Japanophilia, Japanophobia: Considering the Experience of Cultural Difference in Japan



Noise, light, energy. The skyscrapers shimmer with neon and exuberant sky-high manga figures; the streets resound with the cheerful thunder of anime and J-rock; hype seeps from every concrete pore. You know when you’re in Akihabara, Tokyo’s ‘Electric City’, the heartland of all things stereotypically otaku – video games, anime/manga, computers. Wandering through the area, it feels familiar at first – glitzy, loud, seething with energy, like just another nerdy enclave of Western consumerist culture; far, at any rate, from the traditional, historical vision of Japan you find, for example, in Kyoto.

But as I explore further, it starts to feel more and more alien, as I encounter women posing as maids to promote ‘Maid Cafés’, a sex shop called M’s, which is extraordinarily uninhibited about sex and fetish-culture (it brings a new meaning to NSFW), and generally soak up the splashy sensory invasion of the area. The ambivalence of the place set me thinking about Japan’s cultural difference in a wider sense, about how it seems to straddle and confound the clichéd distinction of East and West, and about those cultural peculiarities which still provoke endless fascination, and indeed fetishisation, in the West.

Perceptions of Japan worldwide are usually superficial, and laden with misconceptions, as well as a fetishisation of the country as an exotic and almost otherworldly place (the Internet even has a name for it – ‘wapanese’ or ‘weeaboo’). When talking about Japan with others, they’ll usually say something along the lines of ‘yeah, it’s a weird country….’; being invited to Japan as a student journalist to ‘PR Japan’ and to prouduce media content about ‘intriguing aspects of Japan’ was itself quite strange. So when we were given a briefing by Tomohiko Taniguchi, Special Advisor to Shinzo Abe and his Cabinet, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Tokyo, we were curious about the rationale behind the project.

Shinzo Abe surprised the world earlier this year by dressing up as Super Mario at the Rio Olympics closing ceremony (IMAGE: Gaia Giordani)
Shinzo Abe surprised the world earlier this year by dressing up as Super Mario at the Rio Olympics closing ceremony (IMAGE: Gaia Giordani)

Taniguchi believes that Japan has an image problem – people know it as the country of Pokemon and Super Mario, zany game shows like Takeshi’s Castle, and maybe Spirited Away at a push; at a less salubrious level (which he naturally did not mention), people sometimes associate it with ‘hentai’ and tentacle porn, schoolgirl fantasies, and perverted old Japanese men. That is to say, most non-Japanese people are ignorant of wider Japanese culture, and of the profound demographic challenges which the country faces. Taniguchi connects this with Japan ‘punch[ing] below its weight’ on the global stage – he thinks that Japan ‘needs to do more in the international arena.’ For Taniguchi, probably the best way in which Japan can tackle this challenge is by encouraging immigration and wider international involvement, which the government is doing via policies such as an accelerated permanent residence visa programme (soon a permanent visa will be available after ~2 years of residence, the fastest-available in the world). He presents a vision of a more open and diverse Japan in the future.  (read Scott Harker’s article on Japan’s demographic challenges here)

Japan is punching below its weight on the global stage – the country needs to do more in the international arena

HLAB Media Team with Tomohiko Taniguchi, Special Advisor to the Cabinet of Shinzo Abe, at the Prime Minister's Office in Tokyo
HLAB Media Team with Tomohiko Taniguchi, Special Advisor to the Cabinet of Shinzo Abe, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Tokyo

This gave me a greater understanding of why the Japanese government decided to fund this initiative, perhaps on the basis of the PR benefits gained from reaching out to students at top universities (Harvard, Columbia, Oxford), and to gain more undergraduate applicants to work at the HLAB Summer School. However, the sense of cultural difference which struck me throughout Japan seemed to me already present in the way in which they handled our ‘PR’ task.

It is virtually a cliché that the Japanese are very screen-conscious people – most famous from the stereotype of the Japanese tourist armed with high-tech camera, taking photos of every conceivable item from every conceivable angle. This is of course a silly exaggeration; we all live in a very self-conscious world, where people everywhere are always documenting their experiences on camera. But I couldn’t help myself feeling struck at the extent to which so much of what we were seeing seemed to be stage-managed and captured on camera.

While we were exploring Japan, thinking up articles and shooting video, a very famous and skilled Japanese videographer, Takashi Fukui (check out his parcour video, which was featured in the Rio Paralympics opening ceremony, here), was following us around to produce a documentary about the project, a ‘meta-film’, as it were….(link coming soon). Similarly, every closing ceremony at all four HLAB locations featured an emotional video, with a ton of footage put together in the space of a single week, and each school had a large dedicated camera team. In all this camera-culture, I felt a sense of hyper-self-awareness beyond what I had encountered in the UK.

