Discuss Japan > Back Number > No.1 > JAPANESE CULTURE TAKES ON THE WORLD
Culture, No.1  Jul. 27, 2010


Japanese culture has a much more prominent position in the world today than most people in Japan realize. The “Cool Japan” phenomenon has really started to take off around the globe.

Personally, I think of the current interest in Japan as the third “Japan boom.” The first boom, which started back in the nineteenth century, focused on things like geisha, “Fujiyama,” and ukiyoe woodblock prints. In those days, people had a taste for the exotic, and the interest was driven chiefly by curiosity about the Other. The second boom came during the 1980s, when animated cartoon versions of Japanese manga like Candy Candy and Captain Tsubasa were shown around the world and Japan started to attract attention for the high quality and entertainment value of its popular culture. Even so, the image of Japan as somehow “exotic” remained strong through the late 1990s.

The current boom, which began around the start of this century, is different. This time, Japanese culture is simply regarded as something interesting and fun, and it is able to find a niche for itself overseas much more naturally. Artists were the first to become aware of Japanese culture as “cool.” Next came a relatively small number of hardcore fans. Now, finally, this awareness is starting to become widespread in mainstream society, so that anyone who is even slightly knowledgeable about film or interested in culture in general will naturally be exposed to the pleasures offered by Japanese culture as a matter of course.

Recently, though, the trend has gone too far. The positive view of Japanese anime and pop culture as something “amazing” has reached such an extent that even manga and anime that weren’t big hits in Japan circulate in shoddy translations, and even some fairly unimpressive examples of pop art have had considerable impact overseas. As a result, the myth of Japanese culture as something unconditionally wonderful is beginning to fade. This in itself, of course, is only to be expected. If the things that Japanese people find interesting or worthwhile when they are shown in this country achieve recognition overseas, that is enough.

In the old days, lots of Japanese people were convinced that Hollywood produced nothing but masterpieces. “What genius,” they thought. But the reason is that Hollywood has always differentiated between movies that are worth exporting and lightweight stuff that stays at home.

It was manga that blazed the trail for the breakthrough of Cool Japan into the international mainstream. The reason for their success was straightforward: They were unambiguously entertaining. All of the genres of entertainment in the world, none is more completely attuned to capitalism than manga. Serialized stories rise and fall rapidly in the prominence they get in the weekly magazines according to votes cast by readers, with no relation to the development of the plot. Sometimes the story is altered dramatically halfway through, and in extreme cases serialization might be stopped altogether. There is nothing like this anywhere else. The severity of these conditions makes manga unique as a product of mass culture. Recently people overseas have started to discover for themselves how entertaining the products of this unique environment can be.

But today the phenomenon of Cool Japan is no longer limited to manga and anime. I help to present a TV show called Cool Japan Hakkutsu! Kakkoii Nippon (Discovering Cool Japan), which introduces popular aspects of Japanese culture from the perspective of foreigners. One young woman who appeared on the show said she was initially inspired to come to Japan when she was knocked out by a CD by a Japanese rock group called the Blue Hearts. A lot of people tell us that they were prompted to come to Japan by the films of Kitano Takeshi or Mitani Kōki. They see the movies and are inspired to come and see for themselves the country and culture that has produced such cool stuff.

Even more interesting was the woman who was lured to Japan by the attractions of “straight perms.” I once asked a bunch of Japanophile New Yorkers what it was that first got them interested in Japan. One woman replied “straight perms.” She had fairly unruly hair, and was determined to have it straightened out. She tried all kinds of salons and stylists in New York, but no one could do anything for her. One day someone suggested she should try a Japanese-run place in the city. They gave her a straight perm and she was finally able to have the hairstyle she had always wanted! She has been in love with Japan ever since.

To celebrate the hundredth edition of the show, we ran a survey in which our foreign participants voted for the “Top 20” of Cool Japan. At the very top of the list were Japan’s high-tech lavatories: toilets fitted with a shower attachment for washing the backside. In Europe and America, such things are not a part of mainstream culture. Apparently part of the reason is an idea that there is something “gay” about the idea of washing your backside. But affluent foreigners who have experienced the convenience of these units for themselves in Japan are buying them to take home.

Japanese culture and Japanese products that satisfy the customer’s every need are spreading around the world. This means that promoting Japanese culture abroad is no longer like firing off flares into the darkness, as it was the days of Kurosawa Akira. The same thing used to be true in music. For many years, the only Japanese song anyone knew overseas was the “Sukiyaki Song,” but today artists like Amuro Namie, Blue Hearts, X-Japan, and others are attracting growing numbers of fans around the world.

