📖 eBook - ePub
A Japanese Mirror
Heroes and Villains of Japanese Culture
📖 eBook - ePub
A Japanese Mirror
Heroes and Villains of Japanese Culture
About This Book
In this scintillating book, Ian Buruma peels away the myths that surround Japanese culture. With piercing analysis of cinema, theatre, television, art and legend, he shows the Japanese both 'as they imagine themselves to be, and as they would like themselves to be.'
A Japanese Mirror examines samurai and gangsters, transvestites and goddesses to paint an eloquent picture of life in Japan. This is a country long shrouded in enigma and in his compelling book, Buruma reveals a culture rich in with poetry, beauty and wonder.
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Few things date as fast as popular culture and few cultures are as open to new waves, new fashions, new slang, newness of any kind, as the Japanese. Because of the nature of modern mass media – television, Internet, mobile phones – the process of renewal is going ever faster. The most widely read Japanese novels today, albeit almost exclusively by young women, are popular romances serialized almost by the hour on mobile phones. Once popular genres like ‘romantic’ porn films, produced in large numbers by the Nikkatsu studios, have disappeared. As is true in most countries, pornography has shifted almost entirely to the Internet, where it is all much more hard core.
When I wrote A Japanese Mirror in the early 1980s, all this was inconceivable. To a Japanese born in 1983, when the book was first published, most of the characters and stories described in the book, from yakuza heroes to the heart-throbs in girls’ manga, are probably wholly unknown.
To be sure, there are still people – young people, even – who enjoy reading novels by Tanizaki, and watching films by Ozu, Kurosawa, and Mizoguchi. Some may even be buying old manga. But these are becoming rarified tastes and they can no longer be classified as popular culture.
Japanese fashion – Kenzo, Kansai, Mori – was already well established in the 1970s, especially in Paris, and there was an art house (remember those?) audience for Japanese cinema in the larger European and American cities. But even in the early eighties, Japan was still an exotic country to most people. The worldwide popularity of Japanese anime had not even begun. The enormous fame of the Murakamis (Haruki, the writer, and Takashi, the artist) was yet to come, as was the consumption of sushi as a global food. In fact, it is the very lack of exoticism that makes Murakami’s novels accessible to readers everywhere. The same is probably true of Murakami Takashi’s ‘cult of cute’. And the hunger for raw tuna is so universal that these great fish are destined soon to disappear from the seas.
To a contemporary reader, then, A Japanese Mirror will now have acquired a patina of age. Not that everything I wrote about in the book was new even in 1983. Far from it; some of the culture I tried to hold up to the light went back as far as the 11th century. But even historical description reflects the time when it was written. Thus, the atmosphere of the book is of a different Japan from the country today.
There are links, of course, between the present time and the pop culture of the 1970s, and, if you look hard enough, the 11th century. The sweetness and cruelty of Murakami Takashi’s slick modern art, derived from comic books and anime, can be found in Japanese art and entertainment of the quite distant past. Likewise, some of the sexual fantasies projected on the Internet today can doubtless still be discerned in different forms in the movies, comic books, or 18th century woodblock prints described in the book. Often, if you study the artistic expressions of an old nation, you will find continuities behind the façade of constant change. I suppose that is what we might call ‘national identity’.
To give some idea of this identity, of Japaneseness, was one of my aims in writing the book. Hence the comparisons of modern striptease parlors with ancient Shinto fertility rites, or of young heroes in girls’ comics with the rakes of Murasaki Shikibu’s 11th century The Tale of Genji, or 18th century Japanese Robin Hoods with modern gangster pictures, and so on.
