Dr. Ross Mouer is a eminent professor of sociology at Australia's Griffith University and an iconoclastic Japan specialist. With Dr. Sugimoto Yoshio, Mouer coauthored the influential "Images of Japan: A Study in the Structure of Social Reality." This book sparked intense controversy throughout Japan by finally attacking the racist and authoritarian premises of Nihonjinron ("theories of Japaneseness"). Nihonjinron maintains that Japanese are in some respect or other a completely unique and/or superior race with a distinguishing congenital tendency to obedience, groupiness, self-efffacing industry, harmony, etc. Literally hundreds of Nihonjinron books and papers have appeared in the last 20 years, making it both a bizarre academic sub-specialty and a highly profitable publishing niche.
Dr. Ross Mouer: The book is said to be rather controversial. The book started in a sense from controversy. I met Yoshio in a conference in Australia. It's a long story. I grew up in the United States, did my post-graduate work there, and then I came to Japan to write and do research for a Phd. I was here for 7, 8 years, then I went to Australia. Yoshio did the opposite. He grew up in Japan and went to Kyoto University, worked in a newspaper company here, then went to the U.S. to do his work for a Phd. And then he ended up in Australia. So we both ended up teaching there and we'd both lived in these three societies. At the time we met in the late '70's and then on into the early '80's, we'd both spent about a third of our adult lives in the United States, Japan and Australia. And we'd just been impressed with a lot of the stereotypes that had grown up in these societies and so we got into looking more deeply at these stereotypes and what they were. And that took us into this whole literature called nihonjinron.
One of the problems we confronted was just dealing with friends - trying to explain to friends in Japan what it was like in Australia and in America. So many Japanese have this set image of the West - there's no variation between Germans, French, Australians, Americans and so forth. But then on the hand, Australians and Americans had stereotypes of each other plus stereotypes of the Japanese. And what we thought was particularly interesting was how firm these stereotypes of Japan were, and how much they had remained the same over time.
But in all cases there was an inability to deal with people as individuals or as subgroups within societies - it was always just "the Japanese this", "the Japanese that". And our view was that there are many different kinds of Americans, many different kinds of Japanese. And one needs to be sensitive to those differences if you really want to understand what's going on in this society.
But the nihonjinron theories of homogeneity and uniqueness enjoy a lot of currency within Japan, not just in the foreign community.
RM: Oh, that's right. And that's why the book was written first in Japanese, for the Japanese community. It was first published by Toyo Keizai Shimposha as Nihonjinwa Nihontekika? ("Are Japanese Japanese?"), and it's been used by a lot of university professors here with there students just to get them to think about how you make comparisons. When you say the Westerners are such-and-such, how do you know? On what grounds do you do that? Then, then the other side of the coin is when you say "we Japanese do so-and so...", how do you know that "we Japanese" really do that? Have you looked at all the Japanese? What is the basis for such assertions? And you find that basically these are things we've picked up from the media, things we've been told, and there's a very important oral tradition which has been handed down over time.
An interesting question is "does nihonjinron produce these stereotypes or does it simply reflect them?" You mentioned that nihonjinron is fairly implanted in Japan and one interesting phenomenon here is that academicians participate in the media much more than they do in the United States or in Australia. During the '60's, one could say, Japanese academicians were very much underpaid, so they often made up the difference by writing for the mass media. Now most of the books which deal with nihonjinron are bestsellers, and that then makes you wonder to what extent is the criterion of writing not whether it's correct academically, or accurate in terms of research findings or some kind of empirical evidence, but 'does it sell?' And as soon as that becomes the focus, well, then it's not about something you've investigated, it's simply a matter of responding to some ideas or images that are already out there.
What do you see as the source of nihinjinron's popularity?
RM: I'm not sure. I don't think it's simply people responding to a market, because there is also an ideological function. This is very clear in corporations, where managers who previously did not have too much of an idea about nihonjinron or so-called 'Japanese-style management' that you get from books by people like Abegglen or Vogel or Reischauer which talk about lifetime employment, seniority wages and enterprise unionism, these managers find these ideas very useful. Previously they might not have had these practices, but then they are told about them; and then by telling employees about them, they get employees to accept that type of system. Because they are being told if you don't accept it you are not really 'Japanese'.
Another way this comes out is with regard to strikes and industrial unrest. You tell people, "if you strike or you complain, you're really a Marxist. And Marxism, that comes from the West. That's a Western way of thinking. The Japanese way of thinking (in terms of loyalty to the firm and thinking of the firm as a family) has a long tradition and if you want to be Japanese you'll think like this... So don't make trouble!" And then that's reinforced in terms of promotions or non-promotions and so forth. You can see that fairly clearly coming through in management literature. You don't find people in the union movement writing nihonjinron. You can find the government - as we explain in the book - you can find the government very much involved in it, translating nihonjinron and distributing it overseas so that people abroad will have a similar image of Japan.
But of the Japanese you talk to, how many are really consciously aware that something like nihonjinron is in itself a unique phenomenon?
RM: Oh, it would be hard to put a percentage on it, but I would guess that 50 to 70% probably subscribe to it as an ideology - which means they're not sensitive to it as an ideology.
But if nihonjinron reflects an ideological control mechanism and that mechanism also generates a very high degree of economic success, aren't you afraid that instead of stamping it out in Japan, you're simply going to stir up dangerous ideas that will fly to other establishments?
RM: That's fair enough. That's what Ezra Vogel with all his "Japan as No. 1" writings has been basically trying to do - teach people to "Learn from Japan!" There've been four or five books on education published recently, all saying "Learn from Japan! There are some problems but overall we should study here..." We've just gone through five years of the 'Japanese management' boom, learning from Japanese management. And there's been a great interest in learning from the Japanese police force because they have such low crime rates and so forth. So, yes, there is very much this idea of learning from Japan.
