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Sunday, May 9, 2010

COUNTERPOINT

To realize its cultural potential, Japan must celebrate its strengths


Europe received a cultural shock of major proportions during the last quarter of the 19th century. The exquisite shikisai kankaku (sense of color), the startling spatial and compositional elements and the sublime craftsmanship of the Japanese arts took the continent by storm. Many well-known collectors began amassing enormous troves of Japanese artifacts, both the specific and the sundry, from rare antique swords, scabbards and helmets to every quirky trinket under the sun, and paraphernalia from tea whisks to fans.

Japanese art made an especially powerful impression on the Impressionists. Claude Monet (1840-1926) built a Japanese garden at his home in Giverny, 80 km west of Paris, where he spent roughly the last 40 years of his life. And Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) incorporated images of Japanese woodblock prints into some of his paintings.

While the intellectuals of the Meiji Era (1868-1912) were under the spell of European science and the borrowed technologies of industrialization, they believed wholeheartedly in the strengths of the Japanese spirit — particularly as it was expressed in the many forms of art, crafts and performance arts so integral to their identity.

They saw Japanese culture as one that had universal value, and they were proud of it and anxious to disseminate it to an eager world. Every empire boasts a great culture, and Japan's had all the elements of depth and beauty to rival that of other powers, particularly Germany, France and Britain.

When Japan lost its Asian and Pacific empire in 1945 with the end of World War II, it also lost its confidence in its indigenous culture and that culture's ability to have sway in the world.

The genius of Japanese design, though, remained intact, and its practitioners turned their eyes and minds to practical goods over art. Within three decades, Japan was producing electronic goods and cars, among other things, whose sleek appeal once again took the world by storm.

However, the bleak and dispirited years since Japan's economic bubble burst and shriveled in the early 1990s have changed that story, too. Japan is at sea, sailing blind, looking every which way for the glint of a lighthouse.

The epithet "lost" has now been tacked onto nearly two decades in which Japan has been adrift in the doldrums. To this I would add another word: These past two decades have been ones of profound "lost opportunity" for Japan.

A few years ago on these pages I coined an expression that characterizes the most popular elements of Japanese culture embraced overseas today. It is MASK: manga, anime, sushi and karaoke. These are arguably the most popular Japanese words that have gone into the English language in a generation.

And it's not only the English-speaking world that has latched on. No one can doubt the enthusiasm with which French students read manga and young Chinese people adore anime. As for sushi, it has certainly replaced the meat pie as Australia's favorite dish — although most of the nation's sushi takeaways are run by Koreans. Karaoke — pronounced "carry-okay" — has become such a part of life in many countries that I doubt if most people know where it originated.

And yet . . . what has Japan gained from the wild popularity of MASK? Very little or nothing.

Americans are true naturals at cultural entrepreneurship. They not only sell their own hamburgers in every corner of the globe, but they have cleverly reinvented, packaged and marketed the dishes of other countries. They took pizza from the Italians and tacos from the Mexicans and peddled them to the world. A generation ago, American coffee was generously referred to as "brown water."

Why Japan, with its excellent coffee culture, took to Starbucks is no mystery. It's not about the coffee, stupid — it's about the image of yourself drinking it in an "international" setting. Some countries design; America makes images.

Why didn't some enterprising Japanese do the same for sushi? We could have had chains of "Suzuki's Sushi" in every big city in England. "Watanabe's Wasabi" could have been the new mustard in Paris; "Norinari's Norimaki" the new burrito in New Mexico.

Even though the Japanese game industry has made amazing inroads into foreign markets, the anime industry, both in cinema and television, has not. This represents a lost opportunity of humongous proportions. For the Japanese part, world-class Japanese animators have not reached the audiences overseas that they deserve — even counting the limited successes of Studio Ghibli. In addition, production companies here could have racked up significant profits through worldwide distribution. No proliferation; no gain.

This is the key point. Success overseas is tied inextricably to artistic and business confidence at home. Even American movies today are reaping substantial profits from foreign sales, sometimes exceeding those of the domestic market. What stopped Japan, especially with its popular MASK culture, from doing the same?

In a word, it was a lack of faith. Since the end of the war, Japanese people have abandoned the belief that their culture can have universal appeal and value. This has led them to conclude that much of their own culture is fundamentally inferior to that of the West. No salesperson can sell a product they don't believe in.

What killed off that faith was an overweening self-importance. Japanese pride in their culture had become too closely linked to nationalism, with its trumped-up superiority complex and its brutal accompaniments in Asia and the Pacific. Japan, for almost two decades prior to 1945, tried to thrust its culture down the throats of others — seemingly unaware that no one can taste something when they are choking.

Today's apparent withdrawal into a shell of cultural diffidence is a reaction to that cultural imperialism of the past. Even though 65 years have passed since the war's end, this cultural timidity remains dominant. Indeed, it is probably true to say that most Japanese people are perplexed about what aspects of their culture are valid for their own lives today, let alone for people living quite different lives in faraway lands.

What can be done about this?

The MASK culture, while still humming along, represents a genuinely lost opportunity that's now too far along to be picked up and made their own by today's clever young cultural entrepreneurs wherever they may be.

What new areas of cultural development and exploitation will emerge, and where in Japan they will originate, I do not know. But I do know that, in Japan, the genius for ideas, design, shape and color is intact, if dormant. What is needed to awaken it is a new confidence in Japanese culture, a confidence supported by national and local governments to a degree that is exponential compared to what we are witnessing now. Indeed, what is needed — no less — is a new love of the arts, in all their forms, among Japanese people, encouraged by the media with far more vigor and ardor than we are seeing now.

The people of Meiji, for all their arrogance, saw their very identity as part and parcel of culture. The new Japanese identity-paradigm is technology. But technology is only a vehicle. It doesn't teach people where they should go, only how and how fast.

The thing to be vigorously cultivated now is cultural entrepreneurship — cultural entrepreneurship as the new nationalism: peaceful, exhilarating and profitable.

It is the lighthouse that will guide the good ship Japan safely home again.



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