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Japanese Culture Abroad - At Home

Japan flag. Japanese Culture: Abroad and At Home

Portraying Japanese Culture

The Morphing of Japanese Culture When It Moves Overseas

Ask a foreigner about what comes to mind when she hears Japanese culture, and likely replies will include traditional arts (flower, tea), the kimono, geisha, martial arts (sumo, judo), samurai, design (tatami, temples), food (sushi, tempura), and some crafts (pottery, sumie).

Some might mention the literature of Haruki Murakami or Banana Yamamoto.

Film buffs would probably suggest Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, and perhaps Beat Takeshi (more on him later).

Recently, thanks in part to young people and the Internet, manga and animation would have to be added to that list.

Type "Japan culture" into a search engine and all of the above duly appears on your screen.

Part of the reason for this is because of an active campaign on the part of Japanese officialdom. Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Japan Foundation, and the quasi-public broadcaster NHK work assiduously at promoting abroad an idea of Japaneseness and Japanese culture.

Tradition, Sushi, Geisha

The image Japan likes to cultivate of itself to the outside world is of the traditional, the beautiful, the delicate, the serene which is often completely at odds with the actual culture one finds inside Japan itself. This portrayal is very much meant for consumption by non-Japanese.

In Japan, one will of course be able to eat sushi, to read Haruki Murakami, to visit temples. If you spend time in Kyoto, you may see a geisha. However, outside of special performances and exhibits of the Japanese culture espoused so prominently at the Asia Society, in New York, and elsewhere you will probably not have much contact with any of the high cultures with which official Japan aligns itself.

What then will you find?

Pachinko, Karaoke, 7-11

A walk down almost any street will give you an idea of what passes for modern, living culture in Japan.

Pachinko parlors, karaoke, a convenience store, some porn, telephone wires overhead, awful films (thankfully) made for domestic consumption, and McDonalds/Mosburger chains make up a large part of the cityscape.

Back at your hotel room, turn on the television. Most of daytime programming consists of famous people eating, cloying dramas, or local interest stories. At night, it only gets worse.

Variety Shows, Geinojin, Food (Glorious Food!)

Variety shows, quiz bangumi (programs), more food, and just another level of silliness predominate. There is no international ranking for inanity, but I think it is still possible to say that Japanese television is worse even than American television.

The same cast of geinojin (people who are famous for being famous) and tarento (talents often with little perceptible talent) appear on program after program espousing and pontificating on subjects from the insipid to the semi-profound.

An example of this outside-inside dichotomy is illustrated by Japan's best-known film director: Takeshi Kitano (or, inside Japan, Beat Takeshi - or just Beeto)

Cineaste, Poet, Genius

Takeshi Kitano

Abroad Kitano is feted as an award-winning filmmaker. Many of his early films are nihilistic Yakuza or cop films, which were laced with brutal humor and a heavy dose of highly choreographed violence. He is a genius in France, and indeed he probably is.

At home, Kitano or Beat is a much different persona altogether.

He is of course the country's most famous living filmmaker, a comedian, an actor, a published author and poet, professor, and painter. He is indeed a man of towering if at times bizarre talents.

Comedian, TV Host, Thug

Beat is a constant presence on the small screen, hosting many variety programs. He began his career in the 1970s as a TV comic. Much of the humor was targeted at the weak: the elderly, the handicapped, the poor, children, women, the physically unattractive, and on and on.

His humor was so crude that he was ultimately censored (no easy feat in Japan). Moreover, he exposed himself at one point on live television, thus earning a ban from NHK.

In his personal life, he has been equally erratic and violent. Of his many incidents, two stand out.

Friday Incident

The first occurred on December 9, 1986, in the Attack on Friday Incident (フライデー襲撃事件). Along with a posse of low-ranking comedians and hangers-on, Beat stormed the offices of the magazine Friday, and assaulted writers and staff over criticism of him that had appeared in the magazine.

He was arrested and sentenced to six months in prison, later reduced to a two-year suspended sentence.

Motorcycle Crash

The second event for which Kitano is known was a motorcycle accident that nearly killed him in the early hours of August 2, 1994. He later claimed it was a "subconscious suicide attempt."

Kids Return

Multiple reconstructive surgeries and rehabilitation have brought back much of the movement in his face. However, the constant twitching even on programs that are pre-recorded is evidence of what the accident wrought.

"TV Tackle"

Tune in to TV Tackle or any other program he is on. It will be bawdy, the humor rough, and his face in constant motion. This will not appear in any Foreign Ministry literature in English.

Ask an ordinary Japanese what they think Japanese culture is. You will probably get a predictable, canned response learned in school under the guidance of the Ministry of Education's curriculum - along the lines of tea, kimono, sumo, kabuki. Then ask the person when was the last time s/he actually went to see or participated in any of the above.

Last, now ask the person about Beat. In contrast to the previous answer, you will probably be on the receiving end of long, enthusiastic dissertation on Kitano's latest variety shows, tidbits from his personal life, and his upcoming projects.

Suffice it to say that the answers will bear little resemblance to the Planet Japan that the government has dreamt up for your benefit and available in a sleek brochure sitting at an embassy.

Photo of Beat Takeshi is Wikipedia

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