electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Discussion Paper 3 in 2010
First published in ejcjs on 12 July 2010

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Towards a Mutual Anthropology of Identity in Japan and the West


Flavia Cangià

PhD Candidate
University of Fribourg

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In the late 1980s and 1990s there was an intensive debate concerning the possibility for the Western anthropological tradition – namely the theoretical models relating to the notion of identity – to be applied to research on Japan. On one end of this debate, there were scholars who pointed to the weakness of those paradigms adopting Western analytical frameworks as cornerstones to talk about Japan, and conversely praised emic viewpoints more suitable to Japanese studies. At the other end, there were others who claimed for the need to question the East-West dichotomy, in order to avoid the utmost implications of what Edward Said has identified as the main risk of orientalism, as much as its opposite occidentalism (Said 1979; Coronil 1996).

The earliest studies of the Japanese sense of self have underpinned a distinct ethos or national character, by collecting a vacuum-like set of psychological traits, linguistic and behavioural patterns. Conversely, recent researches have attempted to challenge Western dichotomies, and have proposed specific modes of relationality based on 'soft understandings of identity' (Brubaker and Cooper 2000). However, these have still failed to acknowledge the actual overlapping of emic and etic stances, and at times, albeit indirectly, ended up reinforcing the portrait of a cultural Japanese-no-matter-what personality.

The paper aims to return to this topic from a new angle and to lend support in resolving some of those earlier arguments on the alleged antagonism between Western and Japanese approaches to the study of identity. For that purpose, I will look at some constructivist theories, in both their Western and Japanese versions, as two sides of the same coin: by analysing the literature on identity of both Eastern and Western sociological and anthropological contexts, it is possible to observe a certain degree of conceptual affinity for the whole understanding of the concept of identity. Hence, I believe that, rather than separating 'Western' from 'Japanese' paradigms – and labelling the former as 'Western', and therefpre not suitable to 'understand the Japanese' – it is worth putting these into perspective, in order to acknowledge the interesting contribution both intellectual scenarios might offer to the whole study of identity.


Since the first decades of the twentieth-century an anthropological literature on the Japanese arose in and outside the country. Whether the interpretation of the phenomenon of Japan was necessary for Western intelligentsia to understand the fast development of this nation, or for Japan to measure its own position in the international arena, the result has often been, in both these cases, the reinforcement of a stable-perceived cultural archetype. Along with essentialist arguments on the concept of identity as a 'substance that persists over time', patterns of Japanese culture were bestowed as heuristic models, aimed at explaining the subjective definition of interpersonal relations supposedly inherent in the Japanese. This dominant trend, underpinning an idiosyncratic character of the Japanese culture, can be traced up to the so-called Nihonjinron (theories of the Japanese) literature, in both its scientific and popular ramifications.

Nihonjinron consists of a selection, even creation, of 'cultural traits', allegedly comparing and contrasting the Japanese from other cultures – be they Eastern or Western. The traits are selected depending on which culture Japan is contrasted with and ultimately are maintained as national and ethnic symbols, antithetically located on the axes 'Japan versus the Other', homogeneity versus heterogeneity, groupism versus individualism (Befu 2001: 5). Western anthropological studies, in turn, had long provided Japan with an over-simplified representation, by locating the other – the Japanese – at the other end of the individual/society dichotomy, and sometimes ended up supplying nationalistic premises to the counterpart.

Most of the same Japanese-trained studies, as Hamaguchi put it, have been influenced by Western anthropological assumptions and analytical paradigms, namely the 'methodological individualism' as well as its pseudo-contrasting version, the 'methodological holism', to address Japanese-perceived issues (Hamaguchi 1985: 295). As a consequence, a large number of Japanese-trained scholars took distance from any form of oppositional logic akin to Western theories, put into question the actual applicability of these to grasp a specifically Japanese interpretation of the self, and ultimately ventured new peculiar modes of analysis. A set of conceptual markers has been offered as an analytical direction for the study of a Japanese self: they ended up reinforcing political arguments and reproducing common definitions attached to the Japanese national identity (McVeigh 1998) ranging from the Japanese as hierarchical (Nakane 1970) the Japanese as self-indulgent and dependent (Doi 1986) to broader socio-political categorizations such as 'groupism', and inside/outside uchi/soto-related axes.

