ACCEPTING COGNITIVE DISSONANCE: JAPANESE EXCLUSIVITY, NIHONJINRON AND THE DEMOGRAPHIC CRISIS IN JAPAN
Coral Collins Mary Baldwin College
Japan will be facing an impending demographic disaster in the upcoming decades. Immediate policy changes are needed to remedy fiscal and socio-political trouble, yet Japan has been hesitating to make the appropriate adjustments. The various social circumstances and cultural obstacles which have contributed to the crisis are both physical and mental. Tangible issues include Japan’s aging population, low fertility rate, crippling national debt, and national fiscal problems. Leading up to this crisis through the 20th century, contemporary Japanese nationalism and ideologies propagated through nihonjinron literature have created psychological impediments preventing Japanese society from accepting large-scale changes crucial to recovery and future success. The ad hoc approach to immigration reform is illustrative of political disinclination towards social change which conflicts with established cultural ideologies, despite polls indicating conflicting public opinion.
In contrast to past incidences of social reform in Japan, the current crisis is not accompanied by a significant cultural upheaval, and thus the Japanese reaction has been less dramatic, in part due to the lack of radical action by the government. The Japanese are a reactive people, and they have proven themselves to be extremely capable of responding collectively to social change; therefore, the current stagnation of appropriate political and social response has its origin in the perceived Japanese mindset and Japanese cultural exceptionalism. Japanese exclusivity and literature contributing to the myth of Japanese uniqueness has created an excuse for politicians and citizens not to take risks or make changes. Pragmatic solutions must be implemented to create a circumstance in which Japan can recover, such as institutional adjustments to encourage Japanese women to have children. Before lasting, effective changes can be applied, socio-cultural adjustments to current popular Japanese attitudes need to be made first.
“Heaven helps those who help themselves” –Fukuzawa Yukichi
Japan will be facing an impending demographic crisis in the upcoming decades. Immediate policy changes are needed to remedy fiscal and socio-political trouble, yet Japan has been hesitating to make the appropriate adjustments. The various social circumstances and cultural obstacles which have contributed to the crisis are both physical and mental. Japanese nationals have a difficult time accepting changes that involve questioning and changing their current culture, and bureaucratic lawmakers are only chipping away at issues with policy adjustments. Leading up to this crisis through the 20th century, contemporary Japanese nationalism and ideologies propagated through nihonjinron literature have created psychological impediments preventing Japanese society from accepting large-scale changes crucial to recovery and future success.
In contrast to past incidences of social reform in Japan, the current crisis is not accompanied by a significant cultural upheaval, and thus the Japanese reaction has been less dramatic, in part due to the lack of radical action by the government. . Pragmatic solutions must be implemented to create a circumstance in which Japan can recover, such as institutional adjustments to encourage Japanese women to have children. Before lasting, effective changes can be applied, socio-cultural adjustments to current popular Japanese attitudes need to be made first.
In this analysis, I consulted theoretical texts on the application of nihonjinron in Japanese society, including the popularity and availability of materials, general social perceptions of content, and use of ideologies by political and social élites. To provide demographic details and census data, I used texts on contemporary issues in Japan and online databases. Many of the opinions expressed within are my own, based on my general knowledge of the subject.
Japan may well be on the brink of a demographic disaster. Since the late 1980s, Japan’s population has been alternately stagnant and decreasing due to lowering birth rates, reaching an all-time low of 1.29% in 2003.1 This trend has continued into present day, and at this point, not even a radical birth policy could make up for the generation gap, locking in the impending, yet slowly approaching difficulties. Compounding this problem, in the same amount of time from 1988 to 2007, the number of elderly Japanese (over 65) has almost doubled. The members of the substantial baby-boomers generation (1947-9), which propelled Japan’s post-WWII recovery, are aging and retiring. Elderly citizens now make up over a quarter of the overall population. To make matters worse, modern advancements in medical technology are allowing the elderly in Japan to live longer and healthier than ever before. These social phenomena will, by 2025, impose a heavy burden on Japan to support its aging population.2 In 2025, the Japanese population will have the highest percentage of elderly citizens in the world, and the current system in place to support them is desperately underprepared to handle them all. Jeff Kingston observes in his chapter on demographics that, if current trends continue, by 2055, 40% of the general population will be over 65.
