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Book Review 1 in 2002
First published in ejcjs on 31 January 2002

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Melting Pot or Homogeneity?

An Examination of Modern Theories of the Japanese Ethnicity[1]


David Askew

Associate Professor
Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University
Monash University
Research Editor
electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

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About the Author

Oguma Eiji (1995) Tan’itsu minzoku shinwa no kigen - “Nihonjin” no jigazō no keifu (The Origin of the Myth of Ethnic Homogeneity: The Genealogy of “Japanese” Self-Images), Tokyo: Shin’yōsha.
ISBN 4-7885-0528-2, Hardcover, 454 pages.

To be published as:

Oguma Eiji (2002) The Genealogy of ‘Japanese’ Self-Images (translated by David Askew), Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press.

A nation is a society united by delusions about its ancestry and by common hatred of its neighbours
W. R. Inge

1. The Origin of the Myth of Ethnic Homogeneity: The Genealogy of ‘Japanese’ Self-Images

I have just finished a translation of Oguma Eiji (b. 1962), Tan’itsu minzoku shinwa no kigen (The Origin of the Myth of Ethnic Homogeneity), [2] a book that will be soon published by Trans Pacific Press as The Genealogy of ‘Japanese’ Self-Images. I first read this work when it was published and realised then that it was an important piece of research. When Yoshio Sugimoto of Trans Pacific Press asked me several years later if I would be interested in translating it, I was happy to agree to do so: the book itself was interesting, and I was personally interested in the challenge of translating from Japanese into English having until that time only translated works from English into Japanese. I was educated in Japan and, like many young academics in the Japanese system, was encouraged to undertake a number of translations of academic works in areas that I was interested in. The custom of urging young researchers to attempt at least one translation is one that I still believe is one of the strengths of the Japanese academic world, as is the tendency for academic translators to write critical reviews of the works they have translated. Here I would like to follow this custom, examine Ogumas work in this review article, and draw attention to what I believe are some of its strengths (I should note at the outset that I will not be financially affected by sales of the English translation).

Tan’itsu minzoku shinwa no kigen received wide attention in Japan when it was first published in 1995, and quickly established itself on any essential reading list for scholars of the history of the self-images of the Japanese and of the historical background of the Nihonjinron (theories of Japanese uniqueness).[3] It examines a long series of authors in both the academic world and the popular press from the mid-Meiji period through to the early postwar years in an attempt to reconstruct the intellectual history of the conception of Japanese ethnicity. Oguma’s major conclusion is that the myth of ethnic homogeneity as the dominant self-image of the Japanese was not a product of the Meiji State, nor of the fascism of the early Shōwa period, nor even of the so-called “15 Year War”, but was in fact only established after the end of the war (Daigo 1996: 263). Indeed, he demolishes the argument that ethnic homogeneity has been the dominant self-image of the Japanese since the Meiji period. He also investigates how the peoples of Japanese colonies such as Korea and Taiwan were viewed and treated in the (pre-1945) literature on ethnic identity and how the (postwar) myth of homogeneity emerged. The work thus provides an intellectual history both of the concept of ethnicity (nationality) and of the discourse on what it meant to be “Japanese” within the context of empire, and sheds light on many of the colonial policies of imperial Japan. By providing a historically contextualised analysis of how the notion of Self was socially constructed in modern Japan (a process that entailed the postulation of an excluded Other), Oguma undermines the major assumption of the postwar Japanese Nihonjinron narrative that argued for a homogeneous ethnic identity through the suppression of historical memory, and especially the history of past heterogeneity.

