Japanese Society

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Japanese Society

Nation building


Homogeneity and isolation


Principles of Japanese social structure

Conclusion—tradition and modernity


Japan is the most important, if not the only, example of a non-Western country that has unmistakably entered the category of “modern industrial society.” This development has taken place under cultural and historical conditions completely different from those of the “Judeo–Christian” West; thus, for the comparative social scientist, understanding Japan’s development poses fundamental and far-reaching questions and explains at least a part of the country’s continuing fascination. Are the characteristics of industrial society essentially “culture-bound,” so that their extension to non-Western areas is to be explained primarily in terms of “diffusion” or “acculturation”? Or do they result from the “imperatives” of industrial society at various levels of integration, so that they must be seen primarily as points on developmental continua, such as universalism–particularism, diffuseness–specificity, ascription–achievement, and so forth? A related problem that arises is whether “modern industrial society” will eventually become a single societal type, in which national differences are reduced to little more than folkloric marginalia, or whether the terms “American,” “French,” or “Japanese” will have distinctive meaning even though each be attached to the phrase “industrial society.”

However these questions are to be ultimately phrased as research topics, Japan will continue to remain important as a test case of what is distinctive and what is nondistinctive, what is critical and what is noncritical in the process of “development” and “modernization.” What is the structure of “readiness” for modern development? What factors facilitate or impede development? Are they cultural—favorable or unfavorable cultural elements, such as individualism, achievement-orientation, secularization, capacity for cooperative action, entrepreneurial outlook, etc.; or are they structural— by-products of the particular form, stage, and degree of integration of the given social structure? Japan, setting out after the Meiji restoration in 1868 on a path leading toward modernization, turned out to be quick, sure-footed, and steady where so many other countries have wobbled. Historians, social scientists, and economists have naturally attempted to understand where the difference lies. This concern has by now generated a considerable literature, particularly on the comparison between Japan and China, which has helped to clarify many of the critical factors involved in modern development.

Nation building

For the student of comparative modern development one of the most important conclusions that emerges from these many studies is the significance of national unity as a precondition for success. With respect to this criterion, Japan’s preparatory “nation building,” a problem that continues to trouble most of the developing nations, was already substantially achieved by 1868. In contrast to other newly emergent states, Japan was a compact and contiguous geographical area, with oceanic borders clearly defined and virtually unchallenged. There were, to be sure, marginal problems with the Russians in the north and with the Chinese over the Ryūkyū Islands, but these never challenged the territorial core, and later they proved to be quite tractable.


Within the core geographical area of Japan there were no ethnic, linguistic, religious, or cultural divisions having an organizational or territorial base. Fifteen hundred years before 1868 the islands of Japan had been inhabited by tribes, groups, and clans of diverse ethnic origins. We know from archeological findings, legends, and documentary records that the alliance of Yamato tribes established hegemony by defeating people of Korean descent, Ainus, and other nonrelated indigenous groups, some of southern provenience and others apparently more closely related to the Tungusic tribes of the borderlands of eastern Siberia, Manchuria, and Korea. By the ninth century, Chinese and Korean immigrants had been completely absorbed and the other groups either wiped out or absorbed; only a few tens of thousands of Ainus remained, primarily on the otherwise virtually uninhabited northern island of Hokkaido, as a reminder of the ancient ethnic divisions. Japan, by the nineteenth century a nation of about thirty million people, had been ethnically united for a thousand years.


Japanese has its dialects, as do all languages spread widely over a geographical area. Broadly, they can be divided into eastern and western divisions, following a line running through the Chūbu region, which lies between the Kantō region (Tokyo and surrounding area) and the Kinki region (Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka). This east–west dialect division has a long history and appears to correspond with other social and cultural differences independently suggested by archeology, history, and ethnology. Whether this corresponds to some deeper division, perhaps based on greater mainland Asiatic influence in the east and greater southern influence in the west, is an important issue in Japanese prehistory and ethnology. The broad divisions can then be subdivided, depending on the perspective and problem in hand, into at least 12 major dialect groupings, which are at their margins sometimes mutually incomprehensible. The farthest southern dialect, Satsuma, still spoken today in Kagoshima prefecture, is virtually incomprehensible to most other dialect speakers and appears to be closer to Ryūkyūan than to Japanese. But the centrifugal force of these dialect differences, although abetted by a topography highly unfavorable for communication, was strongly counteracted by the early development of a unified national language of literature, religion, and administration. In 1868 the choice of a modified Tokyo dialect for a national language presented no insuperable problems and left no alienated linguistic communities to assert claims for autonomy against an oppressive majority.


Culturally, in spite of variations in detail sufficient to provide happy labors for generations of folklorists, ethnologists, and rural sociologists, Japan was remarkably homogeneous from one end of the islands to the other. The Japanese were aware of themselves as a unified people; some observers would contend that even today cultural homogeneity is a distinctive “characteristic” of Japan. “Despite obvious individual differences,” runs one typical statement of this kind, “every Japanese has resembled every other Japanese much more closely than Americans or European individuals have resembled their compatriots. Although the stress on democracy after World War II fostered individual differences, Japan’s population continues to be less diversified than Occidental populations.” Whether this is so or not remains one of the important questions on the agenda of social science research; nevertheless, insofar as it refers to the problem of the relations between cultural unity and modern development the general proposition remains acceptable.


Although in 1868 Japan had many different religions within her borders—including the indigenous Shinto and its many variants, Buddhism in a wide variety of differing, and sometimes even hostile, sects, Confucianism in both secular and religious dress, and even a small number of Christians—these did not provide the bases for enduring group identifications that precluded a larger, national identification. On the contrary, rather than being exclusive, each religion was considered to have its own area of appropriateness. Except for fanatics or religious professionals, these religions demanded no exclusive commitment. From the standpoint of the ordinary villager, who went to his local community Shinto shrine as well as to a Buddhist temple, religious life was a smooth, seamless whole. One was named at the Shinto shrine, buried in the Buddhist temple, and indoctrinated in Confucian moral precepts.


