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The Japanese are almost Japanese - click opera — LiveJournal
February 2010
Mon, Feb. 7th, 2005 12:38 am
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:


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'.


Stanley Lieber
Sun, Feb. 6th, 2005 08:49 am (UTC)

Perhaps it is a good thing you're not Korean then!

How would you characterize the Japanese interest in Western literature?

Sun, Feb. 6th, 2005 08:58 am (UTC)

I actually don't know any Japanese who are interested in western literature. I have, in the past, known people who were studying French literature in Japan, for instance. France is still referenced a lot in Japan as 'the good other', the acceptable face of the foreign. Black culture is also still a big reference for the Japanese... if any respect for America endures, it's for black America, although it's as likely to be for Jamaican reggae as urban hip hop. Weirdly enough, the kids I've met here in Hakodate are mostly into Trance. One of the kids I had dinner with on Friday said it was his ambition to go to Ibiza! Another named Belgium as his particular paradise. People do mention Paris, but nobody ever says America.

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Re: JPNLIT - (Anonymous) Expand

(no subject) - (Anonymous)
Stanley Lieber
Sun, Feb. 6th, 2005 09:48 am (UTC)
Re: The gaijin are coming

Are you back in Japan now?

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Sun, Feb. 6th, 2005 10:41 am (UTC)
we suck young blood

..and the thought of getting older keeps applying over and over and over again so that it never has to

Sun, Feb. 6th, 2005 11:06 am (UTC)

As far as race, exclusion and so on are concerned, the fact is, racism is still basically acceptable in Japan, perhaps because there's never been any kind of racial civil rights movement, and because no other ethnic group has managed to get a visible foothold in Japanese culture. I know several foreigners who, when looking for acoomodation in Japan, were told bluntly, "No foreigners." And it is not unusual for Japanese to spout racist theories about the criminality of foreigners and so on right to your face. PC just doesn't exist in Japan. In some ways I quite liked that - I mean, I really don't like political correctness at all - but it also meant that I was able to see very clearly certain racist aspects of Japanese culture that I am just not able to respect.

For some reason, they love Maugham and Saroyan above all others.

I've noticed the Somerset Maugham thing, too. Weird! But I remember a conversation with my 'tutor' (what I would call a 'college mum') at Kyoto University in which he asked me who was the best known Japanese writer in the West. I said that these days it is Murakami (by the way, I hate Murakami), but that it used to be Mishima. He was really surprised at this. "Who do you think it should be?" I asked. He replied that his answer could only really be Natsume Soseki. (I went to a book launch of a new translation of Soseki's works in London the other day, where the translator spoke about how terrible it was that Soseki was virtually unknown in Britain, where his literature was arguably born. On the mainland he is, apparently, widely translated. Well, what a surprise, the British are not interested in culture!) It seems like the fact that Mishima is so popular in the West is a bit like Maugham being so popular in Japan.

I'd just say that, I've read both Mishima and Soseki in the original, and it seems to me that Mishima is far the superior writer. Of course, that's largely personal taste. I think Mishima was, more than Westerners often realise, heavily influenced by western thought and literature. He was far more interested in dramatic plot developments and so on than someone like Soseki, whose style is closer to a slice of life with oblique metaphysical content lurking about.

Something else I would say - I think Japanese translations into English are generally of an appallingly low standard. I wonder if Marxy or any others interested in things Japanese would agree with me? I think there are just a lot of Mickey Mouse translators about. In fact, I've had something to do with one of them - a charlatan and opportunist whose name I shall not mention. It's funny, 'Sinology' sounds respectable, but 'Japanology' sounds like a load of kids writing their dissertations on manga and puricula machines. I think it's because academic interest in Japanese culture is relatively so young, just about anyone with a smattering of Japanese can set themselves up as an expert.

The Queen of Overdub Kisses
Sun, Feb. 6th, 2005 11:34 am (UTC)

It's true, Soseki is hard to get ahold of in English. I'm required to find a copy of Wayfarer for class. Everyone is resorting to finding old library books on Half.com because it's out of print.

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Sun, Feb. 6th, 2005 12:21 pm (UTC)
Ideas out and in.

How did this thread only become about Japanese literature? There's a lot to talk about.