Without an adequate number of working-age adults to replace the retirees as tax-paying citizens, the Japanese Social Security system will be unable to sufficiently support all of its aging clientele. Social Security spending was projected to increase 42% between 2006 and 2015,3 and estimate that has come to pass and is predicted to worsen in subsequent years. Additionally, there is a shortage of potential elder-care professionals and caregiving facilities, with few opportunities available to households for caring for elderly family members outside the home. The predictable result of this shortage is that Japanese families, particularly women, will be tasked with caring for their aging parents. As a result of both increased taxation and additional individual responsibility to support an aging population, the already fragile economic recovery will face a major set-back which may prove disastrous for Japan.
Adding to these problems is the pressing burden of Japan’s national debt, which is currently over 1 quadrillion yen (10 trillion dollars)4. This constitutes over 240 percent of the annual GNP, although since much of that debt is owed between government branches, the amount held by the public is closer to 134 percent, which is still a daunting figure. Similar to the US, 15.6 percent of Japanese tax revenue goes to pay this debt. Due to Japan’s high collective public savings,5 the country is technically running on a current account surplus, usable by the government in the form of bonds. Most of the debt is not externally financed, so despite the amount of debt Japan is able to continue operating as usual; this is the opposite of the case of Greece, which defaulted with a similar amount of debt which was mostly externally financed.
Japan intends to consolidate and reduce the annual budget deficit contributing to generating debt but cutting unnecessary government spending. Many projects not considered to be urgent, such as infrastructure updates, have already been cut since 2000.6 However, much of the government’s spending is necessary to support the aging population. Japanese law-makers depend on older voters to keep their political power, so cutting spending to things like retirement or medical benefits is usually avoided. Since this spending isn’t reduced, raised taxes are needed.
Japan’s current tax rate is 28 percent of annual GDP,7 however economists have calculated that sustainably consolidating Japan’s national debt would require an increase to 60 percent. This is well over the percentages of the current highest taxing countries, Sweden (44.7%) and Denmark (44.3%). When put in perspective with Japan’s cost of living, it is clear that the economic upheaval of such a change would be impossible to feasibly implement. When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe increased the sales tax in April, 2014 from 5 to 8 percent, public reaction and economic effects were significantly impacted the habits and financial pressures of Japanese citizens. I was in Japan at the time; as an American, I wasn’t concerned about the tax increase, as American markets experience such changes all the time with few immediate, tangible, negative effects on my personal budget. On the contrary, my Japanese friends were very concerned about the increase, and it directly affected their spending habits; one friend of mine bought an enormous ration of food the day before the new tax went into effect to postpone any negative outcomes to her grocery budget. My friend was justified in this rationale; following the tax increase, the Japanese economy experienced a contraction as consumer spending dropped in response to the new taxes. This cross-cultural difference in attitude is indicative of stark differences between how America and Japan manage national debt. It also illustrates the attitudes of the Japanese public towards changes in tax policy, and justifies the government’s hesitancy to raise taxes to a more sustainable level.
During the Heisei period (1989-present), Japan is slowly, quietly reforming to adjust to its changing circumstances through small, piecemeal changes. According to Kingston, this process is driven by four distinct factors: the demographic situation described above, national fiscal problems, the loss of credit by Japan Inc. following the 1989 crash, and “global norming as Japan tries to be more competitive economically and improve governance by adopting policies and practices that have worked elsewhere.”8 Competition from other Asian economic powers and the West is driving Japan to look for ways to stay successful in a changing global economy. The consequences of Japan Inc’s loss of favor in the domestic and international spheres, implies the need for radical reform in corporate Japan. The failure of the Japanese economy since 1989 reflects a flawed corporate model that, while it served its purpose in the post-war recovery and Japan’s economic success in the 20th century, must be overhauled to guarantee much needed gains in Gross National Product. Stagnation in innovation and international appeal has cost Japan a crucial part of the global market.
