Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The "Real" Japan

This image pinched from the BBC's Japanorama site.

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Japan is all about its pop culture or most artistically-outstanding elements rather remind me of those who have the outdated notion that it's all about geisha, sumo, and Mt.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.


Anonymous said...

A few years ago there was a show also on the BBC called "Adam and Joe Go Tokyo" It seems that they followed much the same format as you describe.

Many clips are available on Youtube.


Shari said...

Hi, Andrew, and thanks for your comment. I'll poke around for the show you mentioned.

One odd thing that I didn't mention about the show was that it also featured very pointless clips every time (no matter what the show was about) of a British band called the Magic Numbers while they were in Japan. It gave the show a schizophrenic feel at times.

Elec said...

I can't really elaborate much; you've said in one entry what I've typically taken pages to rail against. Although you were much kinder about it. :-*

I've seen both programs mentioned and they were nothing but embarrassing.

Shari said...

I'm trying to give the makers of the show the benefit of the doubt at least in regards to some of the content. I don't believe they mean to belittle the culture or paint the Japanese as freaky. In fact, I'm not so sure the makers don't honestly believe in the portrait they paint as an authentic one. Of course, that's much more so the pity.

Anonymous said...

Hi Shari,

>I'm trying to give the makers of
>the show the benefit of the doubt

I have not seen the show, so I can not comment directly on that one. I understand that the British have a much different sense of humor than Americans do.
However on the Adam and Joe show, it was (at least to me) kind of in your face in terms of what they were doing.

Guests on the show were Sakana-kun, Papaya Suzuki, Dandy Sakano (getz) and The Tokyo Shock Boys. Really, all the unusual people.

I suppose they are more interesting than the sea of blue suited drones that make their way to the office each day.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Shari!

How are you?

I came across your blog by pure chance, as I was originally looking into how much it would cost to make the Japanorama series. Your blog hits the nail on the head and gets straight to the point. As someone who has visited Japan many times, married to a Japanese and will soon migrate to Japan in the summer, I feel programmes like Japanorama only serve to further fill up the pot of misconception of Japanese life and culture. The voice over translators have to be the most annoying part of the series.

I am doing a pitch in my video production class next week - My idea is for a cultural Japanese programme aimed at Japanese and British people living in the UK. I was wondering if you had any ideas - of a programme that you would ideally like to see.

I must also say, thank you for creating such an Educational, Entertaining and Informative blog space, and I will be sure to visit back from time to time.

Kind regards,

uk-japan.net (project website)
chouwa-bc.com (personal website)

Anonymous said...

Running behind this week, so I only just got to this entry. Shows like this annoy the heck out of me. You are 100% correct Shari, the vast majority of the buildings in Japan ARE ugly, but yet you will always see Big Sight and Fuji TV on any show about the amazing buildings.

As for the day-to-day work life, I don't think you made it clear just how much of a drudgery it is there. My first trip over I stayed on a side street in Ikebukero, and I watched as the hang-dogged, gray salarayman zombies trudged off to their jobs in front of my hotel. It was like a scene from Dawn Of The Dead, these are NOT a happy people. And the after work "1,000 yard stare' you see in Pachinko parlors and arcades is just down right scary.

Instead, shows like this (which I have not seen, but I know the type) make it seem like some sort of bizarre mega-arcade of non-stop neon and excitement. So not the truth.

Shari said...

Barry: It took me a few days to respond to your comment because I had to think about how to reply to your question. Before I answer though, I'd like to thank you for your kind words and taking the time to comment. It's very appreciated.

I hope this reply does not come too late for your pitch!

Anyway, I was thinking that a series of shows which focussed on one to three people's lives as representative cross-sections of the people would be very good. It could even be about 3 very different people in the same age group with different lives and priorities in each episode but the important thing would be for each to offer a real perspective on how life is lived here.

For instance, one could be about a retired person who is trying to adjust to having so much free time after working so hard compared to another retired person who has taken up a part-time job and adjusted more comfortably and a final person could be a wife who is coping with her retired husband for the first time. One show would be about 3 people from the same demographic but show real lifestyles and issues.

Other shows could focus on other age groups from pre-schooler to retiree. I'd find that very interesting.

Sean: Thanks so much for your comment. :-)

I'm cautious about reaching conclusions about the overall levels of happiness in Japan with the working situation because the Japanese can be hard to read about such things. They aren't as demonstrative as westerners (generally speaking) and I also can't tell whether or not the zombie-like faces you often see are the result of living in a big city or being Japanese (since I never lived in a big city in the U.S.). Over-stimulation can really overload one's circuits in any country.

I do see a lot of tired people and sometimes some who are clearly angry or sad in their expressions but mainly I see tired and impassive faces which I guess is to be expected.

I'm grateful that you offered your perspective though since, as someone who isn't living in Japan full-time, you probably have sharper observational skills than those of us who see it all the time and it's, for the most part, become a part of the scenery and is no longer remarkable for us.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Shari!

Thank you very much for taking the time to reply to my comment!

Your idea is very interestin, and one that I like also! I will merge it with the ideas that I already have and still developing.

Also, thank you for visiting my websites and for leaving a comment on my personal website.

Take care,


Anonymous said...

Hiya just stumbled upon your website thru a TV/Drama discussion board on Japanorama!

Can I Just say you have a nice little web-blog here, easy on the eye (not overpacked with too much info), intellectually well written accounts of life in Japan. And the pictures of the Krispy Kreme shop mmmmmm! Anyway back to business. I'm a big fan of Japan and have been hopping from website to website. Recently "Japanorama" has popped up several times. At first I was inclined to support your views and those of the various comments by others on your blog as they are sound. However my opinion has swayed slightly away after seeing the comments by another person. If you goto http://www.uk-japan.net/ukjapanforum.htm (You should be at the TV/drama discussion board in the communication section) you see they state a few valid points. I was just wondering what your views were as I always like to see a good argument in motion. Mike Dafoe

Shari said...

Hi, Mike, and thanks for your comment and kind words.

I did go to the site you mentioned and read the discussion but I'm not inclined to argue with people. The main reason for this is that it puts me in a position of defending myself against assertions which are clearly based in not having read my blog or my post very well.

Anyone who reads what I write knows that I do not talk about any of the traditional, romanticized notions of Japanese culture, nor do I always speak favorably of Japan. The main argument in the forum implied that I may have objected to the show because it didn't show Japan in a favorable light. Honestly, I have no problems with not showing Japan in a favorable light. I object to trivializing a culture though. That applies to any culture.

The arguments against what I said push my views to a more extreme place than they really are. The fact that someone implies I might have been more satisfied if the show were about sumo, tea ceremony, and cherry blossom viewing shows that they aren't reading what I wrote as I say that that is just as misleading as focusing on all the bizarre things that the show has focused on. The truth is that neither are accurate representations.

My objections to Japanorama have to do with a lack of context (as I said) and that I said it does a disservice to average people (I never said it "degraded" them as one person on the forum said). The fact that people argue against me by skewing my views to make them fit some opposing stereotype to the stereotypes in Japanorama means I can't have a "good" argument with them as a good argument is reasonable and doesn't attempt to paint the view of the other party as an extreme one in order to make one's own point look more rational. Unfortunately, this sort of "point making" goes on rather often on the internet because people are not held accountable for what they say and feel free to distort things to make their arguments look better.

I'd be much more inclined to take part if people made their points about what I actually said rather than a misrepresentation of what I said. Also, the fellow making the main points has a P.T. Barnum perspective that I doubt I'd dissuade him from no matter what I say.

Thanks for coming by though and I hope to hear from you again!