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Sunday, April 17, 2005


It's time Japan jumped on its cultural bandwagon

Special to The Japan Times

The Japanese have never regarded their culture as universal.

They have generally been mystified, and sometimes embarrassed, when non-Japanese people show a genuine enthusiasm for aspects of their culture. European artists from Van Gogh to Monet were passionately attracted to the art of the Japanese woodblock print, yet this was at a time -- in the early Meiji Era (1868-1912) -- when the Japanese themselves had all but lost interest in such traditional arts. Back then, woodblock prints by masters could be bought in Japan for little more than a song.

So, while it is true that people all over the world have been, and continue to be, influenced by Japanese art and design, film, cuisine, fashion, pop-otaku phenomena from manga to video games and all manner of cutesy characters and gadgets, most Japanese are puzzled what it is about such aspects of their nation that truly intrigues the outside world. To them, Japanese traditions and customs, old or new, are "too Japanese" to be really understood and appreciated away from these shores.

One of the catchphrases of the Meiji Era was "catch up with the West and overtake it." Then, as it emerged from nearly 250 years of self-imposed international isolation, Japan set itself on a hell-bent course of modernization which entailed emulating the West. European countries had empires. Japan wanted to have an empire too. That meant Japan had to draw on and assimilate European culture. Bold national policies were implemented, and every facet of Japanese life was transformed.

But the Japanese failed to appreciate one thing: that it was the vehicle of European culture -- and its engine, the Christian religion -- that ran roughshod over the heads of the conquered in European colonies around the world, sealing the fate of those who lived there.

Japan was to establish an empire in Asia. But even as it was doing so, the Japanese, unlike the Europeans they were emulating, were unable to believe that their culture was universally valid, engaging, irresistible. Japan's empire had no subtle cries, chants and whispers; only shouting heard at the end of a bayonet.

There was an attempt, particularly in Korea, which Japan colonized from 1910 to 1945, to impose the Japanese language on their non-Japanese subjects. But let's face it, you can't expect your unwilling subjects to become undying fans by banning the use of their language as part of a crudely administered military regime. The Japanese conquerors never seriously considered that the people of another country could possibly become "Japanese."

But how do you make friends and influence foreign people in the 21st century, once you have buried the bayonets and are sincerely into friendly persuasion? Empires are hideous and brutal, not to mention impossible to sustain, as the United States, "the last Emperor," is unwittingly finding out.

The crushing defeat of Japan in World War II was a defeat of that military notion of empire. After the war, the Japanese decided to concentrate on rebuilding their country as a secure economic power. They, as we now know, succeeded in this. So, while their cultural and political patron, the United States, was the sole ascendant power in the world, Japan saw no need to assert itself culturally. The Japanese were happy to play second fiddle. You play your part faithfully (not too loud!), always look up to the conductor, and the sweet harmony should last forever . . .

Well, it hasn't. Japanese influence around the world is decidedly on the wane. There are those aspects of the culture, particularly the pop culture, that are prominent outside Japan. But the government and major business interests of Japan have failed to identify with these. Their degree of global prominence comes largely in spite of official or entrepreneurial indifference. And this is because Japan's politicians and entrepreneurs seemingly still lack an abiding interest in their own culture and are nonplussed as to why the foreign world would be fascinated by it. They are technocrats, and technocrats are interested only in the how, never in the why.

Japan must understand that it is not culture that rides on the back of economics, but vice versa; that a country's image overseas is created by artists and visionaries, and that image in turn becomes the medium of economic success. It is not enough for a government to wait for culture to be created and welcomed outside Japan, then rush to the side of its creators and try to be identified with them. You can't hop on a bandwagon, fiddle in hand, once the bandwagon has left town.

That old Meiji Era catchphrase, "catch up and overtake," has now assumed a new meaning in Asia. It is the governments of China and South Korea that have made Japan their target. They are intent on overtaking Japan as the leading power in Asia. Beijing and Seoul are vigorously promoting their cultures, changing the image of their countries and turning the eye of the world to them.

Japan has and always has had a tremendously rich culture of its own. But if the Japanese do not begin to understand the genuinely universal values that are deep within their culture -- and promote them aggressively inside and outside this country -- then what part will Japan be playing in the future world orchestra?

Koreans playing the brass section and Chinese on percussion will surely drown them out.

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