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Contact the organizers: Asian Studies Conference (ASCJ) c/o Institute of Asian Cultural Studies, International Christian University 3-10-2 Osawa, Mitaka-shi, Tokyo 181





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Summer 2000 ASCJ Conference Details

12.      Crisis, Identity, and Nationalism in Pre-Meiji Japan

Chair:  Ethan Segal, University of Tokyo

      Even before Japan's emergence as a modern nation-state in the nineteenth century, Japanese scholars wrote of the ancient origins of the Japanese people and polity.  Twentieth century scholars of nationalism, however, have challenged notions of ancient origins, focusing instead on how nationalism was a product of the growth in state power and the formation of a mass literate society that took place in Europe post-seventeenth century.  These scholars, including Benedict Anderson, Ernest Gellner, and Eric Hobsbawm, see nations and nationalism as recent inventions that could not have existed prior to the shift to modernity.  The differences between these two approaches to nationalism have been labeled a battle between "primordialists" and "modernists".  This panel explores a third possibility:  that pre-modern "proto-nationalism" formed a basis for the later success of modern Japanese nationalism.  This view accepts modern critiques of nationalist rhetoric and its claims to an eternal Japanese state, yet also recognizes that there must have been a base of "Japanese" identity from which modern nation-state ideology was created in the Meiji period.

     Proto-nationalism can be seen in elements of pre-modern society which fostered a common sense of identity that linked the various peoples and regions of Japan.  Robert Tierney finds such feelings among Nara elites in the preface to the Kojiki, Japan's oldest surviving text.  How did the search for a written language distinct from classical Chinese parallel the search for a unique Japanese identity in the Nara period?  In the second paper, Ethan Segal explores how such feelings may have spread beyond elite sentiments in the medieval period.  Did the threat posed by continental invaders solidify a sense of "Japanese" versus Other, and if not, what does that suggest about proto-nationalism in the period?  Finally, Noell Wilson looks at how proto-nationalist sentiment formed at the domain level in the late Edo period.  While scholars like Craig and Mitani have emphasized the emergence of proto-nationalism either through internal development within a single domain or contact with an overseas other, Wilson examines the role of inter-domain relations in identity formation.  All three papers challenge established notions of nationalism and its origins by discussing examples from Japanese history of periods when an external threat created a sense of crisis.

 1)      Robert Tierney, Boston University.  "Proto-Nationalism and the Kojiki"

       In his Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson contends that the cultural roots of nations developed in tandem with the spread of print capitalism and new written  vernacular languages.  By contrast, he labels pre-modern communities as multi-ethnic dynastic realms ruled by elites who shared a common sacred script.  Yet for those who study East Asia, using this  model to explain the relationship between early Japan and the continent seems  cursory and simplistic.  Consider, for example, the Kojiki, the earliest written record of Japan's founding myths and an innovative experiment in writing  Japan's vernacular language. Compiled at the end of the seventh century, then ignored for centuries, Kojiki was rediscovered by Edo period kokugakusha  who considered it a treasure house for the authentic culture of Japan and a template for the original spoken language.  Following the Meiji restoration, Kojiki was drawn upon as a source for state ideology.  Did the original text include nationalist or proto-nationalist feelings or does the modern use of Kojiki distort the intent of the original?

    In this paper, I will focus on the preface of the Kojiki, signed by Ofo no Yasumaru in the fifth year of Wado (712 C.E.).   Writing in impeccable classical Chinese, Yasumaru explains that Kojiki was compiled to replace the plural histories of great families with an official record centered on the Yamato court.  He provides an account of its composition: like a modern ethnography, the work is a transcription of ancient oral traditions.  He also offers a rationale for its hybrid writing system when he points to the discrepancy between the medium of writing (kanbun) and the contents of his work.

     Using the preface as a point of departure, I will consider three questions: 1.) To what extent does the Kojiki constitute an early definition of cultural /ethnic identity for Nara elites?   2.) What role did the creation of a written vernacular language play in forging this sense of cultural identity? 3.) Does it make sense to think of this early sense of cultural identity and community as a prototype to the nation?  In contrast to Anderson who relates nationalism to the invention of printing, I argue that in Japan it was the development of a written language which first spurred the search for a (national) identity.

2)      Ethan Segal, University of Tokyo.  "Changing Medieval Identity and the Mongol  Invasions"

     A key issue in the formation of proto-nationalist identity is how a people sets itself off from other groups.  John Armstrong holds that defining the group in opposition to those around it was essential to early national consciousness, and Eric Hobsbawm furthers this line of reasoning, labeling it "negative ethnicity".  If encounters with others were limited to elites in the classical period, then Kamakura would seem to be period when distinctions between native and foreign spread throughout society. Samurai of all levels and from all over Japan came face to face with an enemy from overseas who spoke a different language, looked differently, and fought differently.  Both elites and commoners left behind written documents suggesting that the Mongols were "ikoku" (foreign), while the home islands were "shinkoku" (divine lands).  This sense of Japan as a divine land was heightened when prayers from temples all over the islands for the protection of the realm appeared to save the archipelago from the foreign invaders in 1274 and again in 1281.

     Yet closer examination reveals that the case for protonationalist sentiment in the Kamakura period is problematic.  Use of the term "ikoku" is varied and sometimes applied by Japanese to describe other Japanese, while the actions of samurai at the time of the Mongol invasions belie any sense of a people rising to their own national defense.  "Shinkoku" does seem to suggest a sense of a unique Japanese  identity, but its use by non-elites is hard to trace.  What role then did the crisis of foreign invasion play in the development of a "Japanese" identity?  This paper posits that a protonationalist consciousness did grow during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but that  other factors, including internal economic growth and the spread of popular religious movements and literary narratives may have contributed more to the emergence of protonationalism than the direct encounter with a foreign enemy.

3)      Noell Wilson, Waseda University.  "Domestic Diplomacy and Proto-Nationalism in Late Tokugawa Japan"

     This paper examines how the nineteenth century development of domains as semi-independent political units with expanding breadth of action outside bakufu-mediated channels suggests an indigenous explanation for the roots of Japanese nationalism.  In his study of Choshu, Albert Craig first proposed the concept of han nationalism, an internal sense of affiliation through loyalty to onefs lord, and Mitani Hiroshi has recently argued that the rise of print culture and interaction with Asian "others," such as Korea and China, created an incipient national  identity long before the arrival of Perry.  However, an examination of regional  politics in southwest Japan in the mid-nineteenth century, and the case of Fukuoka domain in particular, suggest that increasing  inter-domainal diplomacy -- interactions with "other" domains – generated  a sense of han specific political and geographical identity vis a  vis neighboring political units.  If we consider the han of the mid -nineteenth century as a daimyo-state, increasingly autonomous in conducting  its external relations not only with foreign powers but also with  other han, a kind of modular proto-nationalism at the local level  seems to have provided an important precursor to post-Restoration  nationalism.  The domain was the building block of the Tokugawa administrative  order (bakuhanseido) from the beginning of the seventeenth century  and the collapse of this order ultimately depended as much on the  interaction between domains as it did on the relationship between  domains and the bakufu.  This paper concludes that diplomacy among  domains in the kobu-gattai movement and negotiations surrounding the  punitive expeditions against Choshu in the 1860s generated strong feelings of han identity in reference to an internal other.

Discussant: Haruko Wakabayashi, Institute for the International Education of Students

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