quickly consolidated their power and looked to create a new nation called Japan.
The term “Meiji” — which became synonymous with this period of Japan and the name of the newly appointed emperor — translates to “enlightened rule”. As suggested by this, the Meiji Restoration can be seen as the Japanese Enlightenment period, where the entire island was swept up by industrialization, expansion of scientific thought, and most importantly, doing away with their “primitive” past.
By this time in most western thought, the idea of progress measured through various developmental stages of human societies was accepted as the truth. Like the 4 stages Turgot proposed, the new Meiji regime saw their Tokugawa past as being “lesser” then the industrial and commercial economy they were attempting to create. But there was a significant problem: most of the people living on the Japanese islands were still “stuck” in Tokugawa times. There was no sense of unity and many local domains still asserted their opposition to the Meiji government.
In a telling episode of how diverse the people were, a young girl from the countryside travelled to Tokyo, but when she overheard the conversations of people there, she “mistook the language she heard… as French” (Caprio 2009:66). As such, if people within the island had trouble merely understanding with each other, how were they to construct a nation that could withstand the powers of the United States or Britain? They needed to assimilate the diverse peoples.
Through an incredible investment into media propaganda and educational reforms, the Meiji government rapidly spread the new ideal of a unified nation. They clearly distinguished between what was considered “civilized” and “primitive”. Everything from what to eat, wear, drink, and even read, the government attempted to control. But most important to this effort was to create a new story that unified the people from the northern tip of Japan down to the south; to unify those who spoke and thought such different thoughts that were as foreign to each other as a French individual.
To accomplish this, the Meiji government reinstated the heir of the Wajin emperor back to power. Alongside the propaganda and educational reforms of what is “civilized”, they also reintroduced long forgotten myths of the emperor and his god-like status. The emperor was called the “Tenno” (literally “Heavenly Emperor”) and claimed to be the direct descendant of the Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu. In accordance with historic records of the Wajin, they preached how the emperor was a living god and that all people on the Japanese island are descendants of him.
This reintroduction of the emperor accomplished two things: to unify the diverse groups on the island into a single “race” and to provide a new story of immortality. By associating themselves with the living god, all Japanese citizens were now able to gain a sense of immortality and death transcendence. Yet problems still remained for the Japanese: their borders were now truly in danger.
Creating Peace through Conquest
Soon after the Meiji Restoration, the new government prepared a group of diplomats to travel the western world and learn their ways. This was called the Iwakura Mission, which was dispatched in 1871 and traveled to the United States and much of Europe. The journal entries and reports from this travel provide us with great insight into how the new Meiji government learned to view the world, and the role they must play as the only yellow nation to protect themselves from the invasion of the white ones.
Although the travel inspired many renovations to the social structure of Japan, one of the main influences was on Japan’s colonial activity. It is no exaggeration to say that the Japanese learned and copied the colonial, assimilation, and expansion strategies from the western nations they closely observed during this mission. The historian of the trip, Kume Kunitake, had some insights he shared during their trip through England. Historian Mark Caprio (2009) summarizes his observations:
Pondering the question of why civilized countries continued to prepare for war, Kume wrote that civilized people must retain standing armies not because they have yet to emerge from barbarism but because barbarian people relish battle (63).
Caprio further comments on Kume’s insights:
To achieve internal security, the state must guide its people to “be at peace with one another, [to] work hard at productive enterprises, [to] be imbued with the spirit of patriotism and [to] regard it as shameful to submit to another country.” The state must also secure its periphery: “A country which was threatened by no enemies on land or sea on any side and had no need of an unproductive army to maintain domestic peace would be a happy land indeed.” (ibid).
The basic idea was that if there are no enemies, “domestic peace” would be achieved. It is necessary for the peace and safety of the nation to “secure its periphery,” a.k.a colonize, assimilate, or annihilate others. Taking this to heart, the Meiji government annexed the peripheral islands of Hokkaido and Ryukyu Islands — inhabited by the Ainu and the Ryukyuans — to assimilate them as they were simultaneously assimilating people on the main island.
