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Vol. 37, No. 2, April 2010

Japan-US Relations: Anatomy of Denial

UCHIDA Tatsuru, Interviewed by KÔNO Michikazu

KÔNO MICHIKAZU Your latest book, Nihon henkyô ron [Japan as a Peripheral State], is attracting a lot of attention. I hear it’s already sold 220,000 copies since it appeared in bookstores last fall. It’s been some time since the last major work on Nihonjin-ron [the study of the distinctive features of the Japanese people], and the timing seems to be right for a new one. Of course, there have been numerous studies of Japanese psychology and culture in the past. In the post–World War II era alone, we had Ruth Benedict’s pioneering work The Chrysanthemum and the Sword [1946], which was followed by a series of excellent studies by people like Maruyama Masao, Kawashima Takeyoshi, Umesao Tadao, Kishida Shû, and Yamamoto Shichihei. But as you point out, we’ve tended to jump from one theory to the next, never seeming to find the definitive word on the subject. In short, the Japanese people are always coming back to the same eternal questions—What is Japan? Who are the Japanese? It seems that at bottom we’re not quite certain that we’re Japanese, and it makes us terribly insecure. It’s as if part of us is always looking around to make sure we’re behaving in an appropriately Japanese fashion.

Earlier analyses of Japanese society and the Japanese psyche have tended to treat this character trait negatively, saying, essentially, that this is what’s wrong with us. But in your book you offer a fresh and positive take on this supposed character flaw. You explain it as a habit of thought and behavior proceeding inevitably from Japan’s peripheral geopolitical position, a strategy that the Japanese people instinctively embraced to survive the conditions in which they found themselves. And you suggest that we should perceive it not as a flaw but as our own pragmatic and sophisticated brand of wisdom.

I’d like to begin by asking you about the timing of your book. Since the 1990s Japanese scholars have published very few works in the field of Nihonjin-ron. It seems reasonable to conclude that we stopped examining ourselves because we had lost confidence in ourselves as a people following such setbacks as the failure of Japanese diplomacy in the 1991 Gulf War, which some have called Japan’s second defeat [the first being defeat in World War II], and the long period of economic stagnation following the collapse of the bubble economy at the beginning of the 1990s. But now we have a new government, and as we look ahead to a society with an aged population and a structurally slow-growing economy, we’re facing some urgent challenges, including the need to restructure our entire social system. People have begun to realize that we’re truly at the end of one era and on the threshold of a new one. Were you at all conscious of this element of timing when you set out to write your book?

UCHIDA TATSURU What I was most conscious of was my own age. [Laughs] I’m almost sixty now. I don’t think I could have written this book twenty years ago. I might have been able to write something on the subject, but I don’t think it would have been very convincing. You see, our perception of national character is a kind of illusion fostered for political purposes. We say that the Japanese national character is thus and so, the American character is thus and so, but there’s generally no empirical basis for the assertions. That’s why in my younger days I probably wouldn’t have bothered to address the subject seriously, and if I had I would have tried a very empirical approach, clearly distinguishing fact from fiction. As the years have passed, though, I’ve come to realize that the way we behave isn’t necessarily based on facts. We live our lives surrounded by stories derived from facts. They’re illusions, but they’ve acquired the substance of reality, a reality that envelops our lives. In other words, in actuality the word "Japanese" functions in a way that has nothing to do with any scholarly or scientific perception of it, and this illusion regarding the Japanese national character has become a point of reference in our lives. The fact that I adopted this approach in my latest book—having first accepted the illusion of a functioning nation-state as something that actually exists—is a sign that I’ve gotten old. [Laughs] That’s why I think it’s not so much the times as my own age that paved the way for this type of argument on my part.


KÔNO You didn’t feel that you were somehow in sync with the times?

