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Vox Populi: Chie Nakane’s grim assessment of Japan society still valid today

  • November 9, 2021
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 1:43 p.m.
  • English Press

Chie Nakane in 2017 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Many citizens were deeply dismayed by the 1945 radio broadcast of Emperor Hirohito’s declaration of Japan’s defeat in World War II.

But Chie Nakane was not.


Then a second-year student at Tsuda Juku Senmon Gakko (present-day Tsuda University), Nakane was overjoyed that she no longer had to be awakened at night by air raid alerts. To celebrate, she shed her wartime uniform of “monpe” (work pants for women) and changed into a sky blue dress to go out.


“At the back of my mind, I always felt that Japan was in the wrong,” she later told The Asahi Shimbun.


In Beijing, where she had lived with her family during the war, she witnessed fellow Japanese citizens treating Chinese citizens as their inferiors and even beating them.


Her desire to keep a distance from her own country and its people may well have eventually resulted in her becoming a social anthropologist and publishing insightful theories on Japanese society.


Learning of her death on Oct. 12 at age 94, I reread, for the first time in many years, her iconic work “Tate Shakai no Ningen Kankei” (Personal Relations in a Vertical Society).


The book’s content, which felt novel and eye-opening three decades ago, now comes across as almost commonplace. This must be proof that over time her way of thinking has established deep roots in Japanese society.


She pointed out that “horizontal” connections–such as between different professions–are flimsy in Japanese society, but a solid principle of hierarchy, based on seniority, defines vertical relations in society and corporations.


Within a closed group, she explained, “A ‘difference’ is established by one method or another, and by stressing that difference, an astoundingly meticulous hierarchy is formed.”


To a certain extent, this is still in evidence today. Whether within a company or a hobby group, the longer you have been in it, the greater your say.


The Japanese expression “school caste,” which implies an irrational pecking order among students, may be one variant of a vertical society.


It feels unfortunate that Nakane’s findings are still valid today.


She acquired her bird’s-eye view of Japanese society from her research in India and studies in Britain and the United States. As well, she might have gained it from her cool, objective observation of the male society as a female researcher.


–The Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 8


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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.

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