Editor’s Note: Associate professor of Japanese Haruko Iwasaki was incorrectly referred to as “he.” Iwasaki is a woman.
Japan is engaged in a national identity crisis, according to Japan Unbound: A Volatile Nation’s Quest for Pride and Purpose, a new book written by John Nathan, Takashima Professor of Japanese Cultural Studies at UCSB.
Nathan, a specialist in modern Japanese culture, released his book Feb. 9. The 288-page book, geared toward the general public, gives a detailed outline of Japan’s current economic, social and political situation, and attributes these conditions to a recurring sense of cultural ambivalence regarding the nation’s history and culture, Nathan said. He started working on the book in 2001 and finished writing it in April 2003, two years and more than 200 research interviews after he began.
“I have always thought about this topic – the difficulty Japan has in reconciling its traditional past versus its Western future,” he said. “I thought I would look at the contemporary movement and see what evidence I could find of that movement. Nothing in the field fully discusses the topic like this.”
Nathan said national identity has been an issue for Japan before, but that this most recent struggle for nationalism is only a continuation of two centuries of exposure to Western culture.
“In the mid-19th century, the country was torn apart by outsiders and opened to 700 years of Western culture that flooded in – ranging from philosophy to technology,” he said. “Japan tried to be modern and focus on all of this, but lost sight of its own values in the process. This nationalism says it’s time to return to the values of the past, which have been lost for so long.”
This recent identity crisis has surfaced in response to the stock market crash in September of 1990, in which the Tokyo market lost 48 percent of its total value, he said. After losing its economic strength, Japan again felt the need for a more stable identity.
“It’s like a cyclical process of economic growth and then euphoria,” Nathan said. “When that euphoria fades away, such as in 1990, there is disillusionment and uneasiness – Japan finds its search for a reconciled identity unfinished.”
Haruko Iwasaki, UCSB associate professor of Japanese, has been a colleague of Nathan for 30 years, and he said the book offers a unique and much needed insight into the culture itself.
“Many look at Japan and talk about the stock market crash and its effects, how the economy has been down for over a decade. Nathan has a much deeper insight into what is happening under the surface. To predict the future of a nation, you study the education system and other structures. This is the strength of his work,” Iwasaki said.
Nathan said his research into the education system has demonstrated a breakdown in the traditional family structure and has shown increased violence among students and children. This family stability is no longer present within the corporate structure as well, Nathan said.
“In times of economic prosperity, businesses were run like a family. People were given lifetime employment,” Nathan said. “If you asked someone who worked for Sony where they worked, they would say, ‘I belong to Sony.’ It’s not like that now.”
One of Nathan’s more controversial claims is that the United Stated has pressured Japan to increase its nuclear capabilities. Some reviews, such as one published in The Economist, say Nathan’s claim is unsupported, but Nathan said evidence exists of pressure from the U.S.
“You know, it’s true in this case. People in Washington have suggested to Japan that it would be a good thing, from [the] U.S. perspective, to build up Japan’s own nuclear weapon capacity and to let Beijing know they’re doing this so that Beijing will be tougher on Korea. I have articles proving this from Japanese officials speaking against this and from people in favor of it,” Nathan said. “Quietly but effectively, pressure has been applied.”
Despite this controversy, Ronald Egan, chair of the East Asian Languages and Cultural Studies Dept., said he supports Japan Unbound, saying it is consistent with Nathan’s other works.
“It’s a stunning piece of research,” Egan said. “It is similar to his [Sony: The Private Life] book, which was a very human look into what is now a huge multinational operation. That’s a common thread – his ability to perceive the human and individual in large abstract issues like business or society. It’s a special gift, and it shows in this book.”
Nathan said he anticipates returning to his work as a translator of Japanese literature. Japanese author Kenzaburo Oe won a Nobel Prize in literature for his novel Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age!, which Nathan translated.
“Nathan’s original background is in literary translation, but over the years this has developed into an expertise in film, corporate life and artistic circles,” Egan said. “There’s hardly an aspect he doesn’t have insight into, and this is what makes him as valuable as he is.”