UCHIDA No, but in terms of the historical context, the sixtieth anniversary of the end of World War II got me thinking about ways to understand the historical currents of the past six decades, particularly in respect to Japan’s foreign policy. Specifically, as I was organizing my thoughts for 9-jô dô deshô [What About Article 9?], in which I discuss the fundamental contradiction between the Self- Defense Forces and Article 9, paragraph 2, of the Constitution of Japan [renouncing the maintenance of land, sea, and air forces and other "war potential"], I hit on the concept of Japan as a peripheral state and a vassal state. It occurred to me that while it might seem as if Japan had simply muddled through on foreign policy since the end of World War II without any real strategy, there might well be some consistent pattern or principle underlying it all. In fact, I had the feeling that from a subjective standpoint, the Japanese were following a very rational pattern of behavior. And it seemed to me I might be able to illuminate this pattern by identifying a single axis running through it all—namely, "peripherality."

As you know, the 1947 Constitution and the Japan-US Security Treaty have been the linchpins of Japan’s postwar foreign policy. Both are American in origin, and from an American perspective, there’s no contradiction between the two. The war-renouncing Constitution is about rendering Japan harmless as an enemy, while the treaty is about making good military use of Japan as a friend. From the standpoint of US strategy, that’s perfectly sensible. But Japan made it a contradiction by dealing with it in the context of the ideological "conservative versus progressive" dichotomy that defined Japan’s political landscape from 1955 on. Why? Because in that way, the Japanese were able to avoid facing the reality that their country was a US military vassal state, and they were also able to avoid taking part in any military action as a US ally, such as by deploying Japanese troops to trouble spots. It seems like a bizarre strategy, but politically it’s a very shrewd one, and it epitomizes the survival techniques the Japanese have developed over time. Of course, the fact that we’re engaged in a complex sleight of hand at a national level doesn’t necessarily mean we’re doing it consciously. That’s just how it’s evolved.

If that’s the case, then the same behavior that appears irrational on the surface is actually rational and consistent when analyzed from a subjective viewpoint. It seemed to me that there must be some unwritten law that allowed us to accept such behavior as natural, and I began to wonder what that was. So I decided to analyze Japan’s ties with neighboring countries from ancient times through the modern age in hopes of identifying an underlying principle deeply engrained in Japanese culture that determines our behavior in a variety of contexts. And one possibility that occurred to me was the mind-set of a peripheral state that has learned to survive by maintaining the appearance of submission while rebelling inwardly. As a peripheral state, we bow to outside pressure or conform to global standards, getting whatever there is to be gained from our asymmetrical relationship with the dominant core. But we don’t capitulate completely; we merely maintain the appearance of obedience in a manner that always leaves room for subversion. So, for example, Japan may make a show of embracing global standards, but when a rule isn’t to its liking, it feigns ignorance, falling back on its peripheral status. And meanwhile, using ignorance as a pretext, it imposes its own local rules in a very calculated manner.


KÔNO Of course, there were deep ideological divisions in Japan over the nature of the Japan-US relationship in the postwar period, and that split in public opinion reflected the battle lines of the Cold War. Moreover, even within the conservative Liberal Democratic Party there was a sharp division between those who chose to put economic prosperity first and those who cared more about Japan’s independence.

UCHIDA That’s certainly true. But I was more interested in understanding the psychological mechanism that causes a reflexive suspension of rational thought among the Japanese when it comes to the Japan-US relationship. As I see it, the Japanese people simply cannot accept the fact that from a military and political standpoint, their country is a US vassal state. They can’t allow the reality of this relationship with the United States into their conscious minds. This is something that lies at the very root of the Japanese national identity.

As I note in my book, Kishida Shû did an excellent job using the distinction between the outer self and inner self to explain the collective madness that has gripped the Japanese from time to time during the modern era. As he explains it, the Japanese people have two conflicting selves. The outer self abides by global standards and tries to behave in a rational manner, but underneath lies an inner self that’s a murky jungle of deeply Japanese, xenophobic sentiment. Sometimes one self gains the upper hand, sometimes the other. The Japanese live with this dual personality. Kishida had the insight to identify this as the source of the collective psychopathology that has seized the Japanese people periodically during the century and a half since the opening of the country. What I did was take his insight a step further and posit that this split between the inner and outer selves is our normal state of being.