Individual versus Contextual, Oppositional versus Contingency Logic

By identifying the threat of a methodological individualism, Hamaguchi has attempted a reformulation of the definition of the Japanese 'outlook of man'. Without denying the objectivity of a concept of humanity, he has argued that each society shapes a particular view of interpersonal relations and consequently a specific understanding of the 'human nature'. The objective was to address a specific model of actorship from a 'native' perspective.

In the two types of actor systems, consisting of individual actors (West) versus relational actors (Japan) the criterion for objectification of the self changes according to the referent chosen during the process, whether the self or the relationship between self and others. As Hamaguchi put it, these two approaches are not mutually exclusive, for, when an actor attempts to objectify himself, s/he cannot totally ignore relationships with others. The Japanese, in contrast to the Western individual type, is described as a 'relational actor', referring first to the subjectified relationship (context) itself, and second to the actor (contextual man) who acts subjectively within such a context (Hamaguchi 1985: 299). In Japan, Hamaguchi argues, who is 'I' and who is 'you' is not defined absolutely, but it is defined according to the nature of both levels at-the-moment and at-the-place: to the same extent selfness is conceived as a fluid concept changing according to interpersonal relationships, by which it is ultimately confirmed. Therefore, the model puts emphasis on the objectification of the relationship with the group, which the actor belongs and refers to, in order to establish its personal self (Hamaguchi 1985: 298). This interpretation of interpersonal relations for the Japanese still fails to transcend the subject versus object-based dichotomy, and prioritizes the process of objectification over the other, by defining self-identification as the mere confirmation of something that pre-exists, the self indeed.

Borrowing Watsuji's logic of 'climate', Augustin Berque renamed the concept as mediance, and took it a little further, by defining the relationship between self and environment as a historical construction. The self-identification of the Japanese within the social context, Berque argues, is informed by the interrelation between the way the Japanese perceive nature and space and the way they interact within the spatial dimension. 'Nature acts only inasmuch as it is historically perceived, interpreted, and transformed by a specific society, while society acts only inasmuch as it exists in relation to nature' (Berque 1992: 94). The relation of the subject with the object starts to become intermingled and no longer oppositional: although a process of objectification of the self is still acknowledged, it now seems to make sense only by passing through a process of subjectification of the environment, both social and natural. Hence, the subject, far from being a Western interpretation of it as stable and transcendental, is ultimately displaced and de-centered; in that identity is not problematical, neither is the identification of the situation in which the subject happens to operate. There is no process of abstraction of the subject from the object but rather a projection of the former over the latter, a subjectification rather than an objectification of the environment. 'Like pure objectivity, pure subjectivity is only theoretical' (Berque 1992: 97). Concepts such as mediance (the way society relates to nature) and trajection (the relation between self and environment) have much in common with Bourdieu's habitus and support in finally looking at the process of self-identification as process rather than a mere result, becoming rather than being (Berque 1992: 95; Bourdieu 1980).

