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Japan's new sakoku? - click opera
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Wed, Jan. 7th, 2009 03:04 am
Japan's new sakoku?

What a difference a decade makes! The Japan I encountered in the 1990s was a place where you found not just the best of Japanese culture, but the best of Western culture too. Japanese book and record and fashion stores had better selections of Western culture and clothes than you could find anywhere in the West. The Japanese, ten years ago, were brilliant filterers, curators and connoisseurs of other people's culture.

At the same time -- and not by coincidence -- there was a headily-creative cultural ferment going on between Japan and the West. My own 1990s experience -- as a pop producer imported into the movement known as Shibuya-kei, and a pop ambassador exporting Japanese culture to the UK and the US -- was possible because of that ferment, that mutual interest we had in each other. Even now, when I write about Japanese artists, they tend to be people like "cultural hopper" Aki Sasamoto, people who are obviously products of cultural fusion between Japan and the West. I've talked about an "emerging third culture" consisting of Japanese and Westerners (mukokuseki diasporans, I've called them) collaborating, but that "emerging" culture has become a receding culture. These days, Japan is no longer so interested in the West, and the West is no longer so interested in Japan. It might even be time to talk about a "new sakoku", a return to Japan's pre-1853 isolation.

One by one, the central pillars of Japan's mukokuseki (multi-national) tent have toppled. In late 2006 the Japanese edition of Tokion relaunched, with a focus on expat creators in Tokyo. The magazine disappeared towards the end of 2007, having failed to draw "mukokuseki diasporans" in sufficient numbers. Excellent diasporan music magazine OK Fred published their tenth and possibly final issue in August 2007. In August 2008 there was a more catastrophic commercial failure: Yohan, which controlled 70% of foreign book and magazine distribution in Japan, went bankrupt. In September, Sugatsuke Masanobu described in Tokyo Initiator's Diary being unable to find his favourite magazines at Tower Books in Shibuya:

"I buy a pile of foreign magazines as usual, but unfortunately feel the effect of the collapse of the Yohan Book Service. Some of my favorite magazines aren't available! It’s too sad, really!! My bounty used to be too heavy to carry home, so I always had everything delivered to my house, but this time I'm leaving the store with a much smaller and lighter package. According to a clerk I ask, it is uncertain if and when the foreign magazines that used to come through Yohan will arrive."

Sugatsuke then touches on the New Sakoku theme: "The idea that Japan is turning into a country where even the biggest international publications are unavailable is highly lamentable and above that just plain annoying. Not that I'm simply praising all things foreign, but culture grows from active exchange between the domestic and the imported. The top ranks of the Japanese movie charts are occupied mainly by domestic titles, and in the music business, Japanese artists are dominating more than ever before. If the situation escalates to an extent that even foreign magazines are no longer imported, this really makes me worry, even anxious about the future of Japanese culture."

The latest collapse happened on December 31st, when Pingmag -- an excellent daily design webzine and an exemplary "third culture" platform -- ceased publication, citing "tough times" and "uncertain months ahead". Parent company Yes! Communications -- motto "Connecting creative Japan to a creative world" -- also has a stake in social networking site Asoboo ("the network for creative, internationally-minded people") and innovative art listings site Tokyo Art Beat. Even if these sites aren't yet in danger, it's clear that the idea behind them -- the ferment between Japanese and Western creativity, and creators -- is currently in some sort of crisis.

I have mixed feelings about the new sakoku -- or "Japan sucking in on itself", as one commenter on the Japan Today site described it. Working at a Japanese university in 2005, I noticed a "new mood of national narcissism" emerging. My Japanese students at the Future University in Hakodate had little desire to see the world. I didn't blame them. The following year I applauded the "hoga bubble" -- the moment when box office for Japanese-made films overtook box office for foreign films and Hollywood product in Japan. Any nation would see that as a positive development.

This apparent "new sakoku" can be explained by a number of 00s developments. The so-called "rise of the rest" which accompanies the decline in US cultural and economic influence worldwide. The rise of China as the dominant force in Asia. The availability of world culture for free on the internet (and the rise of Amazon as a source of foreign book and magazine supplies). And, last but not least, the effect on cultural markets of the recent -- and ongoing -- financial meltdown, and the global recession. It isn't the 1990s any more.

In November 2007, Tokyo curator Roger McDonald protested on his Tactical blog about the government's new policy of fingerprinting and photographing foreigners as they enter Japan. To this he added a list of sakoku-like symptoms:

"The recent illness and coma of Japan national soccer coach Osim; the departure of the first and only non Japanese museum Director in Japan, David Elliott, from the Mori Museum last year; Micropop artists; the closure of NOVA english schools recently due to scandal; the continuing rifts with neighbor countries and Okinawa over history text books, amongst other things." And a recent Japan Times article detailed the problems foreign academics have in holding onto their jobs at Japanese universities -- they're increasingly held at low levels on temporary contracts, with an annual game of "musical jobs" in which the weakest are eliminated.

