Japan has a curiously utopian image in the West right now. Everything from anime and manga to sushi and sudoku seems to emit the whiff of cool culture in the globalized 21st century. Even Japan’s renowned bullet train is on the export docket: California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is said to be negotiating with Japan Rail to purchase Japanese high-speed train intellectual property for an upcoming Los Angeles-Las Vegas line, and possibly extending it to San Francisco and other West Coast destinations in the coming years.
But inside the borders of this ancient archipelago, self-confidence is scant. While the aftershocks of a collapsing US economy cause tremors throughout the rest of the world, Japan is suffering a homegrown earthquake.
Unemployment stats have hit their highest points since World War II; the government is now subsidizing major corporations to beef up their staff rosters; immigrant workers are being laid off by the score; and the long-standing governing oligarchy, the so-called Liberal Democratic Party, is on its knees.
Hapless Japanese consumers have stopped spending any capital – political or fiscal. And why shouldn’t they? Japan, designed since the end of World War II to be America’s most passive and dependable Pacific ally, has finally hit paralysis.
“What most people don’t recognize,” wrote Masaru Tamamoto, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, this spring in the New York Times, “is that [Japan’s] crisis is not political, but psychological.”
None of this is news to many of Japan’s artists, writers and leading progressive thinkers. The story of Japan since the US occupation in 1945 is one of forced docility and coercion amid bouts of humiliation. Japan’s military government lost its biggest gamble (a war with the greatest mid-century Western power: America), and its legacy has been a perverted national identity – one with international recognition and export dominance but little sense of agency or genuine independence.
“Japan is America’s 51st state,” a professor at Osaka University told me a few years ago. “There are 45,000 American troops here, and American fast food is everywhere. What could we do to stop it?”
Japan’s writers and artists have done a lot to try to stop it – going so far as to take their own lives in protest. Author Yukio Mishima infamously disemboweled himself at the Tokyo headquarters of the Japan Self-Defense Forces 40 years ago in response to his nation’s loss of self and soul in the aftermath of World War II.
The ambivalent Mishima, who apparently struggled to get his writing produced on Broadway (the icon of American entertainment values), seemingly foresaw the loss of Japan’s soul long before Starbucks landed in every neighborhood in Tokyo.
But Kenzaburo Oe, Japan’s last Nobel Prize-winning novelist, once critiqued Mishima’s suicide as “proof of his perverted relationship with Japan,” claiming his compatriot chose an archly traditional and sensational method of death precisely because he was conforming to Western stereotypes of Japan. According to Oe, Mishima’s self-destruction was less an outright protest than an example of his trying to “live up to the image of Japan created by Europeans.”
Oe himself has been battling the conservative, nationalistic political system he sees as the legacy of US-Japan relations since the end of the war. But even Oe is ambivalent. At an American literary conference in the 1990s, Oe admitted that books like Huckleberry Finn and volumes by Walt Whitman first inspired him to embark on his career as a writer. He reportedly bowed his head in apology immediately after making this confession.
“It was overwhelming,” best-selling Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami tells me when I ask him about the sudden influx of American pop culture in the middle of the 20th century. “It was everywhere. And we’re not French, you know. We liked it.”
But what does this mean for Japan today, when its own culture is penetrating Western minds and souls as its people at home suffer from a decades-old malaise?
“There’s something unfair in Japanese society,” says Japanese proto-punk author Ryu Murakami, easing onto a couch in his hotel room in Tokyo. “Maybe it’s not with bad intentions, but the result is still a betrayal. The paradigm of Japanese society has changed since the era of rapid economic growth, but our society still provides the same kind of education and corporations are still managed by rules based on norms rooted in the paradigms of that time.”
Murakami believes that Japan’s sibling-like relationship with the US may have been salutary during the nation’s early growth years immediately following the war, when images of American wealth and stability served as a model for a people who had endured abject poverty and defeat. But the “mindless materialism” he saw overtaking his fellow nationals in the so-called bubble years of the 1980s, when the value of Japanese real estate and stocks blew a gasket, is revealing. The Japanese, he says, only perceived the superficial qualities of American life: the consumer goods, refrigerators, cars, microwaves and designer clothing. They didn’t understand the soul of America, or its essence. And they cast aside their own cultural core for a life guided by, and limited to, borrowed surfaces.
