There’s going to be quite a few controversial things said in this post. The other day, 2DT asked me if nihonjinron (日本人論), or “Japanese Exceptionalism”, is a form of chuunibyou (中二病, “8th-grade-itis.”) Let’s take a look.
The idea that Japan is special among all nations isn’t a post-World War II invention. Back in 1825, Aizawa Seishisai (会沢 正志斎) published his New Theses (新論), an essay collection which stressed the uniqueness of the Japanese nation. In his essays, Aizawa spoke of a “national body” (国体), an intangible national polity with the Emperor at its head. Aizawa claims that Japan is unique among nations because its imperial line originates in divinity, unbroken by dynastic change. The Emperor is divine and infallible, and all Japanese people benefit from His benevolent rule.
Aizawa‘s New Theses set off a wave of like-minded scholarship. He and his fellow Mitogaku (Mito School) scholars, as well as Kokugaku (national studies) scholars sought to distinguish Japan during an age of foreign encroachment. National Studies scholars emphasized Japanese values and Japanese forms of art and literature, with the tanka enjoying a revival during the first half of the 19th century. These movements were all aimed at preserving the uniqueness of Japan and asserting the superiority of its government and culture over European ones. One could argue that these movements were born out of deep insecurities and fears of losing a Japanese identity, but that is the subject of another (much more academic) paper.
Japan saw monumental changes during the second half of the 19th century. After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Japan experienced a modernizing revolution. By 1905, this small, isolated island nation in East Asia had firmly planted itself amongst the ranks of the imperial powers of Europe. She shocked the world when she scored victory after victory against Russia, then considered to be a military superpower. Observers from around the world, including Theodore Roosevelt, believed Japan to be special. Newspapers breathlessly hypothesized that the Japanese, like the Anglo-Saxons, had the most “complex” blood of any race, which explained their superiority. In any case, Japan had grown to quickly, advanced too rapidly. She was uniquely dangerous, and Roosevelt predicted that her “big-headed” people would someday become too arrogant for their own good.
And did they. Yet, after Japan’s catastrophic defeat in World War II, the country somehow rose again to economic power status within 30 years. Post 1970, Japanese academics began to once again develop theories of Japan’s uniqueness. Academics pushed for a uniquely Japanese wordview, believing that Japan could and should continue to develop along its own trajectory. The search for a “national consciousness”, a benign form of nationalism without militarism, led to new theories of Japanese uniqueness. Some scholars emphasized Japan’s unique geographical character, some others emphasized linguistic isolation and others yet spoke of the unique Japanese mentality in which the group triumphs over the individual. Every theory seeks to understand why Japan was ultimately the only nation to grow from utter financial ruin to economic powerhouse in such a short time span. (Naturally, one can argue that Japan does not stand alone. The “Asian Tigers” (Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea) can all be said to have developed along a similar trajectory— however, this is not relevant to this article.) Nihonjinron is still very prevalent today, evidenced by the government’s tight rules on citizenship and restrictions against foreign pharmaceuticals on the grounds of Japanese medicines being “more suited” to the Japanese body.
Let’s step back from all this history for a second and take a trip down memory lane. You’re in 8th grade and it’s lunchtime. You sit down with all your other nerdy friends and you discuss the latest episode of Yu-Gi-Oh!, or you bust out your Magic: The Gathering cards to get a few games in before lunchtime ends. Suddenly, the jocks descend upon your table and steal your entire deck. You can’t even get that shit back because you’re weak and nerdy. So what do you do?
You don’t do shit. You sit there and snivel in nerdrage. “If only I could… accelerate metal objects and shoot them at those freaking bullies…!!!” You’re on the verge of tears, but all you can do is fantasize. After returning home, you jack off to some “hentai” (you don’t yet know that you’re not supposed to call it that) and write a self-insertion Naruto fanfic to make yourself feel better.
This scenario should be familiar to everyone. Perhaps not all of us were bullied in middle school (I sure hope not.) But the fantasy of wishing you were someone else, wishing you were special— this feeling should be familiar to us all. Even if we have never wished to be special, we’ve seen other people wish it.
When someone wishes embarrassingly hard that they were special and end up subsuming his own fantasies, he suffers from chuunibyou. Wikipedia defines chuunibyou as a “derogatory term to describe the actions of pubescent teens who are hyper-self conscious or harbor certain psychological insecurities.” This is a pretty good definition. I remember this guy in my middle school who actually thought he was fucking Naruto. He would flip tables and use some ninja-eye-bullshit. That is chuunibyou.
At the heart of chuunibyou lies a strong, intense belief: I am special. I am different. Look at Kobato from Haganai. She thinks she’s some 500-year-old-vampire-bitch. Okarin from Steins;Gate? HOUOUIN KYOUMA, THE MAD MAD SCIENTIST. And so on and so forth.
But chuunibyou isn’t just about being special. It’s also about taking action. Kobato (Or should I say Reisys VI Felicity Sumeragi?) fights against the Forces of Light. Hououin Kyouma is being constantly hunted by the Organization. Nerdrage (thanks, 2DT!) also constitutes a key facet of chuunibyou. Action is also necessary— a mission, one might say.
Even as early as Aizawa, theories of Japanese exceptionalism did not particularly emphasize any kind of “mission.” Aizawa coins the term sonno joi (Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarian), yet he did not mean for it to be a call to violent action— his writings were to be later radicalized by the young “men of spirit” (志士) of the Bakumatsu Period in their project of radical political reform.
Nihonjinron is introspective. It seeks to explain the success of Japan. Especially in the current day, Nihonjinron is almost never used as a justification for aggression, nor does it seek to establish a greater role for Japan in the world. Institutionalized pacifism checks aggression of any sort. Instead, nihonjinron is used as a tool to foster national pride and create a strong, independent national identity. Understandable, coming from a country which debated for decades whether it was “far east” or “far west.” Ito Hirobumi, Japan’s first Prime Minister and father of the Meiji Constitution, once said that, “One says that the Japanese and Chinese are of another race and that the yellow race will always have a tendency to draw together and unite against the white race. Nothing is farther from the truth or more absurd.” Ever since the Meiji Restoration, Japan sought to find its own place in the world. The consolidation of Western liberal ideals with a unique cultural heritage proved problematic for Japanese academics. The formation of a new national identity was necessary to justify Japan as one of the “great imperial nations” of the world. Post-war, Japan struggled again to find itself, and theories of Japanese uniqueness developed in response to the need for a new national consciousness.
At worst, nihonjinron represents an insidious form of psuedoscientific racism. At best, it is an introspective reflection, born out of a desire to find a unique national identity after a century of foreign influence. Nihonjinron lacks the sense of “mission” that characterizes the actions of every chuunibyou-afflicted youth. (Perhaps) Japan, as a nation, is just too old for that kind of shit.
1. Apologies to Mr. Aizawa Seishisai for completely simplifying his (quite complicated) theory of kokutai. I do have the full text readily available if anyone wants to debate me on the finer points of his theories.
2. I am also aware that none of the Asian Tigers are at a degree of economic development similar to Japan’s. However, their progress can be seen as an indication that Japan’s progress is no way to be interpreted as a philosophically significant event.
3. Find me @Akirascuro on Twitter.