Madness is never without some purpose. The assumption is that every pathology offers some sort of gain. And in point of fact, Japan’s postwar pathology—that is to say, the contradiction of our renouncing military force at the same time that we were building up the Self-Defense Forces —was, on balance, quite beneficial in the context of our relationship with the United States. In fact, it was the logical survival strategy for Japan as an American vassal state. Now, if this is the case, doesn’t it mean we love this fragmented psyche of ours? Everyone talks as if we need to resolve the contradictions and make Japan a straightforward, consistent nation-state. But my theory is that deep down inside we actually like things just as they are.

For me, former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirô [2001–6] is the very incarnation of these internal contradictions. He’s such a bundle of contradictions that he doesn’t even realize they’re contradictions. I’ve never seen anyone who is so pro-American on the surface and so anti- American at heart. When he was in office people called him the most pro-American Japanese prime minister in history. But Koizumi is a man who’s perfectly comfortable with his own contradictions, and the truth is that at an emotional level he’s completely anti-American. So, how did he fulfill the inner anti-American self that he was repressing? He helped hasten America’s downfall by going all out in his support of American policies, and particularly by going way out on a limb to support policies that were bound to fail. He took the convoluted approach of lending his superficial support to ultimately achieve America’s fall.

Take the war in Iraq. From the very beginning people called it an unnecessary war. That was France’s position, and it tried to restrain the Bush administration. In Japan as well, the overwhelming majority of people considered it a dangerous venture and evidence that the United States had learned nothing from the Vietnam War. But Koizumi took a different tack. He was one of the first leaders in the world to declare his support for the invasion of Iraq. I believe he was urging the United States down the path to destruction. I think that was his dark, unconscious desire. And the Japanese unconsciously realized that, so they continued to support him.

At an unconscious level, the Japanese people are almost always anti-American. No one will come out and say so, and at any rate one can’t expect them to be aware of it, since it’s unconscious. But much of Japan’s otherwise inexplicable behavior since the end of World War II can be understood as the manifestation of a condition in which our outer selves are proclaiming our support for the United States while our inner selves are hoping for its downfall. It’s the same with globalization.

When Koizumi retired from politics last year, I found it mystifying that he seemed so utterly at peace with himself. I couldn’t understand it. In his rush to embrace structural reform and deregulation and American-style globalization, he had wrecked the Japanese economy and plunged our society into chaos. Yet there he was, without a qualm, beaming radiantly at everyone and saying, "Now I can rest; my work is done." That’s when it came to me. Koizumi wanted Japan to collapse as a result of the systems it had imported from the United States. Thanks to Koizumi’s policies, virtually the entire nation has united in the realization that the American systems are no good. And we’ve only reached that point after bending over backwards to adapt to American standards, embracing one American practice after another without even taking the time to examine them, so that as a result we’ve failed in practically every area—government, economy, media, healthcare, education. This reality is what has allowed us to reach something like a national consensus and say as with one voice that the American systems are no good. This, I believe, was Koizumi’s unconscious strategy. He was determined to conquer his inferiority complex toward the United States even if it meant taking the roundabout route of sacrificing his own country. This was the only way he could simultaneously answer the conflicting demands of his outer self, which was saying that we must accept the United States as our standard and follow it, and his inner self, which wanted to cry out that the United States is no good. I think this epitomizes the distinctive survival strategy that the Japanese have internalized at the deepest level.

Deep down under the surface, the Japanese people harbor a hatred for the United States as the country that used its military might to coerce them into opening their borders to the West back in 1853, when the small fleet commanded by US Commodore Matthew Perry entered Japanese waters, an event remembered in Japan as the coming of the "black ships." Anti-Americanism has been an undercurrent of our basic mind-set for a century and a half. No one writes about it, but at a deep level the Japanese hate the United States. No matter how I look at it, I can’t come up with any other explanation for the behavior of the Japanese in the postwar period.

