Vegetatin' rhythm

Here's another one from Nihon ongaku no nagare (previously on No-sword). This one is from Nihon ongaku no rizumu (日本音楽のリズム, "The rhythm of Japanese music"), by Koizumi Fumio 小泉文夫, and I offer it more as an example of applied Nihonjinron than a theory I take seriously.

Japan's year is divided into four seasons, like Europe's. In south and southeast Asia, some areas have only a rainy season and a dry season, while in others dramatic changes in humidity divide the year into six seasons, punctuated by monsoons. Compared to areas like that, Japan is rich in seasonal change without widely separated extremes in temperature, and this climate must surely be the most important foundation stone on which the Japanese way of life and artistic expression rest.

The work of farming is in preparing the soil, planting the seeds, nurturing the shoots, pulling the weeds, and finally harvesting the crop. The unity of this rhythm cannot be broken down. In music, too, there is the jo 序 or oki 置, then the richly evolving ha 破 or nakaba 中端, and finally the lively kyū 急 or kiri 切. This sense of unity has become the most natural form for expressing things.

The jargon in that paragraph refers to the famous concept of jo-ha-kyū and similar ideas in kabuki/nagauta music.

This would seem to be common to all peoples (minzoku), but such is not necessarily the case. For example, among hunting peoples and peoples built on the foundations of a hunting culture, short, repeated phrases and forms in which it is unclear when the work began or when it will end are common. Indeed, the work of hunting means leaping into action the moment that prey appears, but when prey will appear cannot be planned in advance. The day-to-day life is on a completely different rhythmic base from that of farmers, who know that a planted seed will certainly sprout but will not bear fruit until august, no matter how much of a rush the farmer may be in.

In the music of India and Europe, phrasal repetition is recognized, along with a large-scale structural sense, as a fundamental principle. In Japanese music, on the other hand, the principle of repetition is weak. To put it another way, within European and Indian culture, vegetable rhythms directed towards a beauty of structured form are blended with animal rhythms that reflect the moment-by-moment situation, but in Japanese music the vegetable rhythms seem to be prioritized.

Koizumi also seems quite convinced that traditional Iranian music has a very similar sensibility, but I don't know enough about that to comment.

Popularity factor: 31


Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres.


It doesn't seem like Nihonjinron as much as "maybe cultural trait X is caused by cultural trait Y", which is what sociologists say all the time.


Nihonjinron? He explicitly says that Europe has four seasons! I've never met an actual nihonjin who would acknowledge such.

/tongue in cheek


Avery: I guess if you consider some sort of "uniquely unique" component as an essential feature of Nihonjinron, this doesn't qualify. But the recourse to "four seasons" and "communal agriculture" (in particular) as explanations for phenomena without offering any theory linking the two other than "they both happened in Japan" -- well, it sets off my Nihonjinron alarms, even if I can recognize it as a benign, non-triumphalist variety. (And I say that as someone who is generally critical of the tendency to dismiss any and all cultural musings by Japanese people as "Nihonjinron", too.)


Er, "the two" = "the three". I think a linkage between Japan's climate and communal agriculture is pretty plausible. A connection between that cultural nexus and min'yo forms, sure, I'll buy that. But if you want me to believe that it also explains "high art" forms like Noh or jiuta, I'm going to need to see at least an outline of the specific connections.


Or, put another way, you could just as easily argue that hunting is about waiting, waiting, stealthily approaching, and then springing into action for a violent finish -- while agriculture is about small acts, endlessly repeated for gains that are so far off they cannot provide any sense of structure to the initial work. Which would give us the exact opposite conclusion about what kind of music a given culture will produce. So the argument is essentially a just-so story, and the question is what motivates it? In that glimpse behind the curtain I fancy I see the dreaded Nihonjinrom.


I maintain Japan has at least five seasons. Tsuyu and August are subjectively the same season? Really???????

(I do like Shirane's new book. And it's fairly affordable! http://www.amazon.com/Japan-Culture-Four-Seasons-Literature/dp/0231152809 )


It reeks of Nihonjinron.

