The term itself came into vogue after World War Two to describe books and articles that aim to analyze, explain, or divagate on the putative peculiarities of Japanese culture and mentality, above all by comparison with foreign countries, especially Europe and the United States. However Asian countries increasingly figure in recent works. Such texts share a general vision of what constitutes the uniqueness of Japan, and the term nihonjinron can be employed to refer to this outlook. One may also speak of books written by non-Japanese authors as nihonjinron, insofar as they share, contribute to, or reflect the vision, premises, and perspectives characteristic of the Japanese genre.
Though the generic word nihonjinron is most frequently used to describe the phenomenon, a variety of topical terms are also current that classify the many sub-genres of nihonjinron, according to specific theme or subject-matter. For example:
Often cited, but rarely read, this work is now outdated. It is 'merely a sample' not a definitive list. It omits many works that otherwise qualify as nihonjinron (the works of Higuchi Kiyoyuki (樋口清之), for example). It states that 16.5% of post-war nihonjinron has been written by foreigners. Yet production of books on Japanese identity soon assumed an industrial scale in Japan, and Dale writes of the 'unflagging productivity of the genre.' Just one writer, the doyen of the genre, Watanabe Shōichi (渡部昇一), has hundreds of articles and volumes on Japanese culture, society, politics, history, and identity to his credit, all replete with judgments about 'the Japanese.' Foreign writing, with its stereotypes, is an important sub-genre of nihonjinron, and was particularly strong in Meiji Japan, where, as one observer wryly noted, 'not to have written a book about Japan is fast becoming a title to distinction.' In the last half-century, the large increase in significant books about Japan published by foreigners largely displays the severe constraints of doctoral research on subjective generalisations about national characteristics and outweighs in impact the trivial ephemera of touristic impressionism.
Thus, not only might the roots of the nihonjinron be traced back at least to the kokugaku (国学, lit. "national studies") movement of the 18th. century, but reputable authorities on the intellectual history of that period recognize in the debates on the nation, its identity and popular moeurs currents of thinking influencing popular sentiment, that are not dissimilar to those we encounter in the post-war nihonjinron. In this sense, the recent view that the term "nihonjinron" should be restricted to refer to the literature on Japanese national identity post-1945 appears to be a technical quibble. Indeed, as Minami Hiroshi, one of the foremost scholars of the genre, states in his survey:-
All definitions of identity, national, social, ethnic or personal, use a comparative yardstick, be it explicit or implicit. National identity is typically associated with the early modern or modern nation, as one of the integrative elements of that nationalist ethos by which the disparate cultures of the pre-modern agricultural world are welded into a unified popular consciousness of patriotic belonging. Hiroshi points to pre-early-modern sources for the nihonjinron, but the argument cannot be pressed too far back, since ancient polities lacked the nation-wide mobilisation which is a precondition for this kind of discourse. Yet there seems no doubt that intense feelings for one's native country and its identity were an early part of Japanese literary culture, and a value given aesthetic expression. Robert Borgen studies just one example from the life of the monk Jōjin (成尋:1011-1081) and remarks:-
The kokugaku school itself did found its assertion of distinctive identity on a reading of the earliest classics of Japanese literature. One can hear an early echo of the problem of identity, for example, in the narrative of struggles between 'nativist' (Shintoist) and Sinophile factions at the dawn of Japanese history, as recounted in the Kojiki and Nihonshoki. Kokugaku scholars thus traced their ideas on identity to these earliest chronicles, which recount the revolt of the Mononobe(物部) and Nakatomi(中臣) clans against the foreign-descended Soga(蘇我)clan, which had sponsored the introduction of Buddhist metaphysics and Chinese statecraft into Japan in the sixth century C.E. Medieval Buddhism in turn developed original sectarian positions which show a vigorous inclination to ‘Japanify’ and propagate native versions of that universal faith, and the form this reaction takes shows a heightened awareness of a unique national mission and identity.
The echo takes on resounding depth in the work of the Buddhist monk Nichiren (日蓮:1222-1282) whose Risshō Ankoku Ron (立正安國論:On Establishing Righteousness and Securing the Safety of the Nation:1260), can be read as a brilliantly written foundational text for that vein of chiliastic populist nationalism which was to take the upper hand in the decade before 1945, in the heyday of Nihonshugi (Japanism:日本主義).
