Nissim Kadosh Otmazgin: Regionalizing Culture

by tigermanifesto

Book 2 - Copy

At the end of my brief review of Koichi Iwabuchi’s book Recentering Globalization, an examination of how Japanese culture industries had insinuated themselves in the East Asian region, I noted my disappointment that it scarcely mentioned the cultural relations between China and Japan. Its overwhelming focus was more general, focused on the energetic ascent of Japanese culture in East Asian countries like Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea. Unfortunately, I must reiterate that disappointment here, as Otmazgin’s book, while it does lay the foundations for an understand of the political economy aspects of Japan’s cultural industries in East Asia, discusses China only a handful of times and never in any detail.

Because of this, the book was a fascinating but not especially useful read for me, an excellent complement to Iwabuchi’s book, which came out a decade before this one. Where Recentering Globalization focused squarely on the distribution and consumption of Japanese popular culture in East Asia, exploring the more subjective and cultural sides of this territory, Regionalizing Culture argues for the centrality of production. In particular, he emphasizes the productive capacities and experience of the Japanese cultural manufacturers and the importance of the vast and sophisticated consumer base in Japan to their export capabilities.

Uneven and contradictory development is the key here. Japan had a twenty-year head-start in the formation of a domestic market capable of buying into its popular culture output, whereas the legacy of underdevelopment and, often, neocolonial exploitation (neither named as such in the book itself) limited or prevented the creation of middle-class urban strata in most of the other countries in Southeast and Northeast Asia.

By far the most valuable contribution the book makes to own research it its conception of East Asia as a “region.” If Japanese popular culture is the subject of the book, the “protagonist,” the geographical concept of region is its setting. Uneven geographical development occurs within capitalism as a world system on all levels simultaneously. Obvious disparities between affluent and destitute countries aside, capitalist economic regimes also exacerbate the divisions between urban and rural regions within each country. China is a perfect example of this, as cities like Shanghai have become wealthier and more cosmopolitan while rural areas remain fairly stagnant, and the situation is far worse in countries like The Philippines, where domestic economic development plays second fiddle to the exploitation of its natural resources and people. Otmazgin’s region, therefore, is much more a network of city-islands than a united territory comprising whole nation-states. Tokyo and Hong Kong have much more in common than Shanghai and a tiny village in Sichuan in regard to their proximity Otmazgin’s cultural region, despite the latter two sharing a national territory and language.

Within those “city limits” Otmazgin finds that Japanese culture has found a large niche across the region, exporting popular music idols, animated characters, and even whole media formats and genres to other countries. Countries with less-developed cultural industries often import whole structures and repurpose them for local production. A good example of that is the creation of manhwa, Korean comics, almost entirely on the basis of Japanese manga tropes and style. Over time, the Korean product has become more distinctive, but the format is clearly derived from a Japanese import. Otmazgin rejects the idea that this constitutes a form of imperialism, reasoning that to say as much would endorse a conspiracy theory. Rather, he advances the idea that Japanese cultural industries have had an overall positive impact on the region that he has defined, creating new possibilities and ways of thinking that draw different countries with often antagonistic histories closer together despite any official state policies to the contrary. Piracy also played a key role in dodging cultural embargoes in countries like South Korea and Taiwan that had official bans on Japanese cultural imports for much of the postwar period.

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An example of manhwa.

I wonder, however, if such a conclusion could be maintained if one took a more holistic look at relations between countries rather than confining one’s view to interlinked urban areas. Sure, there is a homogenization evident across the world within the wealthier areas of large cities. On the other hand, Otmazgin dismisses outright the notion that the proliferation of Japanese modes of popular culture have had the effect of squelching native cultures, arguing that the process of “nativizing” manga in South Korea is an example of autonomous borrowing rather than any kind of imposition. While that might be true, Otmazgin does not consider the implications of the separation he identifies between those who have access to this “cosmopolitan” urban culture and those who do not, and whether that might inflame intra-national tensions or feed reactionary movements, as it has to some extent in Europe.

For its relatively slender length, however, the book includes some invaluable chapters, particularly a wonderful examination of the domestic Japanese culture industry and the ways in which it develops its products. In particular, it leans on its own consumers and enthusiasts as a pool of energy and talent on which to draw. Otaku and other culture fanatics are important not just for market research but for cultivating a broad swathe of consumers who also produce their own amateur manga (doujinshi) or other materials. The most talented amateurs are often offered jobs in the mainstream industry, which is notoriously difficult to work in and pays poorly for rank-and-file workers in animation and comics. These flexible and decentralized regimes remind me of Robert Biel’s conception of neoliberalism “parasitizing” on human initiative in order to more efficiently commoditize products and ensure a higher return without the rigidity of centralized control.

While its theoretical insights and usefulness for my own needs are both limited, Regionalizing Culture is a fantastic introduction to the Japanese popular culture industry and its ambivalent relationship to East Asia. It’s probably stronger and more well-developed than Iwabuchi’s book, so if anything I would read this first and, if it sparks your interest enough, move on to Iwabuchi afterward.

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