Nostalgia and Representations of Asia in Japan

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 2:07 am

Last year I wrote an article entitled Losing the Soul of Japan which was posted on the excellent weblog Chanpon. In the article I made some comments on the topic of nostalgia in Japan for an authentic Japanese culture. This has been widely written about (perhaps the most important work on this in English is Marilyn Ivy’s Discourses of the Vanishing) but my own motivation in this earlier article was to explore the use of foreigners in campaigns to create a sense of shame amongst Japanese over the loss of their own “pure” selves. I added more thoughts on this topic in another posting here. As a student of Japanese history, I think this phenomena is an especially useful portal through which to approach the far more complex and powerful images of cultural loss, nostalgia, and authenticity which inform the ideologies of nationalism prominent during Japan’s imperial age.

I just recently read another article related to this topic which also touches on these issues, “Nostalgia for a (Different) Asian Modernity: Media Consumption of ‘Asia’ in Japan” by Iwabuchi Koichi (Positions 10:3, Winter, 2002), that makes a number of interesting arguments about Japan’s nostalgia in representations of Asia and in particular, media consumption amongst Japanese for Hong Kong products.

At the risk of oversimplifying a complex argument, let me see if I can describe what he is getting at. Iwabuchi begins by discussing existing work on nostalgia, and especially a feeling of mournful loss which is expressed through descriptions of other cultures. This, “Politics of the transnational evocation of nostalgia is highlighted when it is employed to confirm a frozen temporal lag between two cultures, when ‘our’ past and memory are found in ‘their’ present.” (549) Iwabuchi notes that quite often, what is missing in these portrayals of Asia is any appreciation for the cultural specificity and innovation in these other locations. However, after confirming these trends in Japanese postwar representations of Asia and connecting it to a critique of a (in the words of Renato Rosaldo, who he cites), “a particular kind of nostalgia, often found under imperialism, where people mourn the passing of what they themselves have transformed,” (quoted 550, forgive me for not confirming the original) Iwabuchi goes on to explore an interesting twist on this theme in the case of Hong Kong media consumption amongst Japanese fans…

Instead of simply celebrating the pure and romantic authenticity of a glorified past found in an Asian present, Iwabuchi suggests that recent Japanese consumption of Hong Kong media has produced a subtle critique of Japanese modernity which doesn’t deny the modernity and “synchronous temporality” of Hong Kong with Japan. “Hong Kong has also achieved a high economic development but retains the vitality that Japan has lost.” (563) After showing a number of examples from media and interviews which highlight (especially female) Japanese perceptions of a virulent, masculine, and energetic but modern Hong Kong, he notes however, that

“These Japanese fans seem less concerned with transforming their lives by actually leaving Japan or encountering cultural others in the form of non-Japanese men in real situations. Nevertheless, exposure to Hong Kong popular culture has encouraged some of these women to become more critically aware of Japan’s experience of modernity and its imperialist history. A self-reflexive praxis thus marks their appreciation of Hong Kong’s distinctive cultural modernity.” (565)

The article is an interesting contribution to a growing literature which I’m simply not familiar enough with. I welcome insights from anthropologists and other students of culture who might be interested in these issues. However, as I mentioned above, I believe historians have much to benefit from greater engagement with these topics and approaches to them. Thus, at the risk of exposing my own ignorance, I will add a few thoughts of my own on the article.

Other informed readers reading may join me in wondering how this might inform our understanding about the current 韓流 (kanryû) or “Korea wave” of culture and media which may be just passing its peak in Japan. Written in 2002, Iwabuchi focuses on Hong Kong but his ideas may contribute something to, for example, middle aged women in Japan’s perceptions of the Korean male.

Overall, I learnt a lot from the article and enjoyed it. I do have three minor critical points. I felt that 1) The critical, and especially “imperial nostalgia” aspects of the argument, which I only barely mentioned, may be overly harsh. I’m growingly reluctant to jump to associating these kinds of images to the underlying power relations and economic disparities if for no other reason than that often ignores the fact that this kind of thing goes both ways. I’m reminded, for example, of Carol Gluck’s response, in an NYT article, to critics of the movie “Lost in Translation” who deplore its portrayal of the Japanese. If I remember correctly, she noted that these sorts of stereotyped cultural encounters can be found in all manner of movies with similar settings in any country.

2) A similar cautionary note I’d like to add is what I find to be a somewhat overly harsh critique of the Japanese movie “Swallowtail Butterfly” in the article. Iwabuchi finds the same theme of nostalgia for the energetic and lively “past” Asia in the migrant characters in the movie, criticizing the director because, “the otherness of Asian migrants is utterly inconsequential to him… But it exists only for Japanese audiences who can no longer live out such dreams.” (554)

This isn’t the only critique of the movie found in English. In my own discussion of the movie, I discuss Aaron Gerow’s article which claims the movie is an expression of a “conservative nostalgia” (92) in the book Censoring History: Citizenship and Memory in Japan, Germany and the United States. As I conclude in my posting, I am much more positive about this movie. The strange mixture of languages and the motley crew of migrant heroes, I believe, have a productively subversive potential that I believe far outweighs any more subtle conservative undertones and stereotyped images.

