Cultural trendsetter or lost empire?

Two views of modern Japan

Japan is now Asia's "most visible arbiter of cool, via video and computer games, postmodern pop music trends, cuisine, clothing, mix-n-match light-speed fashion scenes and, especially, its iconic animations and graphic novels."

Today Japanese "people remain afflicted with a habit of gloom, disappointment, and chronic underachievement. Like its crown princess, the nation and its young people seem to be teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown."

These different views of Japan are profiled in two recent books. Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the US by Roland Kelts charts the rise of anime's international popularity and examines Japan's position as a global cultural trendsetter. Michael Zielenziger's Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation portrays Japan as a country beset with economic and social problems and focuses on the plight of the hikikomori - Japanese who have withdrawn from society, many of them refusing almost all social contact.

Japanamerica details Japan's international cultural successes such as Pokemon, Power Rangers, Sailor Moon and Spirited Away. Anime and manga have become increasingly popular in America in recent years and a growing number of movies, TV shows and comic books are being released in English. In 2006 the Japanese government launched a campaign to improve Japan's international image by promoting Japanese pop culture. Dubbed ‘manga diplomacy' this program included sponsoring an international manga award and appointing Doraemon as an anime ambassador. At a press conference this year, a voice actress said on behalf of Doraemon, "Through my cartoons, I hope to convey to people abroad what ordinary Japanese people think, our lifestyles and what kind of future we want to build." Japanamerica recounts how the "number of Americans studying Japanese surged from 127,000 in 1997 to an estimated three million in 2006 ... New students are not signing up to learn business Japanese. They want to converse more casually, and to be able one day to read and comprehend original editions of titles like Sailor Moon and Naruto."

One of the reasons for the rise in popularity of anime in the West is that the Internet makes it a lot more accessible. There is a whole community based around providing English subtitles for animation titles that are only available in the original Japanese. Another idea examined is that the rise of popularity of anime in America is partly due to the fact that America has changed. Japanese artist Takashi Murakami argues that after the dropping of the atomic bombs, Japan became the world's first post apocalyptic society and that Japanese popular culture was infused with this sensibility. The trauma caused in America by the September 11 terrorist attacks and the ongoing war in Iraq has made Americans more receptive to these themes. Some of the most popular anime titles such as Akira, Ghost in the Shell and Evangelion deal directly with the idea of apocalypse.

In contrast to Japanamerica's generally upbeat tone, Shutting Out the Sun paints a very bleak picture. "Japan - once viewed as a potential region leader - is now viewed more as a spent force, a marginal also-ran among the global field of economic competitors. Although some Westerners remain interested in Japanese anime and aesthetics, its architecture and artifacts, or are charmed by cultural icons like sushi and ikebana, they no longer believe that they need to emulate or cultivate the peculiar customs and codes that govern Japanese business and social practices ... Japan's moment seems to have passed, its sun eclipsed ... The most ominous aspect of Japan's long stagnation - far beyond the obvious symptoms that regularly crowd the business pages - is the plight of its people. Young people today face their own forms of adjustment disorder and concoct disturbing new ways to escape a society that annihilates their hopes and washes out any promise of self-realization in a torrent of rootless materialism."

Hikikomori is a Japanese word for people that have cut them- selves off from social contact. The majority of sufferers are young men, some of whom refuse to leave their bedroom for months or even years and rely on their parents to leave meals in front of their bedroom door. Although examples of social withdrawal can be found in most countries, the problem seems particularly acute in Japan. The book includes interviews with a number of sufferers, their families and counselors and gives the example of a 19-yearold that "literally did not take one step outside his room in four years. He would occasionally talk through the door to his parents, but they had not set their eyes on him all that time."

The most common reasons sufferers give for their withdrawal is intense social pressure to conform, often manifested as bully- ing at school. The Japanese educational system with its gruelling entrance exams and expectation of long hours spent studying at cram school is followed by the long work hours expected of the typical salaryman. This extends to the highest levels of Japanese society as demonstrated by Crown Princess Masako's withdrawal from public.

Shutting Out the Sun argues that Japanese society "preaches the importance of obedience, discipline, self-inhibition, and group harmony" and that "even individual identity is deeply swathed in mutual interdependence." One of the more disturbing examples given of the pressure to conform is the reaction to the abduction of three Japanese aid workers in Iraq in 2004 that were held hostage for three weeks. After their release they returned to a hostile reaction in Japan, including placards reading "You got what you deserve!" Then government spokesman (and now prime minister) Yasuo Fukuda "denounced their decision to ignore government warnings that humanitarian relief work in the war-torn country was dangerous" and stated "They may have gone on their own, but they must consider how many people they caused trouble to, because of their action." They were seen as acting not in the interests of Japanese society and the psychiatrist who treated the hostages said the stress they endured in Japan upon their return was far greater than what they had been sub- jected to in captivity in Iraq.

Although the tone of the two books is very different, they both present a difficult future for Japan. Shutting Out the Sun argues that changing world conditions will force Japan to either undergo radical social and economic reforms or to slowly and steadily with- draw from the world stage.

Japanamerica reports that just as anime and manga are achieving international success, they are showing signs of faltering in Japan. Manga readership has been declining in recent years and there is a dearth of young talent in anime studios, which many young artists view as less attractive options than the computer graphics industry. Anime critic Frederick Schodt believes "the oppressive nature of the Japanese management structure itself - its notoriously hierarchical, obfuscated, and insular workings, as well as its conservative, consensus-seeking, and entropic tendencies - lies at the very heart of the anime/manga industry's terminal state. The structure of the industry has sucked the life out of many manga, and also animated works ... Americans and others have a history of discovering and getting excited about dying Japanese art forms, without realizing they are dying. It was true of ukiyo-e, and it was true with geisha and probably lots of other things, including Japanese management."

Text: Aidan Doyle • Photos: Matthias Levy, Getty Images, Doubleday

Originally published in Kansai Scene, May 2008