To learn about Japanese cultural identity, it is important to know about some key events and crucial turning points of history that have influenced the ways the Japanese live today. In this section, we want to survey some catalytic events in the past that have had a profound impact on Japanese life.
We will consider four turning points in recent Japanese history:
(A) 1868 (The Age of Modernity and the Meiji Restoration)
(B) 1931 (The Imperial Age and the Asia-Pacific War)
(C) 1945 (The Age of Postwar Reforms, Rapid Growth, and Affluence)
(D) 1989 (The Global Age of Uncertainty, Economic Stagnation, and Refocusing Social Goals)
At each moment, Japan stood at the crossroads of self-definition and, each time, Japan emerged renewed with a hybrid identity of diverse cultural influences.
But before surveying the key historical events, let us think first about three distinct features of pre-modern Japan. They have had hugely important consequences for the development of Japanese social organization and cultural identity.
- Seven centuries of military rule (1183-1868)
- Three centuries of feudal caste society (1600-1868)
- Two centuries of formal seclusion from the international world (1639-1853)
- Seven centuries of military rule (1183-1868): The long-standing rule of the military class (the samurai) left a mixed legacy for modern Japan. On the one hand, it explains a certain level of cultural tolerance for authoritarian power, social hierarchy, discipline, and social surveillance that is still evident today. On the other hand, the strong popular commitment to pacifism today in spite of this military past provides the Japanese with a sense of radical departure from the past.
- Three centuries of feudal caste society (1600-1868): During the feudal Tokugawa period, people were born into a status in an occupational stratification system called the caste system. The caste hierarchy at that time was defined rigidly, and there was virtually no chance of moving upward or downward by individual merit and achievement. At the top of the ladder stood the military class (the samurai who comprised about 5% of the total population), then the peasants, artisans, and merchants, in that order. To some extent, the sense of ordered hierarchy in Japanese organizations today, as well as a status consciousness-by birth order, by gender, by age, and by educational attainment-are a legacy of this hierarchical system, legitimated by the Confucian world order and modified to fit the demands of society today.
- Two centuries of formal seclusion from the international world (1639-1853): Japan also opted to close itself off from the international world during a period of formal seclusion, to protect itself from global threats like Christian ideology and economic dependence that would jeopardize its political stability. For two centuries, Japan left only a small outpost off the coast of Nagasaki open to limited trade with Dutch and Portuguese merchants, though trade and diplomatic relations were maintained with China and Korea. This long seclusion left some important cultural, social, and political traces. It left Japan largely a pre-modern society for a period up until the mid 19th century. It also left Japan free from West European colonization that was occurring during that time. As a result, Japan remained relatively 'inexperienced' in international power politics, which nurtured a hunger for new, foreign, and international life, as well as a sense of vulnerability toward Western economic and technological power. As with most people in non-Western societies, the Japanese developed a deep ambivalence about the West that is tempered with a sense of both inferiority and superiority.