Perhaps connected with this is the Japanese love of performance. There were karaoke-laden talent shows at all of the locations – I saw those in Tohoku and Tokushima, and was amazed at the talents which these 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds displayed, including many a musical performance and lots of tightly choreographed dancing. I remember a few of the other journalists remarking that these teenagers seemed a lot more ‘talented’, or at least a lot more inclined to display their talents, than their Western counterparts would have been. In all of this, though, I very much had the feeling that my biases were pushing me towards this sort of conclusion, that I was unconsciously exaggerating the difference that was really there.

My first feeling of a really strong cultural divergence came when we saw the summer school which we were shadowing, HLAB, in action. The programme appeared to address a dichotomy between ‘Western’ and ‘Japanese’ approaches to education. The Western ‘liberal arts’ style of (university) education, with its discursive, Socratic, exploratory approach, seemed to be enlisted as a counterbalance to a Japanese style of (high school) education, as a more closed-off one-way transfer of knowledge from teacher to pupil. Although those taught were high-schoolers, and I do not know to what extent the approach to teaching in Japanese universities differs from that in the West, the HLAB message seemed to indicate that it does not have that sort of freedom to it.

The HLAB programme appeared to address a dichotomy between ‘Western’ and ‘Japanese’ approaches to education

Urasenke tea ceremony master Yoshihiko Amitani
Urasenke tea ceremony master Yoshihiko Amitani

When we interviewed Urasenke tea ceremony master Yoshihiko Amitani, he seemed to see a similar sort of contrast, saying that for Japanese students ‘we’re afraid not to conform; it feels really stressful to be pointed out for seeing things differently from our classmates’ – foreigners, in his opinion, are usually more confident and open than their Japanese counterparts.  Moreover, it would seem that while Western culture has become profoundly tolerant of failure, seeing it as a way to grow, develop, and learn (Silicon Valley being perhaps the paradigm case), Japan is still reluctant to accept failure in this way. Miki Tsuruhara, a Japanese university student, says that he was always told to be respectful and thankful for the universities which he was given, to the point where when he failed, he felt guilty for failing the coaches and others who had given him those opportunities.

Yet whereas in this respect Japan seems distinctively ‘un-Western’, in the commercial sphere, it develops the Western capitalist value of respect for the customer into a fine art. A family friend who works in Japan once remarked to me that in Japan, it is not that ‘the customer is always right’, but rather that ‘the customer is God’, and the truth of this quip was felt all around us, in the courtesy with which we were treated by shopkeepers, waiters, and other professionals everywhere. On the other hand, this courtesy seemed to extend beyond that world of transactions into everyday Japanese society in a more ‘un-Western’ way. A few examples illustrate this quality. When I looked slightly lost in a Tokyo metro station, an official on the platform handed me a tube map without a second thought; when I and a friend were trudging round Kyoto on a hot and humid day, a stranger handed us a pair of fans; and when I and two other journalists wandered into a local band’s rehearsal, they entertained us, offered us a drink, and let us watch them jam (they were groovin’ hard, for the record). For all that some people may see Japan as a ‘closed society’ in some respects, it feels, for tourists at least, like a very welcoming place indeed.

In Japan, ‘the customer is God’

What Japan is probably best-known for, culturally, besides samurais and ninjas etc., are two strands within its culture – those of otaku culture and erotica. If wanting to defuse the whole ‘Japan is so weird/different’ cliché, I would want to say that this is on the fringes, but that doesn’t seem to be 100% true. Surveys suggests that around 40% of Japanese people, including ex-Prime Minister Taro Aso, identify as otaku in some shape or form, and erotic anime girls seem to be quite a mainstream taste – we were intrigued when the Mayor of Onagawa had some not very revealing, but slightly suggestive, anime girls on a poster up on the wall of his office. Anyway, I think there is something interesting to be said about both.

