Identities, national and ethnic: uniqueness, essence, myths

The overall issue here: who are these people? who do they think they are and/or say they are, and where do they claim to come from? What essences would they claim for themselves? I've collected a ragged herd of links that touch on these subjects...

Some Origin Myth links

A weblet on the Ainu, and another on the Uighur, and one on the Utsat


Complicit exoticism: Japan and its other (Koichi Iwabuchi)


Resources and Mobilization & Learning at Mother’s Knee In White, The Japanese Educational Challenge: A Commitment to Children. New York: The Free Press, 1987. Pp 11-19, 95-109.


Although individual Japanese incline toward conformity, the nation as a whole believes itself to be utterly unique; there is no other place in any way like Japan. Hence we have a kind of "national individual­ism. " The insistence on Japan special and apart has deep historical and cultural underpinnings, beginning, as most tales of national identity do, with a creation myth. The Japanese version goes like this: Izanami and Izanagi, brother and sister deities, gave birth to the islands of Japan along with a number of other deities. Ninigi, the grandson of Amaterasu, one of these gods, descended to the islands bringing the Three Imperial Regalia, symbols of power and legitimacy. And Ninigi's descendants became the first emperors.

The story of heaven-created islands dropped into the sea, Japan's myth of origin, is like many others which contend that a people and place were set into the world by divine intervention and thus bear the qualities of godhood. Some places of myth, like Mount Olympus in Greece, were to be the abodes and playgrounds of gods and marvelous human beings. Other places, like the Judeo-Christian paradise, were to be the scene of divine creativity and the moral testing of god-­created beings. Still others, like holy places in India, were sanctified by accident, when gods in battle dropped a trident or when the bodily parts of gods who were dismembered fell to earth.

Japan was presumed to be the locus of an eternal line of divine rulers, Ninigi's offspring, a line that persists to the present. Therefore, one of the elements of the sense of Japanese uniqueness is mytho­historical continuity, which is regarded as both means and end for the society as a whole.

The uniqueness of being Japanese, the fact that one cannot become Japanese (Japan was not created by immigrant gods), is part of ongoing scrutiny in Japan --the nihonjinron, or "what it means to be Japanese," debate. In 1985 the matter was institutionalized in the form of an Institute of Japanology in Kyoto, where scholars, social commentators, and "cultural persons" (bunkajin) are able to muse on the Japanese character and its place in the modern world. Having engaged academic and media attention for over a hundred years, nihonjinron is really an attempt to define Japanese culture in the face of threatening contact from other societies—a conscious effort to "know who we are" so as not to be swallowed up by Western influences. Indeed, during the Meiji period, nihonjinron developed the urgent tone of national security issues. While a sense of Japanese uniqueness is still intrinsic to the concern, the tone today is slightly less intense, and sometimes seems only a narcissistic parlor game. Still, as Hidetoshi Kato points out, "There is the inclination to emphasize that the Japanese are ‘unique' in developing nihonjinron. "

The Japanese sense of uniqueness and superiority

The Vocabulary of Control from New internationalist

Robert Fulford's column about Japanese identity (Globe and Mail, November 5, 1997)



The acknowledged founder of the Confucian tradition was the sage-teacher K'ung Futzu (551-479 B.C.E.) whose name was latinized by Jesuit missionaries as Confucius. Born into a time of rapid social change, Confucius devoted his life to reestablishing order through rectification of the individual and the state. This involved a program embracing moral, political, and religious components. As a creative transmitter of earlier Chinese traditions, Confucius is said, according to legend, to have compiled the Five Classics, namely, the Book of History, Poetry, Changes, Rites, and the Spring and Autumn Annals.

