02 June 2004

Muninn at Chanpon on "Losing the Soul of Japan"

The Muninn blogger has an essay up on the Chanpon site ("Multicultural Japan Online") entitled Losing the Soul of Japan, in which he examines the tendency in Japan to depict foreigners in the role of preserving traditional Japanese values. It starts with him accompanying two Korean friends to a Shinto shrine to pay respects to the Japanese kami and gain assistance in their studies at Tokyo University. To anyone who knows the history of Korea under Japanese rule, this is as shocking as Koreans voluntarily changing their names to Japanese.

Then he sees a poster of "a Hungarian woman wearing an Aikido hakama ... standing in the defensive pose of her martial art."
In large text to the left, the poster quotes from a letter she has supposedly written which begins, "Dear mom, Japan has the Way of the Kami spirits." The letter, written in Japanese, is shown in full in one corner of the poster ...

The primary message of this poster becomes clear in the body of its text. In addition to describing a bit of Shinto culture, the poster notes, "The heart of Nippon that we Japanese have forgotten is for her a natural part of every day life." (「私たち日本人が忘れかけたニッポンの心が彼女の毎日には当たり前のように息づいている」) The mechanic used to promote Shinto in this poster is one of shame. The Japanese have forgotten their "soul" or core culture, while it has become a natural part of this Hungarian woman's life. In other words, this foreigner respects, appreciates, and practices that which we, the Japanese, have forgotten: the soul of Japan....

I believe the message of this poster and the lament over the "vanishing" of Japanese culture (again, nothing unique to this country) to be slowly on its way out. There is a newfound pride amongst a younger generation in Japan's eminently exportable fashion and pop culture. The time will come when the almost derogatory addition of the word "pop," will no longer be seen as necessary to distinguish it from something elite, pure, and legitimate. Like Japan's traditional arts, Japan's newest cultural exports were not "born pure" Japanese, being a derivation of a combination of influences. Unlike Japan's traditional arts, however, its bastard origins are recognized and celebrated as such, and few would suggest that it is in anyway tied essentially to their identity as Japanese.

I called my friends over to look at the poster in which I had invested so much thought. They simply shook their heads at me and one said, in her characteristically flawless Japanese, "Yuk, I hate those freaky foreigners who love everything about Japanese culture." I asked them if the Kami of Learning had given its blessing to their graduate studies. My attempt at a comeback went entirely unnoticed.

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