Does Europe have agriculture? Apparently so, but somehow it's different because it's suffused with a hunting culture. Does Japan have anything other than the agricultural way of life? Apparently not -- if you ignore mountain dwellers and fishermen. I notice that China wasn't invoked, even though China is (in the main) a four-season agricultural society.

The Nihonjinron in this may not be triumphal, but it's the kind of myth-repetition that stifles understanding of culture. It's boring because it just uncritically recycles self-satisfied myths. 'Does your country have four seasons?' is a question asked of foreigners that only makes sense when you realise that Japanese have been brought up to believe that other people don't have them (even though English clearly has four words for the four seasons: summer, autumn, winter, spring. What could be clearer than that?

The ubiquitous 'hunting' culture vs 'agricultural' culture opposition totally ignores the vast history of crop cultivation in the West and simplistically identifies exotic Western habits as a result of their being 'hunters'. (The samurai were not exactly passive cultivators of land, at least not initially so, nor were townsmen, so what sense does it make to identify all of Japanese culture as resulting from 'agricultural rhythms'?)

It's interesting to look at differences between cultures, but not when they are based on some half-digested, illogical notions that someone way back planted in people's brains. Let's face it, the only interesting thing about Nihonjinron is why it exists.


"'Does your country have four seasons?' is a question asked of foreigners that only makes sense when you realise that Japanese have been brought up to believe that other people don't have them"

Which is... uh... true, as you don't seem to realize. I guess Japanese are just more familiar with the diversity of Asian climates than you are. They do teach climatology and biomes in grammar schools here.

Western sociology has had remarkable trends such as Marxism, Freudianism, and feminism; I don't think the common themes seen in Japanese sociological studies are any more outlandish than these. I don't believe any of them to be very accurate, but like you said, the interesting thing about sociology is that it exists.


"other people don't have [four seasons]." "Which is... uh... true, as you don't seem to realize".

So your claim is that Japan is the only country in the world to have four seasons? That is the only interpretation that can be put on that extraordinary (and very condescending) rejoinder.

When Japanese ask foreigners about the four seasons, it's not because they are highly knowledgeable about the diversity of Asian climates -- other Asian nations are not actually the first port of call when Japanese think about foreign countries, as I'm sure you must realise from your extensive experience. It's because the 'four seasons' bit is part of Nihonjinron, as shown in the excerpt that Matt cited. It's held to be a unique part of the Japanese sensibility. If the foreigner says that his/her country has four seasons, the next question is likely to be whether they are 'distinct' like they are in Japan.

I'm aware of the extremely broad scope of history (for instance) that is taught in Japanese schools, covering civilisations that are not even dreamed of in schools in the West. But that breadth of rote learning seems to largely fly out the window when it comes to understanding other countries. It's still pretty much 'Japan vs the West' -- which is admittedly an improvement over the 'Japan vs America' that it was 30 years or more ago.


It would also be helpful if you would drop that 'I know all about everything and you are ignorant' tone of voice. It seems that you are rather passionate about defending the Japanese against charges of Nihonjinron; that doesn't excuse cheap (and, as it turns out, inaccurate) shots like 'I guess Japanese are just more familiar with the diversity of Asian climates than you are'. If you can't argue your position without making personal attacks, then don't.


Regarding the "four seasons" topic, this belief of uniqueness also exists in Korea. Is there any connection between the countries' beliefs on this point?


Actually, I think it exists in China, too, to some extent.


That makes even more sense, since the Chinese have long been familiar with India and Southeast Asia. Come to think of it, it seems extremely unlikely that a Japanese person would ever ask a Korean or Chinese about the existence of seasons in their countries.

On the subject of being unfamiliar with foreign cultures and climates, the failures of the West seem much more egregious. For example: 「明治二十年代に宣教師として米国から渡日した温厚篤実の学者で、後に『東洋精神 The Spirit of the Orient』といふ書物を著したG・W・ノツクスのやうな人でさへ、松村先生に向つて『日本には good 又は bad の概念を表す言葉があるか。』と訊ねたそうである。」大川周明「安楽の門」


But is there a Sinitic origin to the Japanese fixation on the seasons? I had always thought that it was indigenous to Japan, but I have not researched the topic in depth. I just downloaded the new Shirane book linked by 無名酒 above, so maybe I can find out from it.


