2004年05月30日 日曜日

Losing the Soul of Japan

by Junko Sumiya


An article by Konrad Mitchell Lawson

I recently joined two of my friends for a visit to Yushima Tenjin 湯島天神 (English site) Shrine, near Tokyo University's Hongo campus. The shrine is apparently popular with young students who are preparing for the difficult university entrance exams or other academic challenges.

Upon entering the shrine, where a range of beautiful flowers were blooming, my two friends went off to perform various simple ritual acts to ensure the successful completion of their Masters theses, which both are working hard on at Tokyo University. It didn't strike me until much later that there was something noteworthy in the spectacle of having two Korean friends pay homage to Japan's Kami and then ask these spirits to provide them with assistance in their studies. One of my friends ended up deciding against it in the end, but I suspect her thesis will still work out fine.

I'm not writing here today to dwell on the fact that at least one Korean friend was able to overlook a justifiable antipathy amongst many of her countrymen for a religion that was once pressed upon them. The whole thing seemed perfectly natural to me at the time. There was something else during that visit that prompted me to think about the mixing of cultures and identities. On that warm afternoon, I got sidetracked on the way to the shrine's main building when I found myself staring at a large poster hanging in a display case.

In the poster a Hungarian woman wearing an Aikido hakama faces us while standing in the defensive pose of her martial art. In large text to the left, the poster quotes from a letter she has supposedly written which begins, "Dear mom, Japan has the Way of the Kami spirits." The letter, written in Japanese, is shown in full in one corner of the poster:

Dear Mom,
Japan has the Way of the Kami spirits. I begin my Aikido practice after bowing to the beautifully purified "Kami altar" in my pursuit of this way of life.
Note: The last phrase, 人の道, is literally "The Way of Humanity" or something like "A moral way of life"

The writer of the letter, and the woman in the poster, is introduced at the bottom as a Hungarian graduate of Tokyo University who works in a private company and aspires to work in the (presumably Hungarian) Foreign Service. The only other information about her is a list of her hobbies: Japanese calligraphy, flower arranging, and wearing kimonos.

The primary message of this poster becomes clear in the body of its text. In addition to describing a bit of Shinto culture, the poster notes, "The heart of Nippon that we Japanese have forgotten is for her a natural part of every day life." (「私たち日本人が忘れかけたニッポンの心が彼女の毎日には当たり前のように息づいている」) The mechanic used to promote Shinto in this poster is one of shame. The Japanese have forgotten their "soul" or core culture, while it has become a natural part of this Hungarian woman's life. In other words, this foreigner respects, appreciates, and practices that which we, the Japanese, have forgotten: the soul of Japan.

It is a powerful poster, employing an effective rhetorical device. What fascinates me is the complexity and contradictions that are embedded in it. There is, of course, the fact that we have a letter, presumably sent to a Hungarian mother, yet written in Japanese and reproduced in this poster in hand written style. But this is nothing to fuss about. Far more interesting is the combination of inclusivity and exclusivity found in this poster and more broadly, Japanese society as a whole.

If anything, my guess would be that almost any Japanese person viewing this poster will feel a sense of admiration and respect for the woman shown. She has studied at an elite university, presumably mastered the Japanese language, and has a passionate interest in some of the beautiful arts of Japan. This was certainly my own experience studying Japanese archery, or Kyudo. When I improved faster than another beginner who joined at the same time, our teacher told me, "You are good with the bow because you Scandinavians come from a hunting and gathering people." I didn't know whether to thank him or feel insulted but the truth is that throughout my study of this art, my fellow archers gave me abundant support and personal instruction.

I too bowed before the beautifully purified Shinto altar at the beginning of every practice, although back then I was puzzled why I had to do this in the Zen temple that was our practice hall. Later I was told that this only became widespread for martial arts practitioners in the decades leading up to war, when emperor worship and Shinto deities became an increasingly omnipresent force in the arts.

