Friday, July 13, 2007

The Rise and Fall of the Pacific Rim

Here's my take on 1973-1995 representations of Japan in American culture, which leads nicely into my first Mostly Harmless post from the third and last talk in my "Shifting American Images of Japan" series that may or may not be happening in a few hours (depending on how bad this typhoon turns out to be). If you read that one and its two sequels there, you'll be ready for tomorrow's post here....

By the mid-1970s, however, world politics and global economics again helped contribute to massive transformations in American representations of and relations with Japan. Under the pressure of President Nixon’s turn toward engaging the People’s Republic of China, the American defeat in Vietnam, and the oil shocks that opened and closed the decade, the attitudes, assumptions, and images of the early Cold War underwent a seismic shift. We can track such shocks, aftershocks, and tsunamis in American economic theory, popular culture, diplomacy, and public memory between 1973 and 1995. These images in elite and popular culture, however, don’t merely reflect what I’ll call, building on the work of Christopher Connery, “the rise and fall of the Pacific Rim”; they also pushed many in Japan and the U.S. during the 1990s to consider whether the American Century in Japan was coming to an end. At the close of the Cold War, many influential Americans were wondering—and worrying—where the U.S.-Japan relationship was headed.

Connery argues that Pacific Rim discourse arose in the mid-1970s as the early Cold War views of Japan and Asia became untenable in the U.S.; Japan was by then no longer a latecomer to modernity or a junior partner to the West, but instead a fully modernized and global economic power, leading other East Asian Newly Industrialized Countries down the road of efficiency, quality, high technology, and export-led growth. The Pacific, which formerly had been characterized as an American lake--part of the system of containment of Soviet expansionism--was now seen largely in economic terms, as a new frontier for multinational capital, a place where an American economy suffering from stagflation and energy crises could renew itself, an alternative to European social democracy and Soviet bloc state socialism. The imperative was to learn from Japan, as American futurologists like Alvin Toffler, sociologists like Ezra Vogel, and hosts of management consultants argued that Japan exemplified efficient orchestration of capital, technology, and labor, established best practices in management, and combined economic growth, equitable distribution of wealth, and social cohesion. Even revisionist work in the 1980s, such as Chalmers Johnson’s influential study, MITI and the Japanese Miracle, which emphasized Japan’s plan-rational rather than market-rational approach and characterized it as having a developmental rather than regulatory state, did so largely in order to point out lessons for the United States. By the mid-1980s, when Japan became a creditor nation, the idea that the future would be Japanese was so widespread in the U.S. that two kinds of backlashes developed in American popular culture--what I’ll call, following David Morley and Kevin Robins, techno-orientalism, and what came to be known as “Japan bashing.”

American cyberpunk, from the noir-ish stylings of science fiction films like Blade Runner and science fiction novels like William Gibson’s Neuromancer in the 1980s to the more politicized and parodic portraits in Marge Piercy’s He, She, and It and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash in the early 1990s, picked up on, played with, and projected Pacific Rim discourse’s identification of Japan with the future. By performing variations on a Japan-dominated future--either through focusing on a down-and-out American trying to survive the gritty, corrupt, and violent underworld of Yakuza, urban sprawl, and great disparities of wealth and power, by emphasizing the dehumanizing aspects of life and work in Japanese corporate domes that dot an environmentally and economically devastated U.S., or by portraying Japanese salarymen and entertainers as rigid, racist, and out of touch with reality yet so rich as to be ubiquitous in cyberspace--these works register some of the anxieties evoked by Pacific Rim discourse. Technology in all these works is both enabling and alienating, titillating and threatening. Classic works of Japanese anime like Akira and Ghost in the Shell should be seen as responses to the techno-orientalism of these and other versions of American cyberpunk.

Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, the tensions between Pacific Rim optimism and techno-orientalist anxieties prompted an even more extreme and pessimistic backlash against Japan. “Japan-bashing,” as it came to be known, emphasized fears of Japanese infiltration and invasion that hadn’t been aired so publicly in the U.S. since the World War II era. In fact, as Dower, Morley and Robins, Toshio Ueno, Masao Miyoshi, and many others have documented, the 1980s witnessed a recycling and upgrading of classic stereotypes from American WW II propaganda. Consider the interlocking use of smallness and largeness in the following images from American editorial cartoons and magazine covers. References to “economic Pearl Harbors,” “the Cold War is over and Japan won,” and the prospect of coming trade wars that could trigger actual armed conflicts between the U.S. and Japan began to appear with ever-increasing regularity and repetition in the U.S. business and international press. Hollywood films such as Black Rain and Rising Sun fed into this Japan panic, using the conventions of the thriller, the mystery, and the cross-cultural buddy movie to reach a mass movie-going audience. U.S. labor and government officials alike accused Japan of unfair business practices and lobbied for the opening of Japan to foreign trade and investment. In this climate, Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American, was beaten to death in 1982 by two recently laid-off Detroit auto workers who thought he was Japanese, and Yoshihiro Hattori, a Japanese exchange student was shot and killed by a panicked white Baton Rouge resident when he got lost on his way to a Halloween party in 1992 and knocked on the wrong door at the wrong time.

It is in this context that the two greatest crises in U.S.-Japan relations of the 1990s occurred, during President George H.W. Bush’s Gulf War and the planning for a Smithsonian museum exhibit on the Enola Gay that originally sought to educate the American public about historians’ debates over the decision to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Both enacted another kind of return of World War II to American diplomacy and public memory. With the Gulf War, Japan came under heavy criticism from the U.S.-led coalition for practicing mere “checkbook diplomacy” and hiding from its global responsibilities behind an outdated peace constitution. Soon later, a coalition of veterans’ organizations and Republican politicians demanded revisions to the plans for a National Air and Space Museum exhibit that they deemed too attentive to Japanese suffering and too skeptical toward the official rationale for the decision to use the atomic bomb. Even after multiple revisions were made, they remained dissatisfied with them, successfully shut down the exhibition, and forced the resignation of leading Smithsonian officials. Ironically, it was largely conservatives and religious leaders who had been the first in the U.S. to criticize the atomic bombings during the late 1940s and early 1950s when Democrats lead U.S. foreign policy; in 1995, with a new Republican majority in Congress looking to influence President Clinton’s foreign and domestic policy agenda, historians who criticized the Cold War consensus on the atomic bombings were accused of political correctness and a patriotism deficit.

By the mid-1990s, then, with the dissolution of Cold War conditions that had turned bitter enemies into staunch allies, American images of Japan had turned so negative that people on both sides of the Pacific worried over the prospects of a return to World War II-era relations. The American Century in Japan seemed to be over, a victim of Japanese overconfidence and American defensiveness. In response to the rise of nihonjinron discourse in Japan and announcements of a “Japan that can say ‘no’” rocketing around the world, Americans once again, just as in World War II, strove to turn positives among Japanese elites into negatives for American audiences. The title of Walter LaFaber’s late-1990s history of U.S.-Japanese relations, The Clash, which was heavily influenced by the fall of the Pacific Rim and the apparent end of the American Century in Japan, says it all—a narrative of inevitable conflict between the two countries was the order of the day. When even sober historians known for their pioneering treatment of tendencies toward American imperialism in U.S. foreign policy start echoing themes of the most nativist Japan-bashers, serious questions must be raised about the possibility for any American to develop a truly objective attitude toward and perspective on Japan.

The power of long-held images and recently-recycled representations to shape perceptions of reality, to color attitudes and feelings toward others, and to affect actions and interactions as well as intercultural communications might well lead to pessimistic conclusions about the capacity even for highly-educated and well-informed Americans with extensive personal experience in Japan to transcend their times. U.S. images of Japan may seem frozen into arrogantly negative or condescendingly positive stereotypes, or arbitrarily tossed on the waves formed by geopolitical and economic shifts and shocks.

Yet even during the 1980s and early 1990s, which many characterized as the lowest point in U.S.-Japan relations since World War II, there were other undercurrents, patterns in American representations of Japan that perhaps are more visible from our standpoint today than a decade ago.

For those undercurrents, go to Mostly Harmless--then see my next post for my rejoinder to the rather pessimistic conclusions of my first two talks, which ended their surveys in 1945 and 1995. How does Japan look differently to Americans in 2007 than at either of these low points in U.S.-Japanese relations? I can't answer that question in general, but I do offer a personal perspective over at Mostly Harmless.

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