Some discussion of the 農耕民族 vs 狩猟民族 opposition can be found on the Internet.

The following, which date back to the mid-noughties, either question or disagree with the ubiquitous formulation: [社会] 間違っていませんか?「狩猟民族」と「農耕民族」の使用法 (http://d.hatena.ne.jp/sakunou/20051111/1131721822), 日本人は農耕民族で、欧米人は狩猟民族? (http://okwave.jp/qa/q2164925.html), 農耕民族と狩猟民族 (http://detail.chiebukuro.yahoo.co.jp/qa/question_detail/q1011236510).

One fairly consistent point is that 農耕民族 vs 狩猟民族 is mistaken since the opposition is more properly between 農耕民族 and 牧畜民族.

But there is one site (a personal site) that sets out the opposition in all its gaudy detail:

農耕民族と狩猟民族の特性について No.1 (http://www.geocities.jp/sokkousya_m/sub4-16-minnzokunotokuseiNo1.html).

I suspect there has been a evolutionary process involved, from the original formulation by 和辻哲郎, which involved 農耕民族 and 牧畜民族, to the adoption into mainstream Japanese thinking in an incorrect but superficially attractive form as a way of explaining Japanese society, and the subsequent adoption into the wider 常識 of Japan. 日本音楽のリズム was published in 1990, when much of the mythology of Nihonjinron was still accepted without question. The websites I mention above questioning the opposition suggest that the heyday of Nihonjinron is already over.

I don't think Nihonjinron and Marxism or Freudianism can be fully equated. Nihonjinron is not a full-blown theory; it is more a mishmash of popular beliefs taken from various sources designed to 'explain' Japan, especially in opposition to the West. Feminism may be closer to the mark.

As for ignorance about foreign cultures, I don't think that either Japanese or Westerners have a monopoly on that. However, the point is a bit off the mark. Nihonjinron isn't about ignorance of other cultures; it's about the 'othering' of other cultures based on half-baked or faulty assumptions, not on straight-out ignorance.



There's certainly an extent to which an "othering Nihonjinron" is there to be found, and then some. But don't you think there's more to Avery's point than an even-handedness of isms, where we attempt, for fair measure, to critique Nihonjinron while spitting some of the West's own sacred cows on the side?

At least what I think he's getting at has less to do with singling out any particular Western flavors of thought recent enough to still have remembered names, and far more to do with bringing out the absolute saturation in Western modes of being that makes our own "just-so" stories (well said, Matt) hard to even begin to notice.

I think I agree with you that Marxism is different from Nihonjinron in essence. Marxism is something like a third- or fourth-order function of Westernism. Nihonjinron is more like a debased version of national myth articulated--necessarily lamely (at best)--in the rhetoric of an alternative culture where, never at home, it almost has to trend towards the ridiculous. In a very crude analogy, I wonder if the myths of Prometheus or Eden would come off very well when, stripped of their elegant containers, their core concepts found themselves awkwardly trussed up in the neo-Confucian rhetoric of a world where the Sinosphere had spread to encompass the West instead of vice versa?

I don't think Avery was trying to defend Nihonjinron per se, though I know you weren't really accusing him of doing that. But if his sense is that far too much is made out of (discredited) Nihonjinron by Westerners far too unconscious themselves of the casual hegemony their own frames of reference enjoy, I ask you: do you not share that feeling sometimes? I know I do.


Found this on a recent Chinese blog post (http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_63af05000101npd1.html) about the manifold faults of the Chinese mentality:


Buggy translation my own:

10. Insufficient ability to see the big picture in a systematic way. After thousands of years of agricultural civilisation, a 'petty peasant mentality' has virtually seeped into the cells of all Chinese. What is a 'petty peasant mentality'? It means giving precedence to the practical, looking only at the immediate benefit, so that the whole race has insufficient breadth of vision, no matter what the field, making it hard to do great things. As Qian Xuesen says, there are naturally no great masters.

(I never realised how hard it was to translate from Chinese! I hope the hurried translation above conveys the right tone.)

