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How Japan copied American culture and made it better.
April 13, 2014 3:59 PM   Subscribe

There’s something about the perspective of the Japanese that allows them to home in on the essential elements of foreign cultures and then perfectly recreate them at home. "Part of what’s going on is simply the globalization of taste, culture, cuisine and the way that, in the modern world, you can get almost anything everywhere. But Japanese Americana is more than that. There’s a special way that the Japanese sensibility has focused on what is great, distinctive and worthy of protection in American culture, even when Americans have not realized the same thing."
posted by bitmage (67 comments total) 53 users marked this as a favorite

 
I am into jewelry-making and no one beats Japanese beads for quality and originality. Miyuki and Toho beads revolutionized that field without question. Delica and Tila beads alone make the Japanese contribution to the field extraordinary, but it goes beyond that. I have always been a fan of Japanese workmanship -- even the tiniest grain of a size 15 seed bead.

Thank you so much for the link...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 4:09 PM on April 13, 2014 [4 favorites]


Having lived in Japan for almost a decade, I am always bothered when Americans get offended and talk about the Japanese engaging in "cultural misappropriation".

Japanese culture sees appropriation, whether authentic or not, as tribute, not insult. It's a form of cultural imperialism to judge the Japanese using American standards of social justice. Those standards were created in American universities, by American thinkers, to address American problems. Take that thinking outside of America and it becomes nonsense fairly quickly.

I love this article. I love the Japanese for having a higher standard of high standards than almost any culture on earth.
posted by MeanwhileBackAtTheRanch at 4:11 PM on April 13, 2014 [33 favorites]


I've never heard of an American saying something like that, America is all about trying to recreate the products of foreign cultures here at home and it's one of the positive traits of the place.

I am not interested in $1000 bottle of bourbon though, Japan can have that.
posted by Drinky Die at 4:13 PM on April 13, 2014 [5 favorites]


I'm mostly referring to the reactions I've seen to things like the Japanese Cholo subculture.
posted by MeanwhileBackAtTheRanch at 4:15 PM on April 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


1000 bucks for bourbon is a little nuts. But the clothes at Workers seem exceptionally well made, and likely worth the investment, particularly for things like outerwear.
posted by MeanwhileBackAtTheRanch at 4:18 PM on April 13, 2014


I'm mostly referring to the reactions I've seen to things like the Japanese Cholo subculture.

Ahh, well that's a tough one because of potential associations with gang culture instead of Latino culture as a whole. Once you get into complicated issues like that the "tribute" argument sometimes falls apart, like it certainly does for the DC football team name. I don't know near enough about Latino or Japanese culture to untangle the potential appropriation issues there.
posted by Drinky Die at 4:25 PM on April 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


Japanese culture sees appropriation, whether authentic or not, as tribute, not insult. It's a form of cultural imperialism to judge the Japanese using American standards of social justice. Those standards were created in American universities, by American thinkers, to address American problems. Take that thinking outside of America and it becomes nonsense fairly quickly.

That's kind of a no true scotsman argument, isn't it? Personally I think a better approach would be to put down the peals and say that culture is appropriation.
posted by Sebmojo at 4:33 PM on April 13, 2014 [10 favorites]


Japanese culture sees appropriation, whether authentic or not, as tribute, not insult.

Ask pretty much any American engaged in appropriation and they'll tell you the same thing, though.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:35 PM on April 13, 2014 [25 favorites]


dammit: 'put down the pearls'
posted by Sebmojo at 4:38 PM on April 13, 2014 [3 favorites]


Japanese bells totally ring better.
posted by box at 4:52 PM on April 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


This is comparing the high end of Japanese 'American style items' to American items in general.

How rare are the Japanese items relative to the rarity of high quality American goods?
posted by srboisvert at 4:54 PM on April 13, 2014


Ask pretty much any American engaged in appropriation and they'll tell you the same thing, though.

Big difference. Most of the time when White Americans appropriate, they're appropriating from a culture that's been exploited or mistreated by White Americans. The Japanese never exploited or marginalized American Latinos, never had any power over them, so when the Japanese appropriate American Latino culture or American White culture, it's the same thing, a tribute, or just acquisition of cultural and artistic content.