In Nichiren's highly original thought, we find a dramatic reversal in Japan's dominant ideology of the state, with its aristocratic reliance on foreign models, be they Confucian or Buddhist. The variety of Buddhism he develops defines the doctrine in terms that are militantly patriotic, indeed, in terms which make his brand of Buddhism the creed par excellence of what had been a universal faith. At roughly the same time, Kitabatake Chikafusa(北畠親房:1293-1354) wrote his Jinnō Shōtōki (神皇正統記: Chronicles of the Authentic Lineages of the Divine Emperors) which defines Japan's superiority in terms of the divinity of its imperial line, and the divinity of the nation itself (Shinkoku:神國). The general drift of such works is to pull the abstract, universal language and thought of Japan's foreign models down to earth, to reframe it in Japanese conditions, among the illiterate population at large, and assert the special historical characteristics of Japan as opposed to the civilizations which had, until that time, endowed the country with the lineaments of a universalist culture.
The comparative dimension of nihonron or discourse on the nation of Japan assumed seminal depth in the 16th.century, towards the end of the Sengoku(戦國:Warring Countries) period (1482-1558) and the subsequent Azuchi-Momoyama((安土桃山) age (1568-1615), when European contacts with Japan gave rise to a considerable literature by travelers and foreign missionaries on the Japanese, their culture, behavior, and patterns of thinking. Though much of this belongs to the theatre of Orientalism, it influenced European perceptions over the two succeeding centuries during which Japan, apart from a small trading base at Deshima, remained closed to foreign commerce with the West. It also had some impact on Japanese self-images, when this material began to be read by many Japanese after the Meiji Restoration. The connivance between foreign images and Japanese self-perceptions thus boasts of a long history dating back some four centuries, and this tradition of cross-cultural discourse forms an important background component in the rise of the modern nihonjinron.
Kokugaku, beginning as a scholarly investigation into the philology of Japan's early classical literature, had suffered neglect at that time due to the powerful influence of Confucian orthodoxy, and sought to recover and evaluate these texts, some of which were obscure and difficult to read, in order to appraise them positively and harvest them to determine and ascertain what were the original indigenous values of Japan before the introduction of Chinese civilization. Thus the exploration of early classical texts like the Kojiki (古事記) and the Man'yōshū (万葉集) allowed scholars of Kokugaku, particularly the five great figures of Keichū (Japanese: 契沖: 1640-1701), Kada no Azumamaro (荷田春満:1669-1736), Kamo no Mabuchi (賀茂真淵;1697-1769), Motoori Norinaga (本居宣長:1730-1801) and Hirata Atsutane (平田篤胤:1776-1843) to explore Japan's cultural differences with China, locate their sources in high antiquity, and deploy the results in a programmatic attempt to define the uniqueness of Japan against a foreign civilization. Implicitly or otherwise, they advocated a return to these ostensibly pristine ethnic roots, which involved discarding the incrustations of those Chinese cultural beliefs, social rites and philosophical ideas that had exercised a political ascendancy for over a millennium within Japan and had deeply informed the neo-Confucian ideology of the Tokugawa regime itself.
The irony was that the intellectual techniques, textual methods and cultural strategies used by nativist scholars against Confucianism borrowed heavily from currents in both Chinese thought (Taoist, Confucian and Buddhist) and their Japanese offshoots. Motoori, the greatest nativist scholar, is deeply indebted, for instance, to the thought of Ogyū Sorai the most penetrating Confucian thinker of Tokugawa times. In similar wise, scholars detect in modern Japanese nationalism, of which the nihonjinron are the resonant if melodiously subdued, post-war echo, many features that derived from borrowings abroad, from the large resources of cultural nationalism mined in European countries during their own respective periods of nation-formation. Under the alias of assertions of difference, nationalisms, in Japan as elsewhere, borrow promiscuously from each other's conceptual hoards, and what may seem alien turns out often to be, once studied closely, merely an exotic variation on an all too familiar theme.
In the second half of the 19th century, under strong military and diplomatic pressure, and suffering from an internal crisis that led to the collapse of the Bakufu, Japan opened its ports, and subsequently the nation, to commerce with the outside world and reform that sought to respond vigorously to the challenges of modern industrial polities, as they were remarked on by Japanese observers in the United States and Europe. The preponderant place of China as model and cultural adversary in the cognitive models developed hitherto was occupied by the West. But, whereas Japan's traditional engagement with Chinese civilization was conducted in terms of a unilateral debate, now Japanese scholars and thinkers could read directly what Westerners, themselves fascinated by the 'exoticism' of Japanese culture, said and wrote of them. Japanese contact with, and responses to these emerging Western stereotypes, which reflected the superiority complex, condescension and imperial hauteur of the times, fed into Japanese debates on national identity. As Leslie Pincus puts it, speaking of a later phase:-
There ensued an intense period of massive social and economic change, as, under the direction of a developmental elite, Japan moved from the closed world of centuries of Tokugawa rule (the so-called sakoku:鎖國 period) to Meiji Westernization, and, again in close conformity with the prevailing occidental paradigm, to imperialist adventurism with the growth of the colonialism. The Taishō period marked a slightly more 'liberal' turn, as the pendulum swung towards a renewed interest in the Western model ("Japan must undergo a second birth, with America as its new mother and France as its father"). With the crisis of 1929 and the concomitant depression of the thirties, militarism gained the upper hand in this era of the 'dark valley' (kurai tanima:暗い谷間), and nationalistic ideologies prevailed over all attempts to keep alive the moderate traditions of liberal modernity.
