Quick Reflections on Kosaku Yoshino: Cultural Nationalism in Contemporary Japan

by tigermanifesto


Unfortunately, Kosaku Yoshino’s book Cultural Nationalism in Contemporary Japan ended up being an academic sociology book, the type that I know and dread. I have no issues with sociology as such––though I certainly agree with many of Gramsci’s criticisms of it and appreciate that it has been used as a wedge for pushing Marxism out of intellectual life in the global North––but I find its methods of presentation difficult to enjoy or take an interest in. That said, I did promise some kind of written piece on the book so I will highlight two of the book’s positive contributions

1. Discussions of how academic ideas, esp. nihonjinron are disseminated through intermediate layers in capitalist society:

Though its primary focus is on the semi-popular academic genre known as nihonjinron, which is a discourse around Japanese uniqueness. It seeks to explain the peculiarities of modern Japanese society, it also discusses the dynamics of how these ideas reach a mass audience and the role of capitalists in popularizing and consuming them. Nihonjinron typically depends on an assumption of the immutability and impenetrability of Japanese culture, which is deemed quite subtle and inaccessible to foreigners without Japanese blood. It analyzes Japanese society as a reflection of pre-industrial social forms like village communities and caste hierarchies.

What the book’s case studies show is that businessmen are highly receptive to the ideas of nihonjinron as well as being some of their most popular producers. This discourse, as the book notes, could take either a self-critical and downcast form––prevalent in the immediate postwar period––or the more recent bullish and nationalistic version that seeks, at least in part, to explain Japan’s “miraculous” economic success. Yoshino posits that the businessmen see value in these ideas as reinforcements of their own practical and empirical knowledge. In other words, as affirmations of their own individual experiences in running capitalist enterprises. Nihonjinron, in fact, often acts as a manual for managing group and employee relations within enterprises. Given the prestige of Japanese business and its “companyist” social structure, these ideas then naturally acquire a certain legitimacy, particularly since they also mesh well with the resurgence of political nationalism in Japan, although the book only discusses cultural nationalism. The book even notes that even educators and school administrators were more willing to give credence to the writings of capitalist businessmen than academics on a given topic since they had “practical experience” in contact with foreigners and group work.

So, in sum, I appreciate the book’s acknowledgement that the capitalist class generates its own organic intellectuals outside of institutionalized education systems, and that these intellectuals possess a strong pull in a situation of capitalist class hegemony, though the book doesn’t use these terms.

2. Insights into the importance of immediate social ties in the formation of ideology and values:

Though this comes up late in the book and only briefly, the book mentions that there is considerable evidence to suggest that the most important determinant of the influence of nationalism and culture in people’s lives is their immediate connection with other people. Social practices and rituals that form affective ties between people help to solidify groups and create common cultures and ways of thinking. This suggests that ideology, as we should remember, is not just a spectre in the realm of the ideas but rather embodied in practical objects, art, and formal rituals/activities. By understanding these aspects of social development, we can more clearly grasp what is required of those who want to build an alternative, proletarian hegemony.