It would be impossible for Japan to reinvent the isolation they had in the 1840s, even if they wanted to. The question is, do they want to? Is sakoku -- of a sort -- back?

45CommentReply


(Anonymous)
Wed, Jan. 7th, 2009 02:26 am (UTC)
sakoku ?

i don't know. i remember you saying in the late 90s or so that japan has excellent brazilian food but no brazilians etc etc. right now within walking distance from my place i can have vietnamese food made by vietmanese people, romanian food made by romanian people, thai , indian, korean and more; if that's some kind of index


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akabe
akabe
alin huma
Wed, Jan. 7th, 2009 02:27 am (UTC)
Re: sakoku ?

that was me


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Re: sakoku ? - (Anonymous) Expand
imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Jan. 7th, 2009 02:29 am (UTC)

I asked Marxy for comments on the theme, and he responded (for publication here):

"I think both of us fell in love with Tokyo because of its "third culture" internationalist power, and everyone seems in agreement now that it's just totally crumbling and being replaced by a very inward-looking domestic culture. All the "internal organs" — shops, magazines, artists — of the internationalist set have either disappeared or become marginalized. The New Sakoku sounds neat if it means a supersaturated Japanese-ness to re-export abroad, but so far, 21st century mainstream Japanese culture has just looked as provincial and limited as lowest common denominator American mass culture. There is a word tanrakuteki in Japanese, which means "short-sighted" or simplistic, and it very accurately describes the current intentions of youth culture. Everyone wants things they immediately understand, and that disqualifies most curosity about overseas innovators.

I fear that this is ultimately a class issue though. Third-way internationalist culture was always about educated upper middle-class arty kids trying to one-up and differentiate themselves from the middle mass. They, however, had a lot of power as a segment as they were the first to consume foreign goods in a nation with mass inferiority complex towards an imaginary "global standard." Once Japan caught up and consumerism faltered in the late 1990s, all the rationale for worshiping the internationalist set fell apart. Now Japan's working class cultures (i.e., yankiis) are the ones who have the greatest pull on mass culture. They are the style leaders and the ones who seem to be doing something interesting with the consumer possibilties. Third-way internationalists look like weird arty snobs, which they always were. Basically everything has "normalized" to the patterns of Europe or the U.S. rather than taken some unforseen turn."


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Jan. 7th, 2009 03:03 am (UTC)

Interesting to inject a class angle into the conversation... I tend to keep it at a national level.

I wonder if the dominance of yankii style is a sign that the ganguro trend wasn't -- as some said at the time -- the end of something (radical late 20th century Japanese street style) but the beginning of something (21st century proletarian-dominated style)? And does this mean that Japanese culture is now dictated by the grass roots rather than small, powerful elites? Or is there some unholy alliance between the two?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Jan. 7th, 2009 03:07 am (UTC)

Then again, Delaware and Apple's Jon Ives are "fermenting" fine when they come up with something like the new Records002 iPhone software!

Edited at 2009-01-07 03:08 am (UTC)


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womanonfire
womanonfire
Auriea.
Wed, Jan. 7th, 2009 12:15 pm (UTC)

ah thats great!


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jan. 7th, 2009 03:08 am (UTC)

Maybe those right-wing trucks w/ the loudspeakers are finally seeing their message seep in.


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akabe
akabe
alin huma
Wed, Jan. 7th, 2009 07:25 am (UTC)

as someone suggests in the comments section at jean snow , where he announces his demise maybe obama will save us arty gaijin when he saves pingmag in late 2009


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jan. 7th, 2009 08:17 am (UTC)

Maybe, in a cultural way, Japan is turning inward. But as an exchange student here, everyone's talking about how exchange programs are being ramped up by the government. The ministry of culture is in the process of expanding scholarship aid to foreign students and universities are responding by expanding their international departments. Most people I talk to suggest that the reason behind this change is population decline, and Japan is actively trying to lure young people into the country. And despite appearances, it's not necessarily at odds with a new sakoku... Exchange students are generally more militantly purist about Japanese culture than the Japanese themselves, so it makes perfect sense in a perverse sort of way. Save the country by importing the barbarians!


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akabe
akabe
alin huma
Wed, Jan. 7th, 2009 08:28 am (UTC)

excelent point. i was just talking to someone last night about the 'last samurai' syndrome that some japanese themselves who feel positively disconnected, freed up from their own culture it its narrower aspects, also often tend to display


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cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
Wed, Jan. 7th, 2009 12:26 pm (UTC)

I think this might happen, or is already happening, to other countries as well. But who knows.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Jan. 7th, 2009 02:36 pm (UTC)

Just to put a different point of view here -- a more positive one -- it's entirely possible that the "big world" of 1990s-style cosmopolitanism we're elegizing in this entry (Tokion, OK Fred, Pingmag) is actually a very small world, and that Japanese have a much bigger global vision than that.

For instance, we cite the departure of Englishman David Elliott from the MORI Museum as a shrinking of cosmopolitanism, but fail to mention that the current show at the post-Elliott MORI (a show programmed by the new Japanese director, Fumio Nanjo) is Chalo India! A New Era of Indian Art.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jan. 7th, 2009 02:41 pm (UTC)

sorry, first time japan visitor here again. i saw Chalo India! and as a sidenote must say it was really disheartening to see how transparent those Indian artists were trying to emulate the western modern art aesthetic. i found few of the works really said anything; rather, it was complaining for the sake of doing so, a very american idea that i didn't particularly miss while i was in japan.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jan. 7th, 2009 02:38 pm (UTC)
one impression

well, i'm back from my first trip to japan, so i can only comment on what i noticed there. i was surprised to find a lot of nyc fashions in vogue there, definitely far before such clothing reaches the smaller states in the U.S. they were, however, outrageously priced compared to in manhattan. on new year's day females sporting the traditional clothing were mainly only small children and the presenters on television. in the department store restaurant floors, many of the japanese restaurants were packed but more american or western places were semi-empty. italian fare was still wildly popular. i was disappointed to find most of the japanese top 40 infested with really boring facsimiles of coldplay, nickelback, britney spears, et al. on the ANA flight back i was intrigued to find the new capsule album highlighted as a listening choice on the inflight entertainment system. japan seemed to me as a country not exactly embarrassed by its heritage but instead distracted by the sheer amount of consumer goods from the west. unfortunately i think this will be the case in every country eventually. even the radicals who shot up bombay were wearing bootleg versace. anyhow, one point of view from eight days of trying rapidly to soak up everything.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Jan. 7th, 2009 03:21 pm (UTC)
Re: one impression

japan seemed to me as a country not exactly embarrassed by its heritage but instead distracted by the sheer amount of consumer goods from the west.

I think you may have a clearer view, as a first-time visitor, than we do; that probably is still the big picture. We're so fixated on incremental changes (ie the fact that Japan used to be massively more like this than it is now) that we fail to see that this is basically still the general situation there.


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dignified_devil
A Dignified Devil
Wed, Jan. 7th, 2009 03:58 pm (UTC)

Oh man, a chance to bitch about Japan and the decline of creative culture. BITCH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
That's all.

p.s. there is something disturbing about modern japanese culture, but it could be said most of the world has been in decline creatively since the 80s reached their peak and identities became policed by more conversative policies and dress code reached back into the gritty and then the simple. We live in conservative times, and Japan's embrace of a more conservative culture might be merely a covert Westernization. A kinda catching up with the world's general apathy.

BITCH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jan. 7th, 2009 04:23 pm (UTC)

"We live in conservative times, and Japan's embrace of a more conservative culture might be merely a covert Westernization. A kinda catching up with the world's general apathy."
Exactly what I was thinking. The international lowering of the lowest common denominator is one of the true success stories, as it were, of globalization. However, one difference while the rest of the world seems to waste their time on drivel about American bird-brained celebrities, the Japanese waste their time on Japanese bird-brained celebrities. (They are not facsimiles, as somebody wrote, it's more a case of parallel evolution.)

"Japan is no longer so interested in the West", Momus said, thereby somehow implying that it OUGHT to be. But isn't a large part of the problem that the West and Western (= Anglo-American) culture just isn't very interesting any more, and hasn't been for at least the last decade? Focusing on Japan in this matter seems rather beside the point.

The demise of Yohan was inevitable, I think. Selling already overpriced foreign books and magazines with a hugely inflated markup (sometimes of several hundred percent!) was doomed to fail. It was disturbing to see, however, how amazon immediately raised their prices significantly as soon as they had gotten rid of their rivals.

Jan


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funazushi
funazushi
funazushi
Wed, Jan. 7th, 2009 11:17 pm (UTC)

Interestingly, there was a show on NHK the other night on this very topic. It seems there is some concern in Japan as to why young people have lost interest in international travel. Perhaps the "internationalization" mantra has finally petered out, but I would have thought that economic considerations would drive some young people abroad as it did for me.

On a another note, My wife's friend sent her a cd of a Japanese band, who she described as like Pizzicato Five but with better lyrics. Perhaps, insular Japan is not as interesting to us because we don't understand it.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Jan. 8th, 2009 01:08 am (UTC)

I would have thought that economic considerations would drive some young people abroad as it did for me.

But Japanese haven't been economic migrants -- in the way that, say, Indians or Mexicans or Turks have been -- for at least a century, when there were economically-motivated migrations to the US and Brazil. The Japanese who go abroad now are more likely to be students, or artists, or posted by their corporations. They don't just go abroad speculatively to find work.


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sakoku in London - (Anonymous) Expand