My point is that 'agricultural civilisation' can be pressed into service as an explanation for virtually ANYTHING.


Regarding azuma's question. My own attitude is that:

1) If you want to criticise or critique a foreign culture, you need to have a fairly good (and pretty cynical) understanding of your own culture. Coming on with a 'holier-than-thou' attitude on the basis of ignorance is not acceptable.

2) That said, the 'pot calling the kettle black' defence ('look who's talking, you're even worse') and similar defences aren't terribly compelling, either. In fact, they come uncomfortably close to denialism.

Matt asked whether the passage presented suffered from Nihonjinron-type thinking. My response was that it suffered badly from it. The fact that Western thought has come up with (depending on your point of view) ghastly systems of thought like Marxism, Freudianism, or feminism doesn't absolve that passage of charges of Nihonjinron. The main problem with Nihonjinron is that it is sloppy and ultimately boring because it offers nothing but glib, unfounded assertions in place of actual analysis and insight. I'm not sure why we should have to put up with that kind of nonsense out of fear of being accused of 'cultural hegemony'.

From what I can see, Avery was sticking up for the Japanese as a kind of reflex action. The moment criticism of the Japanese appeared, his response was to accuse Westerners of being worse. I don't deny that Westerners are mostly pretty ignorant of Asian culture and climates (although that charge is possibly more frequently laid against Americans than others), but that does not contradict or invalidate criticism of Nihonjinron-type scholarship and thinking.


Hmm. Perhaps the "unconscious hegemony" was a phrasing ill-chosen. I meant it in the (I hope) more literal sense of being invisibly preeminent, and thus unconsidered. I suppose, though, that you can't win against a mountain of sloppy, crusading doctoral theses about imperialism that have already reserved the word. In any case, if I came off as advocating some form of political correctness, where we reflexively shy away from criticism of the non-West, nothing could be further from my intent.

In a way, you hit at what I was getting it with your first requirement, though I don't think self-understanding has to be cynical, just honest. I would argue that a lot of the energy behind Nihonjinron critiques comes from exactly the sort of "holier-than-thou" attitude you dislike, and tends to be far more reflexive than considered. Let no one defend Nihonjinron, to be sure--but I persist in thinking that the bigger problem is less a crackpot minority in Japan than a fairly self-confident majority elsewhere with not too much interest in exploring the fundamentals of Japanese culture or their own.

To be concrete: some innocent Japanese taxi driver, friend, colleague at work, acquaintance made at a hotel, etc. asks the (well-informed, Japanese speaking) Westerner whether their own home country has four seasons like Japan. Blood boils, and a lecture is either given or somehow held back, fueled no doubt by the accumulation of all those moments when he or she was complimented on chopstick-usage, lauded for elementary Japanese skills, etc. This exasperation is easy to understand, and who hasn't felt it at some point. And those who have experienced life in Korea or China or Taiwan as well are bound to have extra reasons to find the phenomenon more than merely annoying, true enough.

Let the lecture be given if it must--probably most people reading Matt's site have given it at least once or twice. But in the end, we live in a world where this sort of stuff is marginalized and impotent, and where yet even the humblest Western newspaper feels not the slightest hesitation of hubris or self-doubt before running an editorial about how China, or Japan, or wherever, should "change/modernize" their "culture" as if that were as easy as cutting their queues or topknots a century ago. I don't think it's a matter of "the pot calling the kettle black": there's not even enough of a two-way argument going on here for that.



(Sorry for the random accumulation of white space at the end there--it has no meaning, just an editing artifact)


On the level of everyday life, what you say is true. Cultural attitudes are subtle and pervasive. The Westerner secure in his/her belief that he comes from an objectively superior culture (although there is the rarer variant willing to accept all aspects of other cultures as 'good' in a New-Agey sort of way). The Japanese steeped in ideas of 'Japanese uniqueness'. I won't even try to characterise the Chinese world-view. We can only come from where we are coming from and hope that we can arrive at a broader, more tolerant view over time. Both vehement anti-Nihonjinronism and Avery's instinctive desire to stick up for the Japanese come from similar roots, in that both tend to be reflexive, not considered attitudes.