The Yamato state

Although all of the elements classically associated with disunity were present in ample measure, Japan transcended them, and, by 1868, perhaps to a greater degree than most other countries of the world. Japanese history can be read from one point of view as a steady expansion of centralized control. Each attempt at unity was immediately followed by a prolonged period of breakdown, decentralization, and gradual reconstitution of a new and more effective base of centralized power. By the fourth century or thereabouts, some of the Yamato tribes (or clans), later designated “imperial,” succeeded with their allies in establishing a tentative sovereignty over the main inhabited parts of the country. This sovereignty was, however, so strongly inhibited by powerful territorial, tribal, and clan chieftains that the imperial clan could only be considered primus inter pares rather than the unchallengeable ruler of the nation.

The Taika reforms

In the seventh century, another effort was made to strengthen central control, this time looking to flourishing China of the T’ang dynasty for inspiration. The Taika reforms of 645 and the subsequent elaborations in the Taihō Code of 701 and the Yōrō Code of 718 attempted to establish the Ta’ng principle that all the land belonged to the emperor and was held only on grant from him. In order to reduce the independent power of tribal or territorial chieftains and landed magnates, a centralized bureaucracy was created from which authority was considered to emanate. The system of centralized court bureaucracy, the appointment by the political center of provincial and local governors, the development of a national tax system, and the improvement of communications drew extensively from the Chinese models. The Yamato state was accordingly transformed from a loose tribal coalition with a poorly defined center of sovereignty into what was, in principle at least, a centralized nation-state under a king (emperor) and a court bureaucracy. Its stability and authority were increased by the establishment of a fixed capital (until then the capital had moved from one temporary site to another upon the death of each emperor)—first in the city of Nara (in 710) and then at the end of the eighth century in the city of Kyoto. With this began the long era of cultural expansion known as the Heian period (794–1185).

The Heian period

In spite of the bold centralizing moves, however, the forces of decentralization were never entirely reduced. Gradually throughout the Heian period, and with gathering force after the eleventh century, powerful provincial military houses in control of lands, arms, and men built up their own structures of political alliance, land tenure, and local administration. By the end of the twelfth century, under the leadership of Minamoto Yoritomo, they were able to displace the central court in effective power over the country. The central court and the military estate remained in a situation of uneasy and shifting “dual power” until the fourteenth century, when there was another breakdown of the central power, an attempt at imperial “restoration,” followed by a new centralized military power, the Ashikaga shogunate (1336–1573). This new centralized power once again broke down under the pressure of dissident local forces, and Japan was to go through another century of civil war, sometimes quiescent, sometimes in violent eruption, before new centralizing forces appeared. From the latter part of the sixteenth century, three great centralizers appeared in succession—first Oda Nobunaga, then Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and finally Tokugawa leyasu.

The Tokugawa regime

leyasu’s military victory in 1600 at Sekigahara marked the beginning of the final premodern phase of centralization. This phase was far more effective and thorough-going than the earlier attempts, and it lasted, in effect, until 1868, when it was overthrown by the modernizing coalition gathered under the banner of “dimperial restoration.” Although the Tokugawa unification was the most effective in Japanese history up to that point, it was still far from complete; the shogunal government permitted substantial powers over almost three-fourths of the country to remain in the hands of powerful territorial barons, the daimyō. They held their positions, to be sure, only as vassals of the shogun; and the shogun maintained extensive controls over them, through the system of hostages arid compulsory residence in the court city, called the sankin-kōtai, through spying, through the sequestration of strategic areas for his own direct domains (chokkatsuchi), and through the careful placement of personal vassals and family members to control movements by potential enemy lords. Nevertheless, the shogun was, in effect, ruling 100 per cent of the country with only 25 per cent of its tax revenues, land, and manpower. The restoration regime under the Meiji emperor in 1868 swiftly completed the centralization process, replacing the semiautonomous feudal domains with a modern system of prefectures governed by appointed officers.

Homogeneity and isolation

Many factors had to combine in just the right sequence to bring about political homogeneity. However, in retrospect, it is clear that Japan’s insular position perhaps played the most important role. Like England, Japan stood in a marginal position in relation to the great Eurasiatic land mass. But England lies only 20 miles off the nearest point of the European continent, while Japan lies 110 miles away from the nearest point in Korea and several hundreds of miles of dangerous waters away from the main centers of Chinese civilization. The greater distance, under conditions of primitive navigation, made Japan’s isolation disproportionately great, perhaps greater than that of any other large nation in the world.

Military invasion

Isolation has had, and perhaps continues to have, widely ramifying effects on Japan’s development. It did not cut Japan off from all contact with the outside, but it assured that this contact would take place at a relatively slow rate which offered the chance for slow assimilation. Japan was never overwhelmed by massive immigration, military conquest, or alien rule. We have ample evidence of constant traffic, of individuals and small groups, throughout the early centuries of Japan’s history—from Korea and China as well as the southerly islands and the southern portions of the Asiatic mainland. Some were accorded high prestige and incorporated within the highest aristocracy (approximately one-third of the aristocratic clans in the early eighth century were estimated to be of Chinese or Korean origin); others were put to work at their crafts or professions, particularly if they were skilled workers, artists, or literate men; others were enslaved or placed in menial occupations. Still others managed to maintain their own communal lives in distant provinces, until the expansion of Japanese state power finally reached them.

We need accept no far-reaching theory of geographical determination, such as has been put forth by some Western and Japanese scholars, to acknowledge that geographical position was important in Japan’s development. The most obvious effect of Japan’s insular location was protection against being overwhelmed, either by cultural influences, large-scale immigration, or military power. Insularity alone did not guarantee this. Had they wished, the Chinese could have mounted a large enough invasion force to establish some direct political power in the islands. But fortunately for Japan, China has always been a continental power, oriented toward overland expansion. Except for a brief and uncharacteristic episode during the Ming period, from 1368 to 1644, China has never had serious maritime inclinations. The nineteenth-century Western powers could also have invaded Japan. But they did not, and it was perhaps Japan’s remoteness and lack of attractive resources that made the venture not worthwhile. The only serious invasion attempts, under the direction of Kublai Khan, ended in disaster for the Mongol invaders when a storm in 1274 and a typhoon in 1281 (the kamikaze, or “divine wind”) scattered their fleets. Japan was not entirely uninfluenced by the Mongol invasions, but apart from the direct impact on weapons technology and battle tactics most of the effects were indirect, such as pressure on the political structure, strains on feudal ties and obligations, growing awareness of a dangerous outside world, improvement of internal communications and transport facilities, and a temporary drain on food supplies followed rapidly by substantial agricultural improvement. Japan, for its part, had maintained a military garrison on the southern tip of the Korean peninsula until the seventh century. Nine hundred years later, in 1592 and 1597, Japan invaded Korea, leaving behind a legacy of destruction and hatred that is not entirely dissipated even today.