The main theme of Tan’itsu minzoku shinwa no kigen is the discourse on the modern Japanese national identity. Oguma examines this theme through an analysis of a number of debates in imperial Japan, including those between advocates of opposing positions such as assimilation and eugenics (racism), imperialism and national self-determination, nationalism and Pan-Asianism, pure blood and Japanisation. This work pays particular attention to the location of various minorities within the Japanese intellectual landscape - the burakumin within Japan itself (who were viewed in the prewar era as being the descendants of a foreign race), those ethnic groups on Japan’s immediate periphery such as the Ainu of Hokkaido and Sakhalin and the peoples of Okinawa, and the Taiwanese and Koreans further afield, all of whom were legally defined as Japanese and granted Japanese citizenship, and finally the peoples of Japanese Micronesia, Manchuria and occupied China and other occupied territories in the South Seas. Oguma notes that, in the context of the pre-1945 discourse on ethnicity, political realities would have made it difficult to argue for ethnic homogeneity since such a large percentage of imperial subjects were in fact not Japanese.

Oguma also looks at the role and status of women and Christians (the major minority group who might have been expected to attract his interest but who are not mentioned at all are the homosexuals). A strong sub-text of this work is the process - analysed in further detail in Oguma (1998), Nihonjin’ no kyōkai - by which lines, borders and boundaries are drawn between individuals and groups in establishing self-identity, and the accompanying discourse on acceptance and rejection (or racism, or discrimination).

In the environment of imperial Japan with its expanding borders and large numbers of ethnic minorities, evidence of a past racial “mixture” was rapidly seized on. After all, if the Japanese were the product of such a mixture, it might be argued that the empire’s effort to assimilate non-Japanese subjects would prove successful. Moreover, a self-image of the Japanese as the product of a melting pot of a plurality of ethnic groups lent itself to a discourse that could justify imperialism. Some argued that the Japanese were ideally suited to settle both Arctic and tropical regions because the ancestors of the Japanese had come from both areas, while others claimed that any colonisation of these areas was not imperialism but a return to the motherland of the Japanese nation. This self-image of the Japanese as a heterogeneous nation could also be used to support colonial policies of assimilation. The effort to turn Koreans into Japanese through intermarriage and other assimilationist policies, for instance, could be justified by arguing that the Japanese had originally come to Japan from Korea and thus the Koreans were in effect already Japanese. Ancient history thus seemed to justify current policies. Moreover, the successful Japanese experience in the modern era in areas such as Hokkaido and Okinawa also provided blue-prints for the assimilationist policies that were to be introduced in Taiwan and Korea, which were treated as extensions of Hokkaido and Okinawa, which in turn were treated as extensions of Japan Proper (naichi). Oguma’s work thus sheds light on Japanese colonial policies, although, as he himself is well aware, not so much on the realities of these policies, but rather on the vigorous debate on ethnicity within Japan that helped to shape them.

The debate on national identity took place in a large number of fields. Oguma covers areas including (ancient) history, anthropology, archaeology, ethnology, eugenics, folklore, linguistics and philosophy, to obtain an overview of how a variety of authors, including Hozumi Yatsuka, Inoue Tetsujirō, Katō Hiroyuki, Kita Ikki, Kita Sadakichi, Kume Kunitake, E. S. Morse, Ōkawa Shūmei­, Ōkuma Shigenobu, Ono Azusa, Shiratori Kurakichi, P. F. von Siebolt, Taguchi Ukichi, Takamure Itsue, Takayama Chogyū, Takegoshi Yosaburō, Tokutomi Sohō, Torii Ryūzō, Tsuboi Shōgorō, Tsuda Sōkichi, Uchimura Kanzō, Watsuji Tetsurō, Yamaji Aizan and Yanagita Kunio, dealt with the theme of ethnicity.[4]