This a bit of a tangent, of course. The story is really about how the apex of Japanese craftsmanship can out-perform even the original craftsmen they're imitating. And it's often quite true. Of course, we're talking about the best of the best. There are also plenty of mediocre imitations.
posted by MeanwhileBackAtTheRanch at 4:55 PM on April 13, 2014 [3 favorites]


A 23-year-old documentary made extremely similar points with other examples, and there are now publisher samples of around 3/5 of the video on YouTube. I like the examples in the video and also in this article, because for the most part they are just fun, interesting things that actually happened, but the critique I linked to in the blue post may be relevant in both cases. There's definitely some over-generalization going on, and the thrust of it seems to be that America is awesome, though it takes a very peculiar and choosy foreign admirer to really show everyone in what way--a comforting narrative for Americans and an ambiguous one for the admirer.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 5:08 PM on April 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


Who taught anyone how to do that? Because. wow.
posted by shoesfullofdust at 5:14 PM on April 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


In the meanwhile, Japan is also pretty good at tacky, low-quality cultural appropriation too, he posts while wearing cheap Japanese jeans that wore out after three months and having seen a tanning salon named "Blacky." American cultural appropriation gets it good because it's still largely a culture that Japan looks up to. Asia, on the other hand, gets regarded pretty similarly to how the US does — Japan, like England, seems to regard itself as being just off the shore of North America.
posted by DoctorFedora at 5:14 PM on April 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


I want to check out Kamakura Shirts next time we're in New York. Pricing is comparable to more mainstream brands.
posted by arcticseal at 5:18 PM on April 13, 2014


Isn't adopting and then perfecting other cultures a reoccurring trope of Japanesse history?
posted by vorpal bunny at 5:22 PM on April 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


The story is really about how the apex of Japanese craftsmanship can out-perform even the original craftsmen they're imitating.

Eh, Americans don't really believe in perfection, it seems the Japanese are somewhat more like the French in that way. Americans believe you can always make it new --- make it bigger, make it better, and once you have the old way is no longer of interest. A true appreciation of craft requires to some some degree a belief in an ideal form --- the craftsman may always work harder, do better, come closer to attaining the ideal, but the ideal exists. Americans will tinker with an icon every which way if they think they can make it better; even that which is widely admired and popular is not sacred.
posted by Diablevert at 5:28 PM on April 13, 2014 [10 favorites]


Appropriation? Here's an awesome Japanese garage band outrocking the Animals' version of the John Lee Hooker song, Boom Boom.

When Japanese people produce bourbon that's better than any bourbon from Bourbon County, they merely prove the postmodern point that authenticity is overrated and that execution is what really matters.
posted by Luminiferous Ether at 5:29 PM on April 13, 2014 [13 favorites]


Big difference. Most of the time when White Americans appropriate, they're appropriating from a culture that's been exploited or mistreated by White Americans. The Japanese never exploited or marginalized American Latinos, never had any power over them, so when the Japanese appropriate American Latino culture or American White culture, it's the same thing, a tribute, or just acquisition of cultural and artistic content.

The Japanese used Americans for slave labour during WW2 - does that count?
posted by Sebmojo at 5:39 PM on April 13, 2014 [6 favorites]


I should probably be a bit more nuanced in what I said earlier. A lot of the stuff you'll read about Japan out there is based on celebrity-style adulation that forgets that Japan is a real place that real people live in, vaguely akin to the impression one gets at times that, say, the Apple headquarters in California is literally Willy Wonka's factory, except that they develop computer stuff instead of chocolate.

Japan is really, really good at doing things well when it (if we are to regard a country of 120,000,000 as a monolithic whole) wants to. Japanese craftsmanship is well regarded in the same way as German engineering, because they're both countries where people are socialized to take a whole lot of pride in what they do (and at least in Japan, there's a whole lot less cultural emphasis on how it's uncool to earnestly like things like there is in the US, or at least how there was when I was growing up in the nineties).

