Nihonjinron (日本人論, lit. "theories/discussions about the Japanese"), is a genre of texts that focus on issues of Japanese national and cultural identity. Such texts share a general assumption of the uniqueness of Japan, and the term nihonjinron can be employed to refer to this outlook.

The concept became popular after World War II, with books and articles aiming to analyze, explain, or explore peculiarities of Japanese culture and mentality, usually by comparison with those of Europe and the United States. The literature is vast, ranging over such varied fields as sociology, psychology, anthropology, history, linguistics, philosophy, biology, chemistry and physics so in addition to the common generic word nihonjinron, a variety of topical subgenres exist, divided up by specific theme or subject-matter. For example:

Books written by non-Japanese authors may also be classed as nihonjinron, if they share, contribute to, or reflect the vision, premises, and perspectives characteristic of the Japanese genre.


There seems no doubt that intense feelings for one's native country and its identity were an early part of Japanese literary culture, and a value given aesthetic expression. Robert Borgen studies just one example from the life of the monk Jōjin (成尋, 1011–1081) and remarks:

'He helps us understand Japanese national identity in the 11th century. His nationalismand, problematic though it may be, that term will be usedwas not of the bellicose sort, but rather seemed to reflect an accurate awareness of cultural and political differences combined with a sense of self-confidence.'[1]

Hiroshi Minami, one of the foremost scholars of the genre, states in his survey:

'It is also possible to trace back and locate works worthy of the name "nihonjinron" to the Edo period and even before that.'[2]

The roots of the nihonjinron be traced back at least to the kokugaku (国学, "national studies") movement of the 18th century, with themes that are not dissimilar to those in the post-war nihonjinron.

Early themes

The problem of Japanese identity in much of the early period is in terms of the local traditions and the powerful influence of Chinese culture, for example the revolt of the anti-Buddhist Mononobe and Nakatomi clans against the pro-Buddhist Soga clan, which had sponsored the introduction of not only Buddhist metaphysics but also Chinese statecraft into Japan in the 6th century.

Later, Kitabatake Chikafusa (1293–1354) wrote his Jinnō Shōtōki ("Chronicles of the Authentic Lineages of the Divine Emperors") which defines Japan's superiority in terms of the divinity of its imperial line and the divinity of the nation itself (Shinkoku). The general drift of such works is to pull the abstract, universal language and thought of Japan's foreign models down to earth, to reframe it in Japanese conditions, among the illiterate population at large, and assert the special historical characteristics of Japan as opposed to the civilizations which had, until that time, endowed the country with the lineaments of a universalist culture.[3]

In the 16th century European contacts with Japan gave rise to a considerable literature by travelers and foreign missionaries on the Japanese, their culture, behavior, and patterns of thinking. In turn this had some impact on Japanese self-images, when this material began to be read by many Japanese after the Meiji Restoration; and this tradition of cross-cultural discourse forms an important background component in the rise of the modern nihonjinron.


Kokugaku, beginning as a scholarly investigation into the philology of Japan's early classical literature, sought to recover and evaluate these texts, some of which were obscure and difficult to read, in order to appraise them positively and harvest them to determine and ascertain what were the original indigenous values of Japan before the introduction of Chinese civilization. Thus the exploration of early classical texts like the Kojiki (古事記) and the Man'yōshū (万葉集) allowed scholars of Kokugaku, particularly the five great figures of Keichū (Japanese: 契沖, 1640–1701), Kada no Azumamaro (荷田春満, 1669–1736), Kamo no Mabuchi (賀茂真淵, 1697–1769), Motoori Norinaga (本居宣長, 1730–1801) and Hirata Atsutane (平田篤胤, 1776–1843)[4] to explore Japan's cultural differences with China, locate their sources in high antiquity, and deploy the results in a programmatic attempt to define the uniqueness of Japan against a foreign civilization. These scholars worked independently, and reached different conclusions, but by the 19th century were grouped together by a neo-Kokugakuist named Konakamura to establish the earliness of Japanese self-awareness.[5] Implicitly or otherwise, they advocated a return to these ostensibly pristine ethnic roots, which involved discarding the incrustations of those Chinese cultural beliefs, social rites and philosophical ideas that had exercised a political ascendancy for over a millennium within Japan and had deeply informed the neo-Confucian ideology of the Tokugawa regime itself.

