Well, the news is out, and it’s good news.
Between October 2005 and January 2006, the BBC World Service conducted a poll to find out which countries were considered in a favorable light. Nearly 40,000 people in 33 countries responded, choosing Japan as “the country that has the most positive influence on the world.” Only two nations taking part did not regard Japan highly: China and South Korea.
This overall sanguine result was referred to by Foreign Minister Taro Aso in a speech he delivered April 28 at Digital Hollywood University, an educational institution located not, as its name would suggest, in Anaheim, the California haven for ardent Disney fans, but in Akihabara, the Tokyo refuge for armies of post-analog geeks. In his speech, Aso waxed enthusiastic about Japan’s future as a cultural leader around the world.
It is important to remember here that this is not the first time in modern history that Japan has been admired and highly praised for its positive contribution to world culture. Go back exactly a century, and you will find a Japan that was held in the highest esteem. And that was true not only in the West, but in China as well, which back then was keen to adopt the Japanese model of modernization. (Some of China’s brightest scholars and thinkers came to Japan to study; and the Chinese language became enriched through the borrowing of Japanese words related to modernization.)
Let’s look, for a moment, at Japan in the world of 1906. Then, as today, it is seen as having an overwhelmingly positive influence on the world.
Japan had just emerged victorious from its war with Russia. Even though it had an imperial system based on adulation of an emperor, Japan had defeated what was seen in Western democracies as a corrupt and outdated monarchy in Russia. British newspapers and magazines hailed the “new Japan” in special reports featuring all aspects of Japanese life and culture. The French fell in love with things Japanese, particularly the exquisite, the exotic and the elegant.
Quality and refinement
Moreover, this burgeoning popularity was built on public attitudes indicating that the West had been deeply into a love affair with Japan from the last decades of the 19th century.
The influence of Japanese art, particularly woodblock prints, on the post-Impressionists was immense, as Japanese images and coloring in the works of van Gogh, Gauguin and others attest. Japanese ceramics, lacquerware and metalwork were of a quality and refinement unsurpassed in any country, in any era. In fact, this influence had been felt and assimilated in Europe from a time well before the formal opening up of Japan to the outside world in the 1850s.
In the early 20th century, Japanese poetry and theater inspired the likes of Ezra Pound and W.B. Yeats. By the second decade of the century, the stage and screen star Sessue Hayakawa had become the pounding heartthrob for millions of American women (including, as she confessed to me once, my mother). Hayakawa was right up there with Rudolph Valentino when it came to turning a beautiful woman’s knees to jelly with a single steamy look.
By the time of the accession of Emperor Taisho to the Chrysanthemum Throne in 1912, Japan had become the first non-Western country to gain the respect of the world for its cultural achievements. Had a survey such as the recent one by the BBC World Service been conducted a century or so ago, I have no doubt that Japan would have been at or near the very top of countries perceived to “have a positive influence on the world.”
This is where we return to the present, and to Foreign Minister Taro Aso’s understandable pride in the culture of his country.
Permit me, Mr. Aso, to make a few observations on your speech at Digital Hollywood University, and then direct a question to you.
You said to the people gathered there, “Let’s work together to provide dreams to young people as we polish even further the brand image of Japan.” This brand image of Japan today exists thanks, in large part, to the artists of Japanese pop culture who have spread the word of manga and the gospel of anime to the four corners of the globe.
However, it was only a few generations ago that Japan enjoyed a supreme position of popularity due to the vast influence of Japanese artists, thinkers, writers and performers in Europe, America and Asia. Unfortunately for Japan and the world, that former brand of Japanese culture gave way to another kind of Japanese brand, namely one of cultural, social and political fascism at home coupled with military aggression abroad. This deadly combination of domestic and foreign repression culminated in the manufacture of a new brand acquired by Japan; and it used it as a branding iron to burn cruel and indelible messages across the face of the world.
All that Japanese artists, intellectuals and cultural ambassadors had achieved through their marvelous creativity was decimated by politicians who chose to use those universally admired contributions for their own cynical ends. The result? The denigration of that culture and the destruction of the beautiful edifice of Japanese influence in those very places where it had been erected and maintained.
Mr. Aso, it is fine, indeed, to rightfully praise a cultural heritage for admirable achievements, old or contemporary. But please bear in mind that the popularity of Japan today and its being viewed in such a positive light has come about primarily because Japan has conducted a conciliatory and non-interventionist foreign policy around the world. The cultural messages of today have flown far on the wings of the dove.
It was not doves or fresh breezes that carried Japan’s messages across Asia and the Pacific during its decades of aggression. It was muddy jackboots and sword blades meticulously sharpened to death.
So, my question to you, Mr. Aso, is: Will you, in your capacity as foreign minister — and as a possible successor to Mr. Koizumi as prime minister — give us in Japan and people around the world assurances that the wonderful popularity of this country in the world today will not be driven into the ground by a “new nationalism” that once again pits Japan against its neighbors and all creation?
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