Japan’s Gross National Cool
April 30, 2002 2:37 PM   Subscribe

Japan’s Gross National Cool - Foreign Policy has an interesting article on the impact of Japanese culture and how it has replaced "Made in Japan" products as the dominant export from Japan. The author points to director Hayao Miyazaki, director/actor Takeshi Kitano, artist Takashi Murakami, and singer/songwriter Namie Amuro, as well as anime in general and Hello Kitty as examples of the global spread of Japanese culture. Do you recognize these people or their work? [more inside]
posted by gen (18 comments total)
Douglas McGray writes: In fact, in cultural terms at least, Japan has become one of a handful of perfect globalization nations (along with the United States). It has succeeded not only in balancing a flexible, absorptive, crowd-pleasing, shared culture with a more private, domestic one but also in taking advantage of that balance to build an increasingly powerful global commercial force. In other words, Japan’s growing cultural presence has created a mighty engine of national cool.

I’m skeptical of non-Japanese writers/artists who spend a few months in Japan and come away having fallen in love (Japan is by no means “perfect”) with what they saw and what they experienced. I don’t mean to take anything away from their experience, but I do think that visitors to Japan often don’t see a complete picture of Japan- they only see what they idealize or what is scintillating for them. William Gibson sees technology and the adoption/integration of technology by the Japanese. This author sees the impact of Japanese culture outside of Japan.

I think that part of Japan’s allure is that it can be as foreign as one can get from Western US/EU culture and still be “first world.” However, I’d argue that it’s much more important for Japan to have a seat at the UN Security Council (for instance) than it would be for Japan to be a major exporter of culture. No matter where you look in Japan, there are systemic problems with almost every major sector. The political system is immobile and utterly insignificant (i.e. it doesn’t matter who’s in office, the system doesn’t change.) Almost every major sector of the economy is devastated after 10 years of recession. The education system creates “perfect” copies of people who do not have jobs to work at or skills important for Japan’s future. Etc. etc.

I'm of the opinion that it is critical for Japan to move away from exporting products to exporting intellectual property. My suggestion would be for Japanese business to focus on software for future growth and economic influence. If media and related intellectual property ends up being the major export from Japan, then that's a compromise I think Japan should be happy to make, especially in light of where they are today. However to idealize Japan’s “National Cool” is to be blinded by the fads of today and not the reality of Japan as a nation, a people and a culture.
posted by gen at 2:39 PM on April 30, 2002

Dude, what about Iron Chef?
posted by rev- at 2:53 PM on April 30, 2002

I personally really like Beat Takeshi's work. Haruki Murakami is one of my favorite writers, along with Kobo Abe and Kenzaburo Oe.

Japan is fascinating for westerners precisely because it is so foreign to us. We are starting to learn more and understand more about Japan, and overcome the history of Orientalism that defined relations in the past.

I agree with you, gen, that idealization devalues the nation and people as a whole. But I would also say that through closer study of Japanese literature and art, the west can come to a better understanding of the nation and people.
posted by Kafkaesque at 3:01 PM on April 30, 2002

However, I’d argue that it’s much more important for Japan to have a seat at the UN Security Council (for instance) than it would be for Japan to be a major exporter of culture.

I disagree. While it might well be "important" in some sense for Japan to have a seat on the UN Security Council, culture trumps politics every time in the long run.
posted by rushmc at 3:02 PM on April 30, 2002

Like Kafkaesque, I'm a big fan of Takeshi, Murakami, Abe and Oe, and I would argue that while a lot of the Japanophilia(?) is based on a fascination with the exotic, these artists are storytellers whose work transcends cultural divides. In some ways Beat Takeshi and Jim Jarmusch have more in common with each other's sensibilities, than they have with other directors from their own countries, although both have mostly made films about their own cultures. Politics tends to be mostly about national interests; really cool art, fortunately, need not be.
posted by liam at 3:27 PM on April 30, 2002

gen says:
I’d argue that it’s much more important for Japan to have a seat at the UN Security Council (for instance) than it would be for Japan to be a major exporter of culture.

gen also says:
I'm of the opinion that it is critical for Japan to move away from exporting products to exporting intellectual property.

And I do not understand. Considering export of IP from the US, for instance, you certainly must account for (arguably) culturally neutral things like business software, but what really has an impact are the American cultural properties (music, movies, cuisine) that have gained worldwide mindshare. How can Japan become a major exporter of IP without trading on its culture?

