What was the Japanese national character like before the Tokugawas took control?
A quick search for ‘Japanese national character’ on the internet results in post-WWII surveys and results only.
There is of course Ruth Benedict’s almost inevitable ‘The Chysanthemum and the Sword’.
But Ruth Benedict relied on newspaper clippings, literature, movies, written history accounts (all in translation), and interviews of Japanese-Americans to write it. She never went to Japan, never interviewed any Japanese people (vs. emigrants from Japan), and did not speak, read or write any Japanese.
Though her book is elegantly written, it plays into the perpetual stereotypes people have – or maybe, want to hold on to – about Japan.
Many even consider it to illustrate the illusion of western cultural supremacy and as such rather to be insulting to the Japanese people.
If you explore Japanese culture through the lens of Geert Hofstede’s 6-D Model©, you get an overview of the deep drivers of Japanese culture relative to other world cultures.
At least according to Hofstede, that is.
And as can be observed in abundance on the internet, many Japan fallacies linger on until today. From movies, television series documentaries, books to tourism promotion materials, it’s all there neatly summarised in a false belief that the Japanese cherish themselves: In this world, Japan, the Japanese people and the Japanese language are truly unique, unlike any other country.
But yet again: what was the Japanese national character like before the Tokugawas took control?
Some argue that the political system which the Tokugawa shoguns imposed may have altered the Japanese psyche in such a drastic manner, rendering it unrecognisable for the Japanese folk of previous centuries.
Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川 家康), after his victory in 1600 at Sekigahara, started to implement the bakufu (幕府), the military system, that would control the daimyōs (大名), the feudal lords of Japan and that was headed by a Tokugawa shogun (将軍).
Tokugawa Iemitsu (徳川 家光), the third Tokugawa shogun, through a number of edicts and policies from 1633–39, imposed ‘sakoku’ (鎖国, “locked country”) on the country and subdued its population’s spirit through harsh and strict laws and rules (including the metsuke (目付), which was probably one of the first secret police forces the world had ever seen).
Sakoku meant that no foreigner could enter nor could any Japanese leave the country on penalty of death.
The policy remained in effect until 1853 with the arrival of the Black Ships of Commodore Matthew Perry and the forcible opening of Japan to Western trade. It was still illegal to leave Japan until the Meiji Restoration (1868).
Did the Tokugawas overdo it or were the side effects over their measures even surprising to themselves?
After all, Sekigara 1600 had been preceded by an era commonly referred to as Sengoku, or the Warring States period of Japanese history.In exchange of the chaos of those years with warlords such as Oda Nobunaga
(織田 信長) and Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣 秀吉), many were probably prepared to sacrifice some of their personal freedom and privileges.
So did the Tokugawa rule really enforce such a strong imprint on Japanese culture and character?
Could art; like literature, paintings, historical chronicles, … provide a reliable and sufficient answer or at least give us a clue on how to proceed?
Or does religion hold the key, based on the Shinto – Zen contradiction?
There are indications that state Shinto in combination with Dark Zen formed the ideological foundation for the Japanese, right-wing military imperialism that led to the invasion of China and ultimately to Pearl Harbour.
But maybe both were just adulterations of the true spirit of Shinto and Zen, a betrayal of the true Japanese nature?
The counter reaction, the left-wing mood after the war and after the American occupation had ended, was shortlived since the US needed a reliable ally in the Cold War against the Soviet Union.
The Japanese government actually crushed the leftists opposition and the labour unions with the assistance of the yakuza (ヤクザ), the Japanese equivalent of the Italian Mafia or the Chinese Triads.
If not actively sponsored, this move was at least condoned by the Americans and the subsequent miraculous recovery of the Japanese economy was heavily subsidised by the American government.
One may wonder whether the mass protests in 2011 against the use of nuclear energy or the more recent rallies against the Abe reform of the pacifist Constitution aren’t distant echoes of that no so compliant and not so disciplined mood of the 50ies.
So maybe it would be best to drop the original question, best to forget all prejudices, assumptions and stereotypes concerning the Japanese people and just focus on meeting present day Japanese individuals, while trying to understand them with an open mind.
Imprisoning the Japanese in all the fallacies that surround them does not do them justice and amounts to nothing more than another sakoku.
This time after, and not before the Tokugawas.