The majority of us who fall in love with Japan through our contact with its traditional arts have discovered that we are made to feel amazingly welcome, respected, and cared for by Japanese who are delighted to share their culture and language. While there are sometimes frictions, these usually only result when some Japanese feel like they are "losing control" of a particular art. The dominating presence of foreign wrestlers in Sumo is a recent example of this.

It is this "losing control" or the related lament over the loss of Japan's "heart," however, which reveals an intense friction between Japan's desire to share its culture with the world and its desire to preserve its own cultural integrity. The celebration of chanpon culture that marks some of the cosmopolitan cities of the world is slowly taking hold in Japan, but it faces awesome opposition from those who believe the loss of identity far outweighs the gain. Up until recently, this was clearly seen in the linguistic gap between the Japanese word for internationalization or Kokusaika (国際化) and its English equivalent. Scholars like Marilyn Ivy, whose difficult but important book Discourses of the Vanishing looks closely at Japan's obsession with its "vanishing" heart, argues that Japan's kokusaika boom was very much a one way deal, "Kokusaika is a conservative policy that reflects the other side of a renewed sense of Japanese national pride, if not nationalism. It has thus been remarked that instead of opening up Japan to the struggle of different nationalities and ethnicities, the policy of internationalization implies the opposite: the thorough domestication of the foreign and the dissemination of Japanese culture throughout the world." (3)

How is this reflected in this poster? The Hungarian woman, as well as thousands of us who have come to love some of Japan's traditional arts, are beneficiaries of this enthusiastic sharing of Japanese culture. However, the Japanese culture that has become a part of her every day life is not her own, and can never be her own―at least in the eyes of many Japanese. She cannot pass this on to her children as her own culture. Why? Because it belongs to Nippon. She can learn it, appreciate it, and make it a part of her daily life, but for many Japanese, who may never have had much contact with it, or have merely "forgotten it," this culture is a birthright that is being "lost" and whose loss is to be lamented as the loss of one's own heart.

It is only because this view is still such a powerful force in Japan that this poster can be effective. It appeals only to those who are sensitive to the feeling of loss that its message cultivates. As a close reader of the quote above may have noticed, however, there is a contradiction at work here, which is certainly not unique to Japan. Our Hungarian Aikido practitioner is a literal poster woman for the dissemination of Japanese culture. As such, she is honored and
respected in her appearance. And yet her role in this campaign, and indeed the role of so many "corrupting", "modern", or "foreign" images we still find at work here, is to prompt a feeling of deep loss. The dissemination of culture inevitably results in its change and is incompatible with any attempt to preserve its "essence."

The poster I have described is far from the only example of the use of foreigners to remind the Japanese of a kind of shameful "loss" or "forgetting" of their traditional culture. An often shown advertisement shown on TV and in a poster has a similar message, and lends weight to Ivy's claim about "Kokusaika" (the Japan Advertising Council's web page even puts "Kokusaika" in the upper right corner as a title for this advertisement). In the commercial, a kimono dressed Fuji Jinii, a Californian-born woman married to a Japanese man and living in Yamagata prefecture, is shown bowing to and greeting some older Japanese women, enjoying traditional flower arranging and putting her shoes in the correct Japanese outward-facing position when she takes them off. Her message to the viewer is, "You know, I think the Japanese have probably forgotten the good things about their country―and there are a lot of good things." (日本人はね、自分の国の良いところ、たぶん忘れていると思います。たくさん良いところありますので。) The narrator follows up, "Japanese knowing about their own country―the starting point for international exchange."
(ニッポン人が日本を知ること。国際交流もそこから始まります) The mechanic at work here is almost identical to the Shinto poster above. When I first saw this over a year ago, I remember feeling a little disturbed at the implication that Japanese who are ignorant of some or all of Japan's traditional customs and arts would be somehow less qualified to engage in international exchange. I soon realized, however, that this is not at all an unusual premise. While living in the International House as a graduate student in New York, I joined half a dozen other residents in preparations for a Scandinavian Culture Hour, one of I-House's monthly celebrations of a world culture. During this experience, many of us were wondering exactly what "authentic" Scandinavian things we should, indeed could, introduce to our event's guests and I-House residents. Like so many similar activities around the world, we were expected to be ambassadors of a culture and share its noble customs. It was almost comical how little we knew about the various traditional things we debated including for the activity. This was all the more true in my case since I had spent half of my life outside of Norway. While we did end up including some traditional dancing and singing, I think our event's success was ultimately guaranteed by the free vodka bar provided by our generous sponsor, Absolut.