KÔNO I’ve never heard anyone analyze Koizumi that way before. It’s a very bold proposition—as are your ideas about psychological repression and the unconscious dimension of Japan-US relations.

UCHIDA The Japanese really hate the United States, but they can’t face that hatred consciously. They can’t reason through it. They can’t explain their hatred, even to themselves. If they could, they wouldn’t display such complex, convoluted symptoms. Feelings that are repressed inevitably surface as pathological symptoms. I’m sure Freud would diagnose our condition as a national psychosis stemming from mass repression.

I think someone has to explain this very clearly to Americans. I don’t mean we must explain why the Japanese hate America; any number of people have written about that. I mean we must explain the fact that in almost every Japanese person there are two coexisting selves, a pro-American outer self and an anti-American inner self, and that our stance toward the United States can shift dramatically depending on which is in the ascendant. If we explained that our bizarre behavior is a product of this psychology, I think American intellectuals would understand.

In the mid-nineteenth century, as Japan drifted in a dreamy state of peace and tranquility, four black ships appeared on the horizon to force our country open with gunboat diplomacy. One hundred fifty years later, that trauma still hasn’t healed. The phenomenal modernization drive on which Japan embarked after the Meiji Restoration [1868] was all motivated by the fear of colonization. Russia, France, and Britain were also eyeing Japan greedily, but politically speaking, the United States presented the greatest danger. It was pushing its frontiers farther and farther westward and building railways across the continent. The next step was to build ships and cross the Pacific, ostensibly for whaling purposes. In the Spanish-American War, the United States seized the Philippines and Guam. Next it annexed Hawaii. It was expanding its sphere of influence into the western Pacific at a breathtaking pace. With respect to the colonization of the western Pacific during the second half of the nineteenth century, the United States was far ahead of Britain or France. It seems to me that the only reason Japan escaped becoming a US colony was that the United States happened to be in the midst of the Civil War. Every Japanese citizen knows this on an unconscious level. And it seems to me that the repressed memory of the fear attending that narrow escape is what lay at the bottom of Japan’s decision to plunge into World War II. Japan fought, and it lost. And I believe that for a moment, the inner conflict of the Japanese people was resolved. By fighting the United States, the Japanese had acted consistently with their inner selves, and by losing an unjust war, they were following the dictates of their outer selves as well. So, for a short time, when Japan was utterly defeated and the US military entered Japan as an occupation force, the contradictions were resolved.

Then the postwar Constitution was adopted. The Constitution of Japan is the embodiment of the outer Japanese self, the self that welcomes the global community and speaks in the logical language that international society understands. Next the Japan-US Security Treaty was concluded as the price of peace. Japan was gradually woven into the US global strategy, becoming a military vassal state of the suzerain United States, and as that happened, the murky, xenophobic, deeply Japanese emotions of the inner self began to build up again. The inner conflict that has been with us since the Meiji Restoration intensified. And it hasn’t been resolved to this day.


KÔNO I take it this theory reflects your own internal landscape to some degree?

UCHIDA I was involved in the violent protests mounted by Zengakuren [All-Japan Federation of Students’ Self-Governing Associations] in 1968, and I can tell you they were definitely anti-American in nature. The settings in which they played out were both ports: Haneda Airport and the seaport of Sasebo. I was seventeen years old, and when I saw the US aircraft carrier Enterprise arriving at Sasebo on TV, I became enraged. I didn’t understand why, but I was shocked to the core and convinced that the whole nation was going to rise up as one. In retrospect, it seemed like the second coming of the black ships. Students in the radical wing of Zengakuren responded by arming themselves with helmets and sticks. For them, these were the equivalent of the maedate [helmet crests] and the bamboo spears and banners that Japanese warriors carried into battle in the sixteenth century. Our barricades were our fort. On a symbolic level it was a return match by the imperial, anti-foreign faction a century after its defeat at the end of the Edo period [1603–1868], a reenactment, a century later, of the failed attempt to "expel the barbarians" back in the 1860s. The 1968 protests weren’t a Marxist movement but an eruption of nationalism. That’s why they had the spiritual support of figures like [film director] Ôshima Nagisa, [writer] Nosaka Akiyuki, and [writer] Itsuki Hiroyuki, who had come of age amid the devastation and black marketeering of the years immediately after Japan’s defeat in World War II.

