The other rashomon story: International norms and continuing constructions of japaneseness

David Leheny*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

1 Citation (Scopus)


For decades, writers on Japanese politics have struggled with notions both of Japanese uniqueness and of the country’s sensitivity to pressure from the outside world. Some early accounts of Japanese exceptionalism referred to distinctive cultural or civilizational traditions that made Japanese politics diffierent from that of Western democracies, a position now rejected or at least heavily modified by most of the leading research on the country. More recently, others have noticed that Japanese political action-whether on trade, or human rights, or environmental regulationoften follows pressure from foreign governments (gaiatsu) or networked activities by international NGOs. Whether Japan is, in this sense, a “reactive state” (Calder 1988b) in which politics is relatively stagnant until foreign pressure breaks through a logjam or a system in which local actors can make effective use of external influence to achieve their own ends (e.g. Schoppa 1997), the direction of action is relatively clear. The outside world affects Japan, and Japanese politics is especially geared toward continued alignment with external forces. Most recently, much of the research has been linked to theories of “international norms,” or standards of behavior or structure that states are supposed to observe because they are states in a social environment of states. Central to this idea is that actors are created by their social environment; I am a professor because of the existence of an institution-the university-that produces my identity as a professor as well as the norms that come with it. The same applies to my identities as son, brother, jazz fan, and so forth. Without these identities, it would be difficult for me or anyone else to speak meaningfully of “David Leheny.” I would, of course, still have a biological existence without these institutions, but it is difficult for me to imagine some essential core, some pre-institutional David Leheny, without the family, the university, the national boundaries that allowme to understand who I am. The samewould apply to international relations. Some of this is about what makes a state: states have borders, flags, ministries of education, and Olympic teams. Some of it is moral, as in what states are supposed to do (or not do): states must not commit genocide; states must not use children as soldiers; and states must protect endangered species. Of course, states have violated all of these norms, but almost invariably they deny violating the norms or, if denial is impossible, provide an excuse. If the norms did not exist, states could openly practice apartheid without explanation; they could use chemical weapons against their own citizens; they could torture while proudly calling it torture.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Handbook of Japanese Politics
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages11
ISBN (Electronic)9781136818387
ISBN (Print)9780415551373
Publication statusPublished - 2011 Jan 1
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)


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