Patterns of culture contact—China

This relative isolation meant that Japan was able to absorb outside influences at its own pace. The country had time to experiment; to reject, to adopt, or to modify foreign ideas and objects in accordance with its own understanding and needs.

The confrontation of Japan with China from the sixth century through the ninth century was not imposed by China; it was self-imposed by a Japan seeking for models to strengthen and improve itself. The Japanese desperately sought out the “Chinese learning,” importing the treasured bits in large and small packages, often not understanding their contents. The process must be understood as a prolonged searching out and assimilation that went on for centuries, not as a single titanic event.

Buddhism, for example, was first formally introduced from Korea into Japan in 552, when the king of the Korean state of Paekche, in the hopes of securing Japanese support against the enemy Korean states of Silla and Koguryo, sent a goodwill mission to the emperor of Japan. The mission brought with it a statue of the Buddha, several manuscripts of sutras, and some Buddhist paraphernalia, along with the Paekche king’s commendation that the religion was the best in the world and eminently suited to the needs of the state—even though he himself did not fully understand it. In 554 men learned in Chinese studies— such as divination, calendar making, Confucianism, medicine, and music—and several Buddhist monks came from Paekche. But it was not until the twelfth or thirteenth century that Buddhism can be said to have become fully assimilated as a popular religion in Japan. Buddhism started as the religion of one of the contending court factions; it was then used by the centralizing Taika reformers against their enemies. For several centuries it remained essentially a religion of the court, the aristocracy, and learned men; and only after the eleventh century did it begin to undergo a full “Japanization” that brought it in understandable form to the common people. During most of that period only specialists and highly learned men who could read and write Chinese could understand even the language of Buddhism. The package was taken in whole, and then only gradually was it picked over, translated into understandable language, and finally assimilated. In the course of this process it underwent many changes, so that Japanese Buddhism differs not only from the south Asian forms but also from the Chinese and Korean forms.[ SeeBuddhism].

Patterns of response

Isolation and the absence of land contact with China made it necessary to develop modes of learning at a distance. In addition to going on official missions to China, Japanese scholars and clerics continued to visit China unofficially, and both Chinese and Korean specialists came to Japan on their own or were invited by high authorities and Buddhist temples. Nevertheless, most of the learning took place not through face-to-face contacts but through books, pictures, and artifacts. Material culture was the easiest to absorb; artists, artisans, and architects worked directly from models and designs, reproducing forms and acquiring techniques. On the other hand,“literary” learning required knowledge of Chinese and then textual interpretation.

This process allowed Japan to accommodate foreign culture to its own style. Foreign models could be accepted, but they did not have to be slavishly followed. The fate of the Chinese political principles and codes adopted in the Taika reforms of 645 remains an instructive case study of culture contact and acculturation. The Japanese took over the principle that “all land belongs to the emperor,” but they accommodated it to the reality of private control of land; they took over the forms of China’s imperial bureaucracy, but adjusted them to the spirit of hereditary aristocracy; they greeted with enthusiasm the Chinese concept of a national conscript army, but allowed private hereditary warriors to take over military functions; they adopted the Chinese concept of promotion through examinations, even creating a university in the eighth century, but they limited entrance to the hereditary aristocratic classes. Sansom writes:

The development of political forms throughout the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries may be regarded, from one point of view, as a gradual departure from Chinese models, and the political history of that long period may be summarized by saying that practically all the leading features of the system of government borrowed from China gradually became obsolete, to be displaced by new methods designed to meet new conditions, and at length survived only as empty forms in a feudal society which differed in all its fundamental characteristics from the unworkable scheme of centralized monarchy. (1958–1963, vol. 1, p. 132)

A similar process can be detected for every cultural import from China: first, there is uncritical acceptance; then differentiation and reinterpretation; later, rejection or modification; and finally, the development of genuine novelty. New art styles brought over by students, artists, or priests from China—or perhaps by Chinese traders in Japanese markets—were immediately copied in Japan, only to be transformed in a short period of time into something that would no longer be recognized by the Chinese originators.

The long experience of isolation may have contributed to that special “national self-consciousness and a sense of inferiority” (Reischauer 1950, p. 109 in the 1957 edition) that most foreign observers feel is characteristic of Japan both as a nation and as a people. Living for more than a millennium in awareness of the great power of China, and later of the West, the Japanese appear to have an inordinate preoccupation with their relative standing on some implicit scale of values. This results in sharply alternating periods of excessive humility and willingness to borrow, on the one hand, and arrogance and total rejection of “foreign” influences, on the other. Although much of this may be due to Japan’s modern experience of trying to catch up with the industrialized West, there is strong evidence that these tendencies have a long history and that they have deeper and more tenacious roots than can be explained by the past one hundred years alone. This “widespread self-consciousness,” as one author describes it, “seems to make all Japanese acutely aware of just what their status is in relation to those with whom they come into regular contact” (Beasley 1963, p. 310). A full explanation, therefore, would have to take into consideration not only the effects of historical experience but also the inner dynamics of these frustration–aggression and superiority–inferiority cycles in individual and social life.

But however we estimate the causes, it is clear that “nationalist” ideas have a long history in Japan. The isolation, the feeling of separateness, the process of diffusion filtered through books rather than coming through direct contact, may have contributed to making the Japanese, from one point of view, different from any other people in the world.

Analysis of Japan’s experience raises, as we have suggested, far-reaching problems for theories of culture contact in general and of modernization in particular. Does the acceptance of certain cultural “items” (or total “culture complexes”)—particularly if they come from a “superior” culture—necessarily entail the acceptance of the entire supportive structure of ideas, philosophy, and social organization that go along with them? Is it the case that one cannot accept the one without eventually accepting the rest? We have seen this not to be the case in Japan’s borrowings from China. From the seventh century through the ninth century a preliterate, tribal Japan borrowed wholesale from the brilliant civilization of continental China; through this experience it emerged as a completely new nation, not as a mere provincial version of China. The borrowing was selective and critical. The new Japan of the Heian period accommodated Chinese features to traditional institutions and dispositions. Sansom writes: “The power and prestige of a foreign culture seem as if they would overwhelm and transform Japan, but always there is a hard, non-absorbent core of individual character, which resists and in its turn works upon the invading influence” ([1931] 1962, p. 15).


