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Is Japan Lonely?

Is Japan Lonely?


Throughout its history, one of Japan’s main endeavors was to reach “modernity.”  Before the arrival of Commodore Perry, notable Japanese figures such as Oda Nobunaga, Toyomi Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu Tokugawa attempted to unify and control the country’s different feudal states with varying successes.  To preserve their power, they introduced many ideas challenging traditional Japanese feudalism. 

Is Japan Lonely?

For example, all three men believed that the emperor should be subservient to the state.  In this way, they laid the foundations for Japan to become a “modern” state even though they didn’t know what “modernity” was.  It was only when Japan came into contact with the Western world, was Japan given a definition of “modernity” and told to achieve it. 

What is the issue of loneliness in Japan?


For the next century, Japan endeavored to reach “modernity” through language reform, embracing Western colonialism and ideas, while establishing and managing its own empire in the East.  Ultimately, these efforts towards “modernization” made Japan one of the most powerful and “modern” nations in the world.  However, these pursuits have also created many adverse effects towards Japanese, Koreans, Okinawans, and other peoples that outweigh the positive effects.  This includes loneliness, loss of identity and racial discrimination.    

Is Japan Lonely?

One of the negative effects modernization brought was loneliness.  During the Tokugawa era, Ito Jinsai, a Confucian philosopher, believed that social action was based on the unexpectedness and Other inherent in human beings and the world.  Only because people don’t share similar feelings and thoughts can meaningful relationships between people take place.  “Hence, ai prevails because the other is not near or familiar but partly alien to me” (Sakai, pg 110). 

This all changed with the advent of the Genbun Itchi movement in the Meiji Era.  During Genbun Itchi, Japanese became phonocentric, or based on sound, literature became less figurative and visual, and theater incorporated realistic acting.  The combination of these phenomena led to cultural unity and the discovery of “interiority.”  By unifying the written and spoken language, limiting the use of honorifics, and eliminating the abstractness of kanji, phonocentrism allowed people to communicate with each other using a standardized Japanese language that everyone could understand. 

What is the issue of loneliness in Japan?

As a result of this, literature became less figurative as it was impossible for authors to reach levels of abstraction they reached before with the current phonocentric Japanese language.  Therefore, authors began to see things as they were instead of focusing on their abstract meanings.  Actors in theater, such as Ichikawa Danjuro, furthered this idea of realism by performing similar to how an ordinary person would act.  Exposure to this realism and the ease for the general public to understand art ushered the discovery of “interiority” and establishment of cultural unity. 

However, these developments would ultimately eliminate the need for Ito Jinsai’s ai and ethical action.  “As 18th century discourse began to the accommodate some culturalism and phonocentrism, the moment of ethicality as Writing would be replaced by the phonocentric ideal of cultural and linguistic “interiority,” an image of a homosocial community in which the necessity for ethical action is null and void and one can do away with ai completely” (Sakai, pg. 111).  Without the need for ai and ethical action, Meiji society was incredibly lonely for some. 

In Kokoro, this is shown especially in Sensei’s character.  He says:  “I bear with my loneliness now, in order to avoid greater loneliness in the years ahead. You see, loneliness is the price we have to pay for being born in this modern age, so full of freedom, independence, and our own egotistical selves.”  After being predisposed to hate and distrust all of humanity including himself, Sensei was trapped within his own egotistical self, or “interiority.”  He didn’t make any endeavors to ai or perform ethical actions because if he did, he thought that he would end up hurting someone else or getting hurt himself. 

Is Japan Lonely?

In this way, he deviated from the culturally accepted norms of working and making friendships, which further isolated him from others.  Sensei only found a friend in the protagonist, “I”, because “I” sustained and acted upon a long lasting platonic love for Sensei.  Otherwise, “I” would’ve regarded Sensei as a failure as I’s parents did due to Sensei’s deviation from cultural norms and cynical interiority.  

Another detrimental effect that modernization brought to Japan was that it heavily damaged Japan’s identity.  When Commodore Perry and his fleet arrived in 1853, asking for Japan to open up its borders for trade, Japan put up minimal resistance, even allowing Townsend Harris to be installed as US consul. 

Then, as Western nations started to issue Unequal Treaties to Japan, which gave “extraterritoriality” to Western nations until Japan became a proper “modern nation-state.”

Minami Nagano Sports Park Stadium

Meaning that Westerners who were on Japan grounds couldn’t be levied tariffs or tried in imperial courts, Japan tried to become a modern nation-state in accordance to the West’s demands, instead of protesting or denying the Unequal Treaties.  “The revolutionary government was critically aware that the only way they could free Japan from the humiliation of the Unequal treaties was to create a political system that the Western powers could respect as equal to their own” (Goto-Jones, pg. 43).  

