The Light of the Four Seasons
—On Reading Japan’s Frontier Theory

When I think about the Japanese people, several quotes from books I have read come to mind.

In his Ecological Conception of the History of Civilizations, Tadao Umesao wrote, “Although the Japanese people feel self-esteem as well, on the other side of the coin they are always beset by a kind of cultural inferiority. This sense of inferiority controls the mindset of the Japanese people as a whole and is quite unrelated to any objective appraisal of the cultural level that they actually possess. It is like a kind of shadow. The Japanese people believe that real culture is created in other places and that home-grown culture is somehow inferior. I think that this is probably a difference between ethnic groups that were able to build their own egocentric civilizations from the start and ethnic groups that grew up on the frontiers of these major civilizations.” Umesao also commented, “Japanese culture does not have any origin or prototype somewhere. It exists only in the endless question of ‘What is Japanese culture?’”

I think it was more than three decades ago that I read Personal Relations in a Vertical Society by Chie Nakane, which gave me an understanding of the characteristics of the Japanese people. Rather than changing me in some way, that book guided me to a deeper level of contemplation. At that time there were many cases in which foreign businesspeople thought they had concluded a transaction with a Japanese company only for the boss at that company to come and toss the agreement aside. Nakane’s book apparently helped them to understand the traits of the Japanese.

For example, at a meeting where opinions are divided, while asking for everyone’s views, someone will bring everyone together by saying, “This is what the boss thinks. How do you all feel about it?” In the end, even those who were opposed dutifully go along with that opinion.

Opponents are cajoled into agreement, so if the project ends in failure, they can say that they had been opposed to it; and if the project is successful, they can wallow in the success. Such opportunism does not ruffle the harmony of the group; everyone just waits to see which way the wind blows. In the end, no one takes responsibility. No one is allowed to take responsibility. Today this trait is evident among Japan’s politicians and so on.

And now I have just finished reading Japan’s Frontier Theory by Tatsuru Uchida. As someone who was always contemplating what Japan is and who the Japanese are, I feel that I was able to understand the book. Of course, I am aware of my own shallowness in claiming to have understood. But yes, I think I did.

Uchida writes in his book, “The first time that the inhabitants of the Japanese archipelago make an appearance in world history was their recognition of the third-century Wei dynasty in China as the ruler of frontier territories.” He also states, “The political consciousness of the archipelago began as a self-awareness of themselves as a frontier people.” This political consciousness evolved and matured, and beginning with the letter from Prince Shotoku to Emperor Yang Ti in which he wrote that “The Emperor of the land where the Sun rises sends a letter to the Emperor of the land where the Sun sets,” Japan sought to realize an equal diplomacy with China. This was the origin of Japan’s subsequent diplomatic tradition of “only picking the fruit.” The Chinese emperor existed at the center of the world, and the rays of imperial influence extended far and wide. Nearby was the imperial domain; in the distance was the frontier. The frontier consisted of barbarian countries that offered tributes, in return for which they were granted official titles.

Around 1,800 years ago the Japanese emperor was granted the title of “ruler of Wa, friend of Wei.” The acceptance was a sign of agreement with China’s double standard.

Uchida writes, “The Japanese have always been swayed by the atmosphere of the occasion, cleverly making use only of frontier cunning without possessing their own cosmic view.” And, “Confronted by foreign authority, the Japanese mind shuts down. This trait has become structuralized as the Japanese mentality.”

Be that as it may, though, I like to think that the cosmic view of the Japanese is the light of the four seasons.