Christina Morimoto is sitting in the office of the Tokyo modeling agency she works for, answering questions about her first acting job in the new movie “I Am Nipponjin.”
In the film, the 20-year-old Sophia University student plays Amy Watanabe, a young woman much like herself except for some details. Like Amy, Christina has one American parent and one Japanese parent, but in her case her father is the American (Morimoto is not her real name). Like Amy her late Japanese grandfather was a practitioner of the martial art of kendo, but unlike Amy she didn’t grow up at his knee absorbing the niceties of Japanese culture because when she was younger she couldn’t understand Japanese well enough, and he didn’t speak English.
Most importantly, she didn’t come to Japan to teach the natives what it really means to be Japanese. Amy, as Christina is quick to admit, is a bit of an exaggeration: a foreigner who is so enamored of Yamato-damashii (the spirit of Japan) that during her first day as an exchange student at a Japanese university she stands up during an assembly and sings “Kimigayo” louder than anyone in the auditorium.
“I’m an American. I grew up in America,” Christina says. “And I came into this movie knowing nothing. I couldn’t read kanji. I didn’t know what Yamato-damashii or Bushido or wabi-sabi meant, so I had to immerse myself.”
This immersion was facilitated by the man who came up with the idea for the movie, actor Kensaku Morita, who plays Amy’s Uncle Ken, an unmarried merchant whose vegetable stand is situated in a shotengai (shopping arcade) where everybody knows everybody else. Christina says that when “Mr. Morita” gave her background for the film, “he told me he had been wanting to do it for many years. It was all about him seeing Japanese kids nowadays and realizing some things. And I guess he had been involved in politics.”
Indeed, Morita was first elected to the Upper House in 1992. Six years later he won a seat in the Lower House, where his metier was culture and education, in particular problems related to young people. His political career ended, at least for the time being, in March of last year when he lost in his bid for the Chiba prefectural governor’s seat.
“I Am Nipponjin” advances many of Morita’s pet concerns, which center on what he feels is a deterioration of traditional Japanese values. The young Japanese whom Amy encounters in the movie are dissolute and self-centered, more concerned with money and status than with wa (harmony) and reigi (civility).
It isn’t necessarily their fault because, as Uncle Ken says at one point, the Japanese lost their confidence when they were defeated in 1945, and in the rush to rebuild their country they became obsessed with money and forgot about tradition.
Morita’s take on Japanese culture is hardly academic. Non-Japanese aren’t going to come away from the movie with any deep understanding of Yamato-damashii or Bushido. Morita’s point is that since young Japanese don’t know about these concepts, they’ve become “less” Japanese, but the self-centeredness they display in the film isn’t very different in substance from the kind of late-adolescent behavior you will probably find in any developed country in the 21st century.
In the production notes Morita talks about why he used a Japanese-American character in the film. He mentions that, like his own father, the first wave of Japanese who emigrated to the United States were born in the Meiji Era, and so those emigrants and their descendants preserved the same Japanese values with which he himself was raised.
However, Morita’s view of the subject is selective. As the disaster known as the Pacific War shows, some of those values didn’t do anyone any good; and Japanese women are probably grateful that, at least nominally, they are no longer forced to fill the roles assigned to women by the Meiji civil code and which Morita as a public figure has always advocated as being vital to social cohesion.
In the end, Morita’s mourning for a lost Japan is more nostalgic than it is didactic. What’s more, it’s nostalgia for a specific milieu. The main drama of the movie involves Amy helping to save the shopping arcade, which is being threatened with destruction by the changing times. The tone recalls the shitamachi ninjo (kindness of ordinary people) theme that was at the heart of the popular “Tora-san” movie series and the domestic dramas that dominated Japanese TV in the 1960s and ’70s. The theme was mostly a function of the dramatic purpose; not so much a representation of reality, but rather an amplification of particular ideals to bring about certain responses in the audience.
In the early ’70s, Morita starred in such a series. In fact, the title of the new movie is similar to the title of the TV show, “Ore wa Otoko da (I Am a Man).” Christina has seen several episodes. “He has not changed at all,” she exclaims, and though she’s talking about Morita’s appearance she could be talking about his character. In the show, Morita played a high-school student who, like Amy and Uncle Ken, is a kendo enthusiast. His misadventures and the life lessons he learns revolve around his determination to do the right thing as a young Japanese man.
Though “I Am Nipponjin” is clearly aimed at a local audience, Christina thinks it has a wider appeal. “I see my cousins and my own [Japanese] friends looking at American culture and wanting to be like that and forgetting about their own culture,” she says. “But I also think the same about American youth. While doing this movie it made me realize a lot of things about my culture.”