While the population decrease has left a gap in the Japanese labor force and the innovative potential contributors to economic growth, one option which may ease the stress on Japanese citizens is immigration reform. Currently, Japan stands as one of the most homogeneous nations in the world, after North and South Korea. Japanese citizenship, unlike the jus soli rule used in the USA, is determined by jus sanguinis, meaning that citizenship is passed on to future generations if their parents were citizens. In Japan, this has ensured that 98.5% of population is ethnically Japanese, with minority representation of Koreans (0.5%), Chinese (0.4%), and other ethnicities (0.6%).9 Covered within the “other” category are nikkeijin (日系人 “non-Japanese of Japanese descent”),10 including up to 230,000 Brazilians with Japanese parentage who immigrated in the 1990’s.11
Applications for new citizenship for those who wish to immigrate are handled on a case-by-case basis, and the complicated, bureaucratic process is handled by the Immigration Bureau of Japan (入国管理局 nyuukoku kanrikyoku). Immigrants gain entry to Japan by applying for a specific residency visa, which can be extended under certain circumstances once residency has been established. Applicants can obtain permanent residency if two requirements are met: "The alien's behavior and conduct must be good"; and, "The alien must have sufficient assets or ability to make an independent living."12 Permanent residency status, which allows foreigners to stay in the country indefinitely barring unforeseen violations of regulations, is required for eligibility for full citizenship. Applying through the Immigration Bureau can prove daunting and confusing, and the restrictions are stringently limiting.
As Kingston notes, contemporary debate on the topic of labor migration reform has been controversial. Between 1990 and 2008, the number of foreign residents in Japan doubled from 1.1 million to 2.2 million, raising concerns among Japanese nationals. Despite the fact that non-Japanese represent less than 2%, this change has heightened anxieties surrounding the issue.13 The widely held domestic perception of Japan as a completely homogeneous society (despite evidence to the contrary) is part of the impetus behind this anxiety; while not inherently xenophobic, the Japanese generally view foreign residents as suspicious. Many Japanese believe that foreigners are responsible for increases in crime (although there is no evidence to support this), encouraging discrimination. Opponents of labor migration reform argue that the current homogenous society should be kept stable, and they point to case studies of European countries and their struggles with accommodating large communities of foreign residents, such as Germany. Another self-imposed obstacle to open immigration is the assertion that basic human rights laws and regulations should first be put in place to protect the rights of immigrants, which will require appropriate bureaucratic and governmental processing. Furthermore, Kingston explains that there is controversy and disagreement among lawmakers regarding the specifications of labor migration reform, as to what kind of labor migration should be allowed (skilled or unskilled), how many immigrants should be admitted, how long they should stay, the conditions under which they should be admitted, and from where they should come from.14
Domestic proponents of labor migration reform point to the generation gap created by the so-called “Lost Decade” of 1990 to 2000 (the first decade of the new Heisei period) and the subsequent low birth rates and recession, and suggest that the gap could be filled by working-age, tax paying foreign residents. Further, Kingston asserts that immigration is not only necessary to help fill this gap, but that immigrants might contribute to innovation and increased national wealth through their different cultural backgrounds, experiences, and creative energies.15
Innovation is one of the most important elements that Japan needs to regain its competitive edge on the world market. The days of the success from Japan Inc. have passed, and it is now time for Japan to pursue new initiatives with new blood.
Despite the possible benefits and limited drawbacks of easing immigration restrictions, like the US and many other countries, continues to resist the idea. While every country has specific reasons for limiting immigration, Japan constitutes an interesting case because the same conditions which make immigration reform difficult to accomplish within Japanese society also hinder other areas of social progress. I believe that prevailing theories of Japanese exclusivity and unique culture constitutes a significant contributing factor in Japanese resistance to cultural change. These theories became ingrained into popular Japanese culture after World War II and served to create a new kind of nationalism which was effective in the 20th century; however, the 1989 crash and the subsequent, gradual economic failure have created a new environment in which those ideologies of a unique, racially homogeneous Japanese culture are no longer helpful, but in fact impede positive progress.
Part of the reason Japanese reform has been ad hoc, even when significant economic relief stands to be gained, is due to fear of large scale social change intrinsic to contemporary Japanese culture. As David Howell puts it, “Ethnic and racial discrimination in contemporary Japan is a problem of national identity.”16 Japanese policy makers are some of the greatest believers and proponents of Japanese uniqueness, as evidenced by near constant referrals to blind cultural nationalism in speeches. These “theories” of the Japanese people, or nihonjinron (日本人論), are part of a body of literary works produced in the twentieth century by political and cultural elites to describe the distinct features of the Japanese character and, by extension, of Japan itself. Despite controversy over the content of these studies, Japanese political leaders continue to propagate these beliefs through their words and actions.
