Tessa Morris-Suzuki: Re-Inventing Japan

by tigermanifesto


Since the late 60s and especially since the early 80s, successive waves of historians have been tossing bricks at the nation-state. They’re rhetorical bricks, so the material edifice of the nation-state has been phased not one bit. But the category of the nation-state is a shattered wreck of its former self. Not only are we history-investigators now more interested in what flows over and between borders, but we have spent a hefty page count or two (hundred) trying to take apart the old national-historical conceptual machine. Tessa-Morris Suzuki’s Re-Inventing Japan: Time, Space, Nation promises to do just that. On its back cover it clarifies just what kind of reinvention it’s talking about: “Challenging the mythology of a historically unitary, even monolithic Japan…This book takes the debate a step further by examining the concepts that are used to understand modern Japan.”¹

Morris-Suzuki is not interested in any particular historical reinvention of Japan but rather in reinventing Japan as a cluster of concepts used to structure historical investigations. What we’re dealing with, therefore, is an analysis of ideological struggles over the definition of Japan with the ultimate goal of destabilizing old (methodologically) nationalist assumptions about the country and its people. She wisely breaks up her study into a series of chapters that cover one concept at a time: “Japan,” “Nature,” “Culture,””Race,” “Gender,” “Civilization,” “Globalization,” and “Citizenship.”

We can identify the simplified protagonists and antagonists of the book at the end of the second chapter entitled “Japan.” Most of the chapter is concerned with the way that the Japanese state, as it developed into a modern nation, displaced notions of foreignness into the idea of a historical progression. That is, countries which were once accounted as “foreign” were assigned backward positions in a temporal hierarchy. Ryukyuans were not just different from Japanese but also less advanced, occupying an older and more primitive period of history. This kind of ideology tended to see the Japanese nation-state as the modern culmination of history, turning history into the “biography of the nation-state.” Morris-Suzuki’s basic target in her critique is this ideology that considers the nation-state the fulfillment of all human development. She proposes that we junk this and all teleological modes of history and substitute “a dance of identities between many contiguous social forms, [re-emphasizing] the importance of spatial difference, as well as temporal change, in the making of the modern world.”²

These two points––emphasizing both the free movement of identities in fragmented spaces and privileging the spatial over the temporal––are core to the postmodern programme in history. Morris-Suzuki’s remaining chapters all work in this framework, critiquing the various Japanese and Western constructions of a monolithic Japanese national while off-handedly dismissing critical projects that strike her as too political or teleological (i.e. Marxism). Given that Japanese nationalism is an important justification for Japanese imperialism as well as for a raft of racist and exclusionary policies within Japan itself, Re-Inventing Japan serves as an important guide and corrective for these ideologies. The limitations of her approach are that her book is a study of discourse and therefore cannot make a meaningful critique of the Japanese social formation itself.

What I largely take issue with is her contention that the book frames the Japanese state as primarily an apparatus of identity management. The state becomes a black hole or singularity, flattening and homogenizing away difference within its borders and fixing stale binaries that are convenient for the exercise of centralized power. None of this is so much wrong––and neglecting an understanding of how identities form the bases of political mobilization and (often) demobilization can be disastrous––as inadequate. We see the nation fixed and rigged only on the level of language, and are left, at the end of the book, with the impression that by shaking “the invisible grip” of “dead theories” that haunt our writing, we can meaningfully change the way these terms operate and, the book implies, advance the cause of local democracy and identity rights throughout the world.³

We read that negative practices, like racist policy for example, are “supported by a wide and complex range of beliefs, including beliefs about ‘cultural’ rather than ‘racial’ superiority and about the relative positions of social groups on a universalized scale of cultural progress.”⁴ Again, an excellent point, but the book leaves it at this point and makes the implicit case that 1) ideologies supporting racist policies are primarily formed from conscious beliefs and 2) language struggles and the inclusion of oppressed identity groups are in a pluralistic society are the best ways to cure these social ills. After all, if all one has to do is unseat irrational, if entrenched, beliefs rather than revolutionize society and recreate it from the bottom up in a protracted, real struggle, we don’t need to recognize how identity-based oppressions, as real as they are, form part of a total system of exploitation and control.

Suffice to say that this book accomplished what it sets out to do. In the end, I found myself enlightened by the book within the limits I’ve indicated. I think it doesn’t do an especially deep or comprehensive analysis of the Japanese nation-state as such, but I appreciate its strong attack on the ideology of a “homogeneous” and “unique” Japan that have been used for such destructive ends. Anyone interested in the history of Japanese and Western ideologies of the nation and the role of the state in reinforcing these strains of thought should consider this book. Just bear in mind that its focus is quite limited and its approach not entirely successful because it sidelines the unified and systemic qualities of contemporary Japanese capitalism, the classic hallmarks of a postmodern approach to social analysis.


  1. Tessa Morris-Suzuki, Re-Inventing Japan: Time, Space, Nation (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1998), back cover.
  2. Ibid, 34.
  3. Ibid, 209.
  4. Ibid, 108.