Tuesday, April 17, 2007
The "Real" Japan
A picture is worth a thousand words. Unfortunately, sometimes those words are wrong. Pictures without context or which are not narrated by someone who can interpret them properly can lead you to reach incorrect conclusions. As someone who has lived in Japan for a long time, I often feel that westerners are looking at a lot of pictures and reaching wrong conclusions. One of the primary ones is that any single story or bit of culture is representative of "all" Japanese people or even a significant majority so long as the information being provided fits their preconceived notions of Japanese culture.
I'm sure that every person observing another culture reaches conclusions based on too little information. In the case of Japan though, the west seems to have a great affinity for seeing the people and culture as absurd, quirky, inventive, and unrelentingly capable of producing and demanding cute and odd products. The last thing people seem to want to do is believe that the Japanese are trudging off to work every day, working at a boring job, going home and watching T.V., and then going to bed day-in and day-out just like much of the rest of the world.
My husband and I have been watching the BBC's "Japanorama" series and have been having mixed reactions to it so far. I can't help but feel that the show is made, by and large, with an eye toward pandering to the western desire to see Japan in the way it wants to see it instead of how it really is. The first episode was about what is "kakkoi" or "cool" in and about Japan. The second one is about otaku (essentially anime and manga geeks who are equivalent to Star Wars or Star Trek geeks in the U.S.). The third about "zoku" or tribes and the fourth (which is the point to which we've watched) is about "owarai" (comedy).
Shows like this seem custom-designed for people who know Japan from the outside only and have an interest mainly in the quirky or weird parts. People who think Japan is all about its pop culture or most artistically-outstanding elements rather remind me of those who have the outdated notion that it's all about geisha, sumo, and Mt. Fujii.
In the first show, they talk about the avant garde architecture in Japan and treat the viewer to a brief tour of some of the outstanding buildings. It leaves the unknowing viewer believing that Japan is full of stunning and unusual architecture or beautiful traditional buildings. The truth is that what Japan is full of is some of the ugliest skylines and unimpressive buildings you'll ever see in a developed country. Amid seas of metal and glass boxes with smog-stained facades and apartment complexes with ugly metal balconies, you occasionally see something interesting but such highlights are relatively rare.
There's also a profile of clothing "designer" and Bathing Ape founder, Nigo, which talks about the Japanese 'love of collecting'. In my experience, outside of otaku, the Japanese collect less than Americans or are at least much more selective in their collecting and rarely assemble vast collections due to their limited living space. The clip that shows Nigo's vast collection of Star Wars collectibles and anime characters perfectly displayed in glass cases is so far away from the reality of collectors in Japan, who neither collect as much nor have them beautifully displayed, that it might as well be a work of fiction.
The "owarai" episode seemed to focus excessively on humor which was degrading and focussed on comedy that featured nudity or crude sexual humor which, apparently, all Japanese are eating right up if you believe the show's conclusions. While I'm very much willing to accept a good many people really enjoy that type of humor, I'm pretty sure it is over-represented in Japanorama relative to other types of interests or entertainment.
I realize that these more extraordinary parts of Japan are the most attractive to foreign viewers but a multi-part series focusing only on those aspects is a serious bit of reality distortion. In some ways, it does a disservice to average Japanese folks as it makes a lot of them look like a bunch of cosplaying, manga-reading, sexually-obsessed, quirky weirdos resting their heads on pillows shaped like women's laps or breasts and sighing "moe" or giggling moronic women catering to socially-awkward men's needs.
I think this bothers me to some extent because I try to focus on the psychological differences and similarities which have some utility in promoting cross-cultural understanding and depth of knowledge of the culture. Showcasing the oddities does nothing but offer up trivialities to people who are doing the television equivalent of rubber-necking. While I think there's value in showing these types of things, I think it should be offered in a broader context or at least with a proper perspective. At the very least, it should be made clear what portion of the population these pop cultural aspects represent rather than to simply say "the Japanese love ..." as if this is the way many of them live their lives.