After World War II, the Japanese experienced a period of self-analysis in facing national recovery. Having learned from the short-sighted dangers of the groupthink mentality which defined the imperially driven state nationalism of the war, Japanese cultural elites including academics, businessmen, writers, and other interested individuals began contemplating their national identity.17 Ken Henshall defines nationalism as, “…at the level of the individual, perceiving one’s nation as a distinct and independent entity, and having sufficient enthusiasm about it to be prepared to defend it and work towards its enhancement,”18 a definition which would have seemed appropriate during this introspective period from post-1945 through the 1950’s. As Japan worked to rebuild itself as a modern nation, with hard work from its citizens and aid from the West, a vision of a new, internationally-minded Japanese economy rose from the ashes of the war.
Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, the actions of the Japanese were called into question and criticized by the West, particularly in areas of international concern such as economics and politics. For example, the United States voiced frustration with self-interested Japanese business practices which were unfavorable to US profits. While the Japanese made efforts to answer for its less globally minded decisions, they also returned counter-criticism, stating that Western countries were not taking Japan’s unique “cultural exceptionalism” into account.19
A variety of reasoning and intentions were present for the initial production of Nihonjinron literature. In one article, Kosaku Yoshino discusses different ideological interpretations of the Nihonjinron which can be used to justify Japan’s unique cultural virtues in terms of economic and social success. This idea proposes that Japanese society does not suffer as much from vices associated with other industrialized countries such as “crime, drugs, social division, and family breakdown,” due to its unique cultural elements. Along the same line of reasoning, the existence of the aforementioned vices within Japanese society can therefore be explained by “failure to preserve Japanese ways against foreign influences.”20 In another article, Yoshino suggests that the motivation behind at least some studies was to foster intercultural communication; to contribute to cross-cultural understanding, and to help create internationally minded citizens, Japanese peculiarities were studied for improved appreciation of possible barriers to interactions with non-Japanese.21
The majority of formative works in the Nihonjinron genre were published from the 1960’s to the 1980’s. Although some influential works were published outside this period, it was during this time that the most defining, “golden age” materials were produced. Harumi Befu lists some of the best-known, popular works as, “the Japanese versions of Nakane Chie’s Japanese Society (1972) and Doi Takeo’s Anatomy of Dependence (1973), Watsuji’s The Climate (1961), Suzuki Daisetz’s Zen and the Japanese Culture (1959), and Isaiah BenDasan’s The Japanese and the Jews.”22 Production of new materials slowed down as serious criticisms from both Japanese and foreign sources called claims into question. The beginning of the Heisei period in 1989 coincides with both the bursting of the bubble economy and the end of a decade of slowly more prevalent nihonjinron criticisms that had permeated popular perception of the literature. The myth was beginning to lose its infallible aura.
Nihonjinron encompasses a wide variety of topics and is or has been published in every form of media, from intense scholarly research designed to prove the existence of supposedly unique Japanese character traits, to popular media designed for entertainment, personal enrichment, or cross-cultural communication. The distribution of such materials was initiated by the cultural “élites”23 who originally created the genre and passed down to popular audiences via corporations, who used the material to train employees for interactions with foreign businesses. Use of nihonjinron ideologies in cross-cultural training manuals was based on the assumption that Japanese communication is inherently different from that of other countries, and therefore that conversations would be impossible with foreigners unless these base differences were examined and understood. Such qualities as “unspoken communication” are attributed to the Japanese, something foreigners are assumed to misunderstand or not perceive at all. The mythology of Japanese exclusivity has been a pervasive theme throughout the 20th century, and it served a valuable purpose at the time; however, for Japan to move forward as a modern nation, it must find new motivation.
American Exceptionalism vs. Nihonjinron
Ironically, Japan is not unique in sharing nationalistic beliefs of cultural-exceptionalism, although its self-perceptions are fairly different from those of other nations. America, a country with an enormous amount of influence over, and history with Japan, produced its own set of ideologies to govern nationalistic self-perception. American exceptionalism, those ideologies which have been part of the American experience arguably since the country’s foundation, has as much of a pervasive, almost unconscious influence over American perceptions as nihonjinron has over those of the Japanese. Pervasive themes include America’s unique origin via Democratic values and republican ideals, as well as nationalistic bonds bound by morals and not by race or ethnicity.
