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What, if anything, makes Japan unique?

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Special To The Japan Times

In February, American comedian Atsugiri Jason remarked on a Fuji TV talk show that one of the “demerits” of being a foreign TV personality in Japan is that he can’t publicly say he thinks those aspects of Japanese culture which Japanese people believe are “uniquely amazing” are not, in fact, uniquely amazing. The example he gave was Japan being the only country with four distinct seasons. If he pointed out on a TV show that in the U.S. there are also four distinct seasons, he’s sure the comment would be edited out of the program.

Japanese “uniqueness” is often the stuff of jokes among non-Japanese, but it has been commodified by the media. Now, the government is boarding the Nippon Sugoi! (“Japan is amazing!”) bandwagon, which was launched by TV shows that solicit non-Japanese to point out all the wonderful things about Japan. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has published a pamphlet titled, “Wonder Nippon: Sekai ga Odoroku Nippon!” (“The Japan That Surprises the World”).

Printed in bilingual format, the pamphlet asserts that with the approach of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics the world has become interested in what makes Japan special, in particular the “sensitivities” and “values” that form the “foundation” of the “Japanese spirit.” So far, so good, but eventually the authors get specific, and matters become increasingly weird. The four seasons cliche is dragged out, and there is a series of gorgeous photographs of natural phenomena, like ice floes and coral reefs, that allegedly can only be appreciated in Japan. A different section claims that Japanese people have a peculiar affinity for “insect sounds,” as if they are able to understand what bugs are trying to say.

The Japanese pop culture blog Buzzap says the pamphlet is “ridiculous” and “a waste of taxpayers’ money.” It calls METI’s brand of Nippon Sugoi! propaganda “aikoku poruno” (“patriotism porn”), which encourages devotees to “look at the rest of the world with scorn” and “feel superior.”

METI created a research group to study what it is about Japan that “amazes foreigners,” reports Buzzap, which means the ministry started from a position of “self-admiration” without any sense of irony. The resulting literature, for all its impressive graphics, comes off as “tacky.” This sort of brash, boastful advertising can be expected from a commercial concern, but this a government ministry.

Cultural critic Maki Fukasawa was similarly critical of the pamphlet on a TBS Radio discussion, emphasizing that Nippon Sugoi! is a new development. Until recently there was no such programming on TV. If anything, non-Japanese were asked to express their reservations about Japanese culture, as exemplified by the old TBS series “Koko ga Hen da yo Nihonjin” (“This is Strange, Japanese People”).

That changed with METI’s Cool Japan project in 2010, which attempted to promote Japanese pop culture overseas. Fukasawa attributes the failure of this scheme to the government’s lack of self-awareness: Once you refer to yourself as being “cool,” you aren’t. Unthwarted, METI decided to extend the scheme to the ephemeral. Instead of pushing manga and anime, they now boost omotenashi (Japanese-style hospitality) and wabi-sabi (aesthetics of imperfection).

According to Tadanori Hayakawa in his book “‘Nihon Sugoi’ no Disutopia: Senjika Jiga Jisan no Keifu” (“‘Great Japan’: A Dystopia — The History of Self-praise During War Time”), the resulting cultural confusion is reminiscent of the national mood in the early part of the 20th century, when Japan displayed an inferiority complex toward the West but aspired to be the lord and savior of Asia. As Buzzap points out, in the section of the METI pamphlet made up of complimentary quotes from non-Japanese, all Westerners are attributed by name, while Asians are identified only by their status in Japan — usually “exchange student.” Fukasawa mentions that while the vast majority of foreign residents and tourists are from Asia, when TV shows want positive comments about Japan they invariably ask white people.

This attitude is reactionary and contradictory. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe yearns to create a “beautiful Japan,” which would seem to indicate that the nation is not beautiful. Defense Minister Tomomi Inada thinks schools should revive the prewar practice of reciting the Imperial Rescript on Education, implying that Japan’s current moral stance is shaky. As Fukasawa and Hayakawa point out, the ideals Abe and Inada long for once contributed to Japan’s destruction. If, in accordance with Nippon Sugoi!, Japan is by nature great, then why emphasize attributes that failed?

More to the point, isn’t aggressive self-promotion at odds with METI’s version of the Japanese sensibility, which is self-effacing? If the government wants to sell Japan through unique customs and cultural traits, they should start with sontaku (conjecture). Japanese-style hospitality is a form of sontaku in that the host understands what a guest wants even before the guest knows what they want.

Grasping the significance of sontaku goes a long way toward appreciating how Japan works. Last week on the website Videonews.com, journalist Tetsuo Jimbo discussed the news conference of scandal- tainted Moritomo Gakuen head Yasunori Kagoike at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan and how non-Japanese reporters didn’t understand Kagoike’s suggestion that Prime Minister Abe didn’t have to say anything to the Ministry of Finance about giving Kagoike’s school a huge discount on land it wanted to purchase from the government. Kagoike thought the ministry wanted to please Abe, who he said supported the school, by giving the prime minister something he didn’t ask for.

As former prosecutor Nobuo Gohara, who wrote about the same subject on his blog, explains, sontaku allows a bureaucrat to “act based on an assumption regarding the will of a superior,” leaving no evidence of the purpose behind the action.

As an example of what makes Japan unique, sontaku is a lot more “amazing” than four seasons or cherry blossoms.