Although these intellectuals turned to a number of academic disciplines to shed light on the issue of national self-identity, most used a common set of texts that existed in the background of much of this debate - the Kiki myths (derived from the Kojiki and Nihon shoki). These were used both by those who argued that the Japanese were a pure race (according to these myths, the Japanese Emperors were the direct descendants of the Sun Goddess and it was claimed that all “Japanese” were related to the Emperors), and by those who argued that the Japanese were the product of a mixture of a number of races (the Japanese “descent from the heavens” was interpreted to mean the arrival of a conquering nation from overseas). The Kiki myths informed many of the debates about Japanese anthropology and ancient history (whether the Jōmon pottery was created by a different people or race than those responsible for the Yayoi pottery, for instance, or the relationships between the Jōmon and Yayoi cultures, the Ainu and the Japanese, and the Koreans and the Japanese), linguistics (the relationship again between the Japanese and Korean languages, or Japanese and Okinawan), and folklore (the relationship between Japan and the South Seas). Thus if the assumption was that the Japanese were a conquering nation which had arrived from overseas, this could be used to explain the displacement of Jōmon pottery (together with, it was assumed, Jōmon culture and an indigenous people) by Yayoi pottery (a conquering people). It could also be argued that the Ainu were the descendants of the indigenous Jōmon people, and that the Japanese, the descendants of the producers of Yayoi pottery, arrived from overseas. This led to the question of where the Japanese had come from, and if any of their “relatives” had been left behind.

Tan’itsu minzoku shinwa no kigen consists of three parts containing seventeen chapters, in addition to an introduction and a conclusion. Oguma follows the development of Japanese self-images chronologically, and attempts to show that there was a relationship between the various changes in the international environment - namely the birth and subsequent collapse of Japan as an Imperial Power - and these self-images. Here I will briefly examine the introduction (section 2), summarise the contents of parts one to three (section 3), discuss the conclusion (section 4) and then finish with some comments (section 5).

2. The Introduction

In his introduction, Oguma first cites two examples of pre-1945 writings on the Japanese nation - both from works published in 1942, and both of which state unequivocally that the Japanese nation was not homogeneous - and then contrasts these texts with what he sees as the position of a large number of Japanese intellectuals from the second half of the 1970s - that the Japanese people have believed in the myth of the homogeneity of the Japanese since the Meiji period, and that this myth was not only the fountainhead of the war, of colonial rule and of discrimination against Asian peoples during the pre-1945 period, but also of discrimination against minorities and the ostracism of foreign workers during the postwar period. The question Oguma asks and answers in this book is how the publications of 1942 relate to this later belief held by progressive intellectuals.[5]

Oguma emphasises not only that the Great Japanese Empire was a multi-national empire but that, after the annexation of Taiwan in 1895 and Korea in 1910, fully 30% of the subjects of the Japanese Emperor were no longer ethnically Japanese. He also argues that although a large number of criticisms of the myth of ethnic homogeneity have been made, there has been virtually no documentation of how and when the myth arose and became established. Critical analysis has assumed that it emerged as part of state ideology during the Meiji period. This assumption, however, is clearly false: the Great Japanese Empire was not only multi-national, but, as Oguma demonstrates, was clearly perceived as such by the Japanese themselves.

In the following sections of the book, Oguma examines how the origins and composition of the Japanese nation were discussed and how ethnic minorities within Japan were treated in these arguments. This discourse, together with historical changes in Japans status quo, are chronologically tracked from parts one to three.

3. Parts One to Three

Part One, “The Thought of the Open Country’” examines the theories of Japanese ethnicity, starting from the excavations in 1877 of the shell mounds at Ōmori by the American Darwinist and evolutionist, E. S. Morse, the debate on mixed residence in the interior of Japan (naichi zakkyo ronsō), the rivalry between the advocates of the national polity (kokutai) and Christian intellectuals, the work of Japanese anthropologists and the territorial expansion to Taiwan in 1895 and the annexation of Korea in 1910 (an annexation that found support in the argument that the Japanese and Koreans shared a common ancestor). This section of the book thus examines the various arguments and theories about ethnicity that were advanced from the mid-Meiji to the end of the Meiji period as Japan assimilated Western theories of race and became a multi-national empire.