The principal teachings of Confucius, as contained in the Analects, emphasize the practice of moral virtues especially humaneness or love (jen) and filiality (hsiao). These were exemplified by the "noble person" (chun tzu) particularly within the five relations, namely, between parent and child, ruler and minister, husband and wife, older and younger siblings, and friend and friend. Confucian thought was further developed in the writings of Mencius (372-289 B.C.E.) and Hsun tzu (298-238 B.C.E.). As a political philosophy, it was utilized during the Han period (206-220 B.C.E) especially with the thought of Tung Chung-Shu (179-104 B.C.E.) The tradition culminated in a Neo-Confucian revival in the eleventh and twelfth centuries which resulted in a new synthesis of the earlier teachings. The major Neo-Confucian thinker, Chu Hsi (I 130-1200), designated four texts as containing the central ideas of Confucian thought. Called the Four Books, they consisted of two chapters from the Book of Rites, namely, the Great Learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean, and the Analects and Mencius. He elevated these to a position of prime importance over the Five Classics mentioned earlier. These texts and Chu Hsi's commentaries on them became, in 1315, the basis of the Chinese civil examination system which endured for nearly six hundred years until 1905. Chu Hsi's synthesis or Neo-Confucianism was recorded in his classic anthology, Reflections on Things at Hand. In this work, Chu provided, for the first time, a comprehensive metaphysical basis for Confucian thought and practice. In response to the Buddhists' metaphysics of emptiness and their perceived tendency towards withdrawal from the world in meditative practices, Chu formulated a this-worldly spirituality based on a balance of religious reverence, ethical practice, scholarly investigation, and political participation.

Unlike the Buddhists who saw the attachment to the world of change as the source of suffering, Chu Hsi, and the Neo-Confucians after him, affirmed change as the source of transformation in both the cosmos and the person. Thus Confucian spiritual discipline involved cultivating one's moral nature so as to bring it into harmony with the larger pattern of change in the cosmos. Each moral virtue had its cosmological component. For example, the central virtue of humaneness was seen as that which was the source of fecundity and growth in both the individual and the cosmos. By practicing humaneness, one could effect the "transformation of things" in oneself, in society, and in the cosmos. In so doing, one's deeper identity with reality was recognized as "forming one body with all things."

To realize this identification, a rigorous spiritual practice was needed. This involved a development of poles present in earlier Confucian thought, namely, a balancing of religious reverence with an ethical integrity manifested in daily life. For Chu Hsi and later Neo-Confucians such spiritual practice was a central concern. Thus interior meditation became "abiding in reverence," or "rectifying the mind." Moral self-known as "quiet sitting," "abiding in reverence," or "rectifying the mind." Moral self-discipline was known as "making the will sincere," "controlling the desires," and "investigating principle." Through conscientious spiritual effort one could become a "noble person" who was thus able to participate in society and in politics most effectively. While in the earlier Confucian view the ruler was the prime moral leader of the society, in Neo-Confucian 10 Light this duty was extended to all people, with a particular responsibility placed on teachers and government officials. While ritual was primary in the earlier view, spiritual discipline became more significant in Neo-Confucian practice. In both, major emphasis was placed on mutual respect in basic human relations.

Neo-Confucian thought and practice spread to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam where it had a profound affect on their respective cultures. Since 1949, the government of the People's Republic of China has ostensibly repudiated the Confucian heritage. However, the Confucian tradition is currently being reexamined on the mainland, often relying on new publications of Western scholars, especially Tu Weiming, Julia Ching, and Wm. Theodore deBary. Furthermore, as Tu Weiming has noted, we may be entering a third epoch of Confucian humanism in terms of its revival in both East Asia and in the West.

From Li Chi, ca. the end of the Chou dynasty, describing the surrounding peoples. Note the Four Directions:

The people of those five regions --the Middle states, and the Jung, Yi (and other wild tribes around them)-- had all their several natures, which they could not be made to alter. The tribes on the east were called Yi. They had their hair unbound, and tattooed their bodies. Some of them ate their food without its being cooked with fire. Those on the south were called Man. They tattooed their foreheads, and had their feet turned toward each other. Some of them ate their food without its being cooked with fire. Those on the west were called Jung. They had their hair unbound, and wore skins. Some of them did not eat grain-food. Those on the north were called Ti. They wore skins of animals and birds, and dwelt in caves. Some of them did not eat grain-food. (quoted in Chang The Archaeology of Ancient China pg. 368 [DS715 .C38 1983])