THE PERENNIAL APPEAL OF JAPONISM

There is a cultural subset of non-Japanese people, sometimes referred to as ‘weeaboos’, that is obsessed with Japanese culture. This obsession can manifest itself as an esoteric hobby or, in some cases, a passion; be it through anime, video games, J-pop, kawaii fashion, or even the vast array of pornography the Japanese market has to offer. Information is absorbed hungrily, digested, and regurgitated back into the context of Western culture. But what is it about this island nation that continuously piques our interest?

Between the 17th and 19th centuries, Japan isolated itself from nearly all relations with the rest of the world. The policy of sakoku (isolation) remained in effect for two hundred years, until the American, Matthew Perry, sailed to Japan in 1854 and reopened diplomatic and trade relations between the countries. The West quickly became fascinated by the Japanese artefacts that were brought home. Since the isolation had restricted outside influences in art and design, everything had a new aesthetic that the West had not seen and was therefore popular and in demand. 

When Rei Kawakubo presented her first Comme des Garçons collection in Paris in 1981, her use of torn fabrics, a ragged aesthetic and unconventional silhouettes were initially perceived as a bad joke at the expense of the reigning, couture-clad elite. In a strange stroke of fate, Yohji Yamamoto, Kawakubo’s former boyfriend, launched his eponymous brand in Paris on the very same day. Their collections were totally unlike other runways at the time, and it was not long until Japanese designers were considered some of the best in the world.

The Japanese aesthetic that the West so covets is grounded in a futuristic minimalism, pertaining to an almost surrealist fantasy. The contrast between our hemispheres is usually highlighted by traits of physical appearance or spiritual inclination and this instance is no different. Japanese culture is deeply rooted in tradition, forged gradually over nearly fifteen thousand years of human habitation in the region, resulting in a richly nuanced and distinctive cultural narrative. 

“We see the inky quill, the frothing waves or the cherry blossom and categorise it instantly. Its features are so identifiable that we objectify it, just as the West generalises Asian faces…”

 

When we talk of of Japan in the 21st century, it is of a technological vanguard, a forward-thinking fashion capital and, perhaps most importantly, a wellspring of spiritual clarity echoing Manga mythology and the lingering notion of the noble Samurai. These aspects are very attractive to the West, which has such a patchwork history that it is hard to discern the home-grown from the appropriated. What we overlook is that the Japanese have preserved this identity by force, at one point or another occupying most of Asia, despite being such a small country. In its self-belief and strong sense of loyalty and honour (typified by the kamikaze or harakiri), Japan is not so dissimilar to the British Empire.

Crucially, this identity that we so strongly associate with the Japanese excludes certain realities. Japan is immensely overcrowded, has an entrenched reluctance to express emotion openly, and endures suicide rates 60% higher than the global average. Our exclusion of the culture’s complexities, complexities born of a long history, can lead to a debasement. We look at Japanese art as simply that, ‘Japanese art’. We see the inky quill, the frothing waves or the cherry blossom and categorise it instantly. Its features are so identifiable that we objectify it, just as the West generalises Asian faces. Ultimately, our love of Japanese culture is material, almost superficial. We like to pretend that we want that shōji partition installed because it balances the room’s ‘ki’, when in fact we just want to own it. Like all levels of cultural appropriation we believe we understand what it took to form such traits and Japanese culture can be especially tricky because it is so beautifully palatable, so exotic, so oriental.

In any case, our collective fascination shows no signs of abating. Yet in times like these, when we like to think of ourselves as more enlightened and racially conscious than ever before, it is important to reflect upon the manner in which we consume aspects of a nation’s culture and to question whether we truly understand the things we purport to love. If not, we risk diluting them and, in doing so, changing them forever.  

Words by Katharina Lina.