On the other hand, even glamorous celebrities have to poop sometimes. Japan, like virtually any other place, is full of truly mediocre people with no taste. It is, in fact, a place that simultaneously demonstrates amazingly good taste and amazingly bad taste, sometimes in the exact same place. While you'll often find a lot of things like Americana executed in an Oz-like saturation-up-to-150% more-real-than-real manner, or patisseries from rural nowhere towns in Japan winning international awards, this is also only something that tends to happen with cultural appropriation of things where there's a sense of admiration on Japan's part. On the other hand, look at any pop culture mention of, say, China, and you are guaranteed at least two of three things:
1. Pandas
2. China dresses
3. Some form of Chinese musical instrument, usually playing fourths, though usually not the Oriental Riff, because that's largely a Western invention anyway

So on the one hand, you have stuff like Scotch-style whisk[e]y that is world-class, and bands like the Bawdies that are just so into rockabilly that they perform only songs in English, and restaurants that serve the best damn burgers you'll ever find, and yet at the same time there's this notion that any cultural element that didn't come from White People countries that are held in pop cultural esteem is pretty much just fair pickings to just do with as one pleases — anecdata, of course, but it's pretty easy to get the impression from living in Japan that it's a country that only considers itself "Asian" in the sense that it is inescapably forced to be off the coast of Asia, which it generally considers itself more or less separate from culturally whenever possible. Even cultural links to China and Korea and kind of ignored outside of the same kinds of academic contexts that would have Americans learning that German once had a shot at being, if not the de facto language of the colonies, at least on par with English (and, further, that English is a Germanic language, and so on, and so forth).

And of course, then you get into other issues, like how Japan, being an essentially homogenous society (doubly so if you factor in the invisibility of the main minorities), lacks things like America's Troubled History of Race Relations and thus winds up doing things that look really tacky to a society that's grown to find it unacceptable to imitate other races, so long as those races are black people specifically.

So, uh, maybe I should phrase myself differently: Japan regards race relations, especially things like impersonating other races, the way America regards white people impersonating, say, native Americans, Asians, people from the Middle East, Central/South Americans, etc., which is to say with relative cultural indifference (or "as a tribute").

All of this is not to suggest that Japan is a place full of horrible, tacky people. This is instead meant to provide a bit more nuance and subtlety, because I have no intention of Going Viral, as that always demands that you paint with no finer a brush than a foot-long roller. It's a place where people live, and the culture is different in ways that are pretty interesting to Americans, but it's also a place where the received wisdom given by Americans to other Americans is almost inevitably wildly out of date, or just inaccurate. I mean, for god's sake, people still seem to believe that you can buy toothpaste in Japan that isn't fluoridated.
posted by DoctorFedora at 5:51 PM on April 13, 2014 [36 favorites]


When Japanese people produce bourbon that's better than any bourbon from Bourbon County, they merely prove the postmodern point that authenticity is overrated and that execution is what really matters.

It's funny, there isn't actually any bourbon made in the current Bourbon County.

The article mentioned some quality bourbon bars and collectors but I didn't see anything about a Japanese produced bourbon-style whiskey. I know there is plenty of single malt but I have never heard of Japanese corn whiskies. Buying out American producers doesn't count.

But yeah, I find the "real *blank*" can only be made HERE stuff silly, depending on the product. The influence of terroir seems to be vastly overstated. Sometimes you have stuff like bourbon where nobody even pretends there is something unique about America that would make any bourbon-style whiskey made elsewhere any better or worse, it's just a cultural protection.

I have a lot of respect for cultures that emphasize craftsmanship rather than origins.
posted by Drinky Die at 5:52 PM on April 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


"I now own a house in Lexington, and I’ve even been named a colonel in Kentucky."

Being named a colonel in Kentucky? Is that a novelty title one can buy, sort of like that of Scottish Laird, or a property deed to a crater on the Moon?
posted by acb at 6:23 PM on April 13, 2014


"Kentucky colonel" is a civilian title, much like Colonel Sanders.
posted by DoctorFedora at 6:26 PM on April 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


I have a problem with the argument that any cultural appropriation is somehow misappropriation which seems to be the order of the day in certain circles.

As long as it's done in honor of and not in a mocking fashion it seems fine to me.
posted by vapidave at 6:41 PM on April 13, 2014 [6 favorites]


acb: "Being named a colonel in Kentucky? Is that a novelty title one can buy, sort of like that of Scottish Laird, or a property deed to a crater on the Moon?"

Sort of, but not quite. One of my father's co-workers got him a Kentucky colonel-ship as a birthday present, complete with a large frame-able certificate of commission. (No white suit and string-tie, though.)

