Professor Patricia Steinhoff examines Japan's significance in sociological studies
Patricia Steinhoff is Professor of Sociology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Her research interests include social movements, conflict, and the Japanese left.
Japan matters as a critical case for studying how societies are put together. It is just similar enough, and just different enough, to challenge our assumptions and raise deeper questions about how societies work and how people live within them. Much about Japanese society is not visible on the surface or consistent with its public face. It takes time, patience, and a willingness to explore uncomfortable questions in order to begin to understand these less visible dynamics. Although there are many very fine sociologists within Japan, there is also a place for outsiders, who come to Japan with different questions and explore topics that are deemed either too sensitive or too ordinary to study. The outsider who studies Japanese society, or the Japanese who is trained in a foreign country, brings a fresh comparative perspective and makes a special contribution to the study of Japanese society.
Japan acts as a kind of prism, revealing different aspects depending on the nature of the comparison. Whilst older comparative sociology often exoticised Japan, contemporary research generally places it alongside other industrialised societies. The vantage point matters. Comparisons between Japan and the United States highlight different features than comparisons between Japan and the United Kingdom or Germany. We need many different perspectives in order to understand this very complex society.
Japan also matters as a natural laboratory of social change. Over the past 150 years Japan has experienced a series of massive social changes. Now, even as it is a globalising force throughout the world, it struggles with the domestic impacts of globalisation. It has many of the same social issues that can be found elsewhere: an aging population, minorities and foreign workers, suicide, unemployment, health care, crime, an unfamiliar youth culture, and economic inequality. Even when subjected to immense external pressure, Japan has crafted responses to each challenge with its own special blend of careful selection from outside models plus domestic innovation. Japan does not necessarily have better solutions to social issues, but it offers alternative approaches from which other societies can learn - even if only to learn what not to do, or what cannot be transferred easily to a different society.
Those who have made the study of Japan an intrinsic part of their lives no longer ask why Japan matters, because it matters deeply to them. Increasingly, however, scholars who are not primarily Japan specialists find that Japan matters as a challenging comparative case. A growing body of research in English and other western languages allows non-specialists to conduct secondary research on Japanese society. Yet non-specialists still remain dependent on dedicated, language-proficient Japan specialists to produce the primary research that makes such secondary work possible.
Finally, the study of Japanese society matters for those who approach Japan primarily from other disciplinary perspectives. Key aspects of the Japanese economy and Japanese politics require an understanding of Japanese social structure and dynamics. At an even more basic level, effective communication in the Japanese language requires some understanding of Japanese society. As an international centre of excellence on Japan, the work at NIJS is vital to the research and promotion of the understanding of Japan in the United Kingdom and internationally.
Please note: The views expressed in here are those of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect those of NIJS, the White Rose East Asia Centre, the University of Sheffield, or the University of Leeds. Following East Asian convention, the family name precedes the given name(s) in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean names unless the particular person uses the other more dominant name order, where the given name followed by family name (such as the Western name order), in his/her publications and/or official or everyday life. This article was originally published in Nijs News, Number 3 (July 2008), pp.2 as "Experts' Column: Why Japan Matters".