In this way, the new anxiety buffering story was cultivated through the example of the west. They looked to rid of all death reminding “others” through assimilation (and often resulted in attempted annihilation), while creating a hero system rooted in the idea of the divine emperor and powerful economy.
Yet applying this learned ideology of “peace” through conquest has not and did not work as smoothly as many Japanese aristocrats believed. Different perceptions of the world will always exist, often in opposition to the hero system coercively pushed upon another. In this way, Japan attempted to undo the incredibly complex identities cultivated through means of schismogenesis, only to create more reason for those to “other” themselves. The Ainu, Burakumin, Ryukyuans, Koreans, Taiwanese, Chinese, and many more who were subject to the Japanese/Wajin assimilation policies resisted and fought back.
Yet such opposition would have threatened the newly born, fragile worldview, so the Japanese clamped down even more, pushing their narrative of the world, meaning of life, and their definition of death onto others. Soon, assimilation gave way to annihilation; this resulted in the horrid warcrimes of the Nanking Massacre, Kamikaze suicide bombers, and the thousands of deaths that emerged from this hastily constructed cultural story.
This reactionary defense of the Japanese in response to the western threats gave way to the new narrative of a homogenous Japan. But to assume that this had ended with the Second World War is far from the truth. The nation has held on to this story; mitigating death anxiety for some, while derogating and marginalizing others.
Remnants of the Homogenous Dream
As seen in the opening quote, many Japanese politicians and citizens continue to assert and dream of being a homogenous nation. Although Imperial Japan ceded many of their colonies after being defeated in World War 2, the island nation still claims Hokkaido and the Ryukyu Islands as their own. It was only recently that the Japanese government acknowledged the Ainu as an Indigenous group, while largely ignoring the Ryukyuan’s unique culture and history. Moreover, many people who originate from Imperial Japan’s colonies remain on the nation. They are continuously subject to much ostracism, but the Korean Diaspora are among those who suffer the most.
After the war, Koreans who were forcefully brought to Japan lost their official citizenship. Until today, descendants of these forced laborers to Imperial Japan cannot gain full citizenship. Rampant discrimination ensued, and for a while, 50% of all Koreans in Japan were unemployed. Koreans in Japan continue to have higher suicide rates than their Japanese counterparts, as well as being treated unequally from schools or employers (Kim 2021). Such incidents of discrimination and marginalization are shared among other minority groups such as the Ainu or Ryukyuans; unfortunately these stories are brushed under the white sheets of “homogeneity”.
Japan continues to deny their colonial past and actions, while maintaining the myth of homogeneity that emerged during this time.
The nation of Japan was born through a defensive response to imminent existential threat posed by the technological superiority of the west. Because of the long standing history of “othering”, a new story of unity and death transcendence needed to be strung together. Coupling ideas from their new western examples and utilizing their own stories (such as the emperor or cherry blossoms), the Japanese created a story of continuous expansion and assimilation.
However this story was unable to achieve its goal, as the idea of “a country which was threatened by no enemies on land or sea on any side and had no need of an unproductive army to maintain domestic peace would be a happy land indeed”serves no real answer to the fundamental question. Moreover, this idea was almost counterintuitive to the immortality system they created through the image of the divine emperor. If only the Japanese were descendants of the emperor, how in the world could they truly assimilate those who are different such as the Ainu or Koreans?
The continued insistence of the Japanese people in adhering to this cultural worldview is not only marginalizing and making their minority groups suffer, but is also taking a toll on their own.
Suicide, gruesome work hours, unhappy relationships, extreme social isolation, and game/porn/alcohol addiction are only a few of the many problems the Japanese face today. All of these problems have been understood to be due to a lack of meaning and belonging in peoples lives. With this inadequate cultural buffer of death, people must distract themselves with the menial or succumb to the immobilizing terror of their own mortality. The ontological fear hides behind the noisy streets of “techno-super world” Japan, only to come and haunt those who can not remain distracted.