Lebra, in turn, stresses the need for a self-conscious move from western-centered premises, to finally integrate the two embodied and disembodied, 'real and virtual', in a more integrative and replicative relationship. She acknowledges the risks of the western dichotomy between subject and object as a basis for attaining knowledge, of producing an oversimplified image of both the elements involved in the process. Whereas according to these views the self is to be seen through the other as its mirror – in which similarities and differences are identified – Lebra proposes a new strategy: to look not only by contrasting but also for conjunctions and parallels between the self and the other, Japan and non-Japan. Therefore, the external observer of the self does not remain anymore outside the subject, but must enter into the inner, subjective domain of the self, as much as the self has to enter into the other (Lebra 2004). This emphasis on subject-object reflexivity is reminiscent of Mead’s assertion that the self emerges only through the internalization of the perspectives and expectations of the other, thereby attaining two sides of the self, self qua subject and self qua object, I and me (Mead 1934). To further enhance this theory, Lebra strives to let the former to be subsumed under the latter, and vice versa, without implying the precedence in time of one over the other. Following her words, in a P and Q relationship, 'P and Q are entwined, P’s existence is conditioned by Q, P is impossible without Q, P depends on Q, P implies Q'; and again, 'P and Q merge into one, thus P is Q and vice versa' (Lebra 2004: 9-13).

Needless to say that these theoretical premises, developed within the emics as well as the etics of the Japanese sense of self, seem to share a great deal with new 'Western' anthropological stances. Firstly, the need for a balanced understanding of self-identification as an internal-external dialectic (Jenkins 2004: 179) reminds us of the basic methodological postulate for scholars devoted to the study of 'Japan'. Moreover, the contingency model proposed by Lebra has lot in common with the anthropological emphasis on simultaneity – in temporal and spatial dimensions – of 'moments of identification' (Jenkins, 2004: 25). What here needs to be clarified is how the contingency model could actually evade a 'Westerner oppositional logic', while trying to oppose it.

However, the 'Western' and 'Japanese' arguments here presented may be unified under the 'trans-cultural' aim of enhancing the anthropological study of identity, out of any emic/etic, Japanese/non-Japanese dichotomy.

Inside and Outside, Uchi and Soto

Most investigations of social relations in Japanese society focus their attention on spatial self-positioning based on the everyday interpretation of inside and outside contexts, in Japanese uchi and soto. This conceptual distinction between inner and outer domains is believed to be a fundamental part of Japanese social custom, and to inform the shaping of in-groups and out-groups, depending on situational frame-based perceptions of belonging. The Japanese are believed to specifically index inside/outside orientations for the organization of both self and society, by situating meaning within paired sets of terms, including in-back and in-front - ura versus omote, the inner life of feelings and the surface world of social obligations – honne versus tatemae, to name a few (Bachnik 1994).

Lebra’s Japanese pattern of behaviour represents an interesting interpretation of the uchi/soto dichotomy. While urging for the need to bear in mind the variability in drawing a demarcation line between the two, she proposes a powerful framework for the interpretation of Japanese behaviour in social relationships, by stressing the mutual combination of criteria involved (the above mentioned set of terms). According to her theory, the interpretation of the situation and consequent behaviour, though not in a fixed manner, varies depending on the point in which one stands and whether the relation were with an insider and not in public exposure (intimate situation) with an outsider and in front of an audience (ritual situation) or with an outsider but free from an audience (anomic situation) (Lebra 1984: 112-113). Following Bachnik’s intuition, the merit of interpreting social relations in Japanese society in this way, is represented by the possibility to de-center the notion of self, as well as to add these emic-perceived concepts to a wider anthropological tool-kit. This tool-kit may inform the study of social phenomena inherent to other cultures and finally stimulate a move towards what Yamashita has defined as an 'interactive anthropology' (Yamashita 2006). Most of the definitions of the way the Japanese socially organize their own sense of self turn out to be related to broader categories of self and social relations, both inside and outside of Japan (Bachnik, 1994: 4). What is noteworthy is that western theories of the self-image such as the one already developed by Goffman, as well as more recent academic arguments on the synthesis of internal and external moments of self-identification, have a lot in common with the uchi/soto order. Several threads running through both the academic traditions have informed the whole study of self, in particular about the variable demarcation lines involved in the internal-external dialectic, between front-stage and back-stage (to borrow Goffman’s words [1969: 109-40]).