In the first chapter of this section, Oguma examines the birth of “scientific” theories of the Japanese nation. Here, he focuses on authors such as Morse and Erwin Bälz, as well as early anthropologists such as Tsuboi Shōgorō who were influenced by the methodology introduced to Japan by Western scholars. Covering the period until the 1880s, Oguma shows that a “mixed nation” (kongō minzoku) theory emerged that argued that the Japanese nation was formed by a “mixture” between (or through a melting pot of) various Asian peoples or the original inhabitants of the Japanese isles (either the Ainu or a people who later disappeared), and a conquering people who arrived afterwards. At the same time, however, nationalists in Japan argued that the “bloodline” of the Japanese nation had continued from time immemorial, and therefore advocated a theory of ethnic homogeneity. All subsequent theories, Oguma claims, are “variations” of these two main opposing ideas (p. 32).[6]

Part Two, “The Thought of Empire’”, examines the ideas of Kita Sadakichi, a historian who sought to overcome discrimination through assimilation; the changes in the arguments of the national polity authors as they struggled to come to terms with the realities of Japan’s annexation of Korea, a struggle that resulted in the acceptance of some aspects of the mixed nation theory; the theory that saw Japanese as Caucasians; various changes made to Japanese textbooks; and the thought of Takamure Itsue.

Part Three, “The Thought of the ‘Island Nation’”, analyses the origins of the postwar myth of ethnic homogeneity and how and when it arose. According to Oguma, the works of Yanagita Kunio, Tsuda Sōkichi and Watsuji Tetsurō had the most influence in the formation of postwar self-images and descriptions of Japanese culture. The Japanese state was now portrayed as a “peaceful culture state” and Japan as an “island nation”. In addition to the “birth” of the theory of an island folk and the revival of interest in the Kiki myths, Oguma also examines the wartime debate between the advocates of “Japanisation” (Kōminka) and the eugenicists (Oguma’s distinction between the two main theories about the origin of the Japanese nation helped to shed much light on this debate), the collapse of the empire, and the establishment of the myth of ethnic homogeneity. On this last point, Oguma pays particular attention to the ideology of the Symbolic Emperor System. This is clearly a postwar construct (before the defeat, sovereignty was defined as residing with the Emperor, and he was by no means a mere “symbol” of national unity), and Oguma’s argument is that the myth of ethnic homogeneity emerged as part of the redefinition of the role of the Emperor in the Japanese polity.

To summarise briefly: in parts one to three, Oguma attempts to show what the various changes seen in the theories of the Japanese nation were, from the Great Japanese Empire of the Meiji period through to postwar Japan. He argues (successfully) that the prewar era was dominated by a belief that Japan was a multi-national state and that the Japanese were a multi-national people (a mixed nation), and it was only after the end of the war that a new paradigm, the myth of an homogeneous ethnicity, took root.

4. Oguma’s Conclusion

In his conclusion, which is very long and covers a large range of topics, Oguma briefly sets out the main arguments of both the melting pot and the homogeneity theorists and then uses a sociological approach to analyse the differences between two key concepts, “racism” and “assimilation”.[7] Although racial discrimination did exist in the Great Japanese Empire, it is important, he states, to emphasise the huge differences between it and the racism of the Nazis. The Japanese government promoted intermarriage with the minority Koreans and Taiwanese. And although the culture and language of minority groups were rejected in favour of assimilationist policies that promoted the Japanisation of the peoples of Japan’s colonies, the aim was to promote national unity, and the extermination of entire ethnic groups was never contemplated (nor was the extermination of entire social classes). Oguma notes that he believes that Japan was different from the Nazis, but quickly adds that this is not to say that Japan was any better, only that it practised a different sort of evil.[8]

The aims of the assimilation policies of the Great Japanese Empire, Oguma says, remain unclear. Although the intention was to turn minority ethnic groups into “Japanese”, the question that remains is what exactly this meant. In examining this issue, Oguma draws on the work of Fukuoka Yasunori.

