Sniffing For Japan in Asia with Koichi Iwabuchi

by tigermanifesto

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Though it’s accurate to describe our current situation as being “under global capitalism” the second word in that phrase merits some serious caveats. Though globalized in extent and unbound by national or cultural loyalties in the abstract, the concrete reality of capitalism is thoroughly Eurocentric. In brief, capitalism bears the birthmarks of its origins in European feudalism and its dissolution through the process of colonialism. Even countries like Japan, which were never formally colonized and have attained phenomenal levels of economic power, the Eurocentric biases of the international system of capitalism could not be more relevant.

That is the brute reality on which Koichi Iwabuchi builds in his 2002 book Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism. The work is an attempt to study cultural flows in East Asia, with Japan as its “anchor,” examining both the reception of Japanese popular culture in greater East and Southeast Asia and the effect of Japan’s “turn to Asia” has had on Japanese ideologies and desires. Recentering is unmistakably a published dissertation, as shown by its lengthy and often turgid dives into reviews of postcolonial theory, but as the book continues it builds a fairly coherent argument that I found worthy of discussion.

I’m particularly interested in this topic because Japan’s rise as a cultural power is a process that reveals the inherent flexibility of global capital, particularly during its global “neoliberal” restructuring that began in the 1970s. Cultural industries, among others, have begun to appreciate the value of the “local” within their vast scope, tailoring products for smaller subculture or large markets outside their core territories. Iwabuchi recognizes this and notes the corporations like Sony are not just interested in pushing Japanese pop stars, for example, into Singapore, but also to cultivate Singaporean talent that will be better received in the home country and, possibly abroad, but still contribute to the Japanese home office’s bottom line. In fact, the experience of trying to localize specifically Japanese properties, according to Iwabuchi, was often so unsuccessful that the latter strategy might be preferable.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the entire book is Iwabuchi’s sustained discussion of Japan’s cultural “position” relative to both mainland East Asia and the West. One of the ways that Japanese producers interpreted their own role  as they attempted to produce audiences for Japanese media in East Asia was as “transmitters” or even “digesters” of Western culture. Japan, in this “hybridist” mindset, was uniquely and inherently suited to incorporating and domesticating dominant Western culture and technology, thereby allowing it to transmit it to its regional neighbours who would be incapable of absorbing Western culture directly. Japan in this conception therefore becomes neither Western nor Asian but “Japanese,” free to combine American and Chinese historical influences and process them because of its unassailable native culture.

Such conceits, Iwabuchi notes, also constituted part of the ideological justification for Japan’s colonial adventurism in the same regions where its popular culture is beginning (as of 2002 when the book was published) to become more popular. Combined with official Japanese prickliness about its own imperialist past and resurgent right nationalism, this could be a dangerous mixture. Indeed, people noticed precisely that combination in the recent anime Attack on Titan, widely perceived (I believe correctly) as a vehicle for Japanese right nationalism, albeit cloaked in the guise of a Western-ish aesthetic. Another pivotal, if much earlier, example of the way that Japanese media retransmits Western Orientalism lies in the widespread adoption of the urban chaos milieu of Blade Runner in anime, particularly in Ghost in the Shell, which takes place in a setting derived from Hong Kong.

Part of Japan’s uneasiness with its position vis-à-vis the rest of East Asia, of course, has to do with its relatively privileged position as a nonwhite country with a fully developed and self-sufficient national economy. Its strategic importance to the United States, who reduced the country to a partly-sovereign military protectorate, also allowed it to escape the usual subjugation applied to Southern countries by Western powers in the economic sphere. The result is that Japanese popular culture is, almost uniquely in the non-American world, succoured by a self-sufficient home market that can afford to be relatively insular. Despite this, its popular culture is itself deeply shaped by the hegemony of Western culture, and the English language, worldwide. Iwabuchi conceptualizes this as the loss or suppression of a Japanese cultural “odour” that has to be neutralized to make a particular export acceptable in the West. (Also gave me a good post title.)

This separates Japan, in Iwabuchi’s argument, from what it imagines “Asia” to be, a place of premodern harmony where an acidic capitalism has yet to corrode away social cohesion and “collectivism.” Not only this, but Japanese media corporations remains dependent on the muscle of the Western culture industry to push their products worldwide. Note the ubiquity of intermediary companies––though, like Viz Media, some are owned by Japanese firms––established in the West to handle localization and distribution. Japanese economic and cultural power, mighty though they are, are still neutered because the country’s culture often has to be “denationalized” to fit international tastes. No wonder, then, that animation and video games, which are portable and more easily localized and scrubbed of cultural specificity, have taken the centre stage in Japan’s cultural power game.

Unfortunately, Iwabuchi’s book touches very little on the relationship between Japan and China, which will form the backbone of my own studies. When it does mention the PRC, it is nearly always in reference to the more restrictive state controls on the media there. So while it’s valuable in terms of analyzing the construction of what the author calls Japan’s Asian “dreamworld” on top of its peripheries in SE and East Asia, I will have to look elsewhere for answers to how culture and cultural industries in China and Japan relate to one another and how that in turn reflects on the political and economic contests between those two countries. Regardless, those who are interested in the workings of Japan’s relationships with its regional neighbours and how they manifest in the realm of popular culture and ideology should consider giving Recentering Globalization a read.

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