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Frankly speaking, when I saw "The Japanese Version" my reaction was mixed. On the one hand, it is a great joy to see a work that will inform many foreign friends about aspects of contemporary Japanese life. But there is also an accompanying uneasiness as I consider what the film is saying about Japanese culture. Though all the episodes presented are quite familiar to us, the film could never have been made by Japanese hands. In this short essay, I would like to clarify some of these contradictory feelings with the hope of providing a hint of understanding about the conflicting forces of kokusaika and the foreign stereotyping of Japanese culture.
First, my feelings of joy. Needless to say, "The Japanese Version" is one of the very few works which portrays real Japanese culture without falling back on stereotyped Japanese images. We often sigh over the simplistic work done by foreign journalists. For example, to the incredulous folks back home in the U.
S, Japan is often depicted as a robot-driven, inhuman technological society. Other observers, when they focus on contemporary situations, try to connect them to such "traditional" Japanese phenomena as samurai, geisha, madly workaholic businessmen, obedient wives, etc. Mount Fuji is frequently invoked.
Enough is enough! The numbers of Japanese who go abroad are rapidly increasing, but whenever we travel in Western countries, or meet friends from abroad, we are repeatedly asked the same kinds of questions about Japanese life, always centering on the traditional ways of living that have all but disappeared from Japan today. This happens so frequently that a short introductory book on Japanese culture, written in English and accompanied by an audiocassette featuring native English speakers, has become very popular among Japanese businessmen and students who are going to live abroad and must face a volley of questions on Japanese life.
Although the presentation is very stereotyped and many of its points are rather obscure, if Japanese travelers repeat the account of Japanese culture given in the book and tape, they can satisfy the predictable questions of their foreign friends. In this way, the same old Japanese stereotypes are perpetuated in a vicious circle of disinformation largely divorced from reality. On the other hand, Japanese are also titillated by such traditional presentations of their society.
At the same time that we complain about foreigners misunderstanding real Japanese life, we appreciate the attention. Furthermore, it confirms our cozy insular idea that foreigners cannot possibly understand us anyway. The pinpoint accuracy of many of the scenes in "The Japanese Version" pierces this smug shell, and asks basic questions about Japanese self-image. Hence the uneasiness I and many Japanese feel when watching the film.
In order to examine the self-image of the Japanese, let us first consider the self-image of the individual. There are basically three kinds of self-image: First, the image one presents to oneself; second, the image of what one wants to be; and third, the image of oneself that one wants others to believe. Usually, people who check their appearance by looking in the mirror every day do not necessarily see themselves in totality.
They may focus only on their favorite part, or they unconsciously see only their own "idea" of their faces. People are often surprised when they are shown candid photos of themselves, exclaiming "Do I really look like that?
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Japanese life as shown in "The Japanese Version" gives us a similar kind of shock. Our discomfort in watching it comes from feeling that the Japanese culture and people that appear in it represent neither the image we want to be nor the image we want to present to the world. Yet each scene is filled with accurate observations of everyday life; leaving aside considerations of degree or taste, this is undoubtedly Japan. Although we have been eager to be "really understood" by foreigners for a long time, we may find ourselves getting angry at such candid snapshots.
As I consider these issues I wonder if we Japanese really have seriously considered our own self-image. Such a consideration is needed now more than ever before, as the desire for kokusaika, for internationalization, is growing at the grass-roots level as well as in government. Yet our understanding of what this concept means remains confused and simplistic.
As a first step, we Japanese should carefully identify and analyze these scattered images of ourselves. Without real self-understanding, one cannot grow, and moreover one will never achieve mutual understanding nor gain friends in the world. In order to understand ourselves, we must examine our national image from different points of view.
By coming to terms with the discrepancies in the various images of ourselves that exist, our understanding of ourselves will slowly approach reality. Perhaps we will have to admit to the world--and to ourselves--that Japan is no longer the land of such long-cherished stereotypes as geisha and samurai, and that a true portrait of our culture must also encompass love hotels, cowboy bars, and Ultra Quiz.