I just did an article for OK Fred about the generational split that divides the Japanese indie rock world. The Shibuya-kei generation is very international and built up their whole meme pool by borrowing from the West's forgotten history. Meanwhile, Shibuya-kei's success made that whole curational mass a Japanese item and the younger generation sees no need to look West for inspiration. This is the downside of the 90s Cultural Bubble: the younger kids are not so much pro-Japan or anti-West as totally apathetic to anything beyond their field of sight.

I'm all for Internationalism and cross-culturalism. I like it when the Japanese recreate Western things and end up making it totally incomprehensible to the West, but Jpop has become so completely Japanese that it needs a breath of new ideas - whether those come from the West or Java or the Artic. Cultural incest gets boring after a while. nurui's the right word. Japanese bands don't need to copy DFA or the Strokes, but it wouldn't hurt for them to take them into account instead of carrying on like Green Day was still the most important band in the States.

In the past, Japan was 1) export stuff to West 2) import ideas/culture from West or in other words, 3) no importing stuff from the West 4) no exporting ideas out. Now as manufacturing ceases to be a major part of the economy, it's oddly 1) export ideas/culture to the West 2) do not import ideas from the West.

80s Japan with its horrible "gaijin complex" - where every douchebag from the Commonwealth would be treated as a king - was no good, and what I liked about Japan was its cultural self-confidence in the 90s. But now, they've stopped getting the ingredients for their cultural stew from new locations and kept being just as arrogant and lazy about it. There's a balance, and Japanese pop culture never seems to be able to find the right point of import/self-love. Nationalism also seems to only be popular when it supports the hegemonic system: tear down those old traditional homes and keep putting Johnny's Entertainment acts on TV!



Sun, Feb. 6th, 2005 09:21 pm (UTC)

'self-aspiration' and a mutual keeping of arms length to one another is all fine, but posting a sign in the window of your bar or restaurant that says 'Japanese Only' or 'No Foreigners', that's just racist and I there's nothing cute, kitschy or lovely about that.

Nick Ink
Sun, Feb. 6th, 2005 11:53 pm (UTC)
Hall Of Mirrors

I wonder what can be made of the 'No Koreans' and 'Foreigners Only' signs which hang over the bar doors of downtown Itaewon, just across the East Sea ?

ReplyThread Parent Expand

Tue, Feb. 8th, 2005 01:32 pm (UTC)

This is actually the best journal entry you have written yet in my opinion. I really enjoyed reading it. I especially enjoyed the part about Japan (the real) vs Japan (the performed). Living in Japan one cannot help but watch television and wonder if everything cooked in Japan really is "oishii"?

With only one point would I have to disagree:

Both Japan and the U.S. seem to be heading towards another period of isolationism. The Japanese government has already started deporting Kurdish refugees just last week. With Koizumi and others wanting to turn the Self Defense Forces into the "Self Defence Army" perhaps Japan WILL soon be able to spread their narcissism around the world. That is what the PR of China and the two Koreas fear. Koizumi is best friends with Dubya remember. In my opinion, whether good or bad, and except for in Okinawa, the US has not really lost much of its appeal to the Japanese. If anyone Japanese has lost their desire to travel to the U.S., it probably has more to do with their Canadian English teacher's influence rather than any current events.

BTW, Isn't Tony Blair, Dubya's other best friend, a Scot?


Tue, Feb. 8th, 2005 01:59 pm (UTC)

In Japan, the belief in Amerika (the performed) is still more widely accepted than America (the real). Unless the US stops making movies I doubt it will change. It is a little hard for me to believe that all of the young people in Japan that you met are apathetic to Amerika. What about all of the young Japanese you befriended whilst living in New York? They too once came from Japan.

Could there be some Momus projection going on here?

ReplyThread Parent

Tue, Feb. 8th, 2005 03:47 pm (UTC)
re: The Japanese are almost Japanese

But they (the Japanese) still have a way to go if they want to match another, yet slightly less sensual, refined and beautiful people; the Norwegians, in "self-contentment/self-aspiration".

Nick the Monk-Rom
Fri, Dec. 23rd, 2005 09:24 am (UTC)

If you think Japan is becoming narccistic, you should visit China. Much of Japanese culture arises from China, anyways; it's only that traditional Chinese culture has been so destroyed and corrupted, particularly in the past 50 years, that now, the Japan that is beginning to emulate America, that you speak of--this is China--times 1000.


Fri, Apr. 6th, 2007 11:30 pm (UTC)

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Sun, Apr. 8th, 2007 05:54 pm (UTC)

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