One of the main keys to understanding the difference between Japanese and American cultural consumption is a comparison of published reviews. Almost all Japanese magazines do not use critical reviews or numbered rating systems to evaluate new CDs, films, and books. The review usually describes the sound of the music itself and gives a little biographical information about the artist, but almost never directly judges the quality of the work. There is no Japanese equivalent to the hyper-critical Pitchfork Media — who rate music releases down to a single decimal place.
Yesterday I realized something else: Japanese reviews also do not extract key lyrics from the songs to explain the artistic intent — something that is standard operating procedure in America. Some of this is probably related to the fact that J-Pop lyrics have little diversity (dakishimetai!, “hold me” is almost everywhere), but overall, none of these write-ups give the impression that the “reviewer” is really thinking about the content of the work. We cannot claim to know whether or not listeners are thinking about the lyrics or judging the work’s quality or creating an emotional bond to the music, but clearly, any content-analysis of music in Japan is not happening in the public sphere.
My gut feeling, however, is that media’s avoidance of critical inquiry bleeds down to the consumer.
Let’s say that you were an anthropologist and discovered an unknown tribe of people. To get a sense of their culture, you ask them to describe lots of different objects, and it ends up that they never once talk about color in their descriptions. There are two possible conclusions: they have no concept of color or there is some taboo that prevents them publicly from talking about color.
Applying this to the Japanese refusal to openly judge culture, there are thus two conclusions: The Japanese have no concept of content analysis, or the social structure does not allow a free discussion of content quality. I feel that it could be a bit of both, but certainly, the lack of public discussion is pointing to a radically different approach to cultural judgment.