January 2012 Issue • Volume 40 • Issue 1

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International Perspectives

Internationalization of Japanese Sociology
and Its Identity Crisis

Yoshimichi Sato, Tohoku University, Japan


Landscape of Japan

Japanese sociology is facing an identity crisis. Japanese sociology used to be a “black hole,” which absorbed Western sociology but did not emit its bright fruits to the world. Uncountable books in English, German, and French were translated into Japanese, such as books by Max Weber, Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons, Jürgen Habermas, and Pierre Bourdieu to name a few. However, excellent works done by Japanese sociologists were published only in Japanese. Thus most sociologists in the world did not know what was going on in Japanese sociology except for a few who read Japanese.

If Japanese sociology kept being domestic, it would not experience an identity crisis. However, the scene has radically changed recently. The Japan Sociological Society, which is the national representative association of sociology in Japan, is active and vibrant in the internationalization of Japanese sociology. It publishes its official English journal, International Journal of Japanese Sociology; it sponsors workshops on presenting in English for its members; it invites excellent international sociologists to its annual meetings, offering them travel grants; it has established academic exchange agreements with the Korean Sociological Association and the Chinese Sociological Association; it created a special committee on internationalization of Japanese sociology; and it will host the XVIII World Congress of Sociology of the International Sociological Association in Japan in 2014. At the individual level, the number of Japanese sociologists who present their papers at international conferences and publish them in international journals is increasing. Japanese sociology and sociologists have begun to play in the international arena.

Although these activities have contributed a lot to internationalization of Japanese sociology, it is facing an emergence crisis, that is, an identity crisis. Japanese sociologists, in general, are in an ambivalent situation. They tend to study a society they live in and make general statements based on their findings on their society. However, the findings are entrenched in their own society. Thus, it is difficult to abstractly detach the findings from social contexts around them. A strategy many sociologists use for making general statements is to simplify their findings by dropping local meanings from them. However, this strategy makes their findings very “thin,” which puts sociologists in an ambivalent situation between particularism and universalism.

Lost in Translation

Japanese sociologists are not exempt from this problem. Take the term ie for example. A literal English translation of the word is family. However, if we use the word “family” rather than “ie when studying Japanese society, we would lose many important aspects of it. This is because ie is a complex of family, productive organization, and cultural entity for ancestor worship. Japanese sociologists have accumulated findings on ie to explore its complex characteristics, and there exists a huge body of literature on it. However, if Japanese sociologists try to publish books and articles on ie in, say, American sociological journals, they would find it difficult to forge ie into a sociological concept that could accurately translate and be accepted by American sociologists. They could do that if they tear apart the Japanese socio-cultural contexts from ie. However, this means that the concept of ie becomes too universal to capture the actual structure and dynamics of ie in Japanese society, and Japanese sociologist would face an identity crisis as Japanese sociologists.

Another example of this ambivalent situation of Japanese sociologists is the word aidagara and en in Japanese. Aidagara represents social relations, and en is a driving force producing aidagara (Hamaguchi, 1985). We could link them to a modern sociological concept—social capital. However, if they apply social capital rather than aidagara and en to Japanese society, sociologists would miss some important facets of aidagara and en. Actually, Hamaguchi presents the concepts as universal, but simultaneously embeds them in the Japanese context (Sato 2010). If he had completely detached the concepts from the Japanese context, he would have experienced an identity crisis as a Japanese sociologist.

This ambivalent position can be found in other Asian sociologists. For example, Nan Lin, a powerful proponent of social capital, argues that guanxi, a Chinese word representing social relationships, is a general concept that is to be found in societies other than China (Lin 2001). However, he also maintains that “guanxi carries a much ‘deeper’ meaning and significance than the simple English translations of ‘relations’ or ‘connections’ would indicate” (Lin 2001: 153). Thus his scientific attitude toward guanxi swings between particularism and universalism as Hamaguchi moved between them.

The ISA in Yokohama

The XVIII World Congress of Sociology of the International Sociological Association will be held in Yokohama, Japan in July 2014. It is the first Congress held in East Asia. Thus it offers sociologists from the East and the West, as well as from the South and the North, a wonderful opportunity to discuss particularism/universalism as well as localism/globalism and to find solutions to these dichotomies.


Submit Ideas for the International Perspectives Column

Footnotes invites contributions from knowledgeable non-North American sociologists on the state of the discipline and profession of sociology in countries outside North America for publication in the new occasional column, “International Perspectives.” Sociological analyses of significant national events in these countries that would be of interest to North American sociologists are welcome for publication. Original contributions must be in English and no more than 1,100 words. To discuss possible contributions or send material, contact Johanna Olexy (olexy@asanet.org).

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