However, at the same time we would argue - and I think there are also a number of people in the United States who are increasingly arguing - particularly people in the labor movement - that there are a lot of problems in Japan. You can say they've had economic growth but you can exaggerate how much progress has been made there, you can exaggerate the importance of material wealth. The society is very inegalitarian in many ways. People who have to work at job during their high school years, when they graduate from high school, can never catch up with university graduates.
Generally, we prefer a more open society like that found in the United States or Australia or in some places in Europe in which people have a chance to make it on their own. Even though they didn't go to university they've studied on their own and there are lots of routes to getting ahead in life. Many people outside feel that Japan is a very structured society. And you can therefor have Japanese management because it's very structured, it's very controlled. There are a lot of people who don't participate in that kind of system. A lot of people in subcontracting firms, they don't have lifetime employment. They don't particularly have seniority wages. There're a lot of women who are left outside of that. A good example people often now point to is the low divorce rate. Well, is it low because people are happily married? Or is it low because women can't afford to get divorced? Because they just can't a job that will pay them enough to be economically independent? Because they're left out of the system... And if you're a woman and you look at it from that point of view, you see the system as being very exploitative. It forces women to work at a particular wage rate, to do particular work at home without giving them a choice. But if they're happy to do that - and it may be culturally conditioned that they are - well, then that's fine.
If, on the other hand, you have lots of control mechanisms, well, then it's not culture at all. It's all these control mechanisms that are getting people to act like this. And so increasingly, I think, there's very much a concern with whether this behavior results from culturally ingrained ideas, or from mechanisms which use nihonjinron and that view of society as an ideology.
OK, but at either level the control mechanisms are still fairly covert - whether you're using cultural exhortation or whether you're saying, "you are this way, you just don't realize it yet..."
RM: I think there's a difference between the phenomena. There are things which you have to accept and say, "yes, this is built into the culture. It's not that anyone has planned to do this. People learned to behave this way and they behave this way pretty much on their own." That's very different than saying, "People probably would behave in a variety of different ways, but we're going to tell them how to behave. And if they don't behave that way we're going to see that they don't get promoted, that they don't get the jobs that bring all the economic rewards, and so forth. I think those are two very different types of social settings.
So who else is benefitting from nihonjinron theories at the moment?
RM: I think it's basically an establishment oriented theory. It says people should obey... And we have these kinds of theories elsewhere. They're not just unique to Japan. They're unique to Japan in the sense that they're framed for the Japanese, in a Japanese setting, in terms of Japanese cultural history.
But this whole idea of a racial myth that's constantly being renewed with these popular pseudo-scientific theories?
RM: Our volume really wasn't so concerned with it as a racial myth, so much as a cultural myth. There are some people who write about nihonjinron who emphasize the racial aspect, the idea that it somehow runs in your blood. It does come through at a cultural level simply in terms of homogeneity - the Japanese are homogenous linguistically, ethnically, in terms of religion, and a variety of different dimensions which relate to ethnicity. But our feeling is that there are really only one or two small dimensions in which there's not much variation. Whereas you can see lots of variation in terms of geographic regions; in terms of male/female differences - male culture/female culture; in terms of age differences, age cultures, and occupational differences; in terms of large firms/small firms; and so forth. In terms of thinking of a society and how homogenous it is, one needs to think about inequality in a variety of different ways.
You discussed Japan's 'internationalization' in the book, and you talked about it in many contexts. What is your current reading of the situation?
RM: That raises two questions, and I'm glad you asked that, because one question has to do with our problem of consciousness - why we wrote the book. Part of it has to do with this problem of internationalization. And another issue which came to mind to both of us early on was the problem of exchange students. We find many exchange students who come to Australia have a tremendous difficulty settling in. But when you say, "What's the problem? Well, maybe they don't have enough English." But English and the ability to speak English doesn't seem to be the big problem.
We have a lot of examples of exchange students who come who don't speak very good English at all, but they're very happy to go down to a pub and have a beer. They can communicate a lot just by having a beer and sitting in that setting and watching people and so forth without any verbal language at all. And they can learn to be at home. Then out of that setting they develop an interest in the language and they make considerable progress.
The problem with the Japanese is different. In fact there are many who speak very good English who have tremendous difficulty settling in because in learning English they were told they have to think like Americans or like Australians or, more generally, like Westerners. And what's a Westerner? Well, a Westerner is some individualistic person so we have to think very individualisticly when we talk. Westerners tend to be much more aggressive than Japanese. They tend to emphasize their own self interest and so forth. So we have to do this when we talk. So we have a lot of students coming to Australia - and we can see the same things sometimes with businessmen who have trouble - who are extremely aggressive, who offend people there, who have no idea of being polite to other people because they think politeness and honorifics are only Japanese. They don't have that in English because everybody treats each other as equals. So they have tremendous trouble settling in. Partly because they come with this stereotype already built in.
They end up not being themselves. They become a kind of a pseudo-individual to try to fit some kind of a stereotype they have of a Westerner. And in fact by doing that they lose their own individualism and they become a plastic person. And it makes it just very difficult for them to interact in homestays and other situations with people. I recently gave a talk here in Kyoto to a group of Japanese but there was one woman from France there. And she came up afterwards. She said, "You know, thanks for making that point because we have the same problem in France. We have so many Japanese who have a stereotype of what a Westerner is. They come to France and they try to out-french the Frenchmen." And what it does really is it ends up alienating people. Whereas if they were just themselves they would find they were more French than by pretending to be French.
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Nancho Rep: W. David Kubiak