The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, a famous shunga wood print by renowned ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai
The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, a famous shunga wood print by renowned ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai (IMAGE: flickr)

To take the latter first, what I find fascinating about Japanese erotica is the extent to which, arguably unlike modern Western pornographic imagery, it is rooted in Japan’s historical culture. A straight line can be traced from the explicit shunga ukiyo-e woodprints of the 19th Century (exhibited at the British Museum in London a few years ago), which feature exaggerated genitalia, tentacles, and other transgressions, towards the array of often strange anime erotica and pornography that is on display today. Shunga was mainstream, with almost all ukiyo-e practitioners, including great artists like Hokusai (creator of The Great Wave off Kanagawa) and Hiroshige, producing a few works in the style. So if we are to ‘explain’ these strangenesses of Japanese erotic culture, we would have to go really quite far back into their history. I find it hard to reconcile with the courtesy, the strictness, and the formality which we would associate with traditional Japanese culture – but perhaps we must simply see it as a reflex of those trends; the more serious and formal a culture is, as it were, publicly, perhaps the more free and sexually adventurous it must be privately….

Otaku culture refers to people with obsessive interests – like trainspotters in the UK. Otaku may be fascinated with anime and manga, video games, computers, fashion, railways, and a whole host of other things. The sheer size and market impact of the community is huge – Akihabara is a testament to that. This side of Japanese culture (unlike that discussed above) really does seem to be something new, something modern. But is it really all that different to us? Are we distracted by the mere word, the exotic sound of it – is this just how Japanese people talk about what we would call ‘hobbies’? After all, we have our fair share of strange enthusiasms and subcultures – Potterheads, trainspotters, fanatical cosplayers, etc. It does seem to be a little more mainstream (nowhere near 40% of people in the UK would identify as obsessive hobby-practitioners…), and it does seem more strongly associated with social awkwardness or low social status (it’s like calling someone ‘geek’ or nerd’), it is not as different to us as we might think.

Though aware of these cultural differences, then, I found myself curious as to how they resonated within Japanese society. The first thing about Japanese society that seemed to me really distinctive in this way is how younger and older people are to a very great extent out of sync. In terms of politics, I found that more or less every young Japanese person with whom I spoke was very hostile indeed to Shinzo Abe, while his conservative policies clearly resonate with older people. Furthermore, when Tomohiko Taniguchi gave us a version of Japanese history which presented the Japanese Communist Party as a sort of all-purpose bogeyman from 1945-1989, one of the Japanese university students who also attended the briefing denounced this as absolute nonsense.

Young people have no faith in the promises of Abenomics, envisioning a future of decline, and are frustrated by Abe’s arguably provocative approach to history, his equivocation over the Comfortwomen, his visiting of the Yasakuni shrine, and his aim of remilitarising Japan. This lack of faith in the future of Japan, together with a rejection of traditional male corporate roles, is perhaps connected with the rise of the soshoku-danshi, or the ‘herbivore men’, young Japanese men (and also some women) who have little interest in pursuing relationships, getting married, and having children. Some studies suggest as many as 60-70% of 20- and 30-year-olds would identify as such, with many not even interested in having sex.

The cultural gap between young and old is also thought to be part of the psychological underpinning of the phenomenon known as hikikomori, the ~1 million Japanese people who live confined to their homes, tormented by anxiety and unable to venture into the outside world. In the opinion of some Japanese psychologists, this has arisen partly because of the clash of an increasingly individual-focused way of viewing the world with the older generation’s more group-focused and highly reputation-conscious approach. In many of the cases one reads about, the individual who has become hikikomori says that the trigger was some crushing failure with which they could not cope, or some parental pressure to pursue some career or life goal they really did not wish to pursue.

Andon maker Kanji Okihito
Andon maker Kanji Okihito

All that I have said so far makes it sound as if Japan is an alien place. But Japan faces many of the same problems as the UK. Above and beyond the issue of its ageing population, there is a significant dissonance between town and country life, with population drain from the countryside into the cities, and youngsters in the countryside uncertain about the future that it will offer them. All of the people whom I interviewed in rural communities emphasized the sense of community they had found there, in contrast to the alienation of big metropolises like Tokyo (cf London). Kanji Okihito, a maker of traditional Andon lanterns, is frustrated with the way in which Japanese news reporting focuses on the West, rather on the problems at home in Japan, and by how politics is so Tokyo-centric. He thinks that the population drain from the countryside into the cities is not natural, but rather the product of political stimulation. It is not hard to see the parallel with Brexit, and the rural communities left behind by globalization, and disillusioned with the London-centric establishment. Indeed, the suspicion of older Japanese people towards immigrant gaijin surely parallels that in the UK (although migration has gone much much further in the UK, with Japan still ~98% native Japanese).