To evaluate this proposition about Japanese culture contact, careful attention must be paid to continuities, as well as discontinuities, in Japan’s development. What, then, are some of these “measurable continuities,” to use John W. Hall’s term (Hall & Beardsley 1965, p. 151), that are of significance for the social scientist concerned with the problems of culture contact and modernization?

“Continuity” does not imply that no changes at all have taken place in the institutions or values concerned. There have, quite obviously, been enormous changes. Nor are we concerned with cultural “survivals”—the fossil leftovers of an earlier age. The seeker for survivals in this sense will find Japan a happy hunting ground. He will find specimens wherever he turns: forms of ritual and prayer retained virtually intact from prehistoric times; forms of dress, food, architecture, poetic technique, and language; court and religious music and dance; practices of the imperial court and ancient Shinto shrines; better examples of T’ang period architecture than remain in China; better examples of Silla period art and architecture than can be found in Korea; surviving shamanistic practices and concepts; ideas of animal possession; customs and techniques associated with rice agriculture that have come down to the present virtually unchanged; and even items of material culture that remain much as they were fifteen hundred years ago. What we are concerned with is whether there are enduring dispositions in forms of organization and cultural values that persist in spite of the pro-found changes brought about by culture contact and modernization. Scholars profess to find these broad continuities in the remarkable durability of the emperor system, in the techniques of behind-the-scenes rule, and in the long tradition of religious tolerance; art historians find them in the plastic arts and in aesthetic conceptions. Here, however, we shall confine our attention primarily to continuities in a few selected aspects of Japanese social structure.

The family

One of the most important of these continuities is the apparently peculiar combination of “familistic” and “feudal” elements in the structure of authority. We know from history that the Japanese familial form was present before Japan became a feudal state and continued after it ceased to be. The ideal Japanese family has always been hierarchical, and internal family relations have provided a model for authority relations in non-kinship groupings. The terms oya (parent) and ko (child), for example, have been extended in meaning to indicate superiors and inferiors: lord and vassal, boss and henchman, employer and employee, leader and follower.

The traditional Japanese family was ideally organized with the father at the top (in the past he might also have been the head of the ancestral cult), then the heir-presumptive (usually the eldest son), next the remaining males in order of age, and finally the females in order of descending age. This ideal was realized in actuality more frequently by the elite classes than the common people; statistically, it is likely that more Japanese families have been nonhierarchical and even relatively egalitarian than the contrary. Nevertheless, the elite style represented the ideal that was approached when circumstances made it possible or desirable.

The extended family

The Japanese extended family differs somewhat from the extended family systems of neighboring Korea and China; there are no true clans, and membership is not totally defined on a genealogical basis. The Japanese extended family is highly selective, including or excluding individuals and families on the basis of convenience; it is rarely extended in time or size beyond the point where cooperative relations can be usefully carried on; and it can accommodate nonrelatives as if they were “members of the family.” Structurally, the Japanese extended family (dōzoku) consists of a central stem, the “main house” (honke), and its satellite “branch houses” (bunke). But the main and branch houses are not equals that come together for their mutual benefit: the branch houses are dependent and subordinate. In return for the main house’s “benevolence,” the branch owes continuing loyalty, obedience, deference, and service. Hierarchical position within the dōzoku is based upon the order of branching and the degree of genealogical distance from the main house. The older branches outrank the newer; branches formed by second sons outrank those of third sons. The dōzoku (which might even include “grandchild” branches, subbranches fissioned off from earlier branches, and branches established by various degrees of nonrelatives) forms a unit with an identity of its own persisting over time, sharing the pietas of the ancestral deity and even certain elements of common family property.


A distinctive feature of the Japanese family system was its extraordinary capacity to absorb nonkin. The institution of adoption of nonkin into the individual household was one means of accomplishing this. In the absence of a suitable heir a son might be adopted to assure the continuity and prosperity of the family line. But the adopted son, it is important to note, did not have to be a relative. The most usual case was the “adopted husband” (yōshi): a family with no male heirs might “take in” a prospective husband for a daughter; this boy thereupon became the son of the family, took its name as his own, and acquired all the rights and responsibilities that would normally pertain to a real eldest son.

However, the technique of adoption could be used in many other ways as well. A son might be taken into the family, even if not as an heir, to provide additional manpower, whether for a farmer’s or a warrior’s family; a young man from a highborn but poor family to add luster to his new family; a young man of a well-to-do but low-status family to bring financial support; a promising young man of low birth to be given patronage and protection. Adoption was, and remains to a surprising extent today, an important mode of social mobility; this was even more true during the Tokugawa period, when theoretically no movement across class boundaries was permitted. Historically—to take another example—domestic slavery disappeared in Japan not through formal acts of emancipation but through absorption into the family system by way of adoption. Less admirably, adoption was sometimes used for acquiring servants or other dependent menials. Even after World War Ii many girls were sold into prostitution under the guise of being adopted as daughters.

The house

The dōzoku too might contain not only genealogically related branches but also branches originally formed by nonrelatives aggregated to the larger grouping by ties of fictive kinship. This technique of branching and aggregation of both kin and nonkin into hierarchical units appears to have been characteristic of Japan from the very earliest period for which we have records. The uji (inaccurately translated as “clan”) of the sixth and seventh centuries had as its core a main house and its satellite branch households consisting of patrilineally related persons, along with a much larger number of guilds (be) and corporations (tomo) composed of nonrelatives. The latter groups were attached to the uji in order to perform services, including labor. Allied families of similar composition were often aggregated to the core so that an uji became in effect a large federation of genealogically related main-and-branch families and dependent workers organized into units of various kinds. The head of the main family of the uji was the leader of the entire ensemble—the patriarch, custodian of the ancestral shrines, commander of the military forces, owner (or at least custodian) of the uji property, representative of the group to government and other uji, and political boss. His tutelary deity (ujigami) was worshiped as the common deity of the entire group, even though the component units might have their own deities. Thus a hierarchy of tutelary ancestral deities developed, ranging from the great deity (sō-ujigami) of the main house through the varying degrees of lesser deities (shō-ujigami) of the branch houses; this hierarchy corresponded to the main–branch hierarchy.

