It's a country with 120 million people, with a deep and long history, with a complex and beautiful language. Yet, for Americans, Japan often offers something else entirely—a place to project its fears, fantasies, and, yes, even neurosis.
So much of Japan is familiar for Americans. There's baseball, rock music, junk and fast food culture, and all those Japanese products, such as TVs and cars, that Americans snap up.
Yet, Japan is different.
There are enough familiarities to make the country inviting for Americans, but enough nuances to make it perplexing. America's Japan fascination isn't new. The countries have a shared history; however, the way in which you view Japan is largely a product of the time in which you lives. Japan's allure, though, never changes.
In the 19th century, Americans forcibly opened up Japan, taking advantage of a weakened government. Japan had been in forced isolation from the West since the 17th century. During that period, foreigners couldn't enter Japan, and Japanese people were not allowed to leave under penalty of death; Dutch and Chinese traders were permitted on a man-made island in Nagasaki called "Dejima." The country was cut off from the world, looking inward and doing things on its own terms. According to game translator Matt Alt, who co-authored Yokai Attack! and Ninja Attack!, Japan was a time capsule. "It's the only country I'm aware of that actually stopped using guns," said Alt, "and went back to only using swords." Japan operated on its own terms and pushed back hard against foreign imperialism. Some call Japan's decision to hedge its bets and block foreigners for centuries xenophobic, but seeing what happened throughout the rest of Asia, namely colonialism, I'm calling it smart.
In the late 19th century, Japan—with its sword-carrying samurai, demure geisha, and woodblock prints—was exoticized and fetishized by foreigners. "I think Japan has long existed as an appealing world of exotic dreams for Americans and other Westerners," Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica, told Kotaku. "Orientalism, as Edward Said has shown us, is a construct comprising Western projections upon formerly 'distant' lands of very different cultural character, a blank canvas for fantasy, willful misinterpretation and missing links." The concept of "Japonism", the appreciation of Japanese art and design, influenced European artists and American artists like Whistler. Kimonos and geisha popped up in fine art. Japanese architecture and motifs were even absorbed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The visual appeal of Japanese art, with its emphasis on line, nature, and even flatness were a breath of fresh air. The Japanese people themselves were fetishized as being one with nature and as having a greater understanding of the natural world.
Japan modernized quickly and industrialized. The country created a massive military complex, willing to wage war. Japan's growth stoked "Yellow Peril" fears, a concept rooted in American racism; Yellow Peril was used to refer to the increase of Chinese immigrants to America during the 19th century. War propaganda depicted the Japanese as automaton workers—a stereotype that exists even to this day—and encouraged Americans to work harder and harder.
War stereotypes, however, gave way to Post-War fetishizing. During the days, weeks, months and years that followed the empire's defeat, Japanese women once again found themselves as an object of fetish, due in part to physical and linguistic differences. As detailed in John W. Dower's Pulitzer Prize-winning Embracing Defeat, Japanese males were relegated to a sub-human category, while Japanese women, who had traditionally viewed by Westerners as geisha, were objects of lust and fascination. Troops would flock around women wearing expensive kimonos for photo ops. To negate rape, the Japanese government recommended that young women wear baggy clothes and avoid seeming friendly. The Occupation government also instituted a policy of government-controlled prostitution in hopes of maintaining order. As noted in Embracing Defeat, it wasn't unheard of for women to service over fifty U.S. servicemen a day. Some women had mental breakdowns. Others committed suicide.
Sex in Japan interests Americans, if anything, because sex interests people. An interest in sex is natural, healthy and normal. What makes sex in Japan the object of fetish for Americans is the lack of context from which it's traditionally viewed. Sex is not placed in the same religious construct that it is for most Americans. Japanese concepts of guilt concerning sex are not pervasive, and generally speaking, there are fewer traditional sexual hang ups. Nudity, which of course can be embarrassing for anyone, is not shameful, but rather, viewed as natural; families, friends and even co-workers take baths together at hot springs. Japanese pornography, which is how the majority of Americans are acquainted with sex in Japan, does censor genitalia, but that doesn't mean Japan is prudish about nudity. The contradiction, especially compared with America's graphic pornography and contrasting Puritan background, leads many Americans to simply label Japan as "perverted". But who's perverted, the American who pays to see naked women at a strip club or the Japanese who legally pays for a blow job in the country's "night spots"? Both probably, but at least Japan isn't trying to sugarcoat things.
During the Post War Era, a handful of troops became interested in the country itself—the language, the culture, the history. An member of the American military serving in Japan, Donald Richie would go on to become a famed Japanese film expert. Other American businessmen saw an opportunity in Japan and created companies like Sega. During the following decades, more and more Americans who were born during the war started seeing Japan in an entirely different light. From the 1950s to 1970s, the American counter-culture—namely first the beatniks and later the hippies—discovered Japan via religion like Zen Buddhism or Shintoism.
Martial Arts began to take hold during the 1960s, and even Hollywood flicks, like The Manchurian Candidate, started using karate to the delight of American movie-going audiences. With Russia replacing Japan as the enemy, Hollywood was free to have Frank Sinatra karate chop a table—an act that would've been seen as "unAmerican" only decades earlier. Starting in the 1950s, film was the big driver in changing how Americans fetishized Japan. Akira Kurosawa, who idolized American directors like John Ford, synthesized influences as divergent as Hollywood, Shakespeare and Japan itself in a way audiences had never seen. Once again, Japan was close to American culture, but so very far. It wasn't simply that Kurosawa was taking cowboys and giving them swords, but the entirely new way in which he structured and explored themes. All of this laid the ground work for a future in which American children could play Ninja Gaiden and was a precursor for a generation of American children taking up karate because of The Karate Kid.