The uchi/soto, ura/omote double axis, alone, fails to address the question of conflict for each single item, what Lebra later called 'interzonal intrusion', and thus ends up evoking Durkheim's structural-functionalist tendency of ruling out conflict and power differences (Lebra 2004: 103). Hence, this analytical direction needs to be developed by external intuitions such as the analysis of self-identification as a matter of imposition and resistance, rather than only as a consensual process of negotiation. Further, as Ryang put it, rather than listing the directional co-ordinates, a more appropriate question is 'who is whose insider', 'who is whose outsider', and how categories such as 'insider' and 'outsider' are socially and politically shaped, since the inside/outside distinction is a truism, which unfortunately replicates the exclusion and marginalization of certain people within the society (Ryang 2004: 185).

In other words, a theory of self – in both its east or west variants – that takes into account the process and the different moments involved – categorizing, ordering, internally reflecting, then 'consensually behaving' as much as 'deviating' – might better contribute to keeping in mind the role played by political and ideological interests in permeating, reproducing and institutionalizing socially situated actions and bounded conformity among individuals.

Hence, in order for a more interesting methodological innovation in the field of Japanese studies to be enhanced, it is necessary to start challenging the very idea of a specific 'Japanese interpretation of self', with its peculiar sociological frameworks and 'native' terminology related thereto. The search for internal unity and a rationale-perceived self/ethnic/national identity persisting over time, is a normal disposition, entirely understandable – in its individual as well as collective scope. However, it needs to be absolutely challenged at the analytical level, in order to avoid any putative crystallization of the reality, for it may in fact diverge from the very manner people define themselves in society. As a matter of fact, as Brubaker put it, 'we should not uncritically adopt categories of ethnopolitical practice as our categories of social analysis (Brubaker 2004: 10).

For that purpose, the study of some of these categories of ethnopolitical practices in Japan can be properly addressed insofar as we bear in mind the methodological drawbacks recognized by recent anthropological theories concerning ethnicity and identity. The very phenomenon of nihonjinron, which informed most of the recent studies on Japan, should be interpreted as any other political project, such as ethnicity, nationalism and the like, common to diverse cultures, and thus added to the list of concepts to be scrutinized (Yoshino 1992; Befu 2001). By the same token, the study of nihonjinron, which defines its object as a project of imagination of national and ethnic content and boundaries maintenance, can be developed as an analytical category for a more balanced understanding of ethnicity and nationalism (Anderson 1991; Barth 1969). As a matter of fact, as the very Japanese term 'Nihonjin-ron' (theories of the Japanese) suggests it primarily refers to the political, intellectual and popular speculations of the concept that it creates.

To the same extent, at the micro level, analytical frameworks explaining the Japanese interpretation of social relations (such as the uchi/soto axis) should not grasp constancy and uniqueness in essentialist terms, but may be deployed beyond 'national borders' to suggest a lot on the same topic in different contexts. I do not mean to argue that the way individuals relate to each other – and the consequent conceptions they construct over social interactions – are to be understood in universalistic rather than particularistic means. Quite the reverse, historical and peculiar factors inherent to the local are extremely important: if specific conceptions on social practices may still be the wellsprings of the anthropological studies, an insight of the contextual sources and local saliency of these is notwithstanding vital. Nevertheless, the common tendency of many anthropological inquires is the interpretation of native utterances and analytical frameworks as culturally specific. Again, conceptual constructions such as the uchi/soto axis alone are likely to uncritically work as oppositional, thus they may end up replicating the very antithetical outlook that needs to be avoided. Additionally, the arbitrary use of such terms, choosing instead of being chosen by their meaning, might turn out to bias the interpretation of social practices, as well as to strengthen the problematic consequences of taking analytical categories as realities (cfr. Brubaker, 2000).

'To Study the Identity is to Forget the Identity'

The notion of identity is one of accounting for what gives persons their identity, assuming that persons do have one. Among social scientists, the possibility that there may be no identity per se is not completely agreed, yet the concept is still taken-for-granted as reality and an analytical category in some cases. The notion of identity cannot solely be treated as referring to autonomous individuals, comprising a windowless, closed and self-contained system, for the understanding of this notion brings up the inherent dilemma that sameness and otherness, affirmation and negation, continuity and discontinuity are inextricably entwined, as well as the fact that not one of these moments can be privileged over the other.