The militarily and politically powerful families, or “houses” of a later period, such as the Minamoto (or Genji), the Taira (or Heike), and the Fujiwara, were essentially aggregations of the same type. They should not be thought of as huge extended families that somehow managed to produce curiously large numbers of male children (even in the thousands and tens of thousands) able to bear arms, but rather as vast dzoku alliances composed of a main family with its satellite branches (including “servant” and other branch forms) and dependents, allied houses with their branches and dependents that accepted the overlordship of the leading house, and dependent nonkin of varying degrees. Although we know from the frequent shifts of loyalty and lliance that these vast aggregates were often unstable, in principle they were all united in loyalty to the head of the main family and to the promotion of its prosperity, in return for the security of land tenure, protection against enemies, military and political support, etc., provided by the main family.

Despite the undoubted vast changes that have been taking place, the technique of aggregating familial and familylike groupings into cooperating hierarchical units remains recognizable, although it is expressed in different forms, depending upon the kind of situation in which it operates. Dōzoku of farmers could obviously not become as large as the great aristocratic and military houses, but they operated on similar structural principles, even if on a much reduced scale. In the case of the great commercial houses, however, the dōzoku sometimes attained remarkable size. The Mitsui family, for example, one of Japan’s oldest commercial houses, carried on essentially as a dozoku into the beginning of the twentieth century. New units and new enterprises were staffed primarily by means of branch families that consisted either of genealogical relatives (in this case, the branch was called bunke) or of adopted relatives (bekke). When a promising apprentice or employee was promoted to an executive or managerial position, he was taken into the Mitsui house as a branch family, thereby incurring the expected traditional obligations that obtained between main and branch family. By the end of the Tokugawa period, the Mitsui family is estimated to have had over one thousand branch families.

Early in the nineteenth century, during the period of transition from the apprentice—adoption branch family (that is, the dōzoku) system to modern forms of wage labor and bureaucratic management, hired labor was first taken in as “commuting” branch families (tsūkin-bekke), as distinct from the traditional “live-in” apprentices in branches. Within a few decades, the newer type became dominant because of growing hostility between the two types of employees, the need to rationalize the system, the difficulty of continuing the traditional seignorial obligations toward a vastly increased work force, and the lack of living space. The area of effective relations between main family and branches was gradually reduced to the inner core of the company, instead of, as hitherto, covering all employees. Even after its early nineteenth-century adjustment, the far-flung Mitsui industrial–commercial empire was held together by a holding company that was, in effect, the family council of the house (dōzoku) of Mitsui. This system did not collapse through natural obsolescence or the inability of the traditional dōzoku to adapt to modern industrial society; it was dissolved by the American Occupation’s antitrust and cartel reform legislation.


It is clear, then, that the essence of the dōzoku is not so much the grouping of related families into a larger unit but rather the grouping of individuals and families, whether or not related genealogically, into a functionally co-operating hierarchical organization centering on a main house or its leader. The dōzoku, in other words, is a corporate group based upon some work function of such character that it engages a major part of the participating individual’s social and economic life and demands his highest loyalty. In some cases the cooperating group is actually a family, even though it may contain nonrelatives; in other cases it acts “as if” it were a family. The underlying principle, which might be considered a constitutive principle of organization and authority in Japan, has been found throughout Japanese history to be extendible to a wide variety of forms of cooperative activity. Japanese groups, even those formed of very heterogeneous elements, tend to take on the generalized form of the “house.” In such groups, as Bennett and Ishino put it: “persons of authority assume obligations and manifest attitudes toward their subordinates much as if they were foster parents, and conversely the subordinates behave dutifully and hold feelings of great personal loyalty toward their superiors” (1963, p. 40). Confucian principles of filial piety are equally applicable to actual families and to these familylike groupings.

This extension of familism to nonfamily groupings is another example of what we have characterized as enduring dispositions of values and organizational principles that show remarkable persistence in spite of vast changes in form. The generic type is the hierarchical system called oyabun–kobun by Japanese sociologists.

In such groupings, organization and authority follow closely the models of the family, whether of the individual household or of the extended “house.” The head is the oyabun, or oyakata (literally, “father role”), and the subordinates are kobun, or kokata (literally, “child role”). Oyabun can be translated into English by such terms as lord, master, boss, leader, employer, landowner, protector, godfather, and patron; kobun can be translated as underling, subordinate, henchman, godchild, vassal, dependent, protégé, worker, employee, tenant, servant, and client. The oyabun–kobun relation is central to the authority structure. In more complex forms of organization, different levels of authority can be expressed by other kin-ship-derived terms, such as anikibun (older brother role), otōtobun (younger brother role), and magobun (grandchild role). An alliance of several oyabun groups into a larger grouping might be called kyōdaibun, or “brotherhood.” The “brotherhood” might take one of two forms—a federation of equals or an expanded dōzoku hierarchy. Just as in the main house–branch relationship, the oyabun’s benevolence must be repaid in loyalty, obedience, deference, and service.

It is important, however, to make it clear that oyabun–kobun can refer to a specific form of organization as well as to a general principle of organization. Even when the specific form is lacking, one often finds that the spirit, or ethos, is present. “Why was it,” one Japanese scholar asks, “that in spite of the spread of education and the wholesale introduction of Western thought, even intellectuals, in deciding their everyday conduct, were strongly swayed by patriarchal considerations of social status?” (Tōyama Shigeki, as quoted in Jansen 1965, p. 39). The oyabun–kobun relation has shown a remarkable tenacity in spite of the growth of modern institutions. When the form cannot be directly realized, either for ideological or organizational reasons, it is covertly expressed in the form of cliques and patron–client relations.

Just as the family signifies two sharply contrasting sets of attributes—affection, warmth, love, and guidance, on the one hand, and unquestioned patriarchal authority, harsh rule, hierarchy, and exploitation, on the other—an ambivalence attaches to other forms of authority relations. Since World War II oyabun has become a bad word, having the unpleasant connotation of “boss.” Nevertheless, the oyabun type of relation has been very extensive. In many rural areas, for example, landlord–tenant relations were deeply imbued with these principles. In the prototypical cases—the ones usually characterized as most “feudal”—the landlord was usually the head of the main house and the tenant the head of one of the branches.

