Saturday, July 14, 2007

Pattern Recognition: Historicizing U.S. Representations of Japan

This is the overview of U.S. representations of Japan I actually was able to give yesterday at the JASF, despite the storm. Over at Mostly Harmless today I'll give the conclusion to the talk, which speculated on what to expect in the next 25 years, and tomorrow here I'll discuss the Q&A (yes, I left 25 minutes for it, just as I wanted--love it when a plan comes together!).

But why this sudden popularity of Japanese popular culture in the U.S.? How does it relate to the history of U.S. representations of Japan? What light does my own personal history of engagements with Japanese popular culture shed on that larger history I focused on in my previous two talks? How does the history of U.S.-Japanese interactions and interrelations look from the perspective of 2007 rather than, say, 1995 or 1945?

Well, as I sketched out in my first two talks, the image of Japan shifted radically in American eyes, from an exotic, backward culture in the mid-nineteenth century to a modernizing, industrializing rising power at the turn into the twentieth century, to a militarist, imperialist enemy by the middle of that century, and then shifted again, from a key ally in the Cold War to a key economic rival in a post-Cold War era that some feared would lead to a broader competition over which country would be #1 in the next century. In part due to Japan’s economic troubles over much of the past decade, in part due to the decision of Japanese automakers to locate production facilities in the U.S., and in part due to a combination of American economic success and a new political focus on the War on Terror, the era of “Japan-bashing” and Japan panics came to an end much faster than anyone would have anticipated in the early 1990s. As Japanese political and economic leaders found some ways to cooperate with American neoliberals and neoconservatives, as trade frictions eased and American media attention to China and India’s economies seemingly overshadowed Japan’s, cultural exchanges of all kinds between the U.S. and Japan flourished in the 21st century.

What does this all mean? Certainly, for the W.W. II generation and their Baby Boomer children, Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima, Nanking and Nagasaki, the Tokyo Tribunals and Article 9, and the samurai and the geisha continue to symbolize the poles and polarities of their representations of and responses to Japan. But I would argue that my generation and younger ones have very different perspectives on Japan--and that they are gaining a hearing from older generations. What I take from my own personal history is that younger Americans have many more windows on Japanese culture, many more lenses through which to examine images of Japan, much more access to uncut and unedited works from Japanese popular culture, a much wider and more varied range of clichés, conventions, stereotypes, and discourses to select from, identify with, question, or modify, and a much more vivid sense of being part of a global, transnational mix of cultures and styles than any Americans before them. As many people of my generation moved into positions in film, television, and literature that allowed them to follow through on the same kind of transnational influences that I had been unwittingly exposed to in my childhood and teenage years, it became clear that they brought a different attitude into their aesthetic, ethical, political, and theoretical dialogues with artists from different countries and cultures than in previous generations.

So I feel there’s cause for optimism in future U.S.-Japan relations based on Japan’s current association among many in the younger generations in America with cutting-edge youth culture, innovative entertainment technologies, and imaginative and varied animation techniques, styles, and stories, not to mention the fact that a wider range of Japanese popular subcultures are entering the mainstream of American popular culture on virtually their own terms than ever before. At the very least, the view from 2007 of the history of American representations of Japan gives more cause for optimism in future U.S.-Japan relations than, say, the view from 1945 or 1995. At most, we may be entering into a period where both Japan and the U.S. comfortably consider and treat each other as equals. But if the history of shifting American images of Japan teaches us anything, it’s just how volatile and subject to rapid reversals they are. It may turn out that the anime craze is our century’s version of japonisme, that the Harajuku cosuplayers are postmodern geisha, that this period will be swept away by history like a similar period in the 1920s. So let’s look ahead as soberly as we can.


bill benzon said...

Well, I'm a Baby Boomer and, for example, grew up watching a TV program called "Victory at Sea". It was on Saturday afternoons at 12:30 and was about sea warfare during WWII. Though I don't remember any specific episodes -- though I do remember the theme song -- I certainly must have seen many accounts of American victory over the Japanese navy. And then, as I mentioned over at Mostly Harmless, there was Sayonara.

But there was also all those judo and jujitsu ads in comic books. Study jujitsu and learn secret deadly ways to defeat a half dozen opponents at a time. And somewhere in there I learned that the highlest levels of judo mastery were about spiritual attainments, not physical. Didn't know what that meant, but is sure impressed me.

I think the martial arts is a big part of how the West came to perceive East Asia after WWII and it's important because studying karate, judo, etc. is something you do. And if you study with the right teacher he'll tell you his lineage back to Japan (or Korea or China). The lineage might even be posted on the dojo wall.

The Constructivist said...

Yeah, I'm probably drawing much too sharp a generational contrast in the talk--no doubt due to looking at the micro level for my generation and the macro level for the two previous ones. If you go back a few posts here I reproduce the part of the lecture series where I talked about both Sayonara and Victory at Sea, from the perspective of their producers rather than from the point of view of their viewers, with all the limitations that entails.

Your point reminds me that Vijay Prashad's Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting picks up on the karate/judo/martial arts vibe of the '70s and Afro-Asian connections in other decades (and centuries). Maybe b/c I didn't do martial arts, I ignored that aspect in my talks. Thanks for the reminder!