3) I wonder if Iwabuchi is right, in the block quote above, to say that Japanese fans are not willing to go out and actually confront and experience the Asia they have come to use in their critique of Japan. While I can contribute my own anecdotal evidence of my girlfriend and her friends living in and loving Taiwan, as well as Japanese friends of mine here in Seoul, Korea who were in some cases initially motivated to come here by their fascination with Korean pop culture, there is abundant evidence to suggest that Japanese that can afford to do so are very willing to follow up on their positive evaluations of the “virulent” Asia they see out there. While the numbers may not yet be huge, see for example, my discussion of Japanese women migrating to and working in China, for example.

I will conclude by suggesting something that is probably already obvious to many who have experienced these sorts of expressions of cultural nostalgia, in whatever form. I think we can confidently argue that calls for the preservation of authenticity and a purity found in a culture’s past rarely succeed in what almost inevitably amounts to attempted resurrection. Instead, and perhaps most ironically, when such campaigns are most successful, they produce hybrid cultural artifacts and practices that may remind us of, but don’t restore the past.

7 Responses to “Nostalgia and Representations of Asia in Japan”

  1. ひとこと君 says:

    japan history group blog

  2. ひとこと君 says:

    japan history blog-wrong
    japan politics blog-correct

  3. K. M. Lawson says:

    Hi there, ひとこと君, I assure you, we write mostly about Japanese history here. However, there is no such thing as a history without politics. Many of the contributors here try to be conscious of our assumptions and our motivations for studying history and the questions we choose and the subjects we focus on reflect our historiographical prejudices. However, I don’t think this prevents us from doing excellent history – on the contrary, I think many of us would argue that it makes us better historains.

  4. K. M. Lawson says:

    ひとこと君, I see you have been posting a similar thing on many of our postings. You appear to be repeating yourself. I am going to delete further comments which simply repeat your bizzare inability to recognize Frog in a Well as a history blog.

  5. History is, as both liberals and conservatives realize, a component of political discourse and vice versa. History and Memory are not that far removed.

    If you don’t like it, don’t read it.

  6. tak says:

    ひとこと君、歴史学者は必ず自分そして一般社会の歴史的意識において過去の史実を解釈するものですよね。K.M.LaswonとJonathan Dresnerのコメントを繰り返すことになってしまいますが、現在我々の歴史的意識の一部である政治的観念を把握しようとする作業は、どのような歴史学者でもすることだと思います。


    Mitch: I agree with you about Iwabuchi’s assessment of Swallowtail. While I think there is some validity to Iwabuchi’s interpretation that the film envelops Asian minorities within a fantasy harbored by the Japanese during the mid-90s HK boom, I also think you’re right on to point out that there are some potential to the film that might warrant some further discussion. I remember watching it when it came out and I really liked it.

    I’d be curious to hear about the Korea boom in Japan. I haven’t seen the dramas with Yon-sama, but my general sense of it is related to the lure of masculinity that Iwabuchi finds in HK pop culture. Does Yon-sama represent Japan’s vitality a generation or two ago (perhaps when these Japanese middle-age housewives were young) but now is lost? Thanks for raising this question via Iwabuchi’s article.

    I am quite intrigued by his idea of “capitalist nostalgia,” which he takes to be something like a modern version of “imperialist nostalgia.” It’s interesting to hear you say that you thought Iwabuchi was too harsh, because I thought he wasn’t harsh enough. Or differently put, I thought he could have done more with it.

    What I mean is that he, at least not in the essay, explained the “capitalist” part of the term “capitalist nostalgia.” He has described the interplay between this “popular Asianism”‘s inherent critique of Japanese superiority and Japan’s ability to buy these fantasy, and often wrong, images of Asia.

    But I guess I wanted to hear a little more about the economics behind what made all this possible. For example, who was actually promoting HK pop culture? Was it the HK companies? Japanese companies? Or transnational media companies? What were some of the reasons for these companies to promote HK? And was there a parallel in the business literature: did articles, for example, write about successful HK companies as a model for the Japanese business community to emulate? And lastly, how would he have characterized the economic relatioship between Japan and HK during this popular HK boom, other than the fact that Japan was going through a slump? I feel there might be more to be explored here.

    All that, however, may be too much to ask for a journal article. Anyway, great post!

  7. ボヤッキー says:


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