To this end, Emperor Meiji issued the Charter Oath, which contained five progressive pledges,  one of which was “to seek knowledge from around the world to strengthen Japan,” further demonstrating Japan’s reliance on the West.  In fact, many of the great “modernizers” during the Meiji Era brought “modern” ideas back from the West and incorporated them in Japan.  According to Takeuchi, this lack of resistance coupled with Japan’s eagerness to replace everything old in society with new ideas from the West is where Japan’s slave mentality comes from.  “In this sense, Japan is the most Oriental of the nations in the Orient.  In another sense, Japan is the least Oriental of these nations.  This “other sense” does not refer to any quantitative comparison of productivity, as is often claimed. 

Rather I am thinking of the notion of resistance in the Orient, and in Japan’s case resistance was scarce. 

This scant resistance is related to the remarkable speed of capitalist development in Japan.  But it is also tied up with the fact that what appears to be progress is at the same time decadence, and what appears to be the least Oriental is at the same time the most Oriental” (Takeuchi, pg. 63).  Even though Japan’s non-resistant approach to “modernity” earned it riches as its economic and structural sectors blossomed, its cultural and spiritual consciousness were falling into decadence, or decaying.  What Takeuchi means when he states that Japan is the least Oriental is that Japan had the weakest identity out of all of the Oriental nations.  During Japan’s modernization, whenever an idea ran into a problem in reality, Japan would swiftly switch the idea for a newer idea. 

It didn’t matter if the idea was a fundamental concept of Japan’s identity.  An example of this was that even though samurai clans fought for the sovereignty of the Emperor in order for the Emperor to uphold sakoku and expel Western influence from Japan, Emperor Meiji ultimately started promoting Western influence in Japan.  This is what Takeuchi describes as Tenko.  “Tenko occurs where there is no resistance, i.e., no desire to be oneself.  The person who holds fast to the self cannot change direction, but only walks his own path.  However, walking means that the self changes. 

The self changes by one’s holding fast to it…  there must necessarily be a juncture at which I am outside of ‘I.’  This is the juncture at which old things become new and the Antichrist becomes Christian. 

This moment appears in the individual as conversion, and in history as revolution” (Takeuchi, pg. 75).  Accordingly, in Japan’s case, Japan’s lack of resistance towards Western nations forcing Japan to relinquish its isolationist policy and essentially colonizing it caused Japan to abandon its former identity as a proud independent nation and become a “slave” to the West.  Although modernization provided an abundance of physical benefits to the people of Japan, it shattered Japan’s identity.  Only after Japan modernized at the end of the 19th century were there efforts to pick up the pieces and try to reform them.   fix   confront this extremely pressing issue.    

One of the efforts that intended to preserve and redefine Japanese identity during Japan’s modernization was to adopt Imperialism.  “This position radicalized Japanese traditions (whether the invented or not) and asserted their superiority over those of the Western nations, which thus risked polluting and weakening… to overcome the insidious infection of modernity and Westernization”  (Goto-Jones, pg. 63).  After losing part of its superior identity to the process of Western modernization, Japan wanted to make sure that no other nation in the Orient would go through the same thing.  To do this, Japan needed to annex nations in the Orient before the West could do it.  Thus, in 1869, Japan acquired Hokkaido, Okinawa in 1879, Taiwan in 1895, and Korea in 1910. 

What is the issue of loneliness in Japan?

By colonizing these states, Japan became a multi-ethnic nation with the responsibility of governing the people from these states.  However, Japan was extremely racist towards these minorities, employing them in low paying jobs, forcibly conscripting them into the army, and massacring them.  “They [Koreans] often received much lower wages than ethnic Japanese; in the 1920’s, for example, Korean construction workers earned 70 percent of what their Japanese counterparts made.  Because of poverty and discrimination, migrants congregated in Korean ghettoes, which were often contiguous to Burakuin and Okinawan neighborhoods.  Already by the early 1900s, the earliest Korean ghetto appeared in Ikaino, Osaka” (Lie, pg. 5).  One of the most notorious examples of Japanese racism was the comfort women system.  In order to make sure Japanese soldiers wouldn’t commit wartime rape, the government created a formal system of sexual slavery consisting of women from occupied territories for the Japanese soldiers to use. 

Is Japan Lonely? What is the issue of loneliness in Japan?

Despite the racism that Japan exhibited to the people of occupied states, pre-World War II Japan accepted and even prided itself for being a multiethnic nation.  However, after Japan lost, it went through a phase of Tenko again, regarding itself as mono-ethnic instead of multi-ethnic as it had regarded itself as before.  “While ideologists of imperial Japan had described and defended Japanese multiethnicity, postwar intellectuals condemned not only imperialism, but also its inevitable correlate:  ethnic heterogeneity. 