What fascinates Americans about Japan is the country's familiar but different spin. Godzilla, for example, wasn't just a Japanese knock-off of King Kong, but a monster movie inspired more by nuclear war than Hollywood. It wasn't just the movie's themes that were different, but Japan's insistence on having a man-in-a-suit stomp around a carefully modeled miniature set, which showcased an obsessive attention to detail. Americans who grew up during the 1960s were fed a steady diet of Japanese monster movie through poorly-dubbed flicks playing at the local grindhouse and on late-night TV. Japanese anime also started making in-roads during the 1960s and 70s, bringing robots and race cars like America had never seen before, culminating to what could be Japan's most important pop culture contribution of the 20th century: video games.
For those who were too young for the Atari 2600, but just old enough for the Nintendo Entertainment System, Japan came to equal video games. Growing up, I didn't know Nintendo or Sega were Japanese companies—just as Japanese kids today probably don't equate McDonalds with America. Gradually as the 1980s wore on, I put two and two together. The 80s were a heady decade for Japan, which was exploding economically. Stories were common of Americans, who didn't know any Japanese whatsoever, going to Japan and making tons of cash teaching English. After years of Japan-bashing during the 1970s, the country became the blueprint for business, with every Harvad MBA trying to get the inside track on how the "Japanese mind" saw business. Whether it was Rising Sun, Gung Ho or even Die Hard, Japanese corporates were ruling the world of make-believe, too.
The bubble burst. The 1990s spawned Japan's "lost decade", the one in which Japanese kids were expected to have worse lives than their parents. The Japanese work ethic, which was trumpeted since the war, started being portrayed as simply a tradition of doing "busy work", and Japanese companies weren't nearly as lean as their U.S. counterparts. While the economy might've been in the toilet, the 1990s saw a creative explosion out of Japan in music, art, and yes, video games. During the last part of the decade, Japan became utterly cool with folks like William Gibson, a long-time Japanophile, saying if you want to see the future, go to Japan. The concept of Japan as the future wasn't knew.
Japan never was the future. It was always, simply Japan. And Japan is always changing. During the 1990s, robots became less popular, and Japanese art, thanks to artists like Takeshi Murakami and Moriko Mori, became knowing and ironic. In the 1990s, in the dark times before the explosion of the Internet, Japanese musicians like Cornelius and Kahimi Karie started appearing in mainstream American music mags, even getting play time on MTV. Fruits magazine showcased the wild fashions of Harajuku, and imported issues started appearing in New York and Los Angeles bookstores. None of this was mainstream Japanese pop culture, but subculture movements. Americans didn't know better, and suddenly Japan was very, very cool. The music and fashion seemed familiar, almost American, but was incredibly different. Japan's take on, say, Beach Boys' music was unlike anything the Beach Boys could ever consume. It wasn't copying, it was fresh, original and new. For those, who discovered Japan in the late 1990s, the country was the epicenter of cool.
Also during the 1990s, Pokémon overran Japan (and the world), and the concept of "cute", or kawaii, was discovered and discussed by American academics. "What's markedly different about this latest fondness for Japan, spurred by the explosive success of Pokémon and other titles in the late 90s, is that it's so contemporary in nature," said Kelts. "Americans and other Westerners are finding in Japan a world of color, light, playful joy and sincerity." Cute characters were not new, but suddenly much American ink was spent fetishizing kawaii and pointing out that even Japanese adults (yes, adults!) read comic books. According to Kelts, Japanese pop culture doesn't cater to Western tastes. "It's Japanese, made for Japanese, and yet it arrives in the US as an alternative to dominant American pop culture tropes that have grown tired and worn," Kelts said. "Hello Kitty looks fresh; Mickey Mouse does not." Japanese pop culture, added Kelts, is alien enough to be fresh, but familiar enough to be comforting.
A new breed of Japanophiles, less interested in robots and ninjas, was born. In the 1980s, Alt says there wasn't the means for anime fans to communicate. According to Alt, "There were a handful of fan organizations but they were restricted to major cities on either coast, and communicated via newsletters and trading VHS tapes and such."
The Internet made Japanese culture available like never before. Americans could consume manga and anime instantly, creating an even bigger fan base that was connected and able to communicate. Anime fandom in American became much more social, leading to a proliferation of anime and cosplay events.
The Internet also shone a spotlight on the most questionable, niche elements in Japanese pop culture, such as the depiction of underage characters, sex, violence, pornography—you name it. While the U.S. also has its fair share of iffy, niche comics, porno flicks, movies, and video games, Japan provided a foil for Americans to look at a society, without understanding the language or culture, and say, "I don't like this, this is wrong." Some of it might be wrong, and much of it is niche, meaning that it's certainly not on the radar of most of Japan. However, Japan, unlike the U.S., traditionally is less judgmental about things—even indifferent in many ways, valuing freedom of expression. But, as Japan had been in the 1970s, the country was often relegated to a whipping boy for Americans.
"There are a lot of superficially unique characteristics about Japan that are perfect fits for the 'meme-driven' world we live in today," said Alt. "It's easy to pick and choose things that seem 'weird' by American standards, whether it's a Hello Kitty vibrator, 'tentacle porn', guys who marry their Love Plus characters, or even simple snack foods." If you're going to fetishize Japan, it's necessary to put things into context and provide an explanation why.
According to Alt, Japan isn't a perfect culture. He's right, it's not. He's also correct that 90 percent of issues foreigners complain about can be explained with context and language. Japan is a unique place and has much to offer—both weird and wonderful. Neither are worth shortchanging. There is nothing wrong with fetishizing Japan—Japan fetishizes America all the time (something that will be touched on in a future column). What is wrong is simply pointing the finger and labeling Japan as weird without attempting to put the culture in context. Japan is weird, sure, but America is far weirder.