Tesis profesional presentada por Elisa Montiel Welti

Licenciatura en Relaciones Internacionales. Departamento de Relaciones Internacionales e Historia. Escuela de Ciencias Sociales, Universidad de las Américas Puebla.

Jurado Calificador

Presidente: Dr. David Mena Alemán
Vocal y Director: Dra. Emma Rebecca Norman
Secretario: Dr. Paul John Rich Miller

Cholula, Puebla, México a 20 de octubre de 2004.


Our contemporary world is marked throughout by the increasing importance of questions of identity, with special significance of those emerging in the field of International Relations. National and international politics are now concerned with the attempts of various collectivities to claim or reclaim their lost, suppressed or threatened identity, be that ethnic, religious, class, sexual or any other type. Unsurprisingly, theories of international relations are following practice in what Yoseph Lapid and Fredrich Kratochwil termed in 1996 a "return of culture and identity in IR theory". Indeed, many developing countries seem to be somehow engaged in national development activities with the central aims of strengthening national unity and improving the welfare of the population. Identity has become not only one of the most important questions, but also the most vital answer to some of the chief problems that our states and world face on the road toward development and peace. For that reason this thesis attempt to provide one possible solution to the problem of fragmentation, isolation, exclusion and ultimately conflict within multi ethnic nations by the means of the construction of common identity.

In the historical case of Japan, conflict is minimal, but tensions remained between different ethnic groups living within the state territory. The inequity was not purely state-inspired, it was inbuilt within a 150 year culture of exclusion and inclusion. Japan is an interesting case in point, however, because very recently steps have been taken to ameliorate the culture of ethnic inclusion and exclusion. As I show throughout this thesis, steps have been engaged consciously by the institutions of the state itself in what appears at the moment to be a fairly successful attempt to mobilize and unify the different ethnic communities together as part of the same political (state) and cultural (nation) community. This strategy has created an artificial, but nevertheless apparently functional, new identity that is inclusive rather than exclusive that can only be termed ´Japaneseness´.

While several Japanese authors, and a few western ones, have hinted indirectly that this process is happening, very little if any academic study has been devoted to exploring how this process has occurred and what its implications might be for certain theories of identity and for the theory and practice of national and international relations. The broad task of this thesis is to attempt to make some contribution in this area. Part of this thesis was inspired by my attempts to understand a particular theory of identity first published in 1990 by the poststructuralist Judith Butler. Her theory of the ´performative construction of identity´ contests the notion of gender-fixed identity and explains how identity is located not in the body but beyond it, within the acts that individuals perform and repeat in their social context. In 1990, Butler herself absolutely rejected the possibility of applying her theory to ethnic forms of identity . However, after a few studies effectively applied a version of her theory to political institutions, in 1999 Butler conceded that her theory had, perhaps, a wider application than she originally thought . Indeed, several factors suggest that her theory may not only be eminently applicable to ethnic forms of identity. It may also be the case that applying it to ethnic forms of identity validates further the theory itself. In view of this, the purpose of this thesis is to demonstrate that some aspects of Butler´s theory of the performative construction of identity can be useful in explaining the Japanese case.

The contribution hope to make in this thesis operates on two levels, one particular and one more general. In the first instance, I am to demonstrating the wider appeal of Judith Butler´s theory of the performative construction of identity through applying it to the particular case of Japan. In turn, I attempted to establish and defend the more general thesis that identity can be used as an artificial instrument significant for the construction of the nation states, exemplified by the Japanese institutional identity construction.

This thesis is an inductive approach to the particularities of the Japanese case to show a new explanation of the theories of performative construction of identity. This case shows the developing of belonging ideas and the creation of national subjects despite ethnicity by the use of institutions and norms settle by the state. I derive the arguments of this thesis from a number of authors whose expertise in identity or the deconstruction of the nationness of Japan, and the professional and personal experience in Japan which called my attention to the topic of identity.

Signpost Section

In chapter one I present and explore the concept of performative construction of identity and its application to the construction of Nation-States. I then identify and bring together the ideas of construction of national identity and nationness with the theory of Benedict Anderson of an imagined community related to the Japanese case. Since there have been few studies on the transference of the features of individual identity into national identity, one task of the first chapter is to provide an argument that it is theoretically plausible to make such a move. Here I claim that it is indeed possible to apply a version of Butler´s theory of performative construction, which was originally designed to map female individual identity construction, to the construction of something collective such as the national identity. This formed the theoretical base of the whole study by demonstrating how national identity can be constructed, exemplifying this hypothesis with the Japanese case, context and current reality. I then show how these ideas can be enhanced with the help of some of Anderson´s key ideas on imagined communities. A certain approach to Anderson´s position can give to us a more comprehensible view of the Japanese case, and help to introduce the historical explanation.

In chapter two I argued that the case of Japan provides significant practical evidence supporting the validity of the theory of performative national identity construction developed in chapter one. In section one I introduce the Japanese case, beginning with a brief survey of the key points in Japanese history that have impacted significantly upon its national identity construction. I then carry forward the main theoretical points outlined at the end of the first chapter. In sections two to six respectively I explore normative subjectivity, nationness, performativity, repetition and ritual and representation. Here it was demonstrated how each theme can explain the artificial nature of Japanese national identity construction in a particularly integrated and illuminating way.

