Literature review

The purpose of this chapter is to lay the groundwork for the body of the book, by introducing its themes and looking at some of the existing literature that deals with them. I look at the ‘nihonjinron’ literature, or ‘theories of Japaneseness’, that I discussed briefly in the previous chapter. I consider why this literature was so popular, before looking at some of its deficiencies and at what has replaced it. In particular, I focus on how ideology and practice have been treated in the literature, noting how, where the nihonjinron authors tended to mistake ideology for practice, more recent authors have focused on practice to the extent of ignoring ideology altogether. I argue that a more balanced approach is needed.

Early ethnographies

Some of the first ethnographies on Japan include those by Embree (1939), and Benedict (1946). Embree’s fieldwork in a small village stresses co-operation in economic and social matters. Benedict, who was influenced by the ‘Culture and Personality School’ of anthropology, focused heavily on Japanese ‘values’, especially the concepts of on, giri, and ninjō.

Both Embree and Benedict were later strongly criticised for over-emphasising the element of harmony in Japanese culture, at the expense of any discussion of competition or conflict.


The ‘nihonjinron’ (literally, theories of the Japanese people) literature sought to explain Japan’s success by reference to cultural factors. ‘Japaneseness’ was now identified not only in the village, but in factories, large companies and bureaucracies (Morris-Suzuki 1998). Scholars tried to find the essence of ‘Japaneseness’ in institutions that are common to all cultures, because it would be easier to isolate the peculiar characteristics of the Japanese versions.

Nihonjinron is built on the claims that Japan is ‘unique’, and that Japanese management is also ‘unique’. The Japanese are unique, we are told, in their consensus approach to human relations and decision making, and in the harmony and co-operation between members of the group, minimising conflict. Ethnographies


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Inside the Japanese Company


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