Borrowing Brubaker’s intuition relating the analysis of ethnic groups, the notion of identity may be described as an 'awareness event', as an 'optional procedure of meaning', which can even fail to 'happen' (Brubaker 2004). Hence, identity is not something possessed nor does it signify any essence existing before the social relation; quite the contrary, it is the very social relation that represents the event in which identity might be imagined, constructed, negotiated.

In this context, 'to forget the identity' means transcending the dichotomy between identity in itself and identity for itself, as subject and as object, thus analytically skipping from the perspective of 'the identity before or after the alterity' to the perspective of 'the identity as the alterity' or, following Lebra’s phrasing, 'if self, then other' (Lebra 2004: 9). The identity forgotten is the 'I' that experiences itself as an individual in clear demarcation to the other, and ultimately recognizes itself in its objectified substance, which is finally revealed. The supposed object of the identity comprises an image of self not necessarily identical to the 'I' acting as initial observer. To the same extent, cultural conceptions of the self may not entirely coincide with personal experience, for, while cultural and linguistic categories '…provide one important means by which the self is conceptualized – and talked about – it is nevertheless the case that cultural models and conceptions of the self should not be conflated with the experiential self per se' (Hollan 1993: 6-7).

'To forget the identity' thus means dissolving the subject in favour of a social entanglement and mutual determination, wherein the self does not precede the other or vice versa: thus the locution 'the individual constructs and negotiates his/her identity through the relation with the other', would be reformulated as 'the identity is constructed and negotiated by the relation between self and other'.

The third of the dimensions of self, sketched by Lebra, the 'interactional self', the 'inner self' and the 'boundless self', entailing disengagements from the dichotomies between subject and object, self and other, also contributes to that purpose. The self is supposed to merge with the outside world through a twofold process: on the one hand, the self becomes part of the objective world; on the other, it absorbs the outer world into itself. In the boundless self, the relativity that determines the interactional self during the self-other relationship, is overcome by the mutual embracement of subject and object, internal and external time (Lebra 1992: 115). The self is thus supposed to be absolutely receptive, and equated with the empty self, the no-self, with a high degree of autonomy from fixed boundaries between selves. Such a dimension of the self may sound a non-sense, yet may offer an alternative strategy to disengage the inwardly/outwardly-oriented self (Lebra 1992: 116). The notion of no-self, in turn, is highly embedded in Zen Buddhism, in particular in the idea of transcendentalism, and functions as philosophical construct that cannot easily be actualized in sociological terms. However, it can support the analytical rejection of the notion of identity altogether, that is the self can keep raising boundaries in social life, which is still essential, without necessarily creating a 'battle line' (Lebra 2004: 14). Moreover, it suggests that such concepts should be 'forgotten', without paradoxically refraining from the analysis of the social practices of everyday self-identification. Again, 'to study the identity is to forget the identity', yet to keep studying it. For, if there is no such thing as identity, however it is still essential to provide for some other accounts of why individuals might be concerned with the confirmation of it over time, say the identity as category of everyday social experience.

Notions such as the no-self, the selfless self and the self free from the self boundary, can inform the analytical demand 'to forget identity', by taking the need of 'de-centering the self' further, to the third of the threefold process, not numerically ordered, of identification: the self-defining self (self-identification or self-understanding) the self defined by the other (external categorization) and the self-defining self because defined by the other (self-positioning or self-reorientation) or, as Sartre put it, 'I see myself because somebody sees me', (Sartre 1956, 349) and vice versa. It is worth repeating that, if the notion of identity as fixed and result has to be 'forgotten', and needs to be replaced by the study of the dynamical processes that create it, the three moments cannot be spatially or temporally separated nor ordered.