Imperial subjects became either Japanese nationals or foreigners” (Lie, pg. 14).  As subjects of a Japanese mono-ethnic society now, Koreans, Okinawans, and Taiwanese were officially known as foreigners even if they lived and worked for Japan.  In order to escape the ensuing discrimination of being something other than Japanese, most minorities “passed” as, or pretended to be, ethnic Japanese.  “Cultural integration should not be understood as either enforced or voluntary; there is always a mixture of constraint and choice, the proverbial carrot and the stick. 

We should not underestimate the minority population’s desire to dissolve into the mainstream. Moreover, lured by higher income. In addition, reater prestige, or the sheer avoidance of awkwardness” (Lie, pg. 19).  

From this quote, one implies that minorities who didn’t pass. Thus, ould become robbed of income, prestige, and of feeling included in society. 

Satellite image of Japan in May 2003.jpg

Furthermore, why would anyone not “pass?” 

Because the act of “passing” entailed the painful process of forcefully suppressing one’s own identity while maintaining another’s. 

This internal conflict of “passing” is shown through Haruo. A Zainichi Korean boy attempting to “pass” as Japanese, in Into the Light.  Haruo wanted to visit his Korean mother who was in the hospital for being stabbed by Haruo’s supposedly Japanese father.  “‘You came to visit your mom.’ As I spoke, deeply moved, I felt something warm flood my throat. ‘Your mother said she wanted to see you.’ He stubbornly kept his head down. Frustrated, I pulled him towards me. He continued to keep his right hand hidden. Whatever it was, he was trying to hide a sheaf of white papers. He had brought his mother something. What a tragedy that he felt he had to avoid people and visit his mother in secret. It was such a sad sight that I was honest with him. ‘Your mother is going to be really happy.’

He suddenly buried his face into me and began to cry” (Kim Sa-ryang, pg. 19). 

Here can become seen Haruo’s internal conflict between upholding his Japanese “identity” and caring for his mother. Haruo loved his mother enough to want to visit her while she became hurt.  Yet, he couldn’t because he became raised to regard Koreans negatively. And believe that people would doubt his “Japanese” identity if they saw him care for another Korean.  Thus, there is truly no positive choice.  One can “pass” as Japanese and lose their family and identity, or stay as a Korean and lose their rights.  

In conclusion, the modernization of Japan was not without its negatives.  Through the language, literature, and theater reforms of genbun itchi. Modern concepts such as interiority and ideological unity may have become achieved. However, the permeating loneliness that these ideas brought was very harmful.  In Kokoro, a main reason why Sensei and K both committed suicide was due to their individual loneliness.  K’s interiority to follow his “true way” and Sensei’s cynical and hateful interiority. As a result, led these two men to stray from ai. And ethical action. And the culturally accepted Confucian-code their loved ones were following, which left them only with loneliness. 

What is the issue of loneliness in Japan?

Through Japan’s lack of resistance of Western influence, Japanese identity became severely trivialized.  If a principle didn’t conform with reality. No matter how ingrained that principle was in Japanese identity. Japan would adopt a new principle in place of the old.  In this way, Japan successfully became a modern nation-state with no distinct self.  To fix this lack of identity, one of Japan’s ideas was to become the defender of the Orient. By colonizing states in the East before the West could do it.  Although the Japanese imagined themselves to be defenders of the Orient, they were the opposite. 

After Japan colonized Hokkaido, Okinawa, Taiwan, and Korea. Which instilled a sense of nationalism in Japan, it racially discriminated against the peoples from these territories. 

Not only did Japanese massacre and exploit these minorities. They forced them to concede their own identities the same way the West did to Japan.  To this day. Horrors of how Japanese treated minorities from colonized territories. Moreover, have still yet to become uncovered.  It is safe to say that the negative effects of Japanese modernity outweigh the positives.

Is Japan Lonely? Written by Thomas Wang

Works Cited for Is Japan Lonely?

Natsume Sōseki. Kokoro. Trans. Edwin McClellan. Lanham: Regnery Publishing, Inc. 2000.

Goto-Jones, Christopher. Modern Japan: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Kim Sa-ryang. “Into the Light.” In  Into the Light: An Anthology of Literature by Koreans in Japan. Translated and Edited by Melissa L. Wender. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2011: 13-38.

John Lie “Silence”; Exile” in Zainichi (Koreans in Japan): Diasporic Nationalism and Postcolonial Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008: 1-65.

Sakai, Naoki. “Textuality and Sociality,” in Voices of the Past: The Status of Language in Eighteenth-Century Japanese Discourse. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992: 89-112.

Is Japan Lonely?

Is Japan Lonely?

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