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Tuesday, March 9, 1999

Building a nation in time and space

REINVENTING JAPAN: Time, Space, Nation, by Tessa Morris-Suzuki. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1998, 236 pp., $19.95.

Every country exists in time and in space. This is a simple fact that is often taken for granted.

The spatial and temporal boundaries of a nation do not exist naturally, however. They are the result of definitions by politicians, soldiers, historians and cartographers. In modern education, nations, and nation states tend to be presented as fixed entities, and permanence rather than change tends to be emphasized.

Yet nations are less stable than their popular images often suggest. Or rather, the images themselves change even more than the nations do. This is what the title of Tessa Morris-Suzuki's book alludes to.

What is Japan? Could there be more than one answer, if we are talking about its spatial and temporal dimensions? Every high-school graduate should feel confident knowing that the archipelago off the eastern rim of the Eurasian landmass has been inhabited by the Japanese since time immemorial and that these inhabitants in turn have forever been Japanese.

Perhaps today's high school graduates are more sophisticated than that, being aware that this is an idea that is not only of recent origin but, moreover, has not always been of equal relevance since its inception in the Meiji Era.

Although Japan is often cited as a classical nation that came into existence quasi-naturally, Japanese nationhood has been of little concern to most Japanese through most of its history. National identity and a collective consciousness thereof are, after all, modern phenomena.

This fascinating book is concerned with how ideas of time and space were used to create an image of the Japanese nation, of Japan as a bounded geographic entity and Japan as a time zone that relates to other such zones, both historically and in terms of moving toward a goal _ that is, in terms of development.

Images are created by people, intellectuals in particular. This book is thus an attempt to review and redefine the contours of Japanese history, culture and nationality, as presented in mostly scholarly, but also popular writings about Japan. The author's focus is on modern Japan, but her excellent command of the literature allows her to refer to older sources whenever they have a bearing on modern ideas. This is often the case, since traditions invariably make selective use of the past.

What is nature, culture, race, gender, civilization? What do these concepts mean in connection with defining and redefining Japan? These are the questions she asks.

Morris-Suzuki shows that these notions have taken on a different significance in the course of time, as Japan has been reinvented as an idea according to intellectual currents, socioeconomic needs and political developments. This perpetual reinventing and reinterpretation has been done by Japanese philosophers, folklorists and other social scientists, as well as artists such as film directors.

Providing a wealth of examples, the author shows how Japan's self-image and national identity keep adjusting. Her analyses are as original as they are convincing. They are based on an intimate knowledge of Japanese intellectual history, including important Western influences in philosophy and social science. Time and space are recurrent themes, related to one another in sometimes unexpected ways.

Take the Ainu, for example. It is well-known that the Ainu used to live at the northern periphery of Japanese inhabited space. In early Tokugawa Japan they were perceived as different, their territory, "Ezochi," as foreign land.

However, once the Japanese government became concerned about establishing a frontier between Japan and Russia and, therefore, put Ainu territory under shogunal control, the spatial difference became reinterpreted as a temporal difference.

As Morris-Suzuki shows, Ainu culture thus came to be viewed as reflecting an earlier stage of Japanese history. They had lagged behind, which provided the necessary excuse for subjecting them to an assimilationist policy. Space was reinterpreted as time. The Ainu had to be brought up to date, as it were. At the same time, Japan's national territory had to be consolidated, the Ainu had to be brought into the fold. This interaction of conceptual changes in space and time was used to create a sense of national identity.

Similarly, the concepts of culture and civilization, if we follow Morris-Suzuki's analysis, can be understood as possessing both spatial and temporal aspects. Culture ("bunka"), as conceived by Japanese intellectuals who in the early decades of this century became interested in Japan's "national character," was timeless. This kind of culture, she argues, was associated with spatial difference. Different cultures existed in different territories.

Civilization ("bunmei") by contrast, in the sense that Meiji Westernizers promoted it, referred to temporal progression. People were more or less civilized, more or less advanced. The scientific and industrial achievements of Europe were seen as embodying the most advanced stage of civilization that Japan had to catch up with. It could, nevertheless, hold on to its distinct culture, which was defined largely in geographic and spatial terms ("an isolated, small mountainous island nation").

The idea that human societies and cultures are shaped by their natural settings has many followers in Japan, philosopher and historian Watsuji Tetsuro (1889-1960) being one of the most prominent. In contradistinction to many Western philosophers, such as Martin Heidegger, from whom he drew much inspiration, Watsuji emphasizes space rather than time.

His main work, "Fudo," (roughly: "Environment"), puts at its center Japan's climate and geographic location as providing the basis for understanding the special sensitivity to nature that is at the heart of Japanese culture. By grounding culture in the natural environment, Watsuji offered some comfort to those who feared that, after a half a century of breathtaking transformations, Japan's national identity was about to be swept away. There was, after all, a solid bedrock on which Japan's culture rested, unaffected by the whirlwinds of change brought about in the process of civilization.

Watsuji's natural philosophy picked up threads developed by the 18th-century scholar Motoori Norinaga and in turn provided a source of inspiration for contemporary writers who ponder the Japanese relationship with nature. Morris-Suzuki's reading of these works reveals how, over time, successive generations gave new meaning to inherited ideas.

The same approach characterizes her discussion of Japanese writings about race and ethnicity, a shared genetic heritage, a shared natural environment and a shared language. Her interpretation lucidly reveals how in all instances diversity was denied and then again acknowledged in response to political needs and economic developments.

This is not to say that ideological requirements dictate the contents of Japanese writings about Japan, but only to reaffirm the time-tested principle that, in order to be properly understood, texts about society and sociopolitical ideas must be read against the background of their authors' times.

Different aspects of a culture and society attract the intellectuals' interest at different times. There are always men and women in society, but their relationships change, as do the roles they play in the making of a society's self-image. Morris-Suzuki shows how Japan's national spirit was variously defined as male and female, and how often scholarly accounts of "Japaneseness" are gender biased.

Morris-Suzuki is a critical reader, but never dismissive. She introduces her readers to a great variety of works that have played a role in shaping and reshaping Japanese notions of themselves and others, as a people, as a nation, as an adversary or friend of their neighbors, as a part of Asia and as a participant in the great game of globalization that forces ever more individuals "to live with multiple identities." With this deeply rewarding book she makes us see many of the markers with which Japanese intellectuals have staked their nation's claim to identity.

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