What’s the obsession with Japan? Samurai, anime and swords have been all over Hollywood for the last decade. The influence was borderline explicit in The Matrix and the various stern-guys-in-leather flicks that followed it. Tarantino had a whale of a time pastiching old Shaw Brothers classics in Kill Bill – and in just the last few weeks we’ve had the latest posters for The Wolverine, with moody old Hugh Jackman wielding a katana.
This particular predilection for all things Nipponese goes back to at least the latter half of the 19th century. After 200 years of seclusion, Japan was forced to open up to international trade by the Americans. As the country set about a rapid period of industrialisation, the West got its first proper look at Japanese culture. And those imperial fellows in their frock coats and whiskers were rather taken with it.
In the westerners’ eyes, the time capsule culture, the exotic wood carvings and Japan’s honour system stirred up romantic images of an ancient, nobler form of society. Gilbert and Sullivan made it the subject of their operetta The Mikado. And that idea of Japan has endured. Anyone who’s got to series four of Mad Men will be familiar with The
Chrysanthemum and the Sword, Ruth Benedict’s 1946 study that codified much of this fascination.
The important thing to understand is that the western idea of Japan has little to do with Japan itself and a lot to do with the West. In cherry-picking particular images and forming them into a coherent picture, we legitimate and calcify certain desires for the Other – that our own society is as false as we believe it to be, when seen in the reflection of this patently superior (and self-constructed) alternative.
Jean Baudrillard called it a ‘simulacrum’ – and yes, as any A-level bore will tell you, they got a reference to that into The Matrix, too – a manufactured idea of a place or person that supersedes the real thing in our minds. It’s a lot of fun, but potentially harmful if that dream gets in the way of the original. Think of all those businesses getting turned into shortbread shops in Edinburgh.
It’s easier to see how this operates when looked at in reverse: the aesthesised version of Britishness that fills manga and anime – and has been re-exported here in the form of steampunk – also originates in the 19th century. Back then, the Japanese government was keen to rid itself of the same past we’re so in love with and adopt the modern dress, business practices and political attitudes of the ‘civilised’ West.
There’s nothing wrong with any of this. US geeks and British dudes can have their fun swinging katanas and kendo sticks atop cloud-scudded mountains in their favourite video games. Japanese otaku can put on top hats and bustles and solve mysteries in the British Museum. Just remember that it’s all play, and be careful it doesn’t stop us getting to know each other a little bit better.