Total economic, military and spiritual mobilization could not stave off defeat however, and slowly, under occupation, and then rapidly with its reasserted independence, Japan enjoyed a decades-long resurgence as global industrial and economic powerhouse until the crisis of the 1990s. The cultural patterns over this century long trajectory is one of a continuous oscillation between models of pronounced Westernization and traditionalist autarky. Between the two alternatives, attempts were frequently made to mediate a conciliatory third way which would combine the best of both worlds (wakon yōsai:(和魂洋才): "Japanese spirit and Western techniques".
The frequency of these chronic transitional upheavals engendered a remarkable intensity of debate about national directions and identity (kokuminsei: 國民性/minzokusei:民族性), , whose complexity over time renders a synthetic judgment or bird's-eye view of the literature in question rather difficult. A major controversy surrounds the question regarding the affiliation of the post-war nihonjinron theories with the prewar conceptualization of Japanese cultural uniqueness. To what degree, that is, are these meditations under democracy on Japanese uniqueness innocent reflections of a popular search for identity, and in what measure, if any, do they pick up from the instrumental ideology of Japaneseness developed by government and nationalists in the prewar period to harness the energies of the nation towards industrialization and global imperium?
The questions are rendered more complex by the fact that in the early post-war period, the restoration of a 'healthy nationalism' was by no means something exclusive to right-wing cultural thinkers. An intense debate over the necessity to develop ideal, positive forms of national consciousness, regarded as a healthy civic identity, figures prominently in the early writings of Maruyama Masao, who called for a healthy "national civic consciousness" (kokuminshugi:國民主義), and in the prolific debates of members of the Japanese Historical Science Association (rekiken:歴研) who preferred to speak of 'ethnic national consciousness'(minzokushigi: 民族主義). These debates ranged from liberal center-left critics to radical Marxist historians
Some scholars cite the destruction of many Japanese national symbols and the psychological blow of defeat at the end of World War II as one source of nihonjinron's enduring popularity, although it is not a uniquely 20th century phenomenon. In fact the genre is simply the Japanese reflex of cultural nationalism, which is a property of all modern nations. The trend of the tone of nihonjinron argument is often reflective of the Japanese society at the time. Peter Dale, covering the period analysed by the Nomura survey, distinguished three major phrases in the development of post-war nihonjinron discourse:
Tamotsu Aoki subsequently finessed the pattern by distinguishing four major phases in the post war identity discourse (Aoki 1990 p.29) In Dale's proposal, this drift from negative uniqueness to positive evaluation of uniqueness is a cyclical trend, since he believes the same pattern can be detected in the literature on identity for the period from 1867 to 1945, from early Meiji times down to the end of World War Two. Nihonjinron, in Dale's view, recycle prewar Japanese nationalist rhetoric, and betray similar ends. For Aoki, contrariwise, they are natural movements in a national temper which seeks, as has been the case with other nations, its own distinctive path of cultural autonomy and social organization as Japan adapts itself to the global world order forged by the West.
During the early post-war period, most of nihonjinron discourses discussed the uniqueness of the Japanese in a rather negative, critical light. The elements of feudalism reminiscent of the Imperial Japan were all castigated as major obstacles to Japan's reestablishment as a new democratic nation. Scholars such as Hisao Ōtsuka (大塚久男), a Weberian sociologist, judged Japan with the measure of rational individualism and liberal democracy that were considered ideals in the U.S. and Western European nations back then. By the 1970s, however, with Japan enjoying a remarkable economic boom, Ōtsuka began to consider the 'feudal residues' in a positive light, as a badge of Japan's distinctive difference from the West (Ōtsuka, Kawashima, Doi 1976 passim). Nihonjinron books written during the period of high economic growth up to the bubble burst in the early 1990s, in contrast, argued various unique features of the Japanese as more positive features.
The emphasis on in-group unity in nihonjinron writings, and its popularization during Japan's period of military expansion at the turn of the 20th century, has led many Western critics to brand it a form of ethnocentric nationalism. Karel van Wolferen echoes this assessment, noting that:
As Japan is often deemed to be "almost as unique as its people like to think" (Pearl Buck, qtd. In Dale 1986:26) so too the Japanese people are considered not just unique but, in the words of Sugimoto and Mouer, "more unique than other societies.