Rethinking the Japan-West Theoretical Dichotomy

A Japanese self, be it named by gate-keeping labels such as 'interdependent' (Kitayama 1995) 'situationally defined' (Lebra, 1984) 'organic' (Smith, 1983) 'gentle individualist' (Yamasaki 1994) is still believed to be distinctively and purely Japanese, irreversibly opposed to the 'Western self'. Conversely, a so-called Western conception of self, with its putative characteristics such as 'individualism' (Dumont 1970) or 'independence' (Markus and Kitayama 1991) still suffers the lack of an accurate definition of what 'the Western self' is supposed to mean.

The example of famous interpretations of Japan – Japan as homogeneous or the Japanese as group-oriented – demonstrates that to deploy similarity and difference as criteria to define 'cultural identity', can somehow force and simplify the representation of the other and the self, simultaneously. Moreover, to define the process of self-identification as a selection of similarities and differences, does not say much about the actual process of signification of 'what is similar' and 'what is not', respectively, nor about the interpretative coordinates defining the 'boundary' and demarcation line (Barth 2000: 17-36). Hence, at the macro level, Japan qua subject and non-Japan qua object, kept divided as polarities, lead to misunderstandings of similar and different attributes, as well as to the continuity and discontinuity of these. Likewise, the fact that Japanese studies tries to provide society (external momentum) with the same status as individual (internal momentum) to culturally interpret the self, seems to be the result of the misleading selection of cultural traits, nihonjinron, in its scientific form. A conceptual dichotomy is a useful heuristic tool as long as the circumstantial conditions of the two opposed parties involved are fully recognised. The significance of a dichotomy does not necessarily indicate the holistic character of either party as substantial entity, inasmuch as the content of the dichotomy, as well as the features of each party, may vary depending on the perception of the observer (Shimizu 2006: 20).

Additionally, as Melford Spiro has already argued, the so-called independent western self is not totally separable, conceptually and empirically, from the non-western self (Spiro 1993). The 'independent western individual' seems to be the result of a simplified translation of an elaborate tradition. Indeed, by turning back to philosophical stances informing the literature on selfhood, it is possible to observe that most of the western scholars did not take a 'transcendent self' for granted, 'no simplicity in (the mind) at one time, nor identity in different' (Hume 1978: 253): on the contrary, the debate on relationality and interdependency between individual and society traces back to a long time ago.

Furthermore, the attempt to avoid the methodological pitfalls of 'individualism', aiming to accentuate the difference from the tradition of a 'stranger' anthropology, seems to be as detrimental as the mere uncritical emulating of it, insofar as the main concern is to save the Japanese from the other-ness instead of rendering the dichotomies completely unnecessary (Rosenberg 1992: 3).

Japanese-trained scholars share a serious 'trans-cultural' methodological concern and need for rethinking some of the taken-for-granted assumptions, with current trends in 'Western' anthropology. As a matter of fact, the use of vernacular categories, constraint linguistic references and common sense understandings, in the 'West' as well as in the 'East', is disadvantageous to the extent that it conceals the production of shifting identities by the relations of power behind the idiom of cultural personality. Hence, the more appropriate approach for an 'integrative anthropology' seems to be, in both cases, the investigation of how particular linguistic and cultural-perceived attributes, accounting for the concept of identity, work and why they are presented in specific ways too often embedded in political and ideological mechanisms.

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About the Author

Flavia Cangià graduated in Sociology at the University of Rome La Sapienza in 2004, with a thesis concerning the question of Buraku and Buddhism in Japan. Since 2005 she has been collaborating with Non-Governmental Organisations dealing with minority rights, and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Fellow of the Conference Universitaire de Suisse Occidentale, Anthropologie, 3rd cycle, she has attended a project on multiculturalism in Malaysia (2008). Currently, she is PhD candidate in Social Anthropology, University of Fribourg, Switzerland, with a research project on the buraku question and cultural nationalism in contemporary Japan.

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Copyright: Flavia Cangià.
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