When you start digging down to find what lies at the bottom of 'popular' attitudes in any culture, you often encounter specific historical roots. Japanese ideas about their own culture aren't necessarily what people have come up with by themselves; they are frequently a result of past campaigns to educate or indoctrinate (e.g., Meiji era efforts to mould the people to be loyal subjects, etc. etc. etc.), pre-war nationalist education, post-war efforts to build a peaceful, consensus-loving society, etc. etc. etc. Too much to cover in one paragraph.

As for lecturing other countries in the public sphere, that is a rather different domain. The Western press certainly has plenty to answer for. The Chinese press is known for arguing back against the Americans (e.g., on human rights), but the Chinese press is a totally different creature. The Japanese press is different again. I'm not sure whether there is room enough here to even start discussing this.


In the case that Matt brought up, though, I think criticism of being overly influenced by Nihonjinron is valid. We are not talking taxi-drivers here; we're talking about a book that presents itself as a serious intellectual effort. That kind of nonsense deserves to be decried.


It is too much to discuss here, though I very much appreciate the considered answer.

In this case, my original feeling was exactly what Matt wrote somewhere in the comments above: you could easily turn Koizumi's argument around with just a tweak in the metaphor. I think a more grounded argument for the way he groks the human rhythms of Japanese agriculture does have some shot at being made. Thomas Smith, at least, made not entirely dissimilar arguments in his excellent "The Agrarian Origins of Modern Japan." But any tight link attempted between agriculture and something as undoubtedly historically multi-conditioned as jo-ha-kyu is probably headed for spectacular failure. Not sure if we want to call it Nihonjinron precisely, but there's no arguing that it draws water from the same well.

In parting, however, I would challenge this: "Though Japanese ideas about their own culture aren't necessarily what people have come up with by themselves; they are frequently a result of past campaigns to educate or indoctrinate..." I would guess you probably mean this in the strict sense: i.e., that the particular shapes and rhetorical vocabulary of, say, Nihonjinron, etc., are more determined by recent formulations than is recognized. I'm sure you're right. But there are people who believe that indoctrination can actually *sufficiently* account for things like Nihonjinron (presumably making reeducation a possibility). Clearly this is backwards: things like Nihonjinron succeed because they draw upon very deep cultural contours, upon basic characteristic features that compel more respect than the third-order nonsense that can be derived from them. (And perhaps this is where Avery was coming from.)

Either way, if decrying such nonsense really would result in considered exploration of those deeper pathways, I would decry until my throat got sore. My current feeling is that it doesn't. This is at least where I'm coming from. I may be wrong.


Thank you for calling that a 'considered response'. In fact it was a hurried response; there never seems to be enough time in the day to devote to writing careful and well-considered responses.

"Clearly this is backwards: things like Nihonjinron succeed because they draw upon very deep cultural contours, upon basic characteristic features that compel more respect than the third-order nonsense that can be derived from them."

Yes, of course. Perhaps it came from the need to compete with the aggressive Western imperial powers by imitating them even while feeling overawed by them (indeed feeling inferior to them). A defence mechanism to protect national pride (we may not be as powerful as you but we have our own heritage that is ours alone)? Perhaps something else again. I don't think this underlying 'cultural need', whatever it may be, invalidates an analysis of the processes by which Nihonjinron concepts came about.


Some Nihonjinron motifs go back to the 国学者, such as 本居宣長, who, in the face of the overwhelming weight of the Chinese literate tradition, decided that what distinguished the Japanese was their Japanese 'spirit' rather than anything overtly intellectual (Norinaga was the one who came up with 'mononoaware', if I remember rightly).

I'm not sure how meaningful it is to regard the attempt to distinguish Japan from other cultures as a 'deep cultural need' rather than a continuing 'meme' from the time of the Kokugakusha. The two are intertwined. I personally prefer a historical rather than a psychoanalytical approach.


Norinaga is more complicated than is commonly assumed--guy was a devout Buddhist in his way and actually warned against trying to artificially revive ancient Shinto rituals--I still don't understand him well at all. But he most definitely was not the inventor of mono no aware--though I understand why, in hindsight, he stands out as having put the term to new work.