Kentucky colonels are selected by a non-profit charitable organization headed by the Governor of Kentucky, so it's not really a purchasable title. But since only a Kentucky colonel can nominate someone else, it definitely pays to know people who know people.
posted by Strange Interlude at 6:44 PM on April 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


Japanese culture sees appropriation, whether authentic or not, as tribute, not insult.

I think this is somewhat true, and also in the other direction. In my experience, the reaction of most Japanese citizens to Americans adopting aspects of Japanese culture is pretty positive (some exceptions for things that Japanese themselves look down upon, like certain aspects of otaku culture). I don't think most Japanese I know would fully understand the complaint of cultural appropriation (of course, neither Japan nor America is famous for its sensitivity to foreign cultures).

(Of course, some American families of Japanese descent might have a different take on the appropriation angle, since they might have a history more similar to other minorities in America)
posted by wildcrdj at 7:07 PM on April 13, 2014


I think the typical American response to this would be 'who gives a shit'. Copying an idea to perfection? You kinda lose the point, no?
posted by repoman at 7:20 PM on April 13, 2014


I really don't think it matters who had the idea originally as long as you're appropriating it because you love it. If you're mocking or making a joke of an idea that's something else. But if you genuinely like something and want to do something interesting with it? Go forth and do that weird thing that's currently outside your immediate culture.
posted by fishmasta at 7:31 PM on April 13, 2014 [7 favorites]


David Marx, who is writing a book on the influence of American "Ivy League" fashion in post-war Japan, has an article on Kensuke Ishizu, 'easily the most important figure in post-war Japanese fashion before the rise of the international avant-garde designers Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto', The Man Who Brought Ivy To Japan, who started an influential fashion brand, VAN, which went on to influence everything since then, up to and including Uniqlo today. Marx has a related, fun Tumblr of Japanese advertising of American fashion also worth perusing. You can see why there are brands like Workers or the Japanese denim craze, etc.
posted by gen at 7:59 PM on April 13, 2014 [4 favorites]


From 2007: Out-Levi-ing Levi Strauss
"501s are unambiguously the model for the finest of the new Japanese denims, which flatter the originals so religiously that Levi Strauss & Company filed a complaint in San Francisco Federal Court in January, claiming that five Japanese brands had infringed on proprietary details of its jeans like the vertical tab on the rear pocket, the signature V-shaped stitching on the pocket, and the familiar logo of two horses attempting to tug apart a pair of jeans. "
posted by gen at 8:10 PM on April 13, 2014


This phenomenon was a major subplot of the great Philip K. Dick novel The Man In The High Castle, with the added overlay of the Axis having won World War 2 and the additional fetishization of the culture of the conquered by the conquerers that occurs thereby. I guess it's a two-way street....
posted by slappy_pinchbottom at 8:24 PM on April 13, 2014 [10 favorites]


Historicity!
posted by DoctorFedora at 8:49 PM on April 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


From 2007: Out-Levi-ing Levi Strauss

This was already done.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 9:05 PM on April 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


How Japan Copied American Culture and Made it better butter.

That I believe.
posted by QueerAngel28 at 10:21 PM on April 13, 2014


On the other hand, I went to the Japanese cultural festival in dc after the cherry blossom parade, and was in line behind a bunch of American teenagers dressed as Japanese video game characters, in tribute, I assume, so we got that going for us.
posted by empath at 12:37 AM on April 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


The article mentioned some quality bourbon bars and collectors but I didn't see anything about a Japanese produced bourbon-style whiskey.

I just remember the ice cubes I got with the whiskey I ordered in Osaka. One time a single large beveled cube and once an almost baseball sized perfect sphere of ice.
posted by Golden Eternity at 12:51 AM on April 14, 2014


(Of course, some American families of Japanese descent might have a different take on the appropriation angle, since they might have a history more similar to other minorities in America)


That's kind of actually the main point though. When I think about appropriation, my mental model usually has to do with how it affects –Americans (of which I am one), i.e. the observation that a cultural style or artifact had been copied from somebody's heritage, and then the ramifications of that. That's where the potential for harm lies. Trade, sharing, cultural exchange between nations isn't really the issue, I feel. It's the peoples near you, not the people 1000's miles across an ocean.
posted by polymodus at 12:54 AM on April 14, 2014


Isn't adopting and then perfecting other cultures a reoccurring trope of Japanesse history?