There is a risk involved in such intellectual enterprises, of going on a wild goose chase for something essential in a culture that is far too varied and fluid to be reduced in that way. Certain Japanese intellectuals, perhaps as a reaction to more than a hundred years of rapid and sometimes abject Westernization, are prone to pinpoint and celebrate the uniqueness of Japaneseness. This can serve as a theoretical justification for crude chauvinism. The ‘theory of Japaneseness’, Nihonjinron, was so fashionable for a time, especially in the seventies and eighties, that many Western visitors mistook it for a true picture of Japan. Not only was Japan presented as unique in such theorizing, but also as uniquely unique.
In fact, many things claimed by the theorists to be uniquely Japanese are simply human and can be recognized in many places, far removed from Japan. The great scholar of Japanese culture, Ivan Morris, wrote a highly entertaining study of historical Japanese heroes entitled The Nobility of Failure; I was indebted to many of his insights when I wrote my book. But he too gave too much credence to the theories of uniqueness. The noble failures he describes – warriors who die for hopeless causes, from Yamato Takeru in the 4th century to the kamikaze pilots of the Second World War – are to be found in the histories of all nations. Remember, for example, the Alamo, or Masada: most nations have their share of hopeless causes and noble failures.
In trying to sail between the Scylla of cultural uniqueness and the Charybdis of vapid universalism, I aimed to show that although the Japanese have a distinct culture, they are not exotic, or weird, or utterly ‘other’, but human like everyone else. Which leaves us with the question: who are ‘the Japanese’? It is a common fallacy in national history museums, meant to instill a sense of belonging, common purpose and patriotism, to present a timeless vision of a people, as though the Gauls in Roman times were essentially the same people as the modern French, or the people of the Jomon period (14,000-4,000 BCE) already shared typical characteristics with today’s Japanese readers of Murakami Haruki. This is, of course, patent nonsense. Any decent stab at history, including the history of pop culture, must explain change as much as continuity.
A Japanese Mirror is about the ways in which Japanese imagine and reimagine themselves, about fantasies and stories. Naturally, these reflect different times and circumstances. Japanese growing up in the militarized 1930s had different fantasies and different heroes from most Japanese today. In a sense, they were a different people, who happened to speak roughly the same language and eat roughly the same kind of food. And yet, just as the Scylla of uniqueness cannot be entirely avoided, one can’t help noticing certain continuities.
It would be a categorical mistake to take these continuities in the popular imagination as accurate descriptions of what the Japanese are actually like in real life. Our heroes and villains can certainly reveal important things about us, but these often stand in contrast to reality. In their imaginary world – expressed in books, pictures, movies, comics, anime, or computer games – the Japanese often admire the heroic loner, the outlaw who pays the price of nonconformity by being a permanent outsider, rather like typical heroes in American Westerns. In fact, Japanese society is marked by a high degree of conformity. Community is highly prized and social isolation is seen as one of the cruelest punishments imaginable. Few people really want to be loners, which is precisely why the outsider is a romantic hero. As the parallel with American Westerns shows, this is not unique to Japanese culture, but (like the nobility of failure) it is certainly a prominent feature of it.
Something that is often ignored by students of cultures is the question of class. Much popular culture is aimed at the lowest common denominator. Some entertainments tell us more about the class of people who enjoy them, than about an entire nation. If one were to define Italian society by the quality of its television shows, one would arrive at an oddly skewed picture. The sa...
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APA 6 Citation
Buruma, I. (2015). A Japanese Mirror ([edition unavailable]). Atlantic Books. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/117393/a-japanese-mirror-heroes-and-villains-of-japanese-culture-pdf (Original work published 2015)
Buruma, Ian. (2015) 2015. A Japanese Mirror. [Edition unavailable]. Atlantic Books. https://www.perlego.com/book/117393/a-japanese-mirror-heroes-and-villains-of-japanese-culture-pdf.
Buruma, I. (2015) A Japanese Mirror. [edition unavailable]. Atlantic Books. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/117393/a-japanese-mirror-heroes-and-villains-of-japanese-culture-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Buruma, Ian. A Japanese Mirror. [edition unavailable]. Atlantic Books, 2015. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.