But more than that. "Meme" is exactly the way I wouldn't choose to look at it--too materialist, too suspicious that a lot of the fuss of history is pulpy ephemera bound to settle out of sight as more (scientific?) forces come into view in the long run. I see the felt need to articulate the uniqueness of Japanese culture as a reflection of an actual difference there to be articulated, no less and no more. All the problems come with the Nihonjinron-like leap some make beyond that to seeing Japanese culture as not only unique, but unique in a way that reflects some kind of superiority, which is of course utter nonsense.

I definitely prefer a historical approach, though I doubt any of us really avoids tacit practice of what you might call psychoanalysis. I accept it as a given that different cultures are equally unique, but I also recognize that by luck and accident of history not all have gotten equal chances at communicating themselves to future generations. I also regret that our current age often decides to reprocess what were before recognized to be real cultural differences as instead local noise artifacts, presumably eventually tamable within the error margin of a better empiricism yet to be discovered. I regret this not only because I think it's wrong, but because it's too easily the open backdoor for a debased form of Westernism that doesn't even have the distinction of knowing itself.

Objectively, Japan is no more unique than ancient half-known Elam (sorry, Nihonjinron). Documentarily, however, Japan may be an intriguing outlier. I'm not sure we have anything else resembling Japan's documentary profile at all (living or dead). It's hardly the distinction Nihonjinron scholars are after, of course. But for people who believe in getting at humanity by discovering it through study of its existing record in confusing, fragmentary, and contradictory historical fact, Japan is fascinatingly different.

How does this fit into real life? I think historically it's hard to dispute that Japan is quite different (though endlessly also entangled with) the civilizations against which it has had to define itself (China, the West). In this sense difference is not a pet theory of crackpots but pure experience. Throw in the additional experience of feeling different but also isolated, and it's easy to understand why Nihonjinron finds easy converts. A dogma that tries to turn that difference recognized through bitter experience into a badge of pride and a mark of superiority is going to appeal to some, sadly.

My instinct is not to see a meme in need of calling out (though such memes exist)--but a historical fact which history needs to reclaim back from such self-flattering fancy for the education of us all. The same needs to be done everywhere, of course. If only everywhere was as well-documented...


I do declare, you are using my meagre one-liners as a sounding board for your deeper reflections!

Yes, I simplified dreadfully by singling out Norinaga like that. He was a starting point for Kokugaku and it was actually some of the later people who got reckless, sometimes outrageously so. I also admit to using the word 'meme' despite knowing the dangers - it's just useful shorthand.

Frankly, I don't know how 'unique' Japan really is (a simple statement). An outlier that is different because it is insulated geographically and socially from its main cultural sources, that is probably a fairly unique situation. I concede that the experiential feeling of 'differentness' is there. But to be honest, China doesn't feel like either Japan or the West, or anyplace else, for that matter. Is it not 'different', too? I'm afraid I can do nothing more than leave that question hanging.


It's amazing how much one feels like commenting when there's work doing that one doesn't want to do:)

Either way, agreed that China is quite different as well. Difference probably feels, for lack of a better word, different to the Middle Kingdom than to the Land of Randomly-cast Millet Grains On the Horizon (=Japan), but you're absolutely right--everything I've said about Japan vis-a-vis the West applies to China as well.

And what it must have felt like to be China! Until quite recently, able to say without much self-doubt, "So, what's up with that barbarism? Haven't you gotten around to learning the 3000-Character Classic yet?" Even the Greeks had to concede the vaster antiquity of their neighbors in Egypt and the Near East.


Or rather, um, the 1000-character classic. *sigh*


I can't search for sources right now, but I recall proposals that much of Japan's sazonal culture derives from Heian sinophilia and Chinese poetry, particularly from Bai Juyi (Po Chü-i, Hakukyō). I know that at least the set of seasonal symbols we use in the tea ceremony, snow-moon-flowers (<i>setsugekka</i>), also important in poetry and painting, is believed to have this origin.

Speaking of music, every time the Japanese talk of the importance of seasons in their art I think of this.

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