The demonstrations of 1968 came at the height of the Vietnam War. To the Japanese, the struggle of the Vietnamese evoked the memory of that last stand to protect the mainland that was supposed to happen at the end of World War II, but never did. The Supreme Council for the Direction of the War had proclaimed that the Japanese people would arm themselves with bamboo pikes and drive the Americans from their shores, but instead the country surrendered unconditionally. In the postwar period the Japanese had suppressed the memory of this humiliating experience. But now, here were these peasants in this tiny country in Indochina using their crude weapons to battle the advanced military technology of the US forces. And here was Japan, which had chosen not to fight to the last, providing rear-area support for the Americans in Vietnam and even profiting from the war. So, although the official, politically correct reason for the antiwar protests of 1968 was opposition to a war of aggression by the United States, at a more fundamental level I believe it was an act of self-flagellation. I think it was an outburst of intense self-hatred toward our own baseness and an attempt to expiate our guilt. I know because I was there. The students didn’t go to the demonstrations to fight, they went to be beaten. The reason they threw rocks and Molotov cocktails was to provoke the riot police. Throwing Molotov cocktails was a way to ratchet up the punishment. Our purpose was to punish ourselves, not to win a political struggle. People were being napalmed in Indochina, and there we were enjoying our comfortable petit bourgeois lives thanks to the war profits. What right did we have? We felt we were the ones who should be fighting and getting killed. But we couldn’t. The best we could do was go out and confront the riot police, in lieu of US troops, and get hit with duralumin shields, in lieu of napalm. At an unconscious level, this was the drama that the student activists of the time were playing out, albeit in a very banal sort of way.

Looking at it from this perspective, one realizes that a number of key events in postwar Japan can be understood as repetitions of this same psychodrama. The same pattern plays out over and over, as we suspend rational thought and experience these intermittent eruptions of emotion.

Japan is a US vassal state, but the Japanese will do anything to avoid facing the fact. Deep down inside, they’re ashamed of their own slavishness, and they’ve tried to atone for their shame by bringing misfortune down on the entire nation through their unquestioning submission to the United States. Because only when Japan is pushed to the brink will they be able to reach a consensus that being a US vassal state was a mistake and begin to reintegrate their inner and outer selves once again.

KÔNO The phenomenon you’ve described reminds me a bit of the old yakuza [gangster] films with Takakura Ken, like the Shôwa zankyô den [Brutal Tales of Chivalry] series, where the stoic hero puts up with an unbearable situation until he finally reaches the breaking point and slashes his way through the rival gang.

UCHIDA Yes, it’s the same thing exactly. The Japanese love movies like Shôwa zankyô den and Yamashita Kôsaku’s Bakuchi-uchi: Sôchô tobaku [Gambling House: Presidential Gambling]. Do you know that film? It starred Tsuruta Kôji.

KÔNO Oh yes. It won the highest praise from Mishima Yukio; he said it was like a Greek tragedy.

