January 15, 2006

The Chrysanthemum and the Sword 2

In response to my previous post, Curious George asks,

But doesn’t culture at least partly determine politics? You write as if one could be cleanly divorced from the other, but the idea that Japan’s preceding 700+ years of domination by samurai militarism had nothing to do with the course of its history between 1868 and 1945 is ridiculous.

To which I responded:

Well, of course, "culture at least partly explains politics." It works both ways, hence the pun: "Does Great Britain have a July 4th?" Whenever "cowboy" is used to describe GWB, the reference point is a stereotype largely invented by the popular press during the 19th century and later enhanced in Hollywood. This doesn't invalidate it, but emphasizes that "culture" is not a genetic formulation bred in the bone.

(This is known as essentialism: "[T]he view that all people of a particular race [or culture] inherently possess a particular negative characteristic," a philosophical approach later adopted by the Nihonjinron school of cultural apologetics.)

Similarly, the modern concept of the "traditional" samurai was largely invented during the Tokugawa Era, when, for 250 years, the samurai didn't have much to do (after Shimabara).The shogunate itself relied on Neo-Confucianism to justify authoritarian rule that turned the emperor into an incidental figurehead. Neo-Confucianism also influenced the interpretation of Bushido, along with Zen, another Chinese import.

During the Meiji era, at the same time Bushido was being rekindled in order to energize Japan's expansionist goals, its politicians were looking to Prussia to sculpt a constitutionally active role for the resurrected Imperial Household Agency. And though it might seem silly in comparison, why do seifuku look the way they do? Not centuries of Japanese tradition. Same source.

C. Douglas Lummis, professor of political philosophy as Tsuda University, puts it more bluntly: Benedict's interviewees all reflected the totalitarian patterns she anticipated because those patterns "had been pounded into them by a modern, highly organized, state-controlled school system, and by all the other 20th century techniques of indoctrination which the government had available to it."

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