The gulf between Japan and the West is shrinking. Trends and developments in Japan used to be looked on as strange events taking place in a faraway land, but now Japan respected as though it were just another European country. The relationship is not as close as that between Germany and France, of course–but I think we may be getting close to the distance between Britain and the Scandinavian countries, for example.

The Need for Cultural Interpreters

At the same time, Japanese people themselves still seem to have an ambiguous view of their own country. There is a substantial gap between what people overseas see as typical of “Cool Japan” and the things that the Japanese themselves tend to be proud of. (And of course pointing out this gap was one of the reasons we launched the Cool Japan show.)

The Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998 were a good example. As part of the opening ceremony for the games, audiences were treated to a performance of the traditional ritual performed in sumō by the yokozuna grand champion as he enters the ring. In a sense, this is one of the “delicacies” of Japanese culture. Unfortunately delicacies are often an acquired taste. Sumō itself potentially has great appeal, but in the context of an opening ceremony for the Olympic Games, all it did was instill in people the sense of dutiful boredom that ordinary Japanese people feel when we are made to sit down in front of a performance of traditional theater. And yet a lot of Japanese people still seem to think this is the normal way of going about things.

Contrast this with the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics. Orchestrated by the film director Zhang Yimou, the ceremony took a multidimensional approach that managed to incorporate uniquely Chinese aspects while still remaining entertaining to an international audience. One person putting on some traditional Chinese performance alone would not have had much international appeal. But the bold idea of having 1,000 people perform the same thing together made the ceremony into an international art performance on an unprecedented scale.

I think one reason why Japanese manga and anime were able to engage international audiences so rapidly was precisely because they were free from the shackles of tradition. As I said earlier, the process of capitalist competition in Japan ensures that only the most entertaining and polished stories survive. This is the reason why so many of them can be enjoyed almost universally around the world.

But if artists and filmmakers in Japan become too conscious of international audiences, there is a risk that they will start to produce flat and uninteresting work. Part of the reason Hollywood is struggling at the moment is that its filmmakers have become too fixated on international audiences and have ended up producing films that are don’t match the interests and concerns of audiences anywhere. Ultimately, I think the key to expanding your appeal internationally is to work hard to appeal to the tastes of your domestic audience first.

To be sure, some themes are too domestic to travel. The subject of rivalry between Tokyo and Osaka, for example, is of no appeal at all to an international audience. Artists develop their works based on unique, concrete stories within themselves. Depending on their subject matter, some of the resulting works will be accepted by overseas audiences, and others will not. This simple distinction applies even to the works of internationally renowned figures like Kurosawa Akira and Kitano Takeshi.

When I put on my own plays in England, a local producer looked at my work and told me which ones were likely to interest a British audience. Personally, I couldn’t see any major difference between the plays he said would succeed and the ones he said would flop–and I had written the plays in the first place. In a way, I suppose it’s not surprising: In cases like this, you’re dealing with something that goes beyond logic and language. It’s more like intuition.

At the moment, “Cool Japan” is being incorporated into Japan’s national growth strategy. For this initiative to be successful, the first thing we need is to come up with people who can act as cultural interpreters: people who understand both Japanese and foreign cultures well, who can tell the difference between what will take off overseas and what will crash and burn. These people would be in a position to give advice on how to change works to make them better suited to international tastes and standards.

This role could be performed either by long-term foreign residents in Japan or by Japanese people returning home after a stint overseas. In his book Kurosawa Akira vs. Hollywood (Bungei Shunjū, 2006), Tasogawa Hiroshi shows clearly how fatal it was that Kurosawa could not speak English. In an ideal world, of course, the artist would be able to communicate in English, but it is unreasonable to expect the artist to shoulder all the responsibility for communication on a deeper level. There is therefore a genuine need for people who can act as intermediaries, with a clear understanding of the essence of both cultures.

The government needs to take an active role in supporting culture by training the human resources we need. The reason the United States keeps bending international law to extend the period of copyright is to protect its movie industry. In Japan too, we need to make support for our culture a matter of national policy, with the emphasis on human resource development.

Taking Pride

The problem is that Japan is really bad at supporting culture. This is something I have been made painfully aware by my own experiences in the theater.

Once, for example, I wanted to have the actors rush down from the stage into the audience during a play that was going to be performed in a certain public theater. But the people in charge told me to forget the idea–because there was “no precedent.” This kind of response just betrays their total ignorance of the arts. It is precisely by coming up with things for which there is no precedent that culture develops!

