Monday, June 27, 2005

Japanese culture

Ian Buruma is one of the most engaging writers today on the intersection of politics and culture, and his latest on the peculiarities of contemporary Japanese art is superb. Commenting on a current exhibition in New York called "Little Boy," Buruma notes the "the infantile quality of much of the imagery":

The wide-eyed little girls, the cute, furry animals, the winking, smiling mascots that one normally finds on candy boxes and in comic strips for children (which, by the way, are avidly consumed in Japan by adults too). The word, much used to describe young girls and their girlish tastes, is kawaii. The Hello Kitty doll is kawaii, as are little pussy cats, or fluffy jumpers with Snoopy dogs. Kawaii denotes innocence, sweetness, a complete lack of malice.

In the "Little Boy" exhibition the remarkable thing about the childlike drawings of young girls by Kunikata Mahomi, or the computer-generated prints by Aoshima Chiho, or Ohshima Yuki's plastic dolls of prepubescent girls, or Nara Yoshitomo's paintings of bug-eyed children, is that these supposedly kawaii images are actually not innocent at all, and sometimes full of malice. When you look at them carefully, you notice a strain of sexual violence. Everything about Aoshima Chiho's wide-eyed, nude girl lying on the branch of an apricot tree is kawaii, apart from the fact that she is tied up. In another picture by the same artist, cartoonish little girls are sinking into the earth in an apocalyptic-looking shower of meteors. Ohshima Yuki's plastic dolls at first look like the cute little pendants on a nine-year-old's school satchel; but on closer inspection they are objects of pedophile lust, half-naked children in suggestive poses. [Exhition curator] Murakami's own painting in pink acrylic of a smoky death's head with garlands of flowers in the eye sockets turns out to be a stylized version of the atomic bomb cloud....

The sense of catastrophe, of apocalyptic doom, in much Japanese Neo Pop imagery, echoing the popularity of Japanese animation films and computer games about world-destroying wars and Godzilla-type monsters, is explained by Murakami as a reflection of Japan's ill-digested wartime past. The horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, smothered in silence during the US occupation, have left a kind of unresolved, largely repressed rage. Japan's own atrocities have not been forthrightly faced either. Murakami argues that the US has successfully turned Japan into a pacifist nation of irresponsible consumers, encouraged to get richer and richer while leaving matters of war and peace to the Americans.

"Postwar Japan was given life and nurtured by America," writes Murakami in one of the catalog essays: "We were shown that the true meaning of life is meaninglessness, and were taught to live without thought. Our society and hierarchies were dismantled. We were forced into a system that does not produce 'adults.'" Part of this state of permanent childhood, in Murakami's view, is a sense of impotence, fostered by the US-written pacifist constitution, which robs Japan of its right to wage war. Murakami writes: "Regardless of winning or losing the war, the bottom line is that for the past sixty years, Japan has been a testing ground for an American-style capitalist economy, protected in a greenhouse, nurtured and bloated to the point of explosion. The results are so bizarre, they're perfect. Whatever true intentions underlie 'Little Boy,' the nickname for Hiroshima's atomic bomb, we Japanese are truly, deeply, pampered children.... We throw constant tantrums while enthralled by our own cuteness...."

Murakami and other theorists of this persuasion link these infantile "tantrums" and dreams of omnipotence to the actual violence of Aum Shinrikyo, the quasi-Buddhist cult, whose followers in the 1990s murdered unsuspecting Tokyo subway passengers with sarin gas while wait-ing for Armageddon. They, too, used apocalyptic fantasies to explode the meaninglessness of the postwar greenhouse. The difference is that these deluded men and women, many of them well-educated scientists, led by the half-blind guru Asahara Shoko, really believed they could find utopia by waging war on the world....

All this strikes me as wildly exaggerated. No one disputes that the atomic bombings were a terrible catastrophe or that the pumped-up postwar prosperity of Japan did much to bury the traumas of the wartime past. That overdependence on US security—combined with a de facto one-party state— has led to a kind of truncated political consciousness is at least plausible (I have argued this myself). And the humiliation of feeling dominated by Western civilization for more than two hundred years cannot be dismissed. But to explain contemporary Japanese culture entirely through the prism of postwar trauma is much too glib....

Even though the oversized, indeed grotesque proportions of human genitalia in pre-modern Japanese erotic art give a very different impression than the childlike humanoids in current art, a feeling of impotence goes back much further than General MacArthur's occupation. It might have something to do with the traditional constraints which have been a constant feature of Japanese society. Who knows, it may even have something to do with overbearing mothers, smothering their (male) toddlers with too much care, before the social handcuffs are applied and early childhood becomes a lost Eden to be pined for until death.

Buruma's writing is so compelling, and his interpretive touch so deft, that he can even get away with this shrug-of-the-shoulders nod toward Freudian reductivism. Certainly, anyone who's spent much time looking at Japanese art, especially anime, has to have asked themselves similar questions.

1 comment:

zachawry said...

I might write more after actually reading Buruma's piece (after work settles down), but I have long ago come to the conclusion that Japanese people are just nuts. Most will even agree with that assessment.

First there are grown and even aging men who drive around in (their own) cars festooned with numerous Whinny the Pooh and Mickey Mouse dolls, but then there is the more tellin fact:

The only way a country the size of California with basically no natural resources could stay the world's number two economic power for so long (even in spite of long-term recession) is if the people are crazy. There's no way around it.