It should be agreed by now that contemporary Japanese society poses major challenges to the received wisdom and assumptions of mainstream social theory. Here is a society that has achieved modernity by its own means; which has adopted capitalism and beaten the West at its own game; which has rejected Christianity and most of the other metanarratives of the West; which has assimilated technology, fashion· and the mass media but has converted them into something highly distinctive; which offers itself as both postmodern and as highly traditional; which rejects class but clings to hierarchy and exalts harmony; which considers itself deeply humanistic without ever having encountered the humanism of the West; in which religion is regarded as insignificant but which yet pervades the society in a way that renders classical secularization theories redundant; which aestheticizes life while pursuing powerful economic growth and which fundamentally rejects the epistemology that divides self from social context. The result has been a highly workable, pacifist, virtually crime-free and economically dynamic society. As such it poses historical questions (how did this come about?), practical ones (how is this remarkable system maintained and perpetuated?) and critical ones (where are the flaws in this utopian vision?)
For clearly there are flaws in practice: hierarchy becoming oppression, postwar pacifism leading Japan to turn its back on the problems of the world while exploiting it economically and the exclusion of those who do not fit, ethnically or socially, into the dominant ideology. Is the relative lack of social, cultural ethnic, and to a great degree, economic and political strife, the sleep of death, the signs of a society without vitality? Or is it an enormous achievement - the creation of a civilization of great artistic and economic dynamism without (or at least the same forms of) the self-mutilation that so many of the other late capitalist societies have inflicted on themselves - crime, decaying cities, ethnic conflict and a pervasive lack of motivation and sense of discontent? Our thesis so far has been the latter and we are
now at the point to attempt to draw some of the threads together, and especially the argument that the just and successful characterization of Japanese society requires profound modifications to conventional social theory and the assumptions upon which it is based. This is not an argument for 'uniqueness': every society is unique, although it shares characteristics with others. Most claims for Japanese uniqueness are highly ideological and those coming from within Japan are often heavily tinged with nationalist and racist elements (Yoshino 1992). Rather it is the argument that contemporary Japan is a society of a distinct type, one that has often been theorized in a highly distorted way, as much by its critics as by its champions, and one that is in many respects an inspiration to decaying industrial societies since it represents practical and in many respects highly successful modes of social organization. These cannot necessarily be simply reproduced elsewhere, rooted as they are in a distinctive culture and its history, but they provide a rich and engaging sociological model that draws close to satisfying, on a large scale, many of the expectations of western communitarian thinking which, in its many incarnations, has been a deep theme of social theory since well before Marx.