In the first two chapters I concentrate on how the theoretical framework can be applied in an empirical manner to explain practical historical circumstances and policies. However, as social scientists, an element of value judgment cannot be avoided in studies of this kind. In chapter three I assess how politically and socially successful the Japanese project of artificial national identity construction has been. In the first section I explore the perceived benefits surrounding the issue of creating and maintaining national unity and consequently internal national (political/economic/social) stability and external national power. These are primary factors motivating state manipulation of Japanese nationness. Clearly there are strong advantages to a system that permits and encourages a plurality of ethnic groups to overcome or transcend their particular differences - a thesis that postliberals may find appealing. However, there are also and invariably some disadvantages that the performative construction of national identity reveals. In the second section I contend that the manipulation of national identity by political means and political elites has an unavoidable dark side. The same process that institutions artificially create national subjects can lead to the exclusion of marginal ethnic groups who do not fit the ´standardized´ model of what ´national subjects´ are perceived to be. This dichotomy of good and bad effects, to a certain extent, seems an unavoidable conclusion of any system based on an understanding of human nature as socially constructed. Rousseau´s theory, for example, has been famously hailed as both a blueprint for modern democratic sovereignty and at the same time potentially totalitarian. Caution clearly needs to be exercised when approaching the topic and the practice of artificial identity construction which, as this thesis attempts to show, is an empirical reality not a social science fiction. Notwithstanding this, one thing seems clear. If the artificial creation of national identity is happening, then we ought to be fully aware that this is so. The point, originally made by Butler, is significant and imperative. In this way, perhaps the more negative characteristics of artificial identity manipulation can be ameliorated in this way, by bringing those in power to account for their actions.

Nevertheless, in the final section of this chapter I suggest a more positive outcome than this. While there are potentially dangerous elements to artificial national identity construction, it does not follow that these will always be actualized - particularly if populations are aware it is occurring. National identity, even if artificial, has proved itself able to encapsulate most of the population of a country and benefit the majority in terms of unity and national power. If this is the case, then it is not impossible that new policies can be created to ´artificially´ include those communities previously excluded from the unified majority. Indeed, it can be argued that it would be easier for a country that is already fairly widely unified and powerful as a result to do so. This is precisely what is happening today in Japan.

Finally, in the conclusion I draw together and reinforce the central argument of this thesis that the Japanese case of the construction of the nation state was a process in which identity was used as an artificial instrument. Explaining the importance of the policies applied to be performed by the Japanese people resulted in the post-Meiji Japan in a country unified and invented by them. The relative degree of regional autonomy and local diversity was abolished and substituted by political centralization and homogeneity. The sense of belonging that was previously limited to the local communities became significantly extended. The word kuni, which originally signified ´province´, grew to mean ´nation´. The members turned into equal subjects of the Empire, and became cognizant of being part of ´Japan´. The population was the target of an increasing standardization, and diversity was segregated and condemned. Most important, the Meiji policies gave cognitive, emotional and moral sense to the Japaneseness, and the Japanese Nation-State was born.

National Identity, subjectivity, performativity, nationness, Japan, nation state

Table of content

Introduction (archivo pdf, 61 kb)

  • 1 Central objectives, structure of arguments

Capítulo 1. Transforming Butler´s theory (archivo pdf, 121 kb)

  • 1.1 Butler´s theory
  • 1.2 Can Butler´s theory be applied to the construction of national identity?
  • 1.3 Should Butler´s theory be applied to national identity construction?
  • 1.4 Introducing Anderson: imagined communities
  • 1.5 Elements of the theory to be used in this thesis
  • 1.6 Conclusions

Capítulo 2. Japan: the empirical confirmation (archivo pdf, 120 kb)

  • 2.1 Short history of Japan
  • 2.2 Key historical moments in Japanese national identity formation
  • 2.3 Understanding the Japanese case using Butler´s theory
  • 2.4 Nationness
  • 2.5 Representation
  • 2.6 Normative subjectivity
  • 2.7 Repetition/ritual
  • 2.8 Performativity
  • 2.9 Conclusions

Capítulo 3. Evaluation and normative considerations (archivo pdf, 73 kb)

  • 3.1 Benefits
  • 3.2 Disadvantages
  • 3.3 Positive outcome
  • 3.4 Conclusions

Capítulo 4. Conclusion (archivo pdf, 25 kb)

  • 4.1 Summary of the argument
  • 4.2 Chapters
  • 4.3 General conclusions
  • 4.4 Specific conclusions

Referencias (archivo pdf, 20 kb)

Montiel Welti, E. 2004. The performative construction of national identity. Tesis Licenciatura. Relaciones Internacionales. Departamento de Relaciones Internacionales e Historia, Escuela de Ciencias Sociales, Universidad de las Américas Puebla. Octubre. Derechos Reservados © 2004.