The irony was that the intellectual techniques, textual methods and cultural strategies used by nativist scholars against Confucianism borrowed heavily from currents in both Chinese thought (Taoist, Confucian and Buddhist) and their Japanese offshoots. Motoori, the greatest nativist scholar, is deeply indebted, for instance, to the thought of Ogyū Sorai the most penetrating Confucian thinker of Tokugawa times. In similar wise, scholars detect in modern Japanese nationalism, of which the nihonjinron are the resonant if melodiously subdued, post-war echo, many features that derived from borrowings abroad, from the large resources of cultural nationalism mined in European countries during their own respective periods of nation-formation. Under the alias of assertions of difference, nationalisms, in Japan as elsewhere, borrow promiscuously from each other's conceptual hoards, and what may seem alien turns out often to be, once studied closely, merely an exotic variation on an all too familiar theme.

Meiji period

In the second half of the 19th century, under strong military and diplomatic pressure, and suffering from an internal crisis that led to the collapse of the Bakufu, Japan opened its ports, and subsequently the nation, to commerce with the outside world and reform that sought to respond vigorously to the challenges of modern industrial polities, as they were remarked on by Japanese observers in the United States and Europe. The preponderant place of China as model and cultural adversary in the cognitive models developed hitherto was occupied by the West. But, whereas Japan's traditional engagement with Chinese civilization was conducted in terms of a unilateral debate, now Japanese scholars and thinkers could read directly what Westerners, themselves fascinated by the 'exoticism' of Japanese culture, said and wrote of them. Japanese contact with, and responses to these emerging Western stereotypes, which reflected the superiority complex, condescension and imperial hauteur of the times, fed into Japanese debates on national identity. As Leslie Pincus puts it, speaking of a later phase:

"one might say that Japanese travelers reappropriated Japan from Europe as an exoticized object. Just as ukiyo-e were first reimported back into Japan from Paris museums and private European collections after World War 1, less tangible aspects of the cultural past were newly rediscovered by Japanese visitors in Europe. But whether material or ethereal, the artifacts of Japanese culture had become indelibly inflected by Europe's fascination with, or depreciation of, one of its cultural others."[6]

There ensued an intense period of massive social and economic change, as, under the direction of a developmental elite, Japan moved from the closed world of centuries of Tokugawa rule (the so-called sakoku [鎖国] period) to Meiji Westernization, and, again in close conformity with the prevailing occidental paradigm, to imperialist adventurism with the growth of the colonialism. The Taishō period marked a slightly more 'liberal' turn, as the pendulum swung towards a renewed interest in the Western model ("Japan must undergo a second birth, with America as its new mother and France as its father"). With the crisis of 1929 and the concomitant depression of the 1930s, militarism gained the upper hand in this era of the 'dark valley' (kurai tanima, 暗い谷間), and nationalistic ideologies prevailed over all attempts to keep alive the moderate traditions of liberal modernity.

Postwar period

Total economic, military and spiritual mobilization could not stave off defeat however, and slowly, under occupation, and then rapidly with its reasserted independence, Japan enjoyed a decades-long resurgence as global industrial and economic powerhouse until the crisis of the 1990s. The cultural patterns over this century long trajectory is one of a continuous oscillation between models of pronounced Westernization and traditionalist autarky. Between the two alternatives, attempts were frequently made to mediate a conciliatory third way which would combine the best of both worlds (wakon yōsai, (和魂洋才): "Japanese spirit and Western techniques".[7]

The frequency of these chronic transitional upheavals engendered a remarkable intensity of debate about national directions and identity (kokuminsei, 国民性/minzokusei, 民族性), whose complexity over time renders a synthetic judgment or bird's-eye view of the literature in question rather difficult. A major controversy surrounds the question regarding the affiliation of the post-war nihonjinron theories with the prewar conceptualization of Japanese cultural uniqueness. To what degree, that is, are these meditations under democracy on Japanese uniqueness innocent reflections of a popular search for identity, and in what measure, if any, do they pick up from the instrumental ideology of Japaneseness developed by government and nationalists in the prewar period to harness the energies of the nation towards industrialization and global imperium?

