February 7th, 2005

operesque

The Japanese are almost Japanese



The Art Habour website has been expanded and now includes a biography of me lifted from a Japanese music website. My Japanese translation skills are limited to the Apple Sherlock translation module and educated guesswork, but this sentence caught my eye:

日本で滞在することも多い彼の日本への偏愛は、本当は日本人ではないかと思わせるほど。

It seems to say something like "He chooses to spend much of his time in Japan, to the extent that you wonder sometimes whether he isn't Japanese." This is a comment I've heard a lot in my life, and not just in Japan. A Finnish newspaper once described me as 'almost domestic'. When I go to Greece they dwell on my appropriation of a Greek god's name, and a couple of childhood years spent in Athens. My recent discussion of Vice magazine on Design Observer drew the comment "The Vice boys are not from New York. They started here in Montreal (as did you, once upon a time)."



Now, all this might suggest that Momus has become a truly global brand, appearing 'almost domestic' in different ways in different markets. But a recent piece I wrote for Metropolis magazine advanced the opinion that the secret of happiness is to stay foreign, to expect (like those alienated writers Paul Bowles and Franz Kafka) to be at home nowhere. Is there a contradiction here? Not really, for two reasons. The first reason is that if you turn the phrase 'nearly domestic' around it can be rendered as 'not quite one of us'. We find ourselves back in the eerie mineral smoke of the 'uncanny valley', the idea that we feel increasing empathy towards things that resemble us... but only up to a point. Beyond that point ('the uncanny valley') there's a sudden plunge into spookiness and repulsion. The similarity becomes uncomfortable.

So when this Japanese music encyclopaedia wonders whether I'm not 'almost Japanese', this isn't necessarily good news for me. My Metropolis article cites the widely-held belief that Japanese don't want gaijin to become too like them, and start to cold-shoulder those who try, like Arudou Debito, or David Aldwinckle, a self-styled 'social activist' against Japanese monoculturalism. (Whenever I mention Debito, I like to mention Yuri Kochiyama, a veteran Japanese-American campaigner against US racism, for balance.) In the article I state my happiness with this state of affairs, a mutual holding-at-arm's-length which can also be seen as a mutual enchantment, an eternal yet unconsummated honeymoon between the Japanese people and myself.



I entered Japan, and Japanese culture, thanks to 'Trojan horse' Kahimi Karie, in the globalist 90s. It seemed easier then to be both a foreigner and a good object for the Japanese. Shibuya-kei was globalist, pluralist, post-modern, open, eclectic. The young Japanese I met in the 90s--kids now aged between 25 and 35--were open to foreign travel, to collaborations with foreigners on equal terms. The Japanese I'm closest to are still these people, widely-travelled, formed in the 90s, cosmopolitan, outward-looking.

But this year I've been very aware of a surprising new mood in Japan, an intensely inward-looking mood akin to narcissism. Japan, increasingly, performs itself to itself as 'the other', as an exotic tourist destination primped for internal consumption. TV here in Hokkaido is an endless advertorial presentation of winter resorts where Japanese families go to marvel at intensely, even stereotypically, Japanese wonders; to bathe in hot springs, to sit on tatami mats in ryokan hotels, to sample inevitably delicious food. It's what deconstructionists would call "the staging of difference against the scenery of standardisation and globalisation". But the globalisation part of the equation has been hidden.



I had dinner on Friday night with some 20 year-old Japanese kids, students of the Future University, and asked them some questions. None of them had been outside Japan, and none of them seemed very keen to travel. They planned to spend their whole lives in Hokkaido. A recent Pop Vox feature on Japan Today saw 20 year old Komachi saying "I have no interest in the U.S. and politics, whatsoever..." and Hisamoto, 23, concurring "What Bush does is not related to me. There is no reason why I even need to think about him so much."

I tend to agree with the 'stupid wisdom' of this young generation of Japanese. The US (the standard-bearer, in the 90s, for globalism) has, alas, become objectively vile over the past five years thanks to misgovernance, a new spirit of situatedness, and the abandonment of its Enlightenment heritage. Ironically, the new mood of Japanese self-obsession closely resembles the new mood of American self-obsession; in both nations internationalism has been dismantled and replaced by nationalism. The big difference is that America is aggressively exporting its currently ugly culture all over the world, whereas Japan is keeping its beautiful culture rather secret. Not only is Japan not invading and 'reforming' other nations, it isn't even advertising itself abroad as a tourist destination. Its tourism is very much an internal affair.



Although I'm sad that the current Japanese mood of intense self-love seems not to need me in quite the same way as 90s global pomo Japanese culture seemed to, I'm generally positive about the trend to national narcissism. I believe Japan really does have a culture worth protecting, celebrating, and being proud of. It's a sensual culture, a refined and beautiful culture. It contains radically different, particular and valuable ways of thinking, feeling, tasting, seeing, embracing, bathing, being. I want Japanese, rather than tourists, to be the curators of this culture, and I believe that foreigners will benefit from there being a 'Japanese way of being' even if they seem, in some ways, excluded from it (if only by the huge cost of holidays here, and the difficulties in negotiating Japan's rather foreigner-unfriendly infrastructure).

Watching Hokkaido TV last night, I saw Japaneseness being 'performed' for a Japanese audience in the form of travelogues and internal tourism puffs. The evening's viewing was a parade of beautiful, archetypical Japanese experiences being marvelled at by Japanese people as if they were foreigners in their own country. Narcissism, after all, implies both self-love and a certain self-alienation. Can that lovely face looking up from the pool really be... me? I have an inkling that this self-alienation is the point at which foreigners can insert themselves into Japan. Because if the Japanese need Japan 'performed' for them as an exotic spectacle, they're already foreigners in their own land, just like me. The Japanese are almost Japanese... just like I am.



If you think it's odd that I find such self-absorption heartening, you have to remember that in the country I was born and brought up in, the TV mostly showed images of another country – the US. What's more, it mostly showed situations of crime and conflict rather than the sensuality and beauty on display in a typical evening's viewing in Japan. If I imagine a Scotland in which Scots are as in love with being Scottish as Japanese are in love with being Japanese, I must say I find it a lovely picture. Love, even self-love, often starts off as a lie, but it's a virtuous and transformative lie; a lie that might just become the truth. If you believe contentment is something good, something a nation should aspire to, you have to accept that self-contentment might be a perfectly good way to achieve it. But if the Japanese are only, like me, on the way to becoming Japanese, then perhaps we shouldn't use the word 'self-contentment'. Perhaps we should say 'self-aspiration'.