When you think of the history of the Japanese relationship with China and Korea, this goes pretty quickly into very unfunny territory, beginning with the cognitive dissonance between "But so many cool things like writing and Buddhism and culture came from China" and "Goddammit, late Qing China, you suck."
posted by sukeban at 12:57 AM on April 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


Yeah, Japan's a lot more willing to give credit for cultural appropriation when it's of European origin rather than Asian. Imagine all that American whooping and hollering over denying the significance of all things German and French during/after the World Wars and, more embarrassingly, a decade ago, except so fully internalized over generations to the point that virtually nobody even thinks about how, say, something like half of the entire Japanese lexicon came from China along with the concept of written language, much less openly acknowledges it as something to be appreciated rather than as anything other than a given to be taken for granted when passed over, briefly, in school.
posted by DoctorFedora at 1:27 AM on April 14, 2014


Essentialism as far as the eye can see. "The Japanese are so good/bad/racist/honorable/dsjiufhljhadlkf at..."

Ugh.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 2:10 AM on April 14, 2014 [3 favorites]


Nuance doesn't go viral.
posted by DoctorFedora at 3:05 AM on April 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


This phenomenon was a major subplot of the great Philip K. Dick novel The Man In The High Castle...

Yes, I was reminded of that when I read the article. One major difference, though - the main Japanese character in the book is a collector who only wants original Americana, and scorns any kind of replica, no matter how exact or high-quality.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:42 AM on April 14, 2014


It seems that this passion for Americana reflects a naive and idealised image of the United States that (I think) persists throughout the rest of Japanese culture. It's very flattering, like when somebody close identifies qualities and habits in you, of which you weren't even aware. And yet this appreciation is simultaneously very creepy, considering this is country was bombed with American nuclear weapons!

Perhaps there is something about the role of tradition in Japanese society that some Japanese are both repelled and compelled by, and so they try to find it elsewhere.
posted by quosimosaur at 4:13 AM on April 14, 2014


Japan's a lot more willing to give credit for cultural appropriation when it's of European origin rather than Asian.

I can kind of see that, but I think that may be less a lack of credit-where-credit-is due than something they feel is exotic enough to draw in consumers. Perhaps it would be like trying to market yourself as an "ethnic" restaurant in Texas while selling Mexican food vs one that sells Lebanese or something. Food like ramen/gyoza/etc has been appropriated, and most people are aware of its origin, but they feel like it's close enough as to almost be Japanese and hence not so special. Whereas French or Italian, they can totally play up the "exotic" side to draw people in. Every town has French/Italian by now anyways, but the western hemisphere still has that unknown exotic mystique that people latch onto- the same way Americans latch on to Eastern religion/medicine, etc..
posted by p3t3 at 4:34 AM on April 14, 2014


Who taught anyone how to do that? Because. wow.
posted by flabdablet at 4:52 AM on April 14, 2014


Also I'm not too sure how this relates, but dealing with the national psyche of Japan:

I was teaching an Adult English class the other night, and this being the season of cherry blossoms, it became the main topic.

I was sort of thrown for a loop after explaining that there aren't really any predominant flowering trees like that in the US, at least not in the way you see in Japan (rows of them along every river bank, school yard, outside public offices, parks, etc in every single town that suddenly turn bright pink for two weeks in April), to which my student replied, "So, .. what do Americans look at then?"

That stuck in my head for the next few days- the answer is not so difficult to make a guess (too much nature, not worth landscaping it all, just leave it naturey and make a garden if you want pretty colors), but it sort of forces me to remind myself about the historical differences - shintoism, animism, placing so much importance on nature while also having no space for it. Constant logistical problem solving of not enough space or natural resources to serve the population.

I think a lot of those age-old problems/customs can still explain a lot about Japanese social trends, business strategies, etc - esp. considering how isolated they were until 200 years ago.
posted by p3t3 at 4:52 AM on April 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


"I really don't think it matters who had the idea originally as long as you're appropriating it because you love it. If you're mocking or making a joke of an idea that's something else. But if you genuinely like something and want to do something interesting with it? Go forth and do that weird thing that's currently outside your immediate culture."

