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Does Japan Make the Person or Does the Person Make Japan?

How does a personal identity fit with the national identity of Japan?

By 4 min read 3

If we were to ask someone to list the defining factors of their identify, how far down would nationality fall on the list? Take me for example. I spend a lot of time involved in music and media-related creative endeavors. I work and collaborate with people in Berlin, Seattle, LA, NYC, London, the Netherlands, Singapore, and, of course, Japan. The geography and nationalities of the individuals I find myself working with rarely come into play.

In my case, I don’t feel that my identity has much to do with my nationality, but is created through my own agency, a result of following my interests and discovering a community I relate to. The reason I can get along and work with so many of these people throughout the world is because we have shared interests and collective experiences. It’s these shared interests and collective experiences that are ultimately what create a community, and thus one’s identity.

With that in mind, let’s assess Japan. What degree is individual identity distinct from national identity? What kinds of institutions, concepts and technologies alter the landscape within which identity is created. Let’s first take a look at basic fundamentals like belief, race, and class, before gradually moving onto more abstract factors.

Generally race, at least domestically, is not something experienced as a binary or a divide, but as a fluid, homogenous, collective state of being.

Japan is a hybrid mixture of Buddhist and Shinto practices, which for the vast majority of the population have little to do with belief or spirituality, but are cultural rituals entangled in the long heritage of Japanese-ness. Imagine a neighborhood of secular Jews who still have bar mitzvah’s but don’t particularly believe in a god. It’s like that.

As for class and race, while there are certainly issues to be addressed, namely discrimination of the Burakumin class and the treatment of Korean and Chinese residents, the majority of Japan’s ethnically Japanese population sit somewhere in the middle of the income bracket. Generally race, at least domestically, is not something experienced as a binary or a divide, but as a fluid, homogenous, collective state of being.

Under such conditions, there are many collective experiences shared by the entire population together. Every child in Japan has participated in a “Sports Day” (or Undokai) at school. Every adult in Japan has worn the same type of black suit/skirt combination to a job interview. Everyone knows what food to prepare for New Years Day, what to give at a wedding, who to buy chocolate for on White Day, and so on and so forth. These collective experiences shape the individual identities of people in Japan.

This gives each individual a very strong sense of “Japaneseness.” As an American, perhaps one of the reasons I don’t identify overwhelmingly as an “American,” is because I have few experiences that coincide with other Americans around me. As a kid growing up in California, my friends came from a variety of backgrounds and the people around me were headed in trajectories that have ended with some launching start-ups and others in jail. The closest collective experience I can recall was the high school prom. Otherwise, I was on my own, experiencing things that were relevant to my interests, which have led me to where I am now.

Old staples like tea ceremonies and sumo are augmented with new experiences like maid cafes and pro wrestling.

Back to Japan. With such a strong backbone in Japaneseness characterizing the upbringing of the individual, one might conclude that the result is a population where everyone is more or less the same — a docile, boring group of people. I would contend that, specifically because of such a homogenous population, specific divisions, categorizations and trends have developed in response to this sameness. Old staples like tea ceremonies and sumo are augmented with new experiences like maid cafes and pro wrestling.

Individuals find themselves navigating a society that is at once homogenous, while also providing a multitude of channels to tune into. One only needs to look at the wide range of manga genres, video games, idol groups and cuisine to get a sense of these sub-cultures. The internet, not only a portal into the world at large, is also a realm for the development of this hyper-specific culture. The 2chan message boards, while not the most pleasant thing to look at, provide an outlet for people (mostly men) to talk about everything from cats, to politics, to much more dubious topics. It’s a hobbyist’s mindset.

Perhaps for the average person living in Japan—the first realization of identity is “I am Japanese.” The next step is “So, what am I really?” Then begins a further examination of the self. Within this largely homogenous society, there are still plenty of channels for developing a specific identity.

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  • KamelFields says:

    Zillions of years ago, 1976, I was a grad student in NYC. I went with some friends from India to see the Tall Sailing Ships & fireworks in the harbor. We took a slow bus packed with locals & tourists back to campus. A sing-a-long of camp and folk songs started and went on for over an hour. My friends were astonished and said nothing remotely like this would ever happen in India.


  • Gaijinn says:

    We could write a book about the differences and similarities in Japanese communities. There are similar things that gives us the image of Japaneseness. However, there are many difference too. Most of the people in kanto region specially in tokyo are from different prefectures. They all have different expriences. Even the sports are different depending on the prefecture. There is something out there that gives the hint of Japaneseness from Japanese people but its very diffcult to explain.

  • Mikey says:

    Very interesting questions. In my previous work at a convo-school I would regularly ask about the students religious practice. Generally they said that they were not religulous, and had difficulty seeing my point of view that say, going to temple on new years day, is actually a religious act. They saw it as more cultural as you pointed out – I like your secular Jewish comparison — its very apt.

    I remember being an angry teen in Sydney in the 90s. The group I fit with and the ‘shared experiences’ as you say involved all the other misfits – and all not fitting in together ha ha. In Japan not fitting in seems a lot more serious. Herd-mentality is a bit strong, but I think the group-focus rather than the individual-focus makes being (like I was) deliberately different a lot harder.

    When I lived in Koenji in Tokyo, I found a lot of Japanese people with my type of attitude, ie. “im gonna do me” which made it cool. Being an immigrant helped with the punk thing too ha ha



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