Although the two countries and the two philosophies have significant differences, they serve similar purposes as socio-cultural phenomena and the material examined is of equal value, usually with opposite conclusions. In many ways, Japan and America are nearly perfect foils of each other.24This curious relationship is the basis of the development of the nihonjinron genre. The writing and discussion of nihonjinron was inspired and popularized after Japan’s defeat and occupation by America, and was directly influenced by American culture. Many themes discussed in nihonjinron literature were originally addressed to stress the importance of Japan’s unique cultural qualities in almost direct comparison with America. In fact, nihonjinron self-perpetuates itself by consistently pointing out how Japan is different from other countries, usually America, such as the supposed “group mentality” expected of Japanese people, which can be directly contrasted with American individualism. While both qualities may be prevalent within each respective culture, they are by no means unique to either.
Both philosophies serve their respective nations appropriately: they both justify the actions of the nation by giving a moral, historical, and nationalistic basis for questionable acts performed in the country’s interests. They unite their citizens under a universal cultural norm that applies within that society, and promote positive actions by citizens in the country’s best interest by inspiring pride in the status of the group. In addition, these same ideas of exceptionalism can prevent a nation from seeing its own flaws and stagnate ingenuity and growth.
Japan approached American exceptionalism as it was trying, for the second time after the Meiji period(1868-1912) and WWII, to re-establish a national identity that would aid in Japan’s successful recovery in the 20th century. Japan sought to re-create its own unique self-image, based on its ancient heritage and traditional racial homogeneity blended with modern ingenuity, to facilitate intercultural communication. The resulting Japanese contemporary culture was successful, but based on exceptionalism that bordered on excuses. Nihonjinron and its associated ideologies have contributed to a society in which only the Japanese so-called unique cultural norm is acceptable, to the point where it is easier for the Japanese public to believe in the myth of sustainable racial homogeneity than to accept foreigners into the country . On the basis of Japanese cultural exceptionalism, all difficulties in inter-cultural interactions can be blamed on the foreigner’s acceptable, unavoidable, racial inability to understand how it feels to be Japanese, and therefore how to communicate “properly”.
People in Power and Citizens
One of the central ideas of Japanese exclusivity is the focus on blood. Scholars and proponents of nihonjinron literature have asserted and maintained that Japanese understanding of culture, society, language, and even history are all transmitted by Japanese parentage. That is, as long as you share Japanese blood, you can relate to Japanese people. Equally unverified but widely propagated is the opposite assumption: if you are not genetically Japanese, it is impossible that you can ever understand truly what it is to be Japanese. That being said, it becomes obvious why Japanese people might be hesitant, nervous, or worried about allowing immigration reforms: apprehension towards foreigners is common in Japan, and the idea of living near people who they believe (even unconsciously) to be physically incapable of understanding them automatically creates another barrier to intercultural communication.
Additionally, this generation of Japanese lives in a very different environment than their parents and grandparents. The men and women whose parents worked to rebuild the nation after WWII are the ones in need of elder care now, the ones who are more likely to hold conservative, ethnocentric views, and the ones more likely to vote. This gives politicians an incentive to encourage the same views that put them in power, but it is harming Japan’s progress. Japan has bounced back almost miraculously from total national disasters, modernized its country in record time; however, now that they have a democratic government (given to them by the American issued constitution) as well as system of nationalistic values formulated to show how Japan is different from America, they are unfortunately stuck. These American influences were beneficial to Japan’s recovery after WWII, and they have served their purpose. The Japanese learned so well how American’s work, that they beat us at our own games and outsold our industries. Now, they are beyond American progress, in some ways further developed. They have surpassed us with social and demographic problems.
Japan was destroyed after the war, but after 1989, it was in financial trouble but still standing. Social issues, symptoms of modernity, have appeared gradually, creating general awareness of the problems without any destruction or panic. From a cursory level, it might appear that there is no real reason to change things too significantly or too quickly; I have shown how changing too fast, as in the case of sales taxes, can cause more trouble than it fixes due to social reactions.