And no, I do not have numbers deliniating the value of "culturally neutral" vs. "culturally relevant" American IP exports. I'm just going on a hunch. So sue me.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:30 PM on April 30, 2002

Jarmusch, in particular, tends to deal with barriers to communication, or the Stranger in a Strange Land theme, as in Dead Man or Down By Law. Takeshi definitely did this in Brother.

And, too, in Mystery Train, Japanese youth consciousness has been pervaded by the west, so much that they idealize it, and make a pilgrimage to Sun Studios...I suppose you could see a similar thing in Ghost Dog, with the main character being obsessed with the Samurai Way.

I think this culture clash is brought about by cultures that until relatively recently didn't know too much at all about each other. The two cultures being thrust together makes for great subject matter.
posted by Kafkaesque at 3:37 PM on April 30, 2002

hayao miyazaki rules over all! also, i like toshiro mifune (born in china?) a lot. oh and yasunari kawabata :)

fwiw, here's william gibson's take on the matter. and yeah, the idealization thing is weird, but not after you've seen gaea girls! or tom green in japan :)

as far as being a major exporter of IP, it might help if the US lifted its trade restrictions blocking imports of japanese supercomputers...
posted by kliuless at 3:43 PM on April 30, 2002

Alienation is a great unifier, at least as a feeling that transcends national boundaries. I guess the exotic kitsch fetishization provides the mutual reference points, but it's the shared emotion that makes the connections between the cultures. What goes for Takeshi/Jarmusch also goes for Murakami/DeLillo, and perhaps Cornelius/Beck...
posted by liam at 4:04 PM on April 30, 2002

Hmm, Foreign Policy's site seems MeFi'ed. Or something.

It's actually interesting the more subtle ways Japanese culture has wormed its way into ours -- such as Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima's Lone Wolf and Cub manga, which was adapted into the American comic-book Road to Perdition -- this summer's Tom Hanks movie.

Truth to tell, though, I wonder if Japanese culture's moment as such has passed. Overt stuff like Shonen Knife has been replaced by stuff directly marketed at Americans like Final Fantasy, and other influences tend to be in the areas of technology and such that aren't necessarily specifically branded as Japanese -- they just start or incubate there for technological reasons.
posted by dhartung at 4:20 PM on April 30, 2002

Ah, Lone Wolf and Cub. Don't forget the movies.
posted by rushmc at 7:05 PM on April 30, 2002

It's been almost scary to watch this trend since the 80's when I first visited Japan. Those days, we we're trading 5th generation dubs through the mail and venturing downtown find to the one shop with real manga. (There was no internet back then either, believe it or not.) Now you can get this stuff everywhere: Best Buy, Blockbuster, Barnes and Noble...

And you can't ignore the obvious influence on all the US comic book artists and filmmakers (who are of my generation and younger). At one point, every Image comic looked like they we're done by anime fanboys (I know for a fact that a lot of them were). And ever hear of 'The Matrix'? (to point out an obvious example) Also, all the CG effects artists in Hollywood, London, New Zealand or wherever exhibit anime influences in almost every mecha they design.

Before this most recent overwhelming influx of Japanese media, there were lesser influences on US film, like Kurosawa had on every 70's filmmaker (Star Wars, etc.) and later Ridley Scott, with Blade Runner.

I'm on the fence about Takeshi Kitano. I generally like his films, but then I'm a sucker for most things Japanese. On the other hand, if you've known his Japanese TV comedy work for years and years like I do, I can't help wondering how much of it is playing at being an art director. Some American fans are shocked to see his South Park-esque broad comedy work. Talking to some people in the Japanese industry, I've heard that Kitano's agent/manager or producer is the one who came up with the marketing strategy of creating the Takeshi Kitano as art director persona, playing towards the International Festivals. Because Kitano is simply a huge star in Japan, he easily pulled together the funding to do his movies. I heard from a rather bitter contemporary, that for 'Sonatine,' he had an outrageous budget for such a modest film and kept the cast and crew down in Okinawa doing nothing most of the time for months, because Kitano could only fly down for a few days a week due to his TV schedule. I think the thing that most irks me is to see US reviewers proclaim Kitano as "the new Kurosawa" or "the greatest Japanese director in 20 years." (For more news and views on Japan, try FG.)
posted by curiousg at 7:53 PM on April 30, 2002

hmm...all this culture stuff is cool, and, yes, it's pretty pervasive, but it's a completly inadequate solution for the economic/bureaucratic problems Japan seems unable to extricate itself from. it all seems like the last flickers of a fast-fading empire to me.
posted by nobody_knose at 11:00 PM on April 30, 2002

Its a nice read as a decription of Japan's cultural movements. But I felt uncomfortable about the author's leaps in logic. I havent really sorted thru my thoughts completely on this. Let me point our a few things that I felt uncomfortable about:


"If Japan sorts out its economic mess and military angst, and if younger Japanese become secure in asserting their own values and traditions, Tokyo can regain the role it briefly assumed at the turn of the 19th century, when it simultaneously sought to engage the West and to become a military and cultural power on its own terms."

