The headline grabs your attention: “The ancient tool used in Japan to boost memory.” You’ve been more forgetful recently, and maybe this mysterious instrument — from the other side of the world, no less! — could help out? You click the link, and hit play on the video, awaiting this revelation that’s bound to change your life.
The answer? A soroban (abacus). Hmm, that’s not likely to help me remember where I put my keys, is it?
This BBC creation is part of a series called “Japan 2020,” a set of Japan-centric content looking at a hodgepodge of inoffensive topics, from the history of Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki pancakes to pearl divers. The abacus entry, along with a video titled “Japan’s ancient philosophy that helps us accept our flaws,” about that old chestnut kintsugi (a technique that involves repairing ceramics with gold- or silver-dusted lacquer), cross over into a dominant new genre exploring the country: Welcome to the Japan that can fix you.
For the bulk of the internet’s existence, Western online focus toward the nation has been of the “weird Japan” variety. This trope zeroes in on obscure happenings and micro “trends,” but presents them as part of everyday life, usually just to entertain but sometimes veering into “get a load of this country” posturing.
It’s not exclusive to the web — traditional media indulges, too — but it proliferates online. Bagel heads, used underwear vending machines, rent-a-family services — it’s a tired form of gawking that has been heavily scrutinized in recent times, though that doesn’t stop articles and YouTube videos from diving into the “zany.”
These days, wacky topics have given way to celebrations of the seemingly mundane. Thank tidying guru Marie Kondo — or at least Western web media’s obsession with her — for starting this. Her KonMari method of organizing became a global hit in the early 2010s, inspiring books and TV shows. It’s online — where content attempts to fill a never-ending pit — where breakdowns of, advice on and takes about Kondo emerged the most.
Then came other Japanese ways to change your life. CNBC contributor Sarah Harvey tried kakeibo, described in the headline as “the Japanese art of saving money.” This “art” is actually just writing things down in a notebook. Ikigai is a popular go-to, with articles and videos popping up all the time explaining the mysterious concept of … having a purpose in life.
This isn’t a totally new development in history, as Japanese concepts such as wa and wabi sabi have long earned attention from places like the United States, sometimes from a place of pure curiosity and sometimes as pre-internet “life hacks” aimed at making one’s existence a little better. The web just made these inescapable.
There’s certainly an element of exoticization in Western writers treating hum-drum activities as wild revelations from Asia. There are also plenty of Japanese people helping to spread these ideas, albeit mostly in the form of books like Ken Mogi’s “The Little Book Of Ikigai.”
It can result in dissonance. Naoko Takei Moore promotes the use of donabe, a type of cooking pot, and was interviewed by The New York Times for a small feature this past March about the tool. Non-Japanese Twitter users, in a sign of growing kickback to the “X, the Japanese art of Y” presentations, roasted the piece … or at least the headline, as it seemed few dove into the actual content of the article (shocking!), which is a quick and pleasant profile of Takei Moore, a woman celebrating her country’s culinary culture.
Still, despite the hyperbolic dunking by netizens, the piece says way more about what English-language readers want in their own lives than anything about modern Japan. That’s common in all of this content, and points to a greater craving for change, whether via a new cooking tool or a “Japanese technique to overcome laziness.” The Japan part is just flashy branding, going to a country that 84% of Americans view positively to find original ideas for a never-ending churn of online content.
And what do readers want? Self-help. Wherever they can get it. Telling them to slow down and look inside isn’t nearly as catchy as offering them magical solutions from ancient Japan.
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