Japan: Isolationism & Internationalism

Jean-Pierre Lehmann explores Japan's transition from isolation to internationalisation.

In 1970 the run-away best-seller in Japan was a book entitled The Japanese and the Jews appearing under the nom-de-plume Isaiah Benda-san. At first sight the title seems odd: the Jews are widely dispersed in the Diaspora while the 116 million Japanese are highly concentrated in their own narrow territory. There is, however, a certain similarity in the outlook shared by Jews and Japanese in regard to outsiders – the gentile and the gaijin (Japanese for foreigners) are perceived as distinct species. While there may be a similarity in nature between the views of the Jews and the Japanese the actual degree of exclusivism is perhaps greater among the Japanese. No nation, no people are as much a tribe or a tight-knit clan as the Japanese. There is also another possible parallel to be drawn between Jews and Japanese, namely that both see themselves as being highly vulnerable. In 1973, before the oil shock and at a time when everything seemed to be going in Japan's favour, two great best-sellers and concurrently box-office hits were Nihon Chinbotsu (The Submersion of Japan ) and Dai Hyogen (The Great Prophecy ), both of which portrayed, in apocalyptic terms, the end of Japan. The perception of acute vulnerability, that a major calamity is invariably in the offing – an earthquake or an economic crisis – reinforces the bonds of national solidarity and hence of Japan's position somewhat on the periphery of the rest of the world.

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