According to Fukuoka, a “Japanese” individual might be viewed as Japanese according to how three different aspects - lineage, culture and nationality – are combined. Anybody possessing all three are Japanese (we might agree), while those who possess none are not Japanese. Disagreements, however, will arise over the six possible categories of individuals who possess only one or two of these aspects. A kikoku shijo (returnee school child educated overseas), for instance, will have Japanese nationality, but not necessarily Japanese culture. Many of the younger generation of zainichi Koreans speak no Korean at all, and thus are culturally Japanese, but will not have Japanese lineage.[9]

Since the mixed nation theory that justified assimilation was the dominant paradigm in imperial Japan, what did it mean for a concept of “Japaneseness” that was based on lineage? In the first place, the myth of ethnic homogeneity was not necessarily responsible for discrimination against various ethic minorities, since discrimination existed before the myth became widespread. Furthermore, the concept of Japanese identity was a broad one. Oguma argues that the mixed nation theory allowed the Japanese to view the various ethnic minorities within the empire as blood relations. From this follows the emphasis on language: once these minorities learned Japanese, the cultural differences could be minimised, and with Japanese nationality, all three aspects of Fukuoka’s definition could be satisfied. Japanese assimilationist policies were thus based on a position that emphasised the importance of blurring the differences between “Japanese” and “non-Japanese”. Moreover, there is a clear difference between the political implications of recognising multi-nationality and recognising multi-culturalism. The Japanese discourse that recognised the existence of ethnic minorities within the empire was determined to fuse them together into a single culture based on that of the Japanese.

One characteristic that influenced Japanese policies towards ethnic minorities within Japan’s borders was that the religious, cultural and racial differences between the majority and minorities were smaller than those between many other imperial powers and their conquered peoples. The Koreans and Taiwanese who were incorporated into the Japanese empire were “neighbours” (p. 374), and their incorporation was very different from those cases where European imperialistic powers gained territories in Africa and Asia. It was for this reason, Oguma writes, that the mixed nation theory was able to blur the distinctions that did exist between conqueror and conquered.[10]

Oguma is critical of both the main positions taken towards Japanese ethnic identity. As already mentioned, he believes that the dominant view of the origins of the Japanese nation reflects the international status of Japan. When Japan is weak, ethnic homogeneity is dominant. When Japan is strong, mixed nationality is stressed. Oguma claims that Japan’s recent rise as an economic superpower suggests that the homogeneous nation model will gradually disappear, and the mixed nation model will rise again.

Oguma is critical of the theory of homogeneity because it readily lends itself to a rejection of the Other. However, he is also critical of some aspects of the progressive point of view. The “idealised” model of an “egalitarian multi-national state”, he writes, may in practice lead to the “pre-war multi-national empire” (p. 395). Oguma argues that the “idea that the shortcomings of the Emperor System and Japanese society will be overcome only when Japan is internationalised, the consciousness of pure blood is destroyed, and Japan becomes a multi-national state, is based on a misunderstanding of the Great Japanese Empire. This idea is not only wrong, but dangerous”. Oguma has something important to say here. An historical understanding of the various concepts of what “Japanese” means is required, and many criticisms of the myth of ethnic homogeneity have been developed from the baseless optimism that the destruction of this myth will serve as a panacea for Japan’s problems.


Although I have some minor quibbles with Oguma, his work is both important and interesting.

It is interesting because it demolishes a major assumption frequently seen in works, both in English and in Japanese, about the Japanese self-image - that the myth of ethnic homogeneity was a prewar product. This assumption can perhaps be partly explained by the unfortunate habit many Japanese have of viewing the prewar years - and in fact the entire history of modern Japan from 1868 to 1945 - as a dark age, and thus tending to believe that every negative aspect of modern Japanese intellectual life must have its roots in this period. As Oguma also implies, this assumption, too, must be said to be the product of a lack of historical research since, as this work shows, to read the pre-1945 literature is to realise that the dominant myth of the Great Japanese Empire was not one of ethnic homogeneity. Finally, the fact that this assumption has not previously been challenged is perhaps a sign of how dramatic the paradigm shift has been from a self-image of the Japanese nation as consisting of a plurality of ethnic groups, to one where the Japanese comprise one single ethnicity. Oguma has, however, exposed it to be completely false and it is difficult to believe that it could ever be taken seriously again.[11]