Japanese LDP politicians are trying to make changes that will suit them, aid in re-election, and benefit society within the parameters that they understand as beneficial. One thing that stands out among Japanese politicians, is their reiteration of conservative, nationalistic ideals about “unique” culture in Japan, about maintaining a homogeneous nation that doesn’t exist, and about defending past actions that never should have been considered,25 in the name of protecting the values of their country. Many if not most bureaucrats, academics, politicians, and societal élites continue to use this rhetoric because it has made them powerful and existing under the same illusions is keeping them in power. While adherence to false claims of racial purity and other idealistic, imaginary qualities of the Japanese people is no longer common, it is still widely studied and understood. As politicians, especially older politicians, must adhere to past statements, there is also pressure to maintain political views. Citizens generally understand these same ideologies due to exposure through popular media, consciously or not.26
Accepting Cognitive Dissonance
Dissonance usually refers to two notes in music which vibrate in a way that is unpleasant or unexpected. Generally, we expect the dissonance to resolve itself by returning to a familiar harmony. Cognitive dissonance refers to the discomfort one feels when they hold two conflicting ideas or beliefs in their mind, or when they are confronted with a thought that conflicts with a previously held belief. The psyche’s immediate response is to try to correct the dissonance by resolving the thoughts. This is done by repressing or abandoning the old belief, justifying the old belief, or rejecting the new one. This paper, “Accepting Cognitive Dissonance,” refers to the attitudes and beliefs of Japanese élites and citizens. The impression given by the slow progression of the oncoming aging demographic troubles, the seemingly unchangeable or too slowly changing social circumstances which are creating the low fertility rates among women, and the ultimate illusion of Japanese exclusivity is that there is no choice but to continue on in this same manner until politicians and lawmakers make changes. Citizens need to be more active in political and economic decisions. Japanese society needs to do something differently to fix these problems, because the current state of affairs will lead the same direction.
Nihonjinron ideologies propagated by Japanese political elites pose an essential obstacle to immigration and social reform. To improve circumstances in preparation for the economic and social consequences of the impending economic crisis, immigration, social reform, and economic innovation must be seriously considered to mediate economic losses. To ensure future demographic stability, government, corporate, and general social reforms must be made to women’s rights to facilitate and encourage an increase in fertility. Women can save Japan;27through contributions to economic growth, which would be dependent on increased availability of career track positions, and contingent on the availability of relaxed corporate policies for both genders to account for domestic responsibilities (e.g. adequate maternity leave with job security allowances). If you build it they will come.
Japan needs to quickly make preparations for the impending demographic difficulties such as improvements in the availability of nursing care and other crucial considerations to accommodate the aging population. At the same time, measures must be taken to ensure that future generations grow to support the current working-age demographic group. Obstacles to any such plans of reform are the self-interested conflicts of Japanese politicians. To counter projected objections, Japanese citizens must be more vocal and active in making needs heard and met, while also remaining vigilant against objectionable political behavior. The government as it stands now will continue to run Japan into the ground while taking half-hearted action designed to fail28, as it serves them until their retirement29 (although, the LDP learned in 2009 what happens when you try to ignore the public too long: the DPJ was put into power, which has hopefully served as a much-needed wake-up call).
Japanese contemporary nationalism, predicated on Nihonjinron-based ideologies, creates a convenient justification for avoiding significant social reforms which might threaten the centralizing myth of homogeneity and current political power. The popularization of these ideologies coincided meaningfully/pointedly with economic stagnation after 1989; the golden period for the publication and distribution of Nihonjinron ended in the 1980’s before the economic crash due to increasingly vocal criticism of the genre’s credibility. The beginning of that criticism and analysis a sign that the belief system has overreached its applicable status. To improve economically and socially and move forward in the modern, increasingly globalized world, Japan must collectively recognize the problems with, refute, and ultimately disavow their proclaimed “cultural exceptionalism.” While it might necessarily be giving up its established culture to do so, Japan needs to undergo another pivotal, cooperative reform period to succeed in the modern world.
Additional research is necessary for fully understanding the breadth and depth of the issues laid out here. The demographic crisis cannot be prevented at this point, the generation gap is already locked it; however, the existence and economic recovery future generations of Japanese must be ensured by taking practical actions now, in addition to continuing to make arrangements to cope with the graying overall population. Although the
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