The questions are rendered more complex by the fact that in the early post-war period, the restoration of a 'healthy nationalism' was by no means something exclusive to right-wing cultural thinkers. An intense debate over the necessity to develop ideal, positive forms of national consciousness, regarded as a healthy civic identity, figures prominently in the early writings of Maruyama Masao, who called for a healthy "national civic consciousness" (kokuminshugi, 国民主義), and in the prolific debates of members of the Japanese Historical Science Association (rekiken, 歴研) who preferred to speak of 'ethnic national consciousness'(minzokushigi, 民族主義). These debates ranged from liberal center-left critics to radical Marxist historians.[8]

Some scholars cite the destruction of many Japanese national symbols and the psychological blow of defeat at the end of World War II as one source of nihonjinron's enduring popularity, although it is not a uniquely 20th century phenomenon. In fact the genre is simply the Japanese reflex of cultural nationalism, which is a property of all modern nations. The trend of the tone of nihonjinron argument is often reflective of the Japanese society at the time. Peter Dale, covering the period analysed by the Nomura survey, distinguished three major phrases in the development of post-war nihonjinron discourse:

Tamotsu Aoki subsequently finessed the pattern by distinguishing four major phases in the post war identity discourse.[10]

In Dale's proposal, this drift from negative uniqueness to positive evaluation of uniqueness is a cyclical trend, since he believes the same pattern can be detected in the literature on identity for the period from 1867 to 1945, from early Meiji times down to the end of World War Two. Nihonjinron, in Dale's view, recycle prewar Japanese nationalist rhetoric, and betray similar ends. For Aoki, contrariwise, they are natural movements in a national temper which seeks, as has been the case with other nations, its own distinctive path of cultural autonomy and social organization as Japan adapts itself to the global world order forged by the West.

During the early post-war period, most of nihonjinron discourses discussed the uniqueness of the Japanese in a rather negative, critical light. The elements of feudalism reminiscent of the Imperial Japan were all castigated as major obstacles to Japan's reestablishment as a new democratic nation. Scholars such as Hisao Ōtsuka (大塚久男), a Weberian sociologist, judged Japan with the measure of rational individualism and liberal democracy that were considered ideals in the U.S. and Western European nations back then.[11] By the 1970s, however, with Japan enjoying a remarkable economic boom, Ōtsuka began to consider the 'feudal residues' in a positive light, as a badge of Japan's distinctive difference from the West (Ōtsuka, Kawashima, Doi 1976 passim). Nihonjinron books written during the period of high economic growth up to the bubble burst in the early 1990s, in contrast, argued various unique features of the Japanese as more positive features.

Specific theses

  1. The Japanese race is a unique isolate, having no known affinities with any other race. In some extreme versions, the race is claimed to be directly descended from a distinct branch of primates.[12]
  2. This isolation is due to the peculiar circumstances of living in an island country (島国 shimaguni) cut off from the promiscuous cross-currents of continental history, with its endless miscegenation of tribes and cultures. The island country in turn enjoys a sui generis climate (風土 fūdo) whose peculiar rhythms, the putative fact for example that Japan alone has four distinct seasons (四季 shiki), color Japanese thinking and behaviour. Thus, human nature in Japan is, peculiarly, an extension of nature itself.[13]
  3. The Japanese language has a unique grammatical structure and native lexical corpus whose idiosyncratic syntax and connotations condition the Japanese to think in peculiar patterns unparalleled in other human languages. The Japanese language is also uniquely vague.[14] Foreigners who speak it fluently therefore, may be correct in their usage, but the thinking behind it remains inalienably soaked in the alien framework of their original language's thought patterns. This is the Japanese version of the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, according to which grammar determines world-view.[15]
  4. Japanese psychology, influenced by the language, is defined by a particular cast of dependency wishes or desires (甘え amae) that conduce to a unique form of 'human relationship' (人間関係 ningen kankei), in which clearly defined boundaries between self and other are ambiguous or fluid, leading to a psychomental and social ideal of the fusion of ego and alter (自他合一 jita gōitsu).[16]
  5. Japanese social structures consistently remould human associations in terms of an archaic family or household model ( ie) characterized by vertical relations (縦社会 tate-shakai), clan ( uji), and (foster-)parent-child patterns (親分・子分 oyabun, kobun). As a result, the individual (個人 kojin) cannot properly exist, since groupism (集団主義 shūdan-shugi) will always prevail.[17]

Nihonjinron as cultural nationalism

Scholars such as Peter N. Dale (1986), Harumi Befu (1987), and Kosaku Yoshino (1992) view nihonjinron more critically, identifying it as a tool for enforcing social and political conformity. Dale, for example, characterizes nihonjinron as follows:

"First, they implicitly assume that the Japanese constitute a culturally and socially homogeneous racial entity, whose essence is virtually unchanged from prehistoric times down to the present day. Secondly, they presuppose that the Japanese differ radically from all other known peoples. Thirdly, they are conspicuously nationalistic, displaying a conceptual and procedural hostility to any mode of analysis which might be seen to derive from external, non-Japanese sources. In a general sense then, nihonjinron may be defined as works of cultural nationalism concerned with ostensible 'uniqueness' of Japan in any aspect, and which are hostile to both individual experience and the notion of internal socio-historical diversity."[18]

The emphasis on ingroup unity in nihonjinron writings, and its popularization during Japan's period of military expansion at the turn of the 20th century, has led many Western critics to brand it a form of ethnocentric nationalism. Karel van Wolferen echoes this assessment, noting that:

In the nihonjinron perspective, Japanese limit their actions, do not claim 'rights' and always obey those placed above them, not because they have no other choice, but because it comes naturally to them. Japanese are portrayed as if born with a special quality of brain that makes them want to suppress their individual selves.[19]

See also


  1. Borgen, Robert. "Japanese Nationalism: Ancient and Modern". Retrieved May 1, 2007.
  2. Hiroshi Minami,Nihonjinron no keifu,1980 p.3
  3. Peter Dale,'Nipponologies (Nihon-ron. Nihon-shugi)', 1994 p. 355
  4. Minamoto Ryōen, Tokugawa Shisō Shōshi, Chūkō Shinsho, Tokyo 1973 p.178, corrects the traditional figure of four great founders, which unjustly excluded Keichū}
  5. Susan L. Burns. Before the Nation. Duke University Press, 2003. p. 199.
  6. Leslie Pincus,Authenticating Culture in Imperial Japan University of California Press, 1996 p. 92
  7. Cf. Hirakawa Sukehiro (平川祐弘),Wakon Yōsai no keifu, Kawade Bungei Shinsho,1976 passim
  8. Curtis A Gayle,Marxist History and Postwar Japanese Nationalism 2003
  9. Dale,The Myth of Japanese Uniqueness, 1986 p. 213
  10. Aoki 1990 p. 29
  11. Sugimoto & Mouer,Images of Japanese Society 1986 pp. 70-71
  12. (1)Watanabe Shōichi, Nihongo no kokoro, Kōsansha Gendai Shinsho, Tokyo 1954.pp.11f (2) Oguma Eiji,Tan'itsu minzoku shinwa no kigen, Shin'yōsha, Tokyo 1995
  13. (1) Watsuji Tetsurō, Fūdo, Iwanami Shoten 1935 passim; (2)Dale,Myth of Japanese Uniqueness, ibid. pp.43f.
  14. Morimoto, Tetsurō (森本哲朗) Nihongo Omote to Ura (日本語表と裏) ("Japanese inside and outside") Shinchōsha Tokyo 1985
  15. (1)Suzuki Takao, Kotoba no ningengaku, Shinchō Bunko, Tokyo 1981.pp.109ff;(2) Itasaka Gen, Nihongo yokochō, Kōdansha Gakujutsu Bunko, Tokyo 1978 pp.69ff; (3)Kawashima Takeyoshi in Ōtsuka Hisao, Kawashima Takeyoshi, Doi Takeo, 'Amae’ to shakai kagaku, Kōbundō, Tokyo 1978 p.29
  16. Dale,Myth of Japanese Uniqueness, ibid. ch.7,8 pp.116-175, ch.12 pp.201ff.
  17. Dale,Myth of Japanese Uniqueness, ibid. ch.7 pp.100ff
  18. Shepherd, Gregory. "Music of Japan Today: Tradition and Innovation". Retrieved March 25, 2006.
  19. Caron, Bruce. "17 Nihonjinron". Retrieved March 25, 2006.

Major Nihonjinron literature

Critical bibliography

• Amino, Yoshihiko (網野善彦) 1993 Nihonron no shiza: Rettō no shakai to kokka (日本論の視座) Tokyo, Shôgakkan

• Amino, Yoshihiko (網野善彦). 1978 Muen, kugai, raku: Nihon chūsei no jiyū to heiwa (無縁・公界・楽. 日本中世の自由と平和:Muen, kugai, raku: Peace and freedom in medieval Japan), Tokyo, Heibonsha

• Aoki Tamotsu (青木保) Bunka no hiteisei 1988 (文化の否定性) Tokyo, Chūō Kōronsha

• Aoki, Tamotsu (青木保) 1990. 'Nihonbunkaron' no Hen'yō (「日本文化論」の変容, Phases of Theories of Japanese Culture in transition). Tokyo, Japan: Chūō Kōron Shinsha.