UCHIDA Tsuruta plays a gangster who’s bound hand and foot by his duties and obligations, and he’s the very image of postwar Japan, bound by the constraints of Article 9. In the final analysis, what both the defenders and the critics of the postwar Constitution really want deep in their heart of hearts is to die like that, upholding Article 9. In their unconscious fantasy scenario, Japan the pacifist state, having renounced war, is attacked by another country—China, North Korea, whatever. But the US forces don’t budge from their bases. The Seventh Fleet doesn’t come to our rescue. The Marines don’t come from Guam. Thousands and thousands of Japanese citizens are killed and raped, our cities are burned. Having rendered itself defenseless by honoring its war-renouncing Constitution, the country is easily invaded by some enemy state, and our American allies just stand by and watch. The Japanese people realize for the first time that Article 9 of the Constitution and the Japan-US Security Treaty were both meaningless. For the first time the national identity assigned to Japan by the United States, that of a country that is both militarily harmless and militarily useful to the United States, is completely negated. The fiction that the postwar Japanese have maintained through their collective psychosis finally collapses. They realize it was all meaningless, that no one is to be trusted. The only thing left to do is to grab their daggers, stab as many of the enemy as possible, and die. At that moment they’re released from all obligations and constraints and achieve a kind of total freedom—just like Tsuruta Kôji in the last scene of Sôchô tobaku. The Japanese people finally experience, for the first time, the ideal integration of the outer and inner self. They achieve the dialectical synthesis of giri and ninjô [social obligation and human feeling]. It’s an extremely dangerous fantasy, but deep down inside, this is the kind of national catharsis many Japanese dream of.

But at that point, everything is consumed by raging passion, and it’s all over. The only possible outcome is Japan’s extinction as a nation. For that reason, supporters and opponents of the Constitution have both attempted to delay the catharsis as long as possible by prolonging our present ambiguous way of life. My theory, in short, is that the postwar Japanese have been unconsciously colluding with one another in staging this tangled drama, following a script determined by our national character.


KÔNO When you spoke of the conflict over the opening of the country near the end of the Edo period, I was reminded of Sakamoto Ryôma [1836–67] and the huge surge of popular interest in him these days. How does Ryôma figure into your scheme of things?

UCHIDA To me, Sakamoto Ryôma is a role model for sanity that the Japanese people have finally turned to in the midst of their pathology. The antithetical impulses to open the country and "expel the barbarians" ultimately achieved a synthesis in the character of this one individual. Of all the figures in history, the only one of whom no Japanese speaks ill is Sakamoto Ryôma. This low-ranking provincial samurai from Tosa absorbed everything he could of Western culture and society. He was an expert swordsman and also an accomplished student of economics. He was able to express the innermost thoughts of the Japanese in terms that could pass muster internationally. In these ways, he was a rare example of sanity, someone who was able to integrate within himself the national personality that had fragmented in the final years of the Edo period. In fact, I believe that looking to Sakamoto Ryôma as a role model may be just about the only way the Japanese people can heal their collective psychosis. In that sense, the current Ryôma craze might be an indication that the Japanese are finally becoming aware of their own psychopathology and are beginning to think about how to cure it. After all, relying on the Sôchô tobaku solution isn’t such a good idea. [Laughs] Ryôma shared all the internal contradictions we see in the Japanese of today, with their inferiority complex toward the United States. Yet he offered a kind of comprehensive solution. If the Japanese of today find his character and intellect admirable, I think that’s a very healthy development.

KÔNO But Ryôma was killed before he could complete his work. Do you think his assassination was the work of some force in Japanese society that acted to prevent the solution he embodied from becoming a reality?

UCHIDA I don’t think his assassination was inevitable. I think it was more a random event made possible by the confluence of a number of unfortunate circumstances. In those days assassination was a risk that prominent figures lived with; assassins attempted to kill Fukuzawa Yukichi and Katsu Kaishû as well. But if Ryôma had survived to see the Meiji Restoration, I think Japan’s modern age would have turned out very differently. His death deprived the Japanese people of a role model for integrating their outer and inner selves. We can only regret the terrible loss.

KÔNO So, it seems Sakamoto Ryôma could become a valuable icon for the leaders of tomorrow.

UCHIDA The fact that Japan was able to give birth to such a figure, and perhaps the fact that countless modern myth makers like [novelist] Shiba Ryôtarô have portrayed him as the ideal Japanese, is a sign of our fundamental health in my view. He was a man with the pride and dignity of a samurai but the broad-mindedness to remain open at all times to new ideas from the outside. That kind of openness is a quality that the Japanese people need to cultivate.

Translated from an original interview in Japanese. Interviewer Kôno Michikazu is former editor in chief of Chûô Kôron.

© 2010 Japan Echo Inc.