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During my freakout session last night, a number of alternate research topics came to mind. No doubt I will retread them over the course of my blogging (I hope I do, this is why I started). One that did crop up was whether Japan portrays itself as a victim in its international relations. I will attempt to collect my thoughts on this over the course of this post.

The idea came from a forum mailing-list in which I lurk. I first came across the National Bureau of Research’s Japan Forum, formerly the Japan-US Discussion Forum, when I was collecting research for my undergraduate dissertation not much more than a year ago. It’s a list for academic discussion and is thus something that I don’t have the courage to participate in. However, as a source of Japan-based brain-food it is fantastic, ranking up there with the intelligent Transpacific Radio, Neomarxisme and the Mutant Frog Travelogue (I only just realised that it rhymes…).

As an aside, I receive hundreds of things to read each day. I receive the feeds of 20-odd blogs, plus news and the NBR forum. Part of the problem at the moment is that I’ve let things slide for so long that I’m playing catch up. Part of the process for me is to tag interesting news items to (the latest additions can be seen in the ‘latest bookmarks’ component in the sidebar). I already posted about trying to sort out those links, I’m about halfway through, but things have stalled there while my university commitments heat up and while I try to catch up on those links in my inbox.

Anyway, on NBR’s Japan Forum there is one participant, Dr Robyn Lim who talks of Japan’s “cult of the victim”. I don’t agree with a lot of what she says, she’s a strategist (which I am primarily, but to a lot softer extent) with writing that carries many assumptions. However, on Japan’s victim status she is quite right.


There are several events that have created this status. Firstly, Japan’s encounters with the kurofune (black ships) of Commodore Matthew Perry, commonly believed to have forced Japan open. I say “commonly believed” because there are some revisionist debates that suggest that Japan’s doors weren’t all that closed during the Edo Period. That is a debate best left for someone else as I’ve nothing more than a shallow knowledge of what is being debated. Some quarters of Japan’s society see the attack on Pearl Harbor being caused by the sanctions of the Great Powers: the so-called ABCD (American, British, Chinese, Dutch) encirclement. Anyone who has been to Hiroshima (and maybe Nagasaki, I cannot say for myself) will understand the powerful sentiment attached to Japan as a victim. One could see Japan’s pro-whaling stance as being tinged with victimisation. Finally, it might be possible to argue that the abduction issue is one that see Japan playing the victim.

There is plenty of material to play with, that is for sure. One can certainly justify the belief that Japan might see itself as a victim. This is not a mindset unique to Japan; for instance, much has been written of China as a victim. The question I want to toy with is: does Japan portray itself as a victim in its international relations? Or perhaps: what characteristics does Japan play up to in its international relations? These are from the top of my head, raw, if you’ll allow. This could be an interesting study, and I’m sure there is a lot of strands that can be explored. Perhaps this is one for a later time? Until then, I just want to mull this over for the time being. Feel free to comment with your impression, debates, or knowledge. It’s always welcome.



  1. There’s a plethora of materials on Japan as the victim. Ian Baruma discusses it to some length in his “Wages of Guilt,” and one reason I recommend the book as a read is precisely because it’s not a strictly academic work. He inserts enough personal observations from a journalist’s point of view so that the story seems alive. By no means do I agree 100% with his conclusions, but I see many things similar to what he describes. At any rate, if you haven’t read it yet, I do recommend it.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation. Just checked the university’s library catalogue and it’s in there, not on loan and I’m heading up there in a moment. I’ll have a look, if I like it then I’ll probably pick it up for cheap, second-hand on Amazon. It will tie me over until Abe’s ‘Towards a Beautiful Country’ translation gets released in a couple of months.

    I was aware that Japan as the victim was well-trodden, one reason for me not dealing with it in my dissertation. Perhaps the only new thing I can think about is maybe seeing if the abduction issue plays up to this. With the panic over, it’s nice to reflect on the ideas thrown up.

    Thanks again!

  3. I agree that Japan does “play the victim” at times. However, they are not the only ones, in the Region, to do so. China is always using that particular card, especially against Japan.

    Have the Japanese been victims? Absolutely. There is no denying that American and European powers threw their weight around in the past, and took advantage of Asia in the most unfair of ways. That includes having their way with Japan, and dropping those two bombs on civilian targets during WWII.

    Is it time for Japan to move on? Absolutely. However, a change in behavior will only come once their constitution has been amended, and a few other changes have occurred (as desired by PM Shinzo Abe and others).


  4. I couldn’t agree more. I think China, the Koreas and Japan are all equally guilty of playing the victim. It has a very long heritage in China (and in Korea too I’d imagine).

    There is some good coming from Japan’s victim status, albeit subjective. Its anti-nuclear principles and advocacy is healthy for the non-proliferation efforts (even if the comments of its Chief Cabinet Secretary aren’t always in line with said principles).

    From what I hear about the literature, and from the little that I’ve read, Japan’s playing of the victim is often criticised because of its interpretation of Article 9. Robyn Lim, who I mentioned in the post, talks of Japan’s free ride on US security, criticising Japan for using the ‘cult of the victim’ to avoid paying its due. It seems quite common to hear from the realist camp.

    I think they should move on too. I think Japan’s victim status is reflected in its problems with its neighbours, to some extent. The Yasukuni issue is certainly characterised by stubbornness reinforced by Chinese and South Korean prodding. I’m just not sure that it is something that will come with Abe’s ‘utsukushii kuni’ (beautiful country). Although I agree, constitutional reform may go some way towards rectifying the situation.

    That said, their feelings of victimisation may be exactly what GHQ was looking for: a way to keep Japan from returning to old habits.

    Like with most things, I’m pretty much on the fence with this issue. I simply don’t know enough to commit either way.

  5. It’s interesting, but many Americans often complain about Canada and how it relies on the US for security.

    Unfortunately, I tend to agree with the Yanks on this one (even though I am a Canuck).

    Anyway, I also think that it may be true of Japan, but only to some extent. And if it has been so, then the situation is well on its way to becoming quite different.

    Just my opinion, of course.



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