When I was in middle school, a kid in my class dressed up like Michael Jordan for Halloween. Which all you really need for that costume is a jersey and a basketball, but he was a white kid, so he put on a ton of bronzer to look the part. This is in the late 90s in Chicago land so believe me there was nothing but love and admiration in that decision. Still creepy/weird/offensive.
posted by deathpanels at 5:01 AM on April 14, 2014 [3 favorites]


"So, .. what do Americans look at then?"

That stuck in my head for the next few days- the answer is not so difficult to make a guess (too much nature, not worth landscaping it all, just leave it naturey and make a garden if you want pretty colors), but it sort of forces me to remind myself about the historical differences - shintoism, animism, placing so much importance on nature while also having no space for it. Constant logistical problem solving of not enough space or natural resources to serve the population.


In all honesty, I generally tend to regard those questions as being the result of a populace that isn't particularly savvy and, as a whole, is not in the habit of questioning the things that are. It's not as though America isn't the same way in many significant regards, but in Japan it's a lot clearer that everyone just sort of assumes that the whole world is the same as what they're used to because the Japanese experience is far more homogenous than the American experience. There's a possibility there's some sort of philosophical deeper meaning to it on the part of the speaker, but my personal experience with, well, people in general has suggested that "philosophical deeper meaning" is a phrase that means little, if anything, to most.

To put it bluntly, critical thinking skills are not taught by the Japanese educational system (and in fact, I've had a Japanese high school science teacher lament to me that he wished that Japan taught students how to think, the way that American schools do), and this manifests itself in a wide variety of ways, among them the standard question of "You're American. What do you eat at every meal? Bread? Or pasta?" Completely skipping, of course, the possibility of meals not consistently being built around a particular foodstuff. Combine that with Japan's conviction — again, similar to the US — of being uniquely unique, and you wind up with the white-person-in-Japan standard issue story of being told, with pride, that Japan has four seasons, as though it's something that everyone else lacks out in Foreign. I mean, I once saw a middle schooler struggle earnestly with the realization that "foreign" included countries that didn't contain white people ("Is Korea a foreign country, too?").

So yeah, people generally have a tendency to be mediocre. Different countries' populaces have different ways of disappointing you. ; )
posted by DoctorFedora at 5:36 AM on April 14, 2014 [6 favorites]


Such a strange cultural phenomenon, this. Not "the Japanese" so much - oh, it's interesting, but obviously it isn't all "Japanese" doing this, and anyway cultural appropriation happens all the time, for varying reasons and in different ways, in many cultures. What's strange is the phenomenon of thanking someone else for appropriating your culture, being awed at how well they do it, whilst simultaneously and subtley shaking your head and kicking the dirt in sadness that your own culture is so terrible at valuing itself properly or achieving its functions correctly. That strikes me as a uniquely American thing somehow. Although if course I'm probably doing the same thing when I say that.
posted by koeselitz at 5:38 AM on April 14, 2014


Yeah, I'm being a bit too grumpy today. I don't mean to be hard on Japan so much as just mediocre people in general, and I've lived in Japan for a while now so there's a combination of people's general tendency to fetishize Japan (sometimes literally) and disappointments that a society that fundamentally Gets It in all sorts of ways that America doesn't can simultaneously Just Not Get It in a whole bunch of other ways.
posted by DoctorFedora at 6:06 AM on April 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


So yeah, people generally have a tendency to be mediocre. Different countries' populaces have different ways of disappointing you. ; )

I bet the Japanese could not improve on American mediocrity and that is a pity for them because they'd have a lot more fun. Sometimes getting it means not getting it at all.
posted by three blind mice at 6:34 AM on April 14, 2014


Maybe so, maybe so. But Japanese rock'n'roll? Nope.
posted by Twang at 6:53 AM on April 14, 2014


*Waves hands in the general direction of j-rock, visual kei and angura kei* They've heard of rock music, you know...
posted by sukeban at 7:12 AM on April 14, 2014


This isn't a story about "Japan" doing something -- it is about a sampling of INDIVIDUAL Japanese people doing one particular thing very well, which I think is much more relevant.