Regardless of intention, the status quo in Japan effectively looks down on culture. Funding for cultural projects is allocated by fiscal year. This means that producers of movies and plays have no choice but to apply for funding for the following year. But in the theater, we are already grappling with what we will be doing two years down the line. This means that the creators of a piece are forced to make an all-or-nothing bet. So even if you are planning something on a scale that cannot go ahead without financial backing from the Agency for Cultural Affairs or the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, you are not in a position to apply for funding yet. You proceed with your writing and planning, and then duly apply for funding when the time eventually comes. If you get turned down, you have to abandon all the work you have already done. There is no telling how many artistic companies have gone bust and how many directors have been reduced to tears by the vagaries of this system.

Even if funding is approved, you are not allowed to make major changes to the program. Say you get funding for a revival of a piece, for example, but during the preparation process an idea comes to you for a new production–if your production differs from what was in your application, you will not get the money. This is no way to support the arts.

In Europe, government funding for the arts is on a different order of magnitude from in Japan, and flexibility is guaranteed. I cannot tell you how envious I was when I visited the National Theatre in London and saw the producer and the actors experimenting over and over in rehearsals until they got things right, pushing back the date of the opening performance by a week or two with no end in sight.

In the United States, the government does not devote much of its budget to the arts. Instead of this there is a well-developed system of tax breaks for donations, and companies contribute huge amounts of money to the arts as a way of boosting their corporate image. Many Japanese bureaucrats were educated in the United States, and so perhaps they take low levels of government funding for granted. But our tax system in Japan is not nearly as generous to donors as in the United States, and corporate sponsorship has dwindled dramatically in recent years because of the economic slump. The same is true of sports. Right across the board, in fact, culture in Japan can barely stand on its own two feet.

Regardless of which party is in power, therefore, the only way to support Japan’s culture is improve understanding of culture among the general population and to cultivate politicians with a better appreciation for the arts. In this context, too, it would help if people were more aware of the beneficial effects on Japan’s image accruing from the popularity of Japanese culture overseas. The reason we came to respect the United States was not because it had an impressive gross domestic product. It was thanks to its TV dramas and Hollywood movies, and the allure of companies like Coca-Cola. The first time you meet someone from a new country, the impression you have of that person will be shaped to a considerable extent by the culture that country has produced and the image of the country it helps to project. I wish more Japanese knew how many young people around the world have been inspired to play soccer by the Captain Tsubasa manga series.

In the years to come, it is likely that the “Cool Japan” phenomenon will continue to spread. Recently, Japanese-style izakaya restaurant-pubs have started to become common overseas. Previously, eating and drinking places were separate. A system that brings both of them together under the same roof is clearly convenient. User-friendly things like this that anyone can enjoy will spread quite naturally, just like anime and manga and high-tech toilets.

There is another kind of convenience we enjoy in this country, however, that stems from the Japanese sense of self-sacrifice. People will often give up their day off if it is necessary to keep the customer satisfied. Whether this will catch on overseas is more doubtful.

Foreigners often joke that the ideal life would be to live and work overseas but get their service in Japan. The relaxed approach taken in some foreign countries would be inconceivable for most Japanese people. One time, there was a discussion on the Cool Japan show about how in Spain even the seven o’clock news never starts exactly at seven. At first, I thought it was a joke, but I had a staffer look into it, and it turns out to be true. Sometimes, the news doesn’t start until maybe one or two minutes past the hour–until then, there is just blank static on the screen, or views of outdoor scenery.

Of course, this makes for a highly attractive environment to work in. If Japan were to go around trying to convince the rest of the world that it is a major crisis if the news doesn’t start exactly on the hour, people are just going to get annoyed.

Japanese people tend to take an extreme, all-or-nothing approach. You can see the same thing in discussions of history, with a masochistic school wanting Japan to take the blame for everything and another group of people who insist that Japan can do no wrong. The reality, of course, is that things are rarely so straightforward.

Similarly in the cultural sphere, there is no need to prostrate ourselves before the rest of the world and bend to international expectations. But neither can we afford to be so proud. I think we should cultivate pride on a more individual level. Instead of thinking “How interesting Japanese culture is,” we would do better to think, “There is a lot of interesting culture in Japan.”

The time has finally come for Japanese culture to compete without a handicap on the world stage. We need to look realistically at the phenomenon of “Cool Japan,” and resist getting carried away. What I am saying, I suppose, is this: “We have a lot of cool culture in this country. But let’s be cool about it.”

Translated from “Domesutikku ni tessuru koto ga kokusaika no kagi da,” Voice, July 2010, pp. 118-123. (Courtesy of PHP Institute) [July 2010]