An outside eye on Japan

Foreign creators keep close tabs on the culture

by Justine Parker

In a nation traditionally seen as a monoculture, there’s a multinational range of flowers blooming in Japan’s current cultural crop. In the last several years there has been an influx of foreign-born creators — whether architects, designers or writers — and they are thriving in the local scene.

From established collectives such as the organizers of Pecha Kucha Night to online design magazine PingMag, Web journals such as Neojaponisme and salon events such as Pause Talk (held by Japan Times contributor Jean Snow), they are taking sustenance from and conveying their experiences in Japan’s creative culture.

To keep track of it all you can take your pick from bilingual cultural listing sites such as Realtokyo/Realkyoto and Tokyo Art Beat/Kansai Art Beat, which also hosts its own series of creative talks.

As writer and market researcher W. David Marx — founder of Neojaponisme — puts it: “Foreigners are now actually paying attention to what is going on in Tokyo rather than thinking the whole time about their place within it.”

Neojaponisme publishes essays and articles on Japanese pop culture. It has four key staff members who are all foreign-born, but Marx says they avoid covering issues related to life in Japan as a foreigner “because it’s an incredibly navel-gazing, self-interested topic.”

Marx says the number of Western foreigners choosing to live in Japan for cultural rather than economic reasons appears to have increased substantially since he first lived in Tokyo in 1998.

“These days, after the protracted economic downturn, the only reason to come to Japan is an interest in Japan,” he explains.

It’s a view echoed by Kyle Cleveland, a sociologist at Temple University’s Japan campus. Whereas business, and economic forces drove much migration to Japan in the ’70s and ’80s, Cleveland — who has lived here for 18 years — says the postbubble economy means the bottom line is no longer a driving force, opening a space where cultural considerations have come to the fore.

Advertising consultant Gary Stout, a 10-year resident of Japan, says he has noticed a rise in the number of Western foreigners finding work in Japanese advertising agencies after studying the language in their home country. He says more people are also setting up their own creative businesses in Japan.

“It is probably easier these days just because the network is bigger,” Stout says. “You can speak to other foreigners and get advice, and the technology is getting better. Before, if you were a creative, you had to work in large studios. But now, the location where you are actually working isn’t so important.”

Of course, the enchanted expat inspired to create by the joys of a new life in any foreign land is not a new phenomenon. Foreign-born residents here have done just that since Japan opened itself to the West in the late 1800s — Irish journalist Lafcadio Hearn arrived in 1890 and wrote 14 books about Japan and its culture in the 14 years he spent here until his death in 1904.

Author Donald Richie, who has lived in and written about Japan for more than 50 years, says Western foreigners here have for a long time formed creative networks — mostly, but not exclusively, with other foreigners — to deal with the displacement of living in a new culture.

Cleveland agrees that this is not entirely a new trend. He points to the impact of the Tokyo Olympics and the internationalism that followed in the ’60s and ’70s. A thriving avant-garde movement in film, jazz music and popular bands, such as the influential ’70s synthpop group Yellow Magic Orchestra, garnered attention beyond Japan’s coasts as an outgrowth of collaborations between internationally minded Japanese and foreign artists.

Tokion Japan magazine has explored the idea of Tokyo as a place whose culture transcends borders, connecting it with the rest of the world. Haruyuki Kato, the magazine’s former editor in chief, thinks that it is essential for such collaborations to exist.

“If it is possible for Tokyo to directly connect with the world and generate an entirely new culture, Tokyo will be reborn as a producer of culture and not only be accepted by the world as the consumer as it has been,” Kato says. “Both Tokyo and Japan are closed off both culturally and economically. I feel it has become even more important than before to understand and connect to the world from here, right now.”

For Cleveland and Richie, one of the main reasons the current crop can do so is that they are sprouting up during the increasing commercialization of creative culture in Japan. They cite the massive entertainment complexes Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Midtown as prominent examples of this.

“This is a microcosm of a much larger process of cultural diffusion of style subcultures into the mainstream. It is being driven by — and in some ways created by — global mass media’s preoccupation with Japanese pop culture.” says Cleveland.

Clearly, the Internet has also been critical for the spread of such creations — 10 or 15 years ago there were only print publications with small circulations, or word of mouth. British architect Mark Dytham, from Klein Dytham Architecture, says the rise of Web tools is key to this cultivation.

He has lived in Tokyo for 20 years and is one of the drivers behind the monthly Pecha Kucha creative event, which recently celebrated its 50th installment in Tokyo, where it first began in 2003.

“We’re part of a new generation of people who have been here for a long time, and we’ve got tools now — blogs and Web sites where we can spread the message — which we didn’t have before,” he says. Such tools also offer new ways for people to document their experiences of Japanese culture.

“This could represent the maturing of a certain cohort of expat artists who have become culturally competent enough to produce things as peers rather than as cultural tourists,” Cleveland says. “I suspect that if you look at the demographics, you’re dealing with people who have been here years, and not only do they have language proficiency, but also they’re tapped into networks where they can develop projects that previously would not have generated broader support.”

Dytham concurs, saying it takes time to get below the surface of life in Japan and move past media cliches about this complex but often stereotyped culture.

“We like Tokyo for all that it gives us, and we also want to give something back — our culture, our ideas, our thoughts on the way the city should be run or the way art should happen,” he says. “We’re a Tokyo office. We live and work in Tokyo, and we get all our inspiration from the city — it’s definitely a two-way thing.”