“Japan wasn’t copying or borrowing from the States with any kind of profound awareness of what those things really were,” he says. “Let’s take the example of music. Some people who play jazz in Japan might think all Americans play jazz. Those who play country music might think all Americans sing country songs.”
He sighs in resignation. “You know, there are people who play Hawaiian music in Japan, and some of them actually believe that all Americans know how to hula dance.”
Can 60 years of mistaken idolatry gut a country’s sense of self? Murakami seems to think so.
“Japan copies American culture, but it’s all myopic and superficial ... The US is very diverse, there are many races and religions, but Japan only takes what it wants to as a kind of fashion. And that’s a problem.”
Yet another Murakami, the conceptual artist Takashi, whose work now sells for millions at Sotheby’s auctions, proposed a theory only a few years ago that he blithely labeled “Little Boy,” a reference to the codename the US Air Force gave to its first ever atomic bomb, which it dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. According to Murakami, the trauma Japan suffered at the end of World War II (not only from defeat, but also from the unprecedented dropping of two atomic bombs, the decimation of its major cities through civilian-killing firebombs and the loss of its divine emperor, which, in Confucian terms, means the loss of the supreme patriarch, the family father) engendered a mélange of grotesqueries in the nation’s collective unconscious. Many of these demons could only find expression in the comparatively underground forms of Japanese comics (manga) and animation. Both mediums were cheap to produce, and were distributed outside the bounds of Japan’s corporate-industrial complex.
For Takashi Murakami, even the concept of kawaii, or the extreme cuteness in Japanese pop icons like Hello Kitty, Pikachu from Pokémon and the Tamagotchi virtual electronic pets, emanates from the wounds of World War II and the American occupation. Evolution teaches us that cuteness is a symptom of dependence, urging adults to care for infants, puppies and kittens who are, after all, entirely helpless. A Japan shaped by its reliance upon big brother/big daddy America would naturally perfect this form of expression. Murakami’s theory goes: Be cute, and Daddy might be good to you, however much you hate it – and him.
“Japan lost the war to the Americans,” Hideaki Anno, creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion, Japan’s version of Star Wars – a film seen and beloved by an entire generation now in their 30s and 40s, who are still paying to see its ongoing remakes – told the Atlantic Monthly two years ago. “Since that time, the education we received is not one that created adults. Even for us, people in their 40s, and for the generation older than me in their 50s and 60s, there’s no reasonable model of what an adult should be like.”
Anno is notoriously cynical, prone to debilitating bouts of depression and antagonism. Yet his insights are shared by Japanese artists and thinkers several years older and younger. Japan, goes the argument, became America’s little brother after the war, and it retains the childlike aspects of that role even today.
“I don’t see any adults here in Japan,” he continued in the Atlantic interview. “The fact that you see salarymen reading manga and pornography on the train and being unafraid, unashamed or anything, is something you wouldn’t have seen 30 years ago, with people who grew up under a different system of government. They would have been far too embarrassed to open a book of cartoons or dirty pictures on a train. But that’s what we have now in Japan. We are a country of children.”
A country of children. Perhaps there is no better description of the safe, über-polite, superficial land in which I live today, as a half-Japanese American. Everything works. But something is wrong.
Yet however painful, Japan’s current psychological crisis may be groundbreaking. A new generation of Japanese has taken a second look at the American mid-century “big daddy” model and found it sorely wanting. Coupled with America’s belligerent unilateralism after 9/11, US domestic fiascoes (the failed rescue operations during and after Hurricane Katrina, collapsing bridges and other infrastructural disasters and frequent shooting and crime sprees) are now transmitted instantly, in gory detail, on the Internet and satellite TV. American brand names like Coca-Cola and Levi’s have lost sex appeal and market share in Japan. Even Hollywood, whose blockbuster storylines seem a bit dated and redundant next to the wild rides found in anime and manga, slipped off its box office perch in Japan in 2006, when domestically produced films muscled their way past the 50 percent cut of the local market.
Younger Japanese are setting the trends that young Americans and other Westerners now follow – via the Web, the media, and the incessant chatter of social networking sites (SNS) like MySpace, Facebook and Mixi, the Japanese-language SNS – and a growing number of them know it. “I was speaking to high school students in Tottori,” says Motoyuki Shibata, Japan’s leading translator of contemporary American fiction. “They are sort of postmodernist without knowing it. They know there can be no absolute clear-cut answer to any important problem, and they can live with that knowledge.”