This process may well involve confusion, discomfort, and embarrassment. However, without this catharsis, we will never reach either a real understanding of ourselves or come to a mutual communication with others. By Caron Allen and David W. Plath, University of Illinois We in the West are aware that traditional Japanese culture was rich in its diversity but somehow we seldom notice that modern Japanese culture is every bit as colorfully varied.
The Japanese Version does not attempt to portray that whole panorama but it offers a valuable glimpse into some of the special scenes of Japanese life today. It may be surprising that many of the symbols, images and idols we think especially "American" are so widely known and cherished also in Japan.
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In Japan, howeveras in many parts of the worldthese elements of popular culture are features that people use when signalling to one another about what it means to be modern. The cultural critic Donald Richie has noted that Americans still like to think of Japan as some sort of hermetic Oriental Kingdom where tradition stands firm against the onslaught of technology. As the film shows, however, Japanese are ardent and able consumers as well as manufacturers of the latest technology and of the popular culture that goes along with it.
In the process "American" forms and imagesmany of which we originally borrowed from Europeare so thoroughly domesticated and re-incorporated into local life that they become, in effect, "things Japanese". Language offers a good example. The usual estimate is that currently one has to know at least five thousand words from English in order to be a fluent speaker of everyday, ordinary Japanese conversation. These words may have been "borrowed" at one time but many of them have been recombined into phrases that are "native Japanese". Not spoken outside of Japan, these phrases have to be interpreted for people who regard English as their mother tongue.
The abbreviations OA or OB or OL make no sense in ordinary American speech but Japanese immediately understand them to refer to "office automaton" and "old boy" alumnus or alumna and "office lady" earlier known as BG, or "business girl". The film suggests that Japan has had a long history of willingness to learn from the outside world, to draw on ideas, inspiration and knowledge like an eager student.
The appetite for adaptation has carried forward into the twentieth century.
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One of the great strengths of modern Japanese culture appears to be this ability to partake discriminately of the world's human abundance while continuing to re-create the Japanese people's own identities as individuals, as a people, and as a nation. As the film exclaims, "this new mix is Japanese culture". Weddings: A New Old Tradition Americans tend to imagine that a Japanese wedding must somehow be very old and traditional and chock-full of sacred symbols.
This line of thinking is typified in the James Bond film "You only Live Twice", where weds a Japanese agent in an elaborate procession and ceremony at a Shinto shrine. In fact, The "traditional" Shinto wedding was invented in on the occasion of the marriage of the then-Crown Prince, later the Showa Emperor. Japan's leaders felt a need to bring their country in line with European industrial nations, whose royalty were married in Church by Christian rites.
Among the general population however, Shinto rites became standard only in the last 30 years.
Until a generation ago, weddings were performed at home before a small family gathering. They varied widely by region, social class, and family preference. Many of the wedding practices now defined as "traditional" were originally the practices of the pre-modern samurai elite not necessarily of the mass of the population. Weddings have been moved from the home to hotels and commercial wedding "palaces". As shown in the film, the clothing, lighting, rubber wedding cakes, fountains, delicacies, and serving dishes suggest anything but the austere lines and natural forms that are thought of as characteristic of traditional Japanese art.
Wedding directors have not yet incorporated "something blue" into the performance but they have ingeniously combined many somethings that are old, new and borrowed. The bride changes clothing at least three times during the reception. She enters in a white kimono, shifts to a colorful kimono, then to a western wedding gown or a cocktail dress.
The bridegroom enters in formal Japanese garb hakama and haori, then changes to a morning coat or tuxedo. Throughout the reception there are symbols old and new to invite a long and happy life together, gratitude to parents and seniors, and abundant progenyeven though the statistically average Japanese married couple today stops with 1.
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The symbols are "Japanese", whether they involve displaying fans that open up to express a full life traditional or lighting a rack of candles arranged in the shape of a Valentine heart new. Wedding palace entrepreneurs have energetically promoted this "traditional" extravaganza and continue to make it more elaborate. To dismiss it all as mere commercialism, one would have to argue that Christmas in the United States has become just a spending spree of hollow meaning.