Sunday, April 09, 2006


Neutralizing Sushi

Interesting article out in The Japan Times today, by writer Roger Pulvers. He notes, as many of us have many times on Japundit, the growing popularity of manga, anime, sushi and karaoke which he proposes to refer to by the simplified acronym MASK. He starts by pointing out how even government officials like Koizumi are well aware of the global appeal of these cultural forms. Then, he breaks out his basic thesis.

As proud as many Japanese are of their newly discovered universal culture, my belief is that the MASK bandwagon is, as taken up overseas, ethnically neutral. This culture represents a kind of pop vocabulary -- in pictures, design, cuisine and technology -- that has been borrowed, assimilated and localized by the foreign world. As such, its propagation is a great example of cultural marketing, and that is why politicians, who are first and foremost market followers, are attracted to them.

Basically, Pulvers is saying that the whole fascination with all things MASK (see how handy that reference is?) isn't really an obsession with all things Japanese. Once sushi goes overseas, for example, it is neutralized. I mean, most sushi places here in NYC aren't even made by Japanese (not that New Yorkers can acutally tell the difference unless, as it's been noted, they have a Japanese or half-Japanese girlfriend).

I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1950s, and once a week my parents took me and my brother to one of several Chinese restaurants -- all of them run by Chinese people and with menus written in Chinese and English. We had at the time, however, no interest whatsoever in China, nor did we ever find anything out about the people working at the restaurants or their culture. Eating Chinese food was an essential American ritual. Even my old kosher cookbook has a recipe for sweet-and-sour chicken (sorry, no pork). The mass phenomenon of Chinese food in America was totally divorced from anything to do with Chinese cultural influence, and I suspect the same is true today.

It's an interesting theory, and on the face of it, resembles numerous discussions we've had on Japundit; an obsession with anime and manga doesn't necessarily mean that someone is interested in the "true" Japan (whatever that is). But I don't agree. Yes, I get the analogy he is making with Chinese food, but I don't think it's a clean parallel; where in the 1950s, for example, were the Barnes and Nobles making more and more shelf space for the Chinese equivalent of manga books? Where were the ASK parts of the Chinese MASK?

I don't have the resources to set up a full sociological study to test out my feelings, but my sense is that by eating sushi, singing karaoke, watching anime and reading manga (and practicing martial arts, and absorbing so-called Asian inspired home decor, people (and here is the important part) think they are adding a dash of Asian spice to their lives. That's the whole point of buying bamboo printed bed-spreads to add feng shui into your life and eating in a restaurant with red Chinese paper lanterns (that one might make the mistake of thinking are Japanese). The cultural association with Japan (and the rest of Asia) that sushi and celadon colored plates make is important to the purchaser. For you Japanophiles (whoops, bad word) out there, you've probably had the experience a million times where someone says to you; "I love Japanese food! I love sushi!" And then you have to explain that Japanese food is much more than just sushi.

You would need to spend considerable time here in the States watching shopping trends and merchandising decisions and listening to party gossip to see this first hand. The popularity of yoga and its ability to impart "Eastern" healing to the Western body is another example of how perception does go a long way to contributing to a trend).

Here is perhaps an even better analogy. Hip-hop is a cultural trend which originated in one country (the US) and has now gone global. I regularly take hip-hop class with a pretty well-known instructor; he was there when the movement started and is loads of fun to talk to about how it has spread around the world. Recently, he returned from a teaching trip to Siberia (the guy goes everywhere, yes, even Japan). He often laments to me that hip-hop is no longer a form of expression limited to Black youth and in many ways he feels it has been neutralized; but the perception among kids who love hip hop is that they are associating themselves with the origins of the movement, ie. Black and Latino kids in the Bronx. Is Siberian hip-hop the same as it is in da Bronx? Uh, nyet. But the Siberian kids still identify with it and feel as though they are expressing something which originated north of Manhattan. Does this mean that hip hop has changed and been appropriated? Absolutely. But neutralized? I think that's in the eye of the beholder.

I go back to a point I made last week; I still hope that this interest in perceived things Japanese does lead more and more people to discover aspects of the culture which are more traditional and deeply rooted in history. Perhaps this is an idealist's hope, but I'm sticking with it.
One final note: Pulvers makes this incredibly interesting concluding note that I will expand on in a later post; the Japanese government is trying hard to capitlize on the world's interest in MASK. He points out that the last time in history the Japanese government tried to capitlize on a similar cultural outpouring, things didn't end so well.

The Meiji Era (1868-1912) and the decade succeeding it saw a grand outpouring of Japanese culture, with the unique Japanese sense of design, color and form -- in the woodblock print, in the kimono and in every variety of craft -- having immense influence on the arts and cultures of the East and West. People around the world at that time knew where that culture originated, and they held its creators in the highest regard. It wasn't until Japanese militarists manipulated and later destroyed their contemporary indigenous culture that the world, as a result, lost its enthusiasm for its rich gifts.


(Post first appeared on Japundit where you can read comments).

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