More importantly, he continues, “they don’t like America. I asked them why, and they said it’s because America imposes beliefs on others and believes their own answer to be absolute. They want to impose it on other countries. I talked with them more, and I realized 9/11 happened when they were six or seven years old. The only America they know firsthand is Bush’s America. America to them means the Bush administration.”
In other words: Big Daddy became Papa Bush and, for even the most docile Japanese, that new boss was worse than the old one.
“I asked them whether they thought things would change with Obama,” adds Shibata. “And they said they hope so. They really do.”
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party, called Jiminto and created in part by US President Harry Truman, Commanding General Douglas McArthur and Japan’s zaibatsu (ruling class) elites some 60 years ago to ensure a cooperative, coercive relationship, may finally be giving way to a more organic, fully-realized Japan. As I write, young people are gathering on Tokyo’s streets in protest and chanting outside parliament in the pouring rain. And that decades-old governing party – always a puppet of us leadership – is facing stiff opposition in the upcoming election, which is due as early as this September. Some claim it will break into fragments. Others believe either the opposition party, Minshuto, or the Democratic Party, which has a more socialist bent, need to be given a chance.
“More young Japanese people are interested in environmental issues,” says Ryu Murakami. “I know a group who formed an NGO to work against sexual slavery and child prostitution in Cambodia. There are certainly more young Japanese people than ever who are interested in environmental issues or world poverty problems instead of money, traveling abroad or sport cars. So the lack of the old-school materialistic ambitions is, yes, a problem in some ways. But there are good sides to it as well.”
Even organizations resembling labor collectives have recently blossomed in Japan. So-called “freeters,” a compound loanword from the English “free” and the German “arbeiter,” or laborer, now gather under the banner of The Freeter’s Union (www.freeter-union.org). And the BBC reported in May that Japan’s Communist Party had swelled to more than 400,000 members, with 1,000 newbies signing on every month.
As Haruki Murakami said to me a few months ago in Tokyo: “When I was in America in the early 1990s, Japan was rich and everyone in the US talked about it. But we didn’t have a cultural face. It didn’t feel real. And I thought: Somebody should do something. I have to do something for Japanese culture. It’s my duty. I’ve been getting more popular in Europe and America, so I am in a position to be able to talk to people directly, exchange opinions and tell the truth. That’s a great opportunity. Only a few people can do it. And I’m one of them.”
Murakami’s opportunity is Japan’s ... and ours. Let’s grab it. This dramatic shift in Haruki Murakami’s identity and sense of himself – from a largely reclusive Japanese writer living in voluntary exile in Europe and the US to something of a cultural ambassador, proudly representing his native land – may reflect a realignment of priorities in the broader Japanese population. The nation’s “soft power” appeal overseas is now being acknowledged by domestic, state and industry leaders, who are finally putting money where their mouths are. This fall they are launching the tentatively named Contents Overseas Development Fund, which will finance Japan’s pop culture industry with the aim of rivaling, and eventually surpassing, America’s global media presence. Even tourism to Japan, which long occupied a lowly spot on the list of Japan’s priorities, received a jolt of funding and attention in recent years. And the effort to reveal Japan’s treasures to the rest of the world is literally paying off: according to the Japan National Tourist Organization, the number of foreign visitors to Japan spiked by three million from 2003 to 2007, with a total of more than eight million trekking to the archipelago in 2007 and a projected ten million by next year.
Nearly two decades ago, controversial Tokyo governor and former novelist Shinto Ishihara penned a book-length diatribe called The Japan That Can Say No, decrying American dominance, arrogance and racism and arguing that it was really Japan, not the US, that held the reins of power in the bilateral relationship. But a more accurate tack (and title) for today’s Japan might be The Japan That Can Say Yes: say yes to its rising sense of self-confidence, pride and national maturity; and to playing a more decisively independent role on the global stage – where Japan’s stronger presence and unique voice are likely to be welcomed, and may well be necessary.
Roland Nozomu Kelts is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US. He is a lecturer at the University of Tokyo, the editor of US-based lecture series “Anime Masterpieces,” a contributing editor for A Public Space magazine and a columnist for the Daily Yomiuri. His forthcoming novel is called Access.