January 7th, 2009


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?