Languages of Security in the Asia-Pacific

College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

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Japanese – Semai | Shigen ni toboshii

May 27th, 2011 · No Comments · Expansionism, Japanese

狭い (せまい)



資源に乏しい (しげんにとぼしい)

shigen ni toboshii

‘Limited in natural resources’

Relates to expansionism

These two words / phrases often appear in similar contexts, hence their appearance here together. Dictionaries will give ‘narrow’ as the first meaning of the word semai, but when one hears it actually being used one soon realises that it is often used in the sense of ‘small’, ‘cramped for space’. As such it is almost always used in relation to the country Japan.

While Japan is referred to as being semai, at 378,000 square km, if it were a European country it would be larger than Germany (with 357,000 square km of area), so the notion of semai-ness dos not really relate to the physical area of the nation. It is used here as a concept related to stability and harmony. Semai draws an implied contrast with countries such as China and the United States which cannot be considered ‘narrow’.

Donald Ritchie, in his 1971 book The Inland Sea noted that “Japan is thought to be small mainly because the Japanese want it to be thought small.” While it is true that much of the land of Japan is mountainous and unsuitable for settlement, and that the cities and towns are crowded, to outside observers the semai mentality appears to entail something more. It supports the idea that Japan should be allowed to continue its post-war protectionism.

Semai presupposes the expansion of Japanese commercial and cultural interests to other parts of Asia and justifies a constant effort to harvest the resources of the region. It can help to justify the exploitation of other economies and societies for Japan’s benefit or, in the past, Japanese expansion into Southeast and East Asia. For instance, in its desire to maintain tariff protections against rice imports from outside Japan, to protect Japanese farmers. The implicit attitude of the Japanese is, ‘we are semai, so allow us to do what we need to do’.

It was such a well-known catchphrase that a traffic campaign in the 1980’s used the words ‘semai Nihon’ in its slogan:


‘It’s a semai country, Japan. Where are you off to in such a hurry?’

The phrase still exists in the national consciousness. A 1997 article in the weekly Gendai magazine is entitled:


I was sick of living in semai Japan: Portraits of twelve Japanese women thriving abroad.

Or in an edition of the journal of the Japan Maritime Association from 2003:


In order to adequately apply wind-power for electricity in Japan which has semai land area…

Another phrase that often appears in this context is 資源に貧しい  ‘shigen ni mazushii’ (‘poor in natural resources’) or  ‘shigen ni toboshii’ 資源に乏しい (‘limited in natural resources’). For instance, in Yoshihiko Ohama’s 2005 essay on the importance of technological innovations in solving the problems of the low birth rate and aging population, he notes that in order to aim at a sustainable development in the face of the population problems Japan (‘poor in natural resources’) must pour its energies into the promotion of technology.

Interestingly, the phrase is used in a phrase modifying the noun ‘Japan’: shigen ni toboshii Nihon 資源に乏しい日本, showing that this characteristic is not at all debatable or contentious. This description of Japan has apparently been used since the Meiji Period to justify Japan’s expansion into (resource-rich) Asia. That is, it is used as a justification for expansionism as Japan is ‘poor in resources’.


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