Firstly, The 'economic mess' Japan is in - is a lot more complex and a lot more challanging than successfully taking advantage of the familiarity the Japanese cultural icons in the West can be.

Also, I think most of us like to believe that The Japan that wanted "to become a military and cultural power' in the late 19th century is a very different animal from what it is now - the ambitions are widely different and apparently common men no longer seeks a similar role even at a subliminal level.

I suspect that to a large extent,Japan's 'global cultural influence' is an American/Western construct. Its economic might is a lot more respected in non-Western countries

I think the steady immersion of the younger generations of Japanese in American culture is creating a people who are more alike to the West (at some level) compared to a lot of other 'exotic' countries. It thus becomes easier for a mainstream Western audience to digest Japanese cultural fares in spite of the superficial exoticism (and vice versa - Japan is one of the biggest consumers of American films outside US).

Cultural fares from other countries that do well in the West, dont often do very well in their own countries. ' Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragons' may have done very well in USA, but it apparently did pretty badly in China. In a different context - I haven't seen Mira Nayar's 'Monsoon Wedding' yet. But those Indians (amongst those I know) who liked it have a more Westernized sensibility (I dont mean it in a bad way).

The fact that both the Japanese and the Americans can jive to the same music probably means that a certain degree of common ground has been established. That by itself is not gonna have an economic impact. To a certain degree, Westernization its an Asiawide phenomenon. Because of Japan's unique economic history, geographic size and intense Western interest in Japan for the last so many years, it is probably a lot more pervasive in Japan.
posted by justlooking at 12:24 AM on May 1, 2002

More championing of the stupid and vapid end of the Japanese cultural spectrum. Why don't these writers write about something they genuinely like? Perhaps because there is hardly anything in Japan worth writing about.
posted by dydecker at 3:36 AM on May 1, 2002

What do people in Japan read? Besides comics. Are there any identifiable trends? (I don't read Japanese or I would try to make better sense of this and this.)
posted by pracowity at 5:08 AM on May 1, 2002

The two most popular genres of fiction by far are mystery novels and sprawling historical fiction sagas. There is about a seventy percent chance that the person reading on the train is reading a mystery novel (though you will never know because everybody leaves the brown paper jacket on their books in Japan. I don't know why. Privacy?).

Bookstores are interesting places in Japan. First of all, they are arranged according to publisher and not alphabetical order, which makes finding what you want difficult.

Second, prices in Japan are fixed by the government. Books are very cheap (about US$4.50 your average novel). Bookstores never have sales -- unsold books are returned to warehouses and either sit there or are eventually thrown away. A company like Amazon has a very difficult time surviving in the Japanese market as they cannot undercut prices.
posted by dydecker at 6:04 AM on May 1, 2002

Growing up in Japan, I remember watching Kitano Takeshi's "Takeshi-Jo" (Takeshi's Castle), a crazy, physical-challenge/obstacle course show where contestants had to battle their way up to the Castle where Takeshi sat dressed in old Shogun garb. It was a really hysterical and violent show and he was really quite sadistic. It took me a while to connect that Takeshi to the one who now directs and stars in films like Hanabi.

As for the article, I thought the author did an admirable job trying to sort out the inherently contradictory and ambivalent nature of Japan's cultural relationship with the rest of the world. Japan is a sucker for foreign influences but also tends to be haughty and elitist, thinking their culture/language/whatever to be supreme.

Justlooking--while I agree that Japanese culture may have become more westernized and thus more palatable for western audiences, I think it's significant to note that the area of the world where Japan has the most cultural influence over at the moment is Asia. Korean audiences, for example, eat up Japanese soap operas because they feel they can "relate" to them better--they reflect "Asian" values and emotions. But mainland Asia also has a very ambivalent love/hate relationship with Japan, who is still hated as a former oppressor.
posted by mariko at 8:00 AM on May 1, 2002

« Older Could the end be near   |   You down with SVG? Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments