Misdirected understandings: Narrative matrices in Japanese politics of alterity toward the West

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

    220 Downloads (Pure)


    This article aims to understand how the politics of alterity in Japan led to a misdirected understanding of the West during the early Tokugawa period and the interwar periods. By means of two specific narrative matrices shinkoku [land of the gods] and kokutai [national polity essence], conceptual frameworks that operate with powerful begetting capabilities, it is shown how parallel structurations are at work in two distinct, but decisive, confrontations with the West. Shinkoku and kokutai discourses were specific self-understandings/representations promoted by ruling elites, which combined internal and external elements, and which developed the notion of a group and a related process of identification. originating in medieval times, the shinkoku discourse was used during the early modern period to confront alternative self-understandings/representations, perceived as seditious and pernicious; in particular, christianity. Within the country, shinkoku discourse contributed to the design of the Tokugawa's knowledge and moral spaces, in which a Japanese national identity was to be situated. The kokutai discourse, although essentially “spiritual” in the first half of the nineteenth century, rapidly became the same kind of knowledge and moral-spaces marker as the shinkoku discourse. This became more evident and dramatic during the Showa era when kokutai became a legal tool, in the 1925 Peace Preservation Law, to counter the perceived threat of what was described as either modanizumu [modernism] or Amerikanizumu [Americanism]. By means of these two narrative matrices, it will be shown that the constant aim of the Japanese ruling elites was to develop and implement a politics of alterity. The aim was therefore to unify, homogenize and naturalize a specific self-understanding/representation for the Japanese people that eradicated diversity and difference. Thus, orthodoxy and normalcy in Japan should be seen as misdirected understandings of the West, aimed at constructing a Japanese national identity.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)85-116
    Number of pages32
    JournalJapanstudien: Jahrbuch des Deutschen Instituts für Japanstudien
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 2004

    Cite this