It is common to claim that Japanese culture suppresses individuality -- I actually think there is a very strong sense of a PRIVATE individuality that is unique and sometimes secret. In a culture that values public behavioral conformity to such a strong degree, the need to be unique, to have a private dream or hobby becomes that much greater. In a sense it is distilled into the kind of benign monomania that leads someone to drive across the US looking for antique bourbons, for tattered 1950s era Junior League cookbooks, for 45 RPM discs, etc.

So you wind up with the amazing museums, craftsmanship, and art that is seen in Japan in part because the energy that might otherwise go into making personal choices or self-expression gets focused very intently on a particular monomania. To the benefit of the rest of us.
posted by jfwlucy at 7:35 AM on April 14, 2014 [9 favorites]


I disagree that Japanese people do not have critical thinking skills. Just look at the sheer number of newspapers and magazines. Magazines, even in regional markets, still have a morning and evening *print* run. The big difference between Japan and, say, the US, is that Americans are taught to express opinions (like I am doing here) as frequently as possible, using logic and facts to hammer an opponent into submission.

If you are married to a Japanese person, you never want to back them into a corner and "win" an argument (this may be true for all marriages though). But, just as I am doing here, we in the US and Canada are taught from early on (elementary school debating class) to construct abstract arguments to win points.

Neither approach is "wrong", by the way, but to suggest that Japanese people do not have critical thinking skills, or that Americans somehow do (Americans have their own set of cultural blinkers and sense of superiority towards other cultures) may be a little shortsighted.

I realized after a while teaching eikaiwa and later as an ALT and even as a translator that there was more than a little bit of missionary attitude in my work.

Anyway, in terms of "remixing" cultures, Marxy had a great article that explained that back in the day (pre-Internet) there were entire manuals Japanese folks could use to understand various American subcultures (hippy, punk, Western), and you could check off little boxes to make sure you got it right.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:32 AM on April 14, 2014 [3 favorites]


"So, .. what do Americans look at then?"

For future questions, beautiful dogwoods (red/white/pink), red buds, foul smelling decorative pear trees, cherry (regular and weeping), and magnolia trees. The dogwood is in a number of states the state tree AND flower, after all. There aren't sakura festivals, per se, but you can tell your students that a lot of Americans love their flowering trees!

As for the article, as an American, I'm flattered that someone else has fallen in love with something that originated in my country. I appreciate the passion and the desire to do their best to recreate/create it with all their heart. It's awesome.
posted by Atreides at 8:42 AM on April 14, 2014 [3 favorites]


Maybe so, maybe so. But Japanese rock'n'roll? Nope.

WRONG because Guitar Wolf, Teengenerate, The Raydios, and the King Brothers
posted by Hoopo at 9:09 AM on April 14, 2014 [3 favorites]


As for the article, as an American, I'm flattered that someone else has fallen in love with something that originated in my country. I appreciate the passion and the desire to do their best to recreate/create it with all their heart. It's awesome.

Agreed. This is why I love Japanese design and type of production; I love the Japanese interpretation and improvement of US style and goods…there are a few domestics trying to bring this kind of work back to the US, and its becoming more common, but they don't do nearly as good a job as Japanese producers just in terms of sheer quality of construction. We've lost a lot of knowledge in terms of quality in certain areas, especially dry-goods and hardware.

It's a bittersweet feeling though. The article made me super sad, because there are so many amazing American heritage brands, with so few surviving. It makes me really happy that these slivers are surviving in other parts of the world. I see sparks of it in my peers sometimes, but on a whole, as a country, we don't really have the drive to maintain these industries that were (in my opinion) historically huge parts of America's soft power and a really cool part of our spirit as a country. If someone just dropped a couple truckloads of cash in my backyard tomorrow, the first thing I would do is start a foundation for the rediscovery of heritage brands and processes. It bums me greatly that when any politicians talk about 'bringing jobs back to America' that they're never talking about this kind of stuff.