Characteristically, the rural dōzoku centered on the cooperating agricultural unit, which was usually bound by strongly reinforcing experiences and work relations. The process of branching established a ritual and genealogical hierarchy, but this was always linked with the hierarchy of land tenure. Before the Meiji restoration in 1868 the branch held no independent civic position in the community but derived its rights from the position of the main house with respect to participation in community political affairs, access to community common lands, forest, and compost. With the development of modern forms of land ownership after the Meiji restoration, the main house, or oyabun, became the modern landlord, and the branch house, or kobun, the tenant. Nevertheless, in many parts of the country the relationship remained much more personal than would be expected of a purely economic landlord–tenant relation. Often the tenant owed the landlord not only rent but many other obligations as well—agricultural and industrial labor, personal service, deference, obedience. He would bow deeply to the landlord when they met; work on his lands and property in accordance with a fixed schedule or when called upon; bring tribute and gifts on ceremonial occasions; seek the landlord’s advice and permission in major enterprises, even such personal ones as marrying off a son or a daughter; and he would support the civic and political activities of the landlord. In return, he counted upon the landlord to assist him in time of need, protect him, and give him guidance and patronage. The overlapping among the traditional hierarchical systems—the main house was often the landlord and the oyakata as well—tended to reinforce their separate authorities. Where these three arrangements coincided—that is, where the landlord, the person with most political influence, and the head of the main house were one and the same person—the system was strongest and corresponded most closely to what is described as “feudalistic” in Japanese agriculture prior to land reform. The more the authority systems tended to separate out, so that the landlord, the oyakata, and the head of the main family were three separate persons, the more the community appeared “modern.” Although the American-sponsored land reform, conducted from 1947 to 1949, abolished landlordism and thereby weakened the structure of reinforcing obligations on which the system rested, patron–client relations continue to be important in rural areas, even if in attenuated form.

To a remarkable extent, even in modern times, these intrafamilial and extended family relations provide a model for extrafamilial groupings. Why this should be is the subject of much controversy. Many scholars argue that the only mode of “human relations” known to the Japanese is familial; no ethic has developed for dealing with outsiders, or “strangers.” Others argue that the explanation must be sought in the deeper realms of notions of sacred hierarchy, ancestral pietas, and relations to ancestral deities.

Whatever the reason, oyabun–kobun relations can be found in a wide variety of organizations. Characteristically, the head is the benevolent father, the subordinates are loyal and obedient children; and the relation between them is not only functional, specific, and economic, but personal and diffuse as well. The relationship may last for the duration of specific tasks, over the lifetime of individuals, or even for many generations. Some well-known Tokyo gangs can boast an ancestry of over three hundred years and enumerate 14 or 16 generations, just as would a great family of artists, actors, or craftsmen. Generation after generation the same main family provides the oyabun, and the same subordinate families provide kobun. Until the labor reforms of 1945–1947 and before economic growth altered the employment market, a great part of Japan’s casual labor, especially in stevedoring and construction, was organized under labor bosses who, in return for strict obedience and a cut of the workers’ wages, undertook to keep the men employed or to look after them when they were out of work. The labor gangs were, incidentally, also useful in political campaigning, for minor intimidation, for fighting the growing union movement, and for furthering the personal political ambitions of the boss or of his own higher patrons (ō-oyabun, or “great bosses”). Modern labor employment practices, labor unions, social security, and unemployment insurance have still not fully ended the influence of labor bosses.

Oyabun–kobun (or oyakata–kokata) relations are found widely in other traditional sectors of Japanese life and economy. In many areas that specialize in coastal fisheries, for example, the owners of nets, boats, and fishing rights are not only employers in the economic sense but also oyakata, parental figures accepting extralegal obligations for the welfare and personal needs of their workers and their families. Until the end of the nineteenth century, when modern powered boats and improved nets were introduced, the coastal fisheries were carried on mainly by family groups. Single families or, as operations became more complicated, groups of neighboring families who were usually related to each other formed a kumi (association). The head of the senior family was the fishery leader, and he was the oyakata. As in the rural villages, there was a typical overlap of authority systems: the upper classes owned the boats, nets, and fishery-rights; they were the oyakata, the heads of the main houses in the extended family network, and the political leaders of the community. This familial flavor has carried over even into modern fishery operations: where possible, junior relatives are employed through the extended family system and nonrelatives enter the work group as pseudo relatives. Seasonal labor for large-scale fishery operations, such as manning the giant nets used in the annual herring runs, are often organized by labor bosses.

The principle of house organization is also strong in the traditional theater arts and entertainments. Kabuki, for example, is conducted not by companies but by “families” that continue in the art generation after generation, often having to adopt heirs in order to maintain the great traditions of the family. The principal actors, who bear the great theatrical names, are the oyakata of their troupes. The entire system of organization, including the administration, the relations between the chief actors and their juniors, the form of payment within the group, and its social and moral life, is permeated by the oyakata–kokata principle. Similarly, in the traditional Japanese dance and music, each major style and tradition is carried on by a particular family, and the disciples (apprentices, students) are considered the“children” of the house “father” (master, leader). [ SeePaternalism].

Principles of Japanese social structure

Leaders and followers

In most organizations interpersonal relations are those between the leader and his follower or followers, In more complex organizations, however, the ties between top and bottom are established through subordinates— the leader, his followers, and his followers’ followers. The first-degree subordinates stand in the closest relation to the leader, and his ties with the lower degrees are mediated through them. Each first-degree follower therefore becomes a subleader, capable of mobilizing his own retainers. Since each individual’s primary tie is with his immediate leader, the horizontal relations among individuals of similar status within the organization tend to be weak. The result is that equal-status consciousness is weaker than consciousness of status within the vertical system of ties of the organization as a whole. Although many organizations, particularly in modern times, may start out on egalitarian principles or with emphasis on horizontal ties, mature organizations in Japan inevitably tend toward the strong vertical emphasis and the weak horizontal emphasis. The mature group presumes clear, single linkages (described by one Japanese anthropologist as “univalent”) between all individuals in the group and high emotional involvement in group life and aims. The web of vertical linkages forms a kind of family, centering on its leader-parent, a unit of common destiny, and the groundwork of the individual’s identity, commitment, and meaning in life.