• Befu, Harumi (別府春海) 1987 Ideorogī toshite no nihonbunkaron (イデオロギーとしての日本人論, Nihonjinron as an ideology). Tokyo, Japan: Shisō no Kagakusha.

• Benedict, Ruth. 1946. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword : Patterns of Japanese Culture. Boston, Houghton Mifflin.

• Benesch, Oleg. Inventing the Way of the Samurai: Nationalism, Internationalism, and Bushido in Modern Japan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

• Berque, Augustin. 1986 Le sauvage et l'artifice: Les Japonais devant la nature. Paris, Gallimard.

• Burns, Susan L., 2003 Before the Nation - Kokugaku and the Imagining of Community in Early Modern Japan, Duke University Press, Durham, London.

• Dale, Peter N. 1986. The Myth of Japanese Uniqueness Oxford, London. Nissan Institute, Croom Helm.

• Dale, Peter N. 1994 'Nipponologies (Nihon-ron. Nihon-shugi' in Augustin Berque (ed.) Dictionnaire de la civilisation japonaise. Hazan, Paris pp. 355–6.

• Gayle, Curtis Anderson, 2003 Marxist History and Postwar Japanese Nationalism, RoutledgeCurzon, London, New York

• Gill, Robin D 1985 Nihonjinron Tanken (日本人論探険) Tokyo, TBS Britannica.

• Gill, Robin D. 1984Omoshiro Hikaku-bunka-kō, (おもしろ比較文化考) Tokyo, Kirihara Shoten.

• Gill, Robin D. 1985 Han-nihonjinron ((反日本人論)) Tokyo, Kōsakusha.

• Hijiya-Kirschnereit, Irmela 1988 Das Ende der Exotik Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp

• Kawamura, Nozomu (河村望) 1982 Nihonbunkaron no Shûhen (日本文化論の周辺, The Ambiance of Japanese Culture Theory), Tokyo: Ningen no Kagakusha

• Mazzei, Franco, 1997. Japanese Particularism and the Crisis of Western Modernity, Ca' Foscari University of Venice.

• Miller, Roy Andrew 1982 Japan’s Modern Myth: The Language and Beyond, New York and Tokyo: Weatherhill.

• Minami Hiroshi (南博) 1980 Nihonjinron no keifu (日本人論の系譜) Tokyo, Kōdansha.

• Mouer, Ross & Sugimoto, Yoshio, Images of Japanese Society, London: Routledge, 1986

• Nomura Research Institute. 1979. Sengo Nihonjinron Nenpyō (戦後日本人論年表, Chronology of post-war Nihonjinron). Tokyo, Japan: Nomura Research Institute.

• Sugimoto Yoshio (杉本良夫) 1993 Nihonjin o yameru hōhō, Tokyo, Chikuma Bunko.

• Sugimoto, Yoshio & Ross Mouer (eds.) 1989 Constructs for Understanding Japan, Kegan Paul International, London and New York.

• Sugimoto, Yoshio (杉本良夫) and Mouer, Ross.(eds.) 1982 Nihonjinron ni kansuru 12 shô (日本人論に関する12章) Tokyo, Gakuyō Shobō

• Sugimoto, Yoshio (杉本良夫)1983 Chō-kanri rettô Nippon (超管理ニッボン, Nippon. The Hyper-Control Archipelago) Tokyo, Kōbunsha.

• Sugimoto, Yoshio and Mouer, Ross. 1982 Nihonjin wa 「Nihonteki」ka (日本人は「日本的」か) Tokyo, Tōyō Keizai Shinpōsha

• Sugimoto, Yoshio and Mouer, Ross. 1995. Nihonjinron no Hōteishiki (日本人論の方程式, the Equation of Nihonjinron). Tokyo, Japan: Chikuma Shobō

• Van Wolferen, Karel. 1989. The Enigma of Japanese power. Westminster, MD: Knopf.

• Yoshino, Kosaku. 1992. Cultural Nationalism in Contemporary Japan: A Sociological Enquiry. London, UK: Routledge.


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