Is Japanese culture Westernised and losing its uniqueness as a result of globalisation? Or is the interaction with the West in the age of globalisation producing hybrid yet unique Japanese culture?
(NOTE: I have to take a Japanese history & culture module as part of my language studies. So please bear this in mind if you choose to read on!)
Like many countries in the world, Japan has been influenced by Westernisation, and this influence has had an effect to varying degrees on different areas of Japanese life, and it has been argued that this has had a detrimental effect on the uniqueness of Japanese culture. Westernisation was encouraged by the Japanese government because of the opportunities that it gave Japan to compete on the world stage, and the Japanese were able to appropriate the best the West had to offer. This, in alignment with the best of Japanese culture, and national characteristics, has enabled Japan to create a unique hybrid, enabling the country to become a significant worldwide economic power. This essay will examine some of the main arguments analysing this phenomenon, and try to show that Japanese culture is losing its uniqueness through globalisation, but also producing something new, that is a unique hybrid.
The concept of ‘Japanese culture’ emerged with the Meiji Restoration, and scholars have argued that the development of Japanese culture was an artificial process brought about by the desire to build an independent nation that could compete with the West. Initially this was known as bunmei kaika (civilisation and enlightenment). However, later on in the 1920s, the term nihon bunka (Japanese culture) became more popular. The desire to create a defined Japanese culture stimulated interest in defining national characteristics, and ‘a new interest in tracing, defining, and celebrating the intellectual and artistic heritage of particular ethnic groups’. (Perren, 1992; Tai, 2003, p.1, 8; Morris-Suzuki, 1995, p.761)
In the modern world the way in which different cultures are influenced by, and interact with one another, is referred to as ‘globalisation’ - it is ‘a social process in which the constraints of geography on social and cultural arrangements recedes, and in which people become increasingly aware that they are receding’ (Waters, 1995 as cited by Condry, 2001, p.382). Due to technological advances, worldwide travel and communication between nations have advanced in such a way that we now live in an age in which exposure to other cultures is reasonably common. However, the question is, whether this is a two-way process or whether Western culture is dominating. It has been said that the ability to use the English language is a great advantage within a globalised world, and is evidence of Western hegemony (Inoguchi, 2009, p.337). The result of globalisation, if one culture is dominant, is ‘homogeneity’ - i.e. the assimilation of cultural and economic ideas and customs; if both cultures interact and influence, or absorb the ideas from one another, the result is ‘heterogeneity’ - i.e. the production of hybrid cultures (Ritzer and Malone, 2000, p.98). Western culture is seen as ‘having a largely homogenising effect on much of the rest of the world’, significantly through the growth of the worldwide market economy (Ritzer and Malone, 2000, p.100). However in most cultures, including Japan, the result is generally a combination of homogeneity and heterogeneity. Western cultural ideas have been attuned to local contexts. One example of this is the way in which the American company McDonald’s has taken into consideration local tastes when re-formulating its menu for other cultures, whilst at the same time maintaining its core menu. In Japan the tradition of communal eating, with the sharing of dishes, is undermined by the McDonald’s meal. However some Japanese see it as more of a between-meal snack. (Ritzer and Malone, 2000, p.98, 104-5, 107-8)
The success of the McDonald’s fast food chain, has meant that a new term - ‘McDonaldisation’ has become a main future of ‘cultural imperialism’, to describe the imposition of Western culture on other nations. (Condry, 2001, p.382) The meaning of ‘McDonaldisation’ is not restricted to the opening of fast food restaurants, but refers to the business practices that have allowed that to be achieved. These are characterised by: ‘efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control, particularly through the substitution of nonhuman for human technology’. (Ritzer and Malone, 2000, p.99, 103) ‘McDonaldisation’ also embraces the adoption of other means of American ‘new means of consumption’, such as: shopping malls, superstores, television shopping channels, theme parks, amongst others (Ritzer and Malone, 2000, p.101). All of these are accompanied by aggressive marketing tools to encourage consumers to spend their money. Ritzer and Malone (2000, p.103) write ‘that they are powerful representations of American culture and they all bring that culture to any nation to which they are exported’. The adoption of fast food restaurants, and the ‘new means of consumption’, and the business practices of ‘McDonaldisation’ to Japanese culture, could be seen as the triumph of Westernisation. The fact that the ‘new means of consumption’ are transformed into a hybrid Japanese version could be seen as the creation of something unique. However, it could be argued that, whether adapted to Japanese culture or not, they still point to American domination.