As an intellectual history, I have my doubts about some of the conclusions Oguma draws: he has been particularly savage with Takamure Itsue, for instance. However, given the inevitable limits that emerge from devoting such a relatively short space to any individual thinker, this work is an admirable introduction to many aspects of modern Japanese thought. The chapter on the eugenic thinkers, for instance, will provide much new material to any future discussion of this issue in English.

The relationship between mythology and policy – even if Oguma has not succeeded in demonstrating it – is a stimulating topic, as is the role that history plays in the construction of social order. The major question is whether the myth of ethnic homogeneity caused the policy, or the policy created the myth. Oguma seems to argue in favour of the latter. This is a terrible indictment of Japanese thinkers, since it implies that they served the purposes of the national policy of the day rather than scientific truth.[12]

As Oguma himself is well aware, an examination of the discourse on ethnicity that focuses on the printed media is not the same thing as an analysis of the realities of discrimination or colonial rule. All the same, such an examination does shed light on those realities. Oguma examines how the collective identity of the Japanese that emerged from this discourse influenced relationships of power and rule both within Japan and in the various territories that it ruled. Needless to say, this discourse also heavily influenced the Japanese debate on the advantages and disadvantages of assimilation and discrimination.

The arguments developed in Oguma’s book are clearly significant in any analysis of the contemporary discourse on Japaneseness, or Nihonjinron. The central assumption of this discourse is that the Japanese are (and always have been) monoethnic. Tan’itsu minzoku shinwa no kigen can thus be seen as another contribution to an emerging narrative that depicts contemporary Japan as a multiethnic society.[13] Because the contemporary discourse on the ethnic make-up of Japan that emphasises homogeneity assumes that Japan has always been and remains monoethnic, the emerging narrative on multiethnic Japan is one that clashes with a nationalist historiography that argues for the congruence of the Japanese state, nation and ethnicity. Oguma examines the emergence of the postwar discourse that excluded and suppressed minority voices by defining the Japanese as a homogeneous nation. Through his analysis of the historical construction of the Japanese identity, he is able to evaluate the contemporary manifestations of this identity. The contemporary significance of his work is thus clear: he demolishes a central plank of one of the major conservative discourses of modern Japan. Japanese conservatism will survive Oguma, but the popularist version as represented in Nihonjinron will be forced to re-examine its basic assumptions.

Although impressed with Oguma’s work, I do however have a number of questions with it. First, as noted above, this book argues that the size of the Japan of the day heavily influenced the dominant self-image. It is correct to say that, for much of the period discussed in this work, the conceptions of Japan and the Japanese differed from those of today and were anyway in flux. First, as the empire expanded, “Japan” grew, along with the general understanding and legal definition of the Japanese. Secondly, both conceptions changed dramatically following defeat in the Second World War. This work thus tells the story of how the conception of the Japanese changed as the borders of Japan expanded to take in surrounding territories - the Ainu, the people of the Ryūkyū Kingdom (Okinawa), Taiwanese and Koreans were all granted Japanese nationality - and in particular how national self-images and national identity changed to reflect the realities of empire. As Japan grew with imperial expansion, the notion that the Japanese were the product of a melting pot of many different ethnic groups strengthened but, as Japan’s borders contracted with military defeat, that notion waned and was replaced with the belief in ethnic homogeneity. Although this argument is without question interesting and one plausible explanation for the changes in the discourse on the Japanese nation, I doubt whether it is a fully adequate explanation. One major question is how Oguma intends to explain the emergence of theories of ethnic homogeneity before defeat. He would perhaps argue that they became popular only because they reflected the realities of the new Japan, but this would not explain why they were developed in the first place. Moreover, the conservative revival of interest in multi-nationality has accompanied an expansion, not of borders, but of prestige. (Australia, for instance, might provide an interesting comparison with Japan: it has moved in the opposite direction, from a prewar belief in homogeneity as represented by the ideology of a White Australia, to a postwar belief in the melting pot as represented by the ideology of multi-culturalism, but has done so without the dramatic changes in national borders experienced by Japan.)

