Context, Meaning & the Transnational Production and Consumption of Japanese Culture

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Essay I: Context, Meaning & the Transnational Production and Consumption of Japanese Culture

The presentations made by Anne Allison and James Watson of products which have transcended international borders begs the question as to whether the crossovers result in erosion of cultural identities or whether the younger generations are welcoming foreign-themed products as a natural response to the growing global economy. Specifically, Watson discussed the impact on Japanese culture from the introduction of the all-American fast food restaurant, McDonald’s. When interviewees were asked whether they actually liked the taste of McDonald’s food, many responded that they “did not like the food, but assumed that something more profound was at issue when eating at McDonald’s” (Watson, xxii). The natural conclusion when considering the stellar popularity of the American chain restaurant given the lack of enthusiasm for the actual taste of their food is that the adoption by Japanese youth of an American icon is more about the novelty of the exposure rather than an adoption of that culture due to preference.

When examining the impact of the introduction of Japanese culture to America’s youth, Anne Allison termed the experience “enchanted commodities,” connoting a merging of Walter Benjamin’s term for the seeming need for the latest and greatest for the sake of attaining the latest and greatest rather than for mere play, with Sigmund Freud’s idea of “polymorphous perversity” wherein Japanese toy products serve to incite the desires for extreme marketing in presenting the products as a foreign world opening access to America’s playtime (Allison, pp. 9-10).

Both explanations as to the popularity of products which, on their face, would seem to counter the preference and taste of their adopting countries. One very interesting aspect of McDonalds’ influence in Japanese life was brought up when discussing the matter of smiling while working. Such practices are required by employees working within McDonald’s but are still seen by diners as employees “goofing off” at the expense of their employer. That policy, however, worked when introduced as its own unique and different experience: more as a means of showing western culture and practices rather than as a new Japanese restaurant. While Asian society has welcomed the experience, they seem to have welcomed it as it was intended: an introduction to other cultures but not a replacement of their own. Case in point is the inability for McDonald's to convince diners to bus their own tables. It is understood in western nations that McDonald's prices and convenience are what they are because of the expected contributions by consumers to retrieve their own supplies and clean their own tables (Watson, 54). In spite of television ad campaigns, in-store signage, and various other encouragements, Asian society will simply not embrace cleaning their own tables because, in Asian society, such a task is—culturally—reserved for those in the lower classes of society; that such activity is demeaning. Consequently, understanding that western culture does, in fact, comply with this practice, the consumer in Asia will not modify their own cultural practice to accept it even though they accept—and actually welcome—other differences presented by America’s restaurant.  

Allison’s findings on the acceptance of Japanese products by America’s youth seem to mirror the McDonald’s example.  She states that toys such as the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Sailor Moon series served to diminish America’s position as the center of global culture; that the “new models of global imagination . . . carry an attractive power but which is not driven or generated in others for the actual place of culture of the producing country.” In other words, it is the toy itself that generates excitement among America’s youth rather than where the toy was produced or the cultural influence behind it.  Allison continues by presenting her observation that the “coolness” of Japanese toys in America and around the world stems from their ability to stoke the imagination or “fantasy formation.” The ability for the toys to incite excitement stems more from the launching of the players’ access to unlimited play through imagination rather than from the simple toy (Allison, pp. 276-77).

In essence, it would seem, at first glance, that the popularity of cross-cultural products would be explained in large part by the newness of the products and, particularly for the typically more rebellious youth, a means by which the younger generation can stoke the disapproval of their more traditional elders. Such a reasonable conclusion would be sufficient if the products were accepted as fads and then faded out as the novelty wore off. However, the lasting business presence of both McDonald’s on Japanese culture and Japanese dolls and anime on American culture seems to contradict the idea that these are merely passing fancies. It would seem, then, that the acceptance of these international products speaks more to the acceptance of the youth of both countries on global ideals and opportunities. As visitors to Japanese McDonald’s welcomed the differences of this new powerhouse fast food restaurant without demanding that McDonald’s change to meet Japanese standards, it seems clear that their acceptance was more a matter of welcoming something different without necessarily impacting tradition (diners still preferred their own cultural cuisine but accepted McDonald’s menu as a treat).  Similarly, American acceptance of Japanese toys did not change American preferences across the board.  Rather, the toys sparked imagination and the draw, it seems, was more to the resulting expansion of potential play than to the toy, itself.  

