Watching the 24/7 coverage of Japan, it doesn’t seem real. More the stuff of big-budget Hollywood blockbusters: a 9.0 earthquake so powerful it knocked the entire planet off it’s axis, a wall of water washing away entire towns, and the spectre of a nuclear meltdown irradiating one of the most densely populated areas in the world.
If the real-time images look like fiction, it’s certainly not the familiar fiction of Japan as the quintessential vision of the hypermodern future.
In so many ways, at the end of the 20th century, the future looked Japanese. No longer a purveyor of cheap occupation-era ceramics, Japan dominated the automotive and technology sectors with brands such as Toyota and Sony. Nintendo ruled the video game world, replacing Atari and releasing enduring fanchises such as Super Mario Bros, Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, and Metal Gear.
Then Japan went on a real estate spending spree, buying much of Hawaii as well as American icons like 30 Rock and Pebble Beach. Not just our cars, electronics, and sundry stuff were Japanese, but Americans were having to learn to actually “be” more Japanese—as seen humorously in the movie Gung Ho and in real life at the General Motors and Toyota joint venture, NUMMI, in California.
While all that was actually happening, writers and moviemakers were creating an even more powerful vision. Authors like William Gibson created the narrative of Japan-as-the-future. Moviemakers like Ridley Scott designed the optics of the 21st century—multi-colored neon reflecting from rain-slicked Tokyo streets. In telling the sci-fi stories of the future, it was impossible not to have a Japanese accent.
In the opening line of Neuromancer, Gibson wrote: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Describing the ancient and natural with a comparison to the artificial and technological perfectly underscores a key Western perception of Japan as the land of technologically fueled modernity.
It’s not just smaller, faster, cooler electronics—it’s also exporting new ways of thinking. Essentially, new technology + new cultural pattern = a piece of tomorrow.
One area Japanese technology and culture combined to create the future we’re living in right now is the pursuit of “mobile privatization.” Radios and TV sets were the norm in America, and this brought everything from FDR’s fireside chats to JFK’s assassination to living rooms across the nation. Japan not only liberated us from the tyranny of being tied to TV sets thanks to time-shifting VCRs, they made media completely personal with the Sony Walkman.
The cultural impact of the Walkman can’t be overstated. Not just because it let individuals bring private music politely into public spaces, but because it was the genie being let out of the bottle—the beginning of individual obsession with handheld gadgets. This emergence of electronic individualism has blossomed into iPods, iPhones, and iPads along with a supported ecosystem of competitive music devices, smart phones, and tablets. And don’t forget Sony PSP and Nintendo DS for gaming on the go.
The point is that while technology is great, and technological driven change is a key part of Japanese history and culture, it surely isn’t the most important thing.
Dr. Koichi Iwabuchi is a Professor at Waseda University and author of several books dealing with Japanese cultural interaction with the West and Asia. He used the word “mukokuseki” (むこくせき) in a description initially involving anime, but which has been extended across other cultural frontiers. Mukokuseki can mean “odorless,” but in this context it means a person who is “stateless” or “without country of origin.” It refers to the way Japanese cultural products can be seen to erase national history and identity in an attempt to more fully integrate with a global audience.
It worked. From manga and anime to video games and pop culture in general, Japan is a leading purveyor of not just technology, but a Japanese brand. After World War II, the island’s economy went from ruin to riches, first with cheap commodity goods, then advanced manufacturing, and eventually to cultural products. This transition from “hardware” to “software” in cultural exports is a global tendency, not exclusive to Japan. But, Japan displayed unheard of urgency and rapidity in its ascendance.
So, what is the Japanese brand? And can history help to reveal what kind of post-earthquake/tsunami/Fukushima Japan will emerge?
The singular constant in Japan over the last century and a half has been change. Explosive, rockets-strapped-to-a-skateboard kind of change. In 1854, Commodore Perry’s Black Ship, forced opening of the feudal, isolationist island ended with all the tools of the Industrial Revolution being dropped off, batteries included. Overnight an agrarian society had steam power for railroads and ships, factories to produce firearms, and instant communication with the telegraph. The Steampunk age had arrived, and it wasn’t a sci-fi novel—it was Imperial Japan.
That age, as we know, ended badly for Japan. America, introduced as Prometheus, now becomes Shiva. The wondrous technology of the West that remade Japan was directed, in all its fury, to devastate it.
This second massive societal disruption, coming just 90 years after the first, was even bigger—and far more profound. The Americans came ashore this time not to offer nifty new toys, but to splice their DNA into a critically wounded foe. Coming to, after this radical infusion, Japan wiggled its toes and flexed its fingers. Everything worked, but it was weird—mutant. The nation did what it does so well, adapt and overcome the weirdness the West loved to force upon it while forging a unique Japanese cultural brand.
The 9.0 earthquake and all the damage it created is traumatic. But not nearly as traumatic as what the people of Japan have already been through. If there’s one nation, and one people, that know how to deal with futureshock, tragedy, adversity, and weirdness, it’s Japan.
So, in addition to tropes and memes such as Pokemon, Toyota, Sushi, Robots, Godzilla, Wii, and many more, I think the Japanese brand will also conjure words such as indefatigable, resilient, and always moving forward. Who knows, after the rebuild Japan may look a lot closer that Bladerunner vision than anyone would have guessed. Good luck—I can’t wait to see it.