Second, Oguma has worked within a framework where the theory of ethnic homogeneity is seen as being in opposition to the theory of multi-nationalism. He is obviously unhappy with the first (because it is historically false), but also has serious misgivings about the second (not because it is false but because it can be “dangerous”).[14] Since these are the only two alternatives presented, Oguma is in a quandary. One solution would perhaps be to develop a distinction between two different definitions of multi-nationalism. The first follows the definition of imperial Japan: a plurality of ethnic peoples joined together by a common destiny. The second stresses not only the coexistence of a number of peoples, but also the idea that the decision whether, and to what degree, to interact with other peoples is left to the individual. A common destiny (or good) is not explicitly implied. Another solution would be to distinguish between the descriptive and normative aspects of the pre-war mixed nation theory, discard the pre-war normative aspects, and link the descriptive ones to a new norm like tolerance or multi-culturalism. However, to reject both alternatives on the basis of the values of today strikes me as violating the rules of good history.

Having made these points, however, I would like to reiterate how important a work I believe this to be. It will change the way social scientists think and argue about the self-image of the Japanese. It will provide a useful background to many of the debates in both prewar and early postwar Japan. And it will help shape the discourse in English on the Japanese colonial experience.


[1] For an earlier review of Oguma, see David Askew (2001).[back]
[2] The cover of this book has an English translation of the title, The Myth of the Homogeneous Nation, alongside the Japanese title. The translation of the title I have used here is closer to the original. I am aware of several citations of this book in English to date. One was in a short book review which appeared in a publication of the Japanese Foundation, Japanese Book News (1996: 14), where the title was translated as The Myth of the Homogeneous Nation: The Lineage of the Self-Images of the Japanese (this has the virtue of being in accordance with the English version on the Japanese title page). Another was in the list of references to Fukuoka Yasunori (1997: 15-16), where the title was given by Fukuoka’s translator as The Origins of the Myth of the Japanese as a Homogeneous Race: Tracing the Establishment of the Self-Image of the Japanese. Either “lineage” or “genealogy” is a better translation of keifu than “tracing the establishment of”. There is also the problem of minzoku, which is a difficult word to translate, but (I believe) is usually better given as “ethnicity” or “nation” than “race”. Finally, jigazō should, from the contents of the book, be translated in the plural, as “self-images”.[back]
[3] For early reviews of this book, see Daigo Mitsuka (1996), Inoue Shōichi (1996), Katō Haruyasu (1996), Komatsu Kazuhiko (1995), Nagao Ryūichi (1995), Oku Takenori (1996), Toyama Ichirō (1997), Ukai Satoshi (1995) and Yamanaka Hayato (1995).[back]
[4] Although an enormous range of writers are cited, Oguma notes that “the aim of this book is not to examine the thought of individual theorists c but rather to shed light on and analyse the national consciousness of Japan as a whole” (p. 205).[back]
[5] The answer will hardly surprise anyone (although Oguma is not quite so undiplomatic as to put it in these terms): progressive intellectuals frequently have no understanding of history and are perhaps less interested in historical facts than in being perceived as ‘progressive’.[back]
[6] These two basic positions can still be seen today and form the nucleus of a still-contemporary debate in Japan about the origins of the Japanese nation. For example, Fukuoka Yasunori (1997: 4) states that “[a]lthough the matter of blood or race is a sensitive issue in Japan, historical records clearly reveal that various peoples have come to live on the Japanese archipelago. They have come from the Korean peninsula, from the Chinese mainland, and from still further afar. The ‘pure Japanese’ is actually a blend of these different groups of people. In other words, Japan is, in a very real sense, an early prototype of the multi-racial society”. Also see Fukuoka (1993: 6).[back]
[7] The translation of Oguma has added a large section on “Coloured Imperialism” and removed much of this theoretical discussion.[back]
[8] In other words, policies based on assimilation can be just as bad as policies based on racism. This is perhaps theoretically true, and Oguma’s statement is certainly the politically correct one to make. However, in this instance, it is surely wrong. The evils of fascist Japan were not only different (both quantitatively and qualitatively) from those of Nazi Germany (or those of Lenin’s and Stalin’s Soviet Union) but also demonstrably “less bad”. To say otherwise is to play down the unique horrors of totalitarianism.[back]
[9] For more detail, see Fukuoka Yasunori (1993), especially chapter one. Also see Fukuoka (1997), a translation based (rather loosely) on this chapter, and finally Fukuoka (2000).[back]
[10] One interesting project might be to compare Japanese colonial policies with the policies of the English in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, or Soviet Russia in the Ukraine.[back]
[11] A task left for Oguma is to examine the dominant self-image of the Japanese from the early to mid-Meiji era.[back]
[12] Note that this point of view assumes that Japanese thinkers (at least) are interested in contemporary events and are willing to have contemporary political expediencies reflected in their work. Is this true of Oguma? What expediencies, one wonders, are reflected in his work?[back]
[13] See, for instance, David L. Howell (1996), John Lie (2001) and Michael Weiner ed. (1997).[back]
[14] The historian would reply that every human being has to come to terms with the “real” past and accept it, and that it is more dangerous (at least in the long term) to found policy on a lie than to discover the truth and then live with it.[back]


