Identity Change, Anxiety and Creativity: How 19th Century Japan Sought to Leave Asia and Become Part of the West - Karl GUSTAFSSON



Identity change is an important phenomenon in international politics. It can radically alter how states orient themself and act internationally. But how does identity change occur? For some, it is merely an epiphenomenal result of changes in the international distribution of power. Others highlight domestic factors, while still others see it as occurring through a social process of interaction with other states. There are also explanations that combine these and other factors. While existing accounts have pushed the debate on identity change forward, this article suggests that incorporating anxiety into our understanding of identity change would help us better understand two important aspects of it: how an existing identity comes to be doubted and how a new one becomes thinkable and eventually accepted. Drawing on the work of psychologist Rollo May, this article explores the link between identity change, anxiety and creativity. The argument is illustrated through reference to 19th century Japan. For much of its history, Japan was part of the Sino-centric order and looked up to China as a “teacher in the ways of civilization”. However, in the 19th century, Japan radically redefined its identity in relation to China, and Asia more broadly, and rejected the Sino-centric world view as it sought to become a “civilized” state similar to the Western countries.

Keywords:  East Asia, existentialism, Fukuzawa Yukichi, ontological security, Rollo May
*  Associate Professor, Stockholm University, Department of Economic History and International Relations & Senior Research Fellow, the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Stockholm.