As soon as my brainstorming session at LSE was over, I was back in Japan -- in the grocery under the Japan Centre and then the Japanese Embassy on Piccadilly, where they currently have an exhibition called Hand in Hand: Japanese graduates from Central St Martins College of Art and Design.
Once I got past the embassy's rather over-strict security X-ray (they were very worried by a pen in my bag, the one I used to take notes in the gallery), I found Hand in Hand an interesting show. Not so much because the work was strong, and not just because I happen to live "hand in hand" with a Japanese Central St Martins graduate (BA Honours Graphic Design) I met in London. No, what I found so interesting was the cultural angle the curator had worked into all the interviews with the artists, displayed on boards next to their work. Basically, this show was about how life in London had impacted on the students' sense of their Japaneseness. Or, as the blurb puts it, "fizzing with energy, the creative talent featured underlines the relationship between the college and Japan".
I say "cross-cultural angle", but that's not exactly the picture that emerges. As much concentration as hybridization of national identity seems to be going on. Here's what some of the thirteen students featured had to say on the issue. "I feel more Japanese than when I first arrived in the UK," says Rie Funakoshi (BA Honours Fine Art). Asked how her friendships have evolved since she moved to London, Rie says, pointedly, "I've met some great Japanese people." Broken any hearts? "I hope not." No miscegenation -- cultural or sexual -- going on here, then.
Sawa Tanaka (BA Honours Graphic Design) presents her Japaneseness as a series of self-deprecating but slightly sarcastic failings: "Here I feel I'm too organized, too concerned about cleanliness, too shy, too short-legged, and have too much good taste in food!" These self-reproaches... aren't.
Yuko Nasu (MA Fine Art) spells it out for her embassy. "You still feel Japanese. I'm absolutely Japanese. Staying in London makes Japanese more Japanese." Asked if she can remember her first day at Central St Martins, Emi Miyashita (BA Honours Fine Art) says: "Yes, too many British students, it was very, very uncomfortable... I feel really Japanese now. Much more than I realised before I moved here."
What does that mean? "There is nothing straight in UK. The manners, behaviour, expressing, weather, art and food. Better or worse, so many things are so different. Which gives me a very strong realisation of my nationality."
If culture shock and an enhanced sense of difference and separateness characterizes most of these students' London experience, there are some who seem more positive about London. Momoko Mizutani (MA Creative Practice for Narrative) and Emi Sekiguchi (BA Honours Fashion) pinpoint the reason most of these young Japanese women (and they are almost all women) have come here: "We think London has the coolest culture background, which is beyond important."
Nakaba Ikoma (MA Textile Design) is unique amongst the students interviewed -- she actually sounds as if she wants to renounce her nationality. "London has had the greatest influence on me. I am Japanese. I was born in Japan and grew up there, I have a Japanese passport. But I am not sure if I am feeling Japanese. These days I do not want to belong anything if it is possible." Wanting to renounce all nationality and all belonging almost sounds like a suicide threat.
The Japanese are much more aware than most Westerners of the fact that the national-cultural self is a blessing as well as a curse. Sure, don't fence me in, but remember that there is nowhere outside of society, outside of specific social habitus. Azumi Yamada (MA Ceramics) lays out rather more realistically than most the pleasure / pain (or should we say limitation / possibility?) dialectic of the national-cultural self: "I feel my identity is constructed in Japan and I still want to go back to Japan when I'm old."