Japan also seems permeated with a sense of great traditions that are waning and being lost, a feeling that seems paralleled, perhaps, by British nostalgia for its lost status as an industrial powerhouse. The tea ceremony master whom we interviewed, Yoshihiko Amitani, felt that in his role he was preserving traditional Japanese stuff that he loves – stuff like kimonos and the tea ceremony itself – which would otherwise be lost. While the ‘Westernisation’ of Japan is surely undercutting such practices, Amitani feels quite positive about Western culture – he loves going clubbing in Roppongi and watching Western movies. As he puts it, ‘our generation is all about Westernised culture.’ For lantern-maker Kanji Okihito, in contrast, the situation for traditional Japanese crafts is direr: devotes his time to his group, Akari, which strives to preserve traditional Japanese culture in Mugi town in Tokushima.

I love going clubbing in Roppongi, and watching Western movies – our generation is all about Westernised culture

Having been unable to avoid the perception of Japan as a strange, alien place, which I had sought to avoid, I found myself reflecting on why it should be so, and, moreover, on why Japan should have the strange, ambivalent relationship with the West which it seems to have. There are two historical phases that seem to me crucial to understanding, at least partly, why it is the way it is. The first one is a fascinating phase of Japanese history known as the sakoku (‘closed society’), during which (1633-1866) Japan pursued a drastic policy of seclusion from the outside world. Very limited and tightly regulated trade was allowed in specific locations, but free contact and cultural exchange was more or less completely suspended – for more than 200 years! Japan was then pretty well compelled to open up its borders when Commodore Matthew Perry, in his several visits to Japan in the 1850s, used American military might to intimidate them into doing so.

The second phase is much more well-known. After Japan was defeated by the Allied Powers in WW2, brutalised in defeat by the two nuclear bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, its development was strongly supervised by the USA. The Americans made the Japanese democratise their society, enfranchise women, reform their educational system, and dismantle their army (although they were eventually allowed a self-defense force, in 1954).  Since that time, Japan and the USA have enjoyed a close relationship. Twice over, then, the Japanese have been subjected to compulsion by the West. In the first case, they were forced to embrace Western free trade; in the second, they were forced to embrace a wider array of Western cultural and political ideals. The equivocal, bizarre, almost pantomimic relationship that Japanese society sometimes seems to have to what we consider ‘Western’, can perhaps be traced to this.

However, Japan has developed in the framework of this ‘Western-Japanese’ equilibrium for over 70 years now; with such a culture it has experienced meteoric growth (1960s-80s), and faced the prospect of stagnation (1990s-present). So long have these elements been intertwined, that it would seem now, really to be a false binary – you can no longer really prise apart what is ‘Western’, and what is ‘Japanese’, because both strands of inheritance are woven into what is now Japanese culture and society.

We can no longer really prise apart what is ‘Western’ and what is ‘Japanese’, because both strands of inheritance are woven into what is now Japanese culture and society

I set out, originally, to question and undermine the fetishisation and misrepresentation of Japan, the cultural stereotypes and misunderstandings and exaggerations; no doubt I have found myself in many ways perpetuating that way of thinking. The idea of an exotic, strange, otherworldly Japan retains an irresistible appeal, an appeal it has had at least since the famous Irish journalist expat Lafcadio Hearn wrote books like Glimpses of Unfamilar Japan (1894) and In Ghostly Japan (1899), probably before that (they’re worth a read even so). With the continuing fascination with Japan and Japanese culture on the web, it is not an attitude that is going to disappear any time soon.

Our guides, Ryutaro Kurihara and Mikako Sakurado
Our guides, Ryutaro Kurihara and Mikako Sakurado

Perhaps the question we should be asking ourselves is not whether or not Japan really is so different from us, but rather why it is such a bad thing to consider it so? Japanese cultural difference can and should be something that we celebrate, not something we see from a distance as exotic or ‘weird’. In any case, while it remains in many respects eccentric and parochial, and is still by no means a diverse place, Japan is undeniably becoming more international. East and West meet and join forces in our HLAB guide and sensei Ryutaro Kurihara, who typifies the young, cosmopolitan, internationally-minded Japanese person – he enjoys practising Zen Buddhism to find calm in his stressful life, but also loves (and can recite skillfully from memory) Ali G and Japanese rap. Drinking and eating jellyfish with him and our other guide, actress Mikako Sakurado, in a traditional Japanese izakaya (~pub), any sense of our cultural difference simply fades away.

This piece was a result of an innovative, intellectual, and far-reaching journalistic experiment: 10 foreign student journalists, invited by the Prime Minister’s office and hosted by the HLAB summer school, sought to explore and illuminate Japan over a span of 19 days. Our projects eventually spanned topics ranging from Japanese views of success and failure to the robust Japanese artisan culture. See some of the other pieces here



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