Ms. Fuji has not only starred in a commercial but has also added her support to the discourse of Japan's lost soul in her book called, There isn't enough Japan in the Japanese (ニッポン人には、日本が足りない). Part of her book focuses on her own challenges as a foreigner living in Japan but has one chapter which exhorts the Japanese to better appreciate the beauty of Japanese culture, food, and language (ニッポン人には、日本が足りない?―日本の美しさと伝統、料理、日本語の素晴らしさ). A short summary of the book found at online bookstores says the book is a "Unique
Nihonjin-ron Essay" (異色の日本人論エッセイ). Nihonjin-ron is a popular genre in Japanese writing, often crossing into overt cultural nationalism, which focuses of the uniqueness of Japanese people and culture. Ms. Fuji's book may fit into this genre but her book's final chapter, in which she suggests mixing the good aspects of Japanese and American culture, again shows how the "pure" and essentialist features of any culture will inevitably change as they try to "domesticate" the foreign and spread.

I believe the message of this poster and the lament over the "vanishing" of Japanese culture (again, nothing unique to this country) to be slowly on its way out. There is a newfound pride amongst a younger generation in Japan's eminently exportable fashion and pop culture. The time will come when the almost derogatory addition of the word "pop," will no longer be seen as necessary to distinguish it from something elite, pure, and legitimate. Like Japan's traditional arts, Japan's newest cultural exports were not "born pure" Japanese, being a derivation of a combination of influences. Unlike Japan's traditional arts, however, its bastard origins are recognized and celebrated as such, and few would suggest that it is in anyway tied essentially to their identity as Japanese.

I called my friends over to look at the poster in which I had invested so much thought. They simply shook their heads at me and one said, in her characteristically flawless Japanese, "Yuk, I hate those freaky foreigners who love everything about Japanese culture." I asked them if the Kami of Learning had given its blessing to their graduate studies. My attempt at a comeback went entirely unnoticed.

Konrad Mitchell Lawson's weblog: http://www.muninn.net/blog/

Posted by Junko Sumiya at 2004年05月30日 15:44


So eloquently put! I've also felt weird about people's effort to try to promote "the pure" national identity through the existence of 'the Other,' which like you said, is nothing particular to Japan, but a wide-spread phenomena in many industrialized conutries.

Thank you. It was a wonderful read.

2- Joel

Fascinating. I'm waiting for the day when Japanese start depicting not northern Europeans or northern Asians (Mongols, even Koreans?) as preservers of Japanese traditions, but also Southeast Asians, South Asians, and even Africans. Another decade, perhaps?

And thanks for introducing me to the Chanpon site.

お久しぶりですぅ^-^) 京都のあべちゃんです。
The east University of Tokyo, west Kyoto University. . . The student of Kyoto University of Kyoto is also popular among a young student. Kyoto has many students and why or a ramen restaurant is a cover around a student dwelling.

hello. Nice to see you.
I have been in Australia for 2 years for my Dad's job...
I am researching disappearing japanese traditional culture for my assignment now.

>Up until recently, this was clearly seen in the linguistic gap between the Japanese word for internationalization or Kokusaika (国際化) and its English equivalent.

I really agree with that. At the moment there are many people who can not use proper Japanese especially young people. Lots of KATAKANA EIGO exist.
They often helps me in Australiaa because some words are same meaning as KATAKANA EIGO, you know? 笑

If you want, please have a look my Blog(Its in Japanese)and then comment on it.

see you..

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日, 6 6, 2004, @ 11:38

I have written an article for Chanpon, a wonderful website dedicated to mixed up cultures, identities, and a multicultural Japan. In the article I talk about the use of foreigners, especially those who have a deep appreciation for Japan's traditional a... More »