Ian Condry describes the Americanisation of the Japanese music scene, in particular, hip-hop. At first sight the young people who attend the nightclubs (‘genba’) appear to be copying American hip-hop culture through the way that they dress and behave. However, Condry argues that the genre has been appropriated by the Japanese youth, and in the process has become distinctly Japanese. The performers and the fans might look American, but they use the Japanese language about Japanese topics, and they still adhere to their cultural traditions. For example, Condry describes the atmosphere at a New Years event when the club goers naturally greeted each other in the formal Japanese style. (Condry, 2001, p.372-3, 380)
While some sectors of Japanese society seem to have welcomed Globalisation and Americanisation, others have felt as though their way of life is being threatened, and their reaction has been to protect their culture. This is referred to as ‘cultural nationalism’ and involves the desire for an ‘imagined community’. (Inoguchi, 2009, p.339) Inoguchi gives three examples of the way in which the Japanese have protected their culture in the face of Westernisation. The first example is within the cotton industry. In the 19th century, when Japan was disadvantaged by the unequal trade treaties, cotton was exported by the British to Japan. The British cotton was therefore cheaper than Japanese hand-made cotton. It was made by machine, and so was more even in quality, however, the Japanese people continued to buy their own hand-made cotton material, and consequently the British did not succeed in replacing the local industry. Much later, Japan cotton industry showed it’s ability to adapt culturally to new businesses and markets - for example Toyota (a car manufacturer) began as a company producing cotton material. The second example given is the way the Meiji Restoration reorganised the government, the monarchy, and the political structures in order to imitate Western models. The Japanese government chose to select different aspects from different countries, and adopted them - for example, the police force was based on the French model, the imperial navy on the British navy, and the imperial army on the Prussian army. Inoguchi called this the ‘self-assertion of [Japan’s] cultural nationalism’. By taking different Western models, and blending them with their own traditions, Japan created its own unique governmental hybrid. The third example concerns the rise of Capitalism and the global stock market in the 20th century. Western capitalism is built around profits for the stockholders. Western businesses focus primarily on profits for stockholders, and the company is paramount - in contrast Japanese business philosophy focuses more on the people. This is known as ‘jinponshugi’ (‘humanity first-ism’), and is a practice that ensures neither the stock market nor the employees of a company dominates the other, whereas in the West, the stock market controls the company. So the Japanese have created a unique corporate culture based on their national ideals. (Inoguchi, 2009, p.341, 343) Cultural nationalism has allowed Japan’s individualism to thrive in the face of Western globalisation.
Because American culture has had such a worldwide impact, globalisation sometimes seems to be synonymous with Westernisation. However Japan, as a leading economic power, has had enormous influence over the rest of the world - a process known as ‘Japanisation’. The rise of Japanese consumer technologies has had a global cultural impact, with the Sony Walkman being a prime example. Its success has been because of its ‘miniaturisation, technical sophistication, and high quality’, not because it evokes ‘images or ideas of a Japanese lifestyle’. (Iwabuchi, 2002, p.28) Towards the end of the 1980s, Japanese companies such as Sony and Matsushita were buying out Hollywood film studios. This was part of the Japanese advance in the global media market. The response from some American commentators was that the Japanese were ‘buying into America’s soul’ (as cited in Iwabuchi, 2002, p.29), but the Japanese companies were focused more on the production and distribution of Hollywood films as part of their goal to become a major competitor in the global media market. (Iwabuchi, 2002, p.29) The Japanese cultural influence is far more apparent in products such as video games, cartoons, and comics, but they have created something that is neither Japanese nor Western. They feature stereotypes such as Samurai and Geisha, but the characters tend to have features that look more Western. They evoke an exotic picture of Japanese culture, which appeals to Western audiences, and creates a ‘sense of yearning for Japan’ - this can be compared with the yearning for things American in Japan. (Iwabuchi, 2002, p.28-29, 32) However this is not a ‘mirror image’ of Americanisation - Iwabuchi (2002, p.33) writes:
… if it is indeed the case that the Japaneseness of Japanese animation derives, consciously or unconsciously, from its erasure of physical signs of Japaneseness, is not the Japan that Western audiences are at long last coming to appreciate, and even yearn for, an animated, race-less and culture-less, virtual version of ‘Japan’.
As far as Western countries are concerned, Japanisation is being felt more as an economic process rather than a cultural one. Japan’s cultural influence is felt far more strongly in East and Southeast Asia, where Japanese television programs, pop stars, products, and magazines are valued. (Iwabuchi, 2002, p.47)
In conclusion, Japan has embraced Westernisation ever since the Meiji Restoration, and as a result, Japanese culture has adapted to, and sometimes yearned for Western ideals and products, whilst at the same time retaining and valuing elements of Japanese heritage. Cultural ideas have been absorbed, and attuned to local circumstances - for example, the changing of the McDonald’s menu and the new hybrid Japanese-style hip-hop music. Cultural nationalism has been important in retaining the aspects of Japanese life, which, when combined with imported ideas, has helped to create the new unique hybrid of Western and Japanese ideals. It is interesting to note that this blend of the two has sometimes been created in order to appeal to the West - as seen in Japanese animation. Globalisation has given Japan access to worldwide markets, and that, combined with Japanese character, efficiency, and organisation, has enabled Japan to become a uniquely successful economic power. Some cultural uniqueness has inevitably been lost through globalisation, but as a result Japan has consistently been able to produce a new uniqueness.
List of References
Condry, I., 2001. Japanese Hip-Hop and the Globalization of Popular Culture. In: Gmelch, G., Zenner, W., eds. Urban Life: Readings in the Anthropology of the City. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
Inoguchi, T., 2009. Globalisation and cultural nationalism. In: Sugimoto, Y., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Modern Japanese Culture. UK: Cambridge University Press.
Iwabuchi, K., 2002. Recentering Globalization. US: Duke University Press.
Morris-Suzuki, T., 1995. The Invention and Reinvention of “Japanese Culture”. The Journal of Asian Studies [online], 54 (3), 759-780.
Perren, R., 1992. On the Turn - Japan, 1900. History Today [online], 42 (6), 26-32.
Ritzer, G., Malone, E. L., 2000. Globalization Theory: Lessons from the Exportation of McDonaldization and the New Means of Consumption. American Studies [online], 41 (2/3), 97-118.
Tai, E., 2003. Rethinking Culture, National Culture, and Japanese Culture. Japanese Language and Literature [online], 37 (1), 1-26.