Essay II: National Identity, Social Problems & Advocating the Importance of Japanese Culture

The comparisons by Tanizaki and Okakura in their pride and presentation of Japanese culture to the west utilized very different metaphors, but both comparisons were, underneath, the same.  Tanizaki discussed Japanese culture through shadows:  how the previous generations of Japan had to find beauty without the power of light.  Their interpretations of the beauty of Japan, its peoples and culture stemmed from perceptions more so than from actually viewing.  To see the beauty that surrounded them, they had to look in the “shadows” –they had to appreciate the value of their culture through their total senses rather than merely what nature presented.  In other words, it is the elitism of Japan which makes Japanese culture beautiful—their appreciation for the novelties which other lands do not enjoy.  He wrote that “[t]he quality that we call beauty, however, must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover the beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty’s ends.  And so it has come to be that the beauty of a Japanese room depends on a variation of shadows, heavy shadows against light shadows – it has nothing else” (Tanizaki, p. 18).  Bringing forth the Japanese history of oppression, its citizens were forced to exist with limited resources and opportunities.  Such lack of comforts forced them to see the beauty in the underlying things around them—the shadows.  As Japan rose to become a first-class power, its citizens witnessed the beauty the world had to offer but retained their history of appreciating the underlying beauty that could not be seen with just the eye.  Similarly, Okakura used tea to distinguish Japan from the west by referencing the period in which the world’s opinion of Japan began to change from that of barbaric to first-class power.  Okakura opined that the west’s determination that Japan was a brutal force rather than a beautiful, appreciative culture could be altered if the two cultures would simply sit and enjoy some tea.  He compared the differences in views by stating that the west would view the tea as merely a ceremony without presenting or resolving any differences.  In essence, the invitation to tea was merely child’s play.  Japanese culture, on the other hand, viewed tea as the quintessential status symbol.  Tea was considered the drink for elitists; yet, every Japanese citizen had access to it.  Even Japanese peasants had the talent and taste to properly arrange a beautiful bouquet of flowers and set a proper tea.  His use of tea, therefore, is a social ladder which elevates even the lowliest Japanese citizen to relatively equal standing with Japanese elite.  Cherishing the tea for what it can offer and provide goes deeper than the mere drink, and such difference in interpretation provides the difference in attitudes between Japan and the west (Okakura, p.3).

Those differences were highlighted by comparing the beliefs and values most central to both cultures.  Tanizaki compared Japanese views of the underlying beauty of all things which the Japanese could see in their mind’s eye with the quest for newness and beauty brought about by the west.  Shiny baubles or unnecessary items, such as wasted space in a home’s floor plan or arts and crafts, and even toilets, gave way to his concern that the quest for physical beauty may erode the learned lessons of true beauty—that, somehow, by seeking the physical beauty of the world around them, Japan’s culture would lose as the appreciation for underlying, unseen beauty ebbs away. Such erosion would serve as a loss to Japan because it is their ability to appreciate the unseen beauty which distinguishes them as elitists from other cultures.  

Similarly, Okakura highlights the differences in attitudes toward learning.  As the west accepted Japan, the educational opportunities for Japanese students to study in America also opened up. He posited that the traditional beliefs of westerners held by the Japanese would fade with continued exposure through study-abroad opportunities and that Japan would grow to better understand the motivations of westerners.  On the other hand, westerners would not, in turn, grow to better understand and accept Japanese culture because their perception was that the Japanese would not, or could not, meet their needs and, therefore, there was little need to learn about the cultural differences and unique qualities Japan had to offer (Okakura, p. 4). While both views highlighted the willingness of the Japanese to learn and understand western culture, the loss to Japan was that western culture would not take sufficient interest to learn Japanese culture and, ultimately, their customs and deep understanding of the true beauty of the world would not be shared.

Both celebrations of Japanese culture were grounded in the mid-20th century.  As Japan grew from oppression to acceptance as a world power, their opportunities to explore other nations and cultures were also expanded.  This issue, and whether or how such opportunities would impact Japanese culture either by the growth of greed (seeking physical beauty and riches or growing a haze in understanding the underlying beauty), was a concern for both writings.  The shadows highlighted the elite ability for the Japanese to appreciate the finest things in life—things which may not be appreciated solely by view—and the elite ability for the Japanese to raise its peasant population to a social status equal to its elite population with merely a drink.  Such abilities are considered by these writers as unique to Japanese culture and an asset which could be shared with the west as the west grew to accept Japan’s rise in world status.

Works Cited

Allison, Anne. Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. Book.

James L. Watson, Editor. Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia 2nd ed. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006.

Okakura, Kakuzo. The Book of Tea. New York: Dover Publications, 1964. Web.

Tanizaki, Junichiro. In Praise of Shadows. Leete's Island Books, 1977. Web.