Exportation vs The Smuggling of Escapism from Japan
Let’s do a small exercise. Raise your hand if you’ve ever forgotten yourself in the immersive world of a television series, movie, book, or video game. Now, raise your other hand if that immersive world happened to be created in or by Japan. Now, raise your other, other hand (or a foot, I suppose) if the media in question helped you forget about your life because of how invested you became with the characters. If you raised a hand for all three situations: 1) go get that third hand checked out, and 2) you have experienced and are probably familiar with Escapism.
“Closing your eyes and plugging up your ears won’t make time stand still.”
-Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
Escapism is the tendency for an individual’s fantasies to mask their deeper insecurities and unsatisfying situations; it is not just a destruction of an unpleasant identity, but also of an unpleasant reality. However, Escapism can be applied on a much larger scale than just an individual; a collection of individuals with a shared language, culture, and geographical location can use another such group to escape from the turmoil within their own boundaries. One country, for example, can escape by romanticizing or dramatizing another country.
As Eastern media influence grows in quantity and quality in our world, we are seeing an increase in consumption of distinctly foreign products–Japanese media, technology, and food to name some examples. It isn’t a stretch to say that individuals are using foreign products as an escape in much the same way they use domestic media, so is it possible that the Euro-American world is escaping from its own problems through Asian culture? Furthermore, does a country like Japan, which has been known to attempt to systematically increase its ‘Gross National Cool’, knowingly export material that captures the Euro-American interest? Or does the West just have a tendency to seek out these East-West differences and effectively smuggle escapism?
The escapism that the West smuggles:
Firstly what is it that the western world trying to escape from exactly? There’s many complex economic, social, and political problems that the west would rather ignore, but as an example, let’s go with one still popular in the Euro-American mindset. It is nearly impossible to forget about racism in the western world, so fully escaping is rather difficult, but rather than forget, the western world has a tendency to deflect instead. By that I mean that it makes the domestic problems seem small by comparing them to problems in a foreign land such as Japan. So the West isn’t escaping in the traditional sense of the word by fantasizing the positive qualities of a foreign place, but more-or-less psychologically projects its negative qualities onto foreign places, thereby creating a domestic reality that doesn’t really exist.
Have you ever heard of B-Style? It’s a Japanese mini-phenomenon that some feel is analogous to blackface. According to an often-linked Vice Article, B-Style is a “contraction of the words “Black” and “Lifestyle” that refers to a subculture of young Japanese people who. . .do everything in their power to look as African American as possible.” Whether the self-proclaimed ‘appreciation’ of African-American culture is a justification as to whether or not this is a new form of blackface is a popular debate among YouTube comments, it is actually the general disgust at the B-Style girls’ ‘ignorance’ of the debate that interest me. I will spare you the rude text of the actual comments, but most people found it unnerving how these girls weren’t aware that they were perpetuating African-American stereotypes, and took it to mean that most Japanese were ignorant as a natural result of limited exposure to minority cultures. And thus, in this way, the Western world puts itself above the East by proclaiming, “Hey, at least we’re not that bad.” This is similar to how an American might try to excuse the sexism in America by comparing it to the sexism faced by women in the Middle East: “Hey, at least our women don’t need to be escorted by a man, am I right?”
Watch this video. There’s a good chance that you’ve already seen it or something like it. GReeeeN‘s ‘あいうえおんがく♬’ (very roughly translated as ‘Vowel Song’) song is abnormal, to say the least, but strange Japanese videos and images like these are plentiful and plenty mocked in western culture. (Remember the panty vending machines that turned out to be not so bad after all?) The massive importation and sharing of out-of-context Japanese media has garnered Japan a reputation with being a weird land obsessed with crazy visuals, technology, and sexual impulses.
But none of these are media influences that Japan is willingly giving out to the west. In many cases, blog writers and Japan enthusiasts specifically seek out examples of Japanese strangeness and in a way paint a stereotypical image of Japan by which the Western world criticizes. Effectively, the West is smuggling a commoditized form of stereotypical Japanese culture and using it to deflect its domestic problems.
Which is different from the ideas Japan wants to export:
The method by which Japan exports a commoditized version of itself is by popular demand. Ultimately the Japanese citizens decide what image of Japan gets released to the West by deeming certain media as popular and some as not-so-popular.
Dr. Otto F. von Feigenblat explains in his article, Japanese Animation as a Global Product, that Japan is trying desperately to be more like the rest of the world, while the rest of the world is trying to be more like Japan, which has caused a new hybridization of Western and Eastern material. However, Japan has been at the game for a little while now, and now, more than ever, realizes the influence of its media on the West.
The escapism that Japan exports tries to be a bit different from the escapism that the Euro-American world forcefully takes. As Feigenblat says, anime like Naruto and Bleach (which I’ll admit to knowing little about) subtly paint an image of Japan struggling with an aging population and a decreasing birth rate. While the West as a culture imports the stereotypical negative attributes of Japanese culture, Japan itself is trying to remind the rest of the world of the socio-economic problems within its borders while presenting a truer image of the Japanese people. By being invested in anime like Naruto and Bleach, the Western culture finds itself immersed in not only the world of the anime, but consequently and sometimes unknowingly immersed in the world of Japan’s internal struggles. Japan, by selectively exporting its media, is fighting off the negative stereotypes that have been associated with it since it first opened its gates to the Western world.
1) Can you think of other examples/methods in which Japan (or any foreign country) has intentionally presented an image of itself to deflect a persistent negative stereotype?
2) It is also interesting to look at escapism through a Japanese lens. What are the ways in which the West has intentionally presented an image to Japan? For example, the circulation of an iconic, but degrading photo after General MacArthur met the emperor following WWII.
…Also, you can put your hands down now.
“B-Stylers’ Are Japanese Teens Who Want to Be Black.”Http://www.vice.com/. Vice, 09 Apr. 2014. Web. 26 Apr. 2015.
Feigenblatt, Otto Von, and Beatriz Peña Acuña. “Chapter Seven.” Popular Culture: A Reader. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Pub., 2013. N. pag. Print.