Styles of leadership

As in a family, members consider that they are not working for an employer alone but also for the enhancement of the group. Thus, although the leader commands their devotion and effort, it is as the symbol of the group as a whole that he does so. He is the embodiment of the linking principle that holds the separate individual linkages together. If they work for him, he must also work for them. The members accept a high degree of self-sacrifice for the group (or its symbol, the leader) and an exceptional invasion of their private life space; the leader, in turn, is expected to be benevolent, emotionally concerned, solicitous, and attentive to the needs and views of the members. Although in many situations it is easy to mobilize instant and unhesitating obedience, at whatever self-sacrifice, continuing arbitrary authority is difficult. One type of leader is little more than a figurehead acting only on the initiative of his subordinates. Another is the mediator whose effectiveness comes from his ability to find the consensus, or the acceptable point of compromise among the leader–follower groups that form his organization. Arbitrary dictatorial authority is too constrained by internal organizational principles to be common in Japanese history; where it is found, it is usually limited in duration, or else it leads to the collapse of the group. The opposite style, in which higher authority simply ratifies plans and decisions prepared and approved by subordinate authority networks, is more common. The informal authority webs of an organization often defeat, or at least neutralize, the formal tables of organization which presume that orders pass down from the top, through the executive staff, and are then translated by the “ranks” into action.

Cooperation and competition

Within the group, the prevailing norms are harmony, agreement, consensus, and cooperation. But between groups cooperation is very difficult; there competition is unrelenting and often of an awesome ferocity. But there are important structural points of competitive stress within apparently harmonious organizations as well. Since, as we have noted, the larger organizations cannot, in the very nature of the personalized leader–follower relation, form a single continuous vertical linkage system, nodules, or factions, are formed at different status points made up of small leader–follower groupings, so that the larger organization tends to take on the character of a federation of groups rather than a seamless, continuous whole. This makes for continuous conflict, factionalism, and fission. Competition among the factions is often intense, and the factions’ capacity to work together is correspondingly weak unless the top leadership is exceptionally skillful. Within each small faction there is competition between individuals close to each other in status; their primary affective ties are not to each other but rather to the leader. An ambitious subordinate leader may try to elevate the status of his group by expanding his influence, stimulating factional rivalries, and even forming alliances with other groupings. If a subordinate becomes more powerful than the leader (as, for example, a branch shop becoming more prosperous than the main store, a branch family becoming wealthier than the original main house, a subsidiary outstripping the parent company, a feudal military vassal winning more battles and acquiring more fighting retainers than his lord), he might very well challenge the top leader or withdraw from the group entirely to go off on his own. In such cases, the original associates often become the bitterest of enemies.

Rank consciousness

The result of this system of vertical linkages is that individuals are aware of their status within groups but they are not much concerned with their horizontal linkages with individuals of similar status position in other groups or in society as a whole. Some Japanese social scientists would argue from this that class or status consciousness therefore cannot exist in Japan. The essential status awareness does not pertain so much to society as a whole—as relations between employers and employees or tenants and landlords —as it does to single institutions, groups, and areas organized on principles of vertical stratification. The individual’s identity is not that of his occupation, individual qualities, or even of family lineage, but rather his organization and his position within it. An individual first reveals his identity to others in terms of his institutional or group affiliation— X-company, X-government bureau, university, faction, etc.—rather than as being an engineer, political scientist, typist, or journalist. (The feudal warrior, before entering single combat, would challenge his opponent by citing his pedigree: “I am Wada Shōjirō Yoshishige, 17 years old, grandson of Miura Taisuke Yoshiaki, not far removed from a princely house, the llth generation from Prince Takamochi, descendant of the Emperor Kammu; let anyone come, be he general or be he retainer, I am his man”; quoted in Nakamura [1948–1949] 1964, p. 418). Society tends to be seen as made up of parallel vertical-linkage groups, each internally harmonious but bitterly at war with each other. Movement from one parallel escalator to another is extremely difficult; the move is as emotionally difficult as changing one’s family, and the individual capable of such a move is never fully trusted. This fundamental social perception helps explain what looks suspiciously like “company unionism” in Japan, in spite of the apparent militancy and political “progressivism” of the trade unions. Local unions are organized on a company, or plant, rather than on an industry-wide basis. This seems to reflect recognition of the “work place” as the ground of the individual’s identity.

“We” and “they.”

The structural dispositions of Japanese organization bring about a sharp distinction between “we” and “they,” between in-group and out-group. Relations between groups are rarely easy and informal; rather, they are like high-level diplomatic negotiations. Since they are accompanied by so much emotion and suspicion, they must be swathed in protective layers of protocol. It follows that it is hard to form stable, large groupings, and this has been the case throughout Japanese history, whether the federation of uji in the archaic period, the formation of alliances of military houses during the feudal eras, the establishment of relations among daimyō (feudal lords), the cooperation of factions within a political party, or the merger of companies competing in the same market areas.

The “go-between,” the mediator between two groups, has therefore always played an important role. “We” and “they” are always rivals if not actually enemies. Face-to-face conflict, or even disagreement, arouses such deep emotions and structural strains that the go-between becomes essential. It is easier for people to accommodate themselves to “strangers”—that is, all “others” as seen from the perspective of one’s own group of identification— through proper introductions and the mediation of the go-between. Even modern young people who contemptuously reject the idea of marriages arranged by marriage brokers (the so-called“arranged marriage” versus the modern “love marriage”) still prefer, or at least are willing out of deference to parental feelings, to accept a formal marriage sponsor on the actual occasion of the wedding.

Related to the go-between is a preference for indirection. In the most intimate of relations explicit statement is not necessary: wordless understanding is the mode; or hints and fragments of sentences may serve as pointers, even though outsiders may find them completely incomprehensible. The effect of the structural tensions of Japanese organization is constant sensitivity to relative status, self-consciousness, delicately graded responsiveness to the most minimal alterations of atmosphere, and concern with “face.” These preoccupations loom so large in relations among people that communication is often a delicate probing or feeling out, a search for hidden meanings and implications, a groping for limits rather than the transmission of the apparent content of the communication.

