I am starting to work on my courses for next semester and am getting excited to teach one of my favorites: an upper-level seminar called “Japanophilia: Orientalism, Nationalism, Transnationalism.” The course looks at the genealogy of the obsession with the idea of Japan both inside and outside of the archipelago, starting with the Jesuits and other early visitors, then turning to the Nativists, late 19th-century Orientalists, wartime nationalists, and of course postwar Japanophilia around the globe. The class has become easier to teach as more and more scholarship in English has emerged, ranging from Christine Guth’s Longfellow’s Tattoo’s and Koichi Iwabuchi’s Recentering Globalization to Anne Allison’s new Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination, though I also rely heavily on translated primary sources and a hodgepodge of readings from cultural studies.
One issue that students are interested in and that comes up frequently in discussion is the disembodied specter of Japan in American advertising and media: Trader Joe’s “Zen” products, for example, or Xeni Jardin‘s various “WebZen” posts at Boing Boing. I have to admit that these bother me more than they probably should. Zen is not just a sign of Japanese cool but a specific form of Mahayana Buddhism with its own distinct institutions. It has ritual, dogma, practices, and beliefs; it is not, or I guess I mean that it shouldn’t be, a substitute for Orientalist stereotypes. When was the last time you saw Jesus shampoo? Or “WebMuslim” being used as a kind of shorthand for some vaguely defined otherness?
In one discussion in the seminar a few years ago, I remember that students tried to classify the various flavors of Japaneseness that frequently appeared in the American media. “Zen” references tended to go hand in hand with inscrutability that overlapped with cool and cold design or perhaps we could say minimalism. A related form was a samurai-esque emphasis on clean lines, shapely, sword-like forms, and some gibberish about “the way” being applied to consumerism. Check out some recent Infiniti commercials to see recent examples. Another variety was the “Those Wacky Japanese!” flavor of reporting on Japaneseness, which always involved implicit ridicule. Think of stories about Japanese fashion trends that focused not on “serious” designers but on wacky shoes, Engrish t-shirts, or hybrid versions of urban American clothes. Another example was the type of television shows that focused on “zany” Japanese game shows. Of course many members of the class loved these and other materials and thus found themselves examining their relationship to Japan not just as students but as consumers of Japanophilia, which was of course one of the objectives of the course.
I am still waiting for some sort of sustained critique of Japanophilia in American media, sales, and marketing, though, something that would situate such representations of Japan in the context of US-Japanese relations, the Cold War, and its collapse. Allison gets at such issues in her consideration of millennial consumerism, but I wish she had aimed her sites lower, even, than “popular culture” and “toys,” to hit the broader spectrum of appropriations of Japaneseness used every day to sell commodities or what passes for news.