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Oguma Eiji (1995), Tan’itsu minzoku shinwa no kigen - “Nihonjin” no jigazō no keifu, Tokyo: Shin’yōsha.
——— (1998), Nihonjin’ no kyōkai - Okinawa - Ainu - Taiwan - Chōsen shokuminchi shihai kara fukki undō made (The Boundaries of the ‘Japanese’: Okinawa, the Ainu, Taiwan and Korea. From Colonial Domination to the Return Movement), Shin’yōsha.
Oku Takenori (1996), “Tan’itsu Minzoku Shinwa no Gen’ei”, Mainichi shinbun, 9 December, p. 6.
Toyama Ichirō (1997), “Tan’itsu minzoku shinwa no kigen”, Nihonshi kenkyū, no. 413, January, pp. 77-83.
Ukai Satoshi (1995), “Shinwa no shinwa o kaitai suru”, Tosho shinbun, 30 September, pp. 1-2.
Weiner, Michael ed. (1997), Japan’s Minorities: The Illusion of Homogeneity, London: Routledge.
Yamanaka Hayato (1995), “Tan’itsu minzoku shinwa no kigen”, Sankei shinbun, 10 August, p. 17.

About the author

David Askew studied for both his undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at the Faculty of Law, Kyoto University. After working and teaching in the Faculty of Law at Kyoto and then at Dōshisha University, he moved to Australia in mid-1996, and has recently been appointed to teach legal studies at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU). He now shares his time between teaching at APU and at Monash University in Australia.

At present, he is working on a number of projects. First, he hopes to finish and publish a monograph on jurisprudence in the near future. Second, he has completed a number of papers on the Nanjing Incident and hopes to bring these together as a single monograph some time soon. Third, he is currently editing a book on Australia-Japan relations and is interested in writing further on Australian studies in Japan during the 1941-44 period. Fourth, he is editing a monograph on the history of Japanese language education in Australia, which he hopes to publish in 2002. He is interested in and has published on Japanese intellectual history, most recently a book chapter on Ōsugi Sakae, and intends to develop his interests in this area further. He is determined that his next translation will be of a short book.

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Copyright: David Askew
This page was first created on 31 January 2002. It was last modified on 30 January 2006.

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