Loyalty and achievement

Since the individual’s fundamental identity is with his vertically stratified functional group, which lives in a dangerous world surrounded by other similar groups— rivals or enemies, but at least strangers—loyalty is and has always been one of the principal values of Japanese society. The loyal individual, who willingly sacrifices personal interests, has always been one of the admired heroes of Japanese history. Although personal loyalty has often been converted into institutionalized loyalty—that is, loyalty between statuses rather than between individuals— in the preferred form there is a strong personal, emotional element. Leaders should act like leaders, just as followers should act like followers. That is, they should follow the Confucian principle of meibun, each person acting appropriate to his status. While a strict interpretation makes this a conditional relation—authority derives from virtue; in the absence of virtue, authority is not legitimate —the heroic ideal is unlimited loyalty. The leader who does not hold up his end of the bargain may continue to receive loyalty, but not forever. Lords who scamped their obligations have been attacked, deserted, and even overthrown; the retainer hurt by his lord’s indifference or lack of virtue felt free to end his feudal ties. In the case of many of the young samurai and rōnin (men of samurai lineage without feudal ties) who carried through the Meiji restoration, from 1867 to 1868, the insistence upon meibun justified their apparent disloyalty.

Paradoxically, throughout Japanese history there has been constant emphasis on the values of achievement. Although achievement-orientation and loyalty are not necessarily incompatible, potential conflict may be seen in the hypothetical cases of the completely loyal but utterly incapable fellow and the man of ability who cannot fit into the team. The classic solution has been, and tends to remain, the encouragement of achievement within the framework and in the larger interests of the group. Within this framework ambition is permitted, competition tolerated, achievement applauded, merit rewarded, and ability cultivated. The “primacy of political values,” which Bellah (1957) described for the institutions of the Tokugawa period, still holds today: priority is given to the continuity of the group, the enhancement of its position, and the furtherance of its broad aims rather than to specific ends and individual benefits. The loyal but incapable individual (whether this comes about through age, disability, loss of skill, or physical weakness) is protected by the group: he may be assigned tasks commensurate with his abilities, given a sinecure, or pastured out and looked after.

Not all groups in Japan manifest these principles in the same way and in the same degree. The principles will be more evident in large organizations rather than small ones, old organizations rather than new ones, and the higher ranks rather than the lower ranks. Moreover, many Japanese may never have contact with such groups, either because they live relatively isolated lives or because the groups with which they are affiliated are too small to permit the full play of all these operative principles. Nevertheless, this is the general form that all fully matured groups in Japan tend to approximate.

Conclusion—tradition and modernity

Most social scientists are willing to concede that Japan may so far have been able to retain many features of its traditional order and system of values alongside the industrialization of its economy, but they would tend to consider this condition transitional or “unstable” (as Veblen argued in 1915); the “discrepancies,” they feel, are bound to disappear. Veblen wrote:

It should, then, confidently be presumed, [that the Japanese will] presently and expeditiously . . . fall in with the peculiar habits of thought that make the faults and qualities of the western culture—the spiritual outlook and the principles of conduct and ethical values that have been induced by the exacting discipline of this same state of the industrial arts among the technologically more advanced and mature of the western peoples .. . as soon as her people shall have digested the western state of science and technology and have assimilated its spiritual contents, the “Spirit of Old Japan” will, in effect, have been dissipated. All that will remain will be ravellings of its genial tradition [and a] vapor of truculence [floating] through the adolescent brains of Young Japan. (Veblen [1915] 1964, pp. 254–255)

Fifty years after these predictions, the same statement can still be made, and we are still waiting upon the event. As Schumpeter has argued:

Social structures, types and attitudes are coins that do not readily melt. Once they are formed they persist, possibly for centuries, and since different structures and types display different degrees of this ability to survive, we almost always find that actual group and national behavior more or less departs from what we should expect it to be if we tried to infer it from the dominant forms of the productive process. (1942, pp. 12–13 in 1962 edition)

While many scholars would be prepared to acknowledge that this incomplete fusion of modern industry and important elements of the traditional order may be relatively enduring, they are almost instinctively inclined to feel that the equilibrium must be an unstable one. A few have tried to explain so-called “pathological” features of Japanese development, such as militarism and aggression, as a result of the persistent tension, the instability of the relationship between modernity and tradition. However, the history of Japanese culture contact suggests the equally plausible interpretation that the tension, if tension it be, is as stable as in Western countries undergoing change and that traditional culture and social-relational norms have affected the way in which elements of industrial society are accepted and rejected.

Whatever cross-section we take at any given moment during the course of modernization presents a fascinating spectacle of apparent contradiction. We seem to see a mosaic of past and present, fragmentation of the total society into old and new sectors, old patterns persisting in their entirety or in parts, new patterns displacing the old or reorganizing total areas of experience, old patterns governing the form of acceptance of new ones, fusions between old and new, and even the emergence of totally new hybrid patterns incorporating elements of both. Moreover, since the adult participants in the process have usually had their basic conditioning and socialization in an earlier era, they often appear to carry over older attitudes and modes of perception into new situations. As Parsons has argued, modernization (or in its more specific form, “rationalization”) has uneven impact on “different elements in the social structure… It tends to divide elements of the population according to whether they tend toward . . . more ‘progressive’ or ‘emancipated’ values of patterns of conduct, or the more conservative ‘backward,’ or traditional patterns” ([1938–1953] 1963, p. 118).

The experience of Japan suggests a position intermediate between the extreme formulations of “cultural determination of modern forms” and the “imperatives of modern industrial society.” Some, but not all, effects of industrialization are instant and almost “inevitable” some, but not all, can be widely accommodated to traditional modes of organization and traditional values. As Plath has put it, “. . . the past century has brought Japanese society and culture closer than ever to the West in form as well as in function. Nevertheless there continue to be customs and values and social forms such that the configuration is uniquely and characteristically Japanese. It is a Japanese modernism and not simply a Western one. Unless we see both of these facts at once we cannot begin to understand it, much less evaluate it” (1964, pp. 191–192).

After many years of life in Meiji Japan, the great English scholar, Basil Hall Chamberlain, wrote:

Old Japan is dead and gone, and Young Japan reigns in its stead, as opposed in appearance and in aims to its predecessor as history shows many a youthful prince to have been to the late king, his father… Nevertheless .. . it [is] abundantly clear to those who have dived beneath the surface of the modern Japanese upheaval that more of the past has been retained than has been abandoned… The national character persists intact, manifesting no change in essentials. Circumstances have deflected it into new channels, that is all. ([1890] 1939, p. 6)

It is still possible to say much the same thing today.

Herbert Passin

[Other relevant material may be found inFeudalism; Modernization.]


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