Also, my experience with Japanese culture isn't super wide, but I've got a couple Japanese friends here, and I can at least attest to this topic being a two-way street, at least among them. Example; I like ramen a lot. I make ramen at home a lot. I make my own noodles. And I've been told that my Chashu could go toe to toe on Japanese soil. My Japanese friends get genuinely giddy-stoked that I do this. It's a really happy part of our collective friendship.
posted by furnace.heart at 9:41 AM on April 14, 2014 [3 favorites]


In the immediate Post-War era, Japan was often accused of ripping off American innovations. Go on eBay and you can find lots of old Japanese clones of American guitars. Of course, there's also electronics, cars, etc. - basically all the stuff that Japan built its economy on from 1945 onwards. If you've read American Psycho, there's a rant that one of the characters goes on about the Japanese stealing American ideas, which even manifested itself in fear of Japan taking over the world in the 1980s and the killing of Vincent Chin by a couple of recently fired American auto workers who thought he was Japanese. Then the Japanese bubble economy burst, tensions eased, and Americans kind of forgot how the Japanese were once our most feared and hated rivals; meanwhile ties between the two countries were strengthening due to the legacy of America's occupation and economic partnership. Japan slowly built up its peer status again with the world's developed nations after being a hated enemy, and people began to see them as equals or having earned their right to be treated as such. Now most Americans respect and admire "Japanese" culture, whatever that is, and it's an honor to have them appropriate or copy American culture.
posted by ChuckRamone at 11:12 AM on April 14, 2014 [1 favorite]




re: cultural appropriation (I assume it's only cultural imperialism if the power relations are pointed the other way) I used to know a guy- American guy- who found Nick Cave annoying, as all right-thinking people do, and to explain why he'd do an impression, not sure where it came from, of a drunken Cave pontificating-

'You Americans don't know your musical history, you don't understand your own culture, that's why you need me, because I understand.... the blues!'

Right? Because being told "your culture, you're doing it wrong" is kind of crap. But in the case of the stuff in the article, the thing is, it all sounds pretty awesome. There's, like, only a couple of places i the world where you can taste antique bourbons, and they're in Tokyo? That's cool as hell, sometimes it does take fresh eyes on something to see what's become invisible or taken for granted over time.
posted by hap_hazard at 11:53 AM on April 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


Then the Japanese bubble economy burst, tensions eased, and Americans kind of forgot how the Japanese were once our most feared and hated rivals

Yeah, it is interesting how different it is from when I was a kid. I was watching Back To The Future 2 with my (Japanese) fiancee, and pointing out to her that Marty's boss was Japanese because "we" all thought the Japanese would control everything in the future. She's about the same age, but was not really aware of this fear/thought by Americans.

If you are married to a Japanese person, you never want to back them into a corner and "win" an argument (this may be true for all marriages though). But, just as I am doing here, we in the US and Canada are taught from early on (elementary school debating class) to construct abstract arguments to win points.

Heh - while it is true that trying to "win" an argument with your spouse is a bad idea in any culture, my experience matches that the style of arguing can be different and using the North American approach can... make things much worse (when dealing with a Japanese partner).

Another reason I think its hard for non-Japanese to understand Japan is that, in general, they are reluctant to share their opinion, _especially_ if they think its different from yours. They have (in my experience) an ideal of everyone getting along and having the same opinion without having to argue or debate about it. It doesn't happen, of course, but there is a surface-level performance of it at least. Their culture is less homogenous than they want to present, just as - say - America is less equal than we want to present. (So you have to know someone well enough for them to drop that performance with you). [And of course this varies by individual, but there is a social pressure towards it]
posted by wildcrdj at 1:35 PM on April 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


Those standards were created in American universities, by American thinkers, to address American problems.

I don't think this is accurate at all. A lot of today's mainstream thinking about cultural appropriation has its roots in postcolonialism, and many of the most influential postcolonialist theorists (e.g., Spivak, Said) were neither Americans themselves nor setting out to address American problems in their work.
posted by en forme de poire at 1:45 PM on April 14, 2014 [3 favorites]


Sorry, I worded that badly. Said was Palestinian-American, but his most influential work was about the relationship between Europe and the Middle East. Spivak grew up and went to college in Calcutta and her most famous work focuses on an Indian practice and how it was treated in Britain and the west. My point is that I think it's at best missing the point and at worst inaccurate to describe either as an "American thinker", and their careers were certainly not defined by addressing "American problems."
posted by en forme de poire at 2:03 PM on April 14, 2014


p3t3: ""So, .. what do Americans look at then?""

For what it's worth, I think a valid answer is "the leaves changing color in the fall", most stereotypically in New England but you can actually see it across much of the US.
posted by mhum at 6:25 PM on April 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


Nary a mention of porn.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 8:12 AM on April 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


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