On a tip from the good people at Mutantfrog Travelogue, I ran across this link to a New York Times Magazine about the the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project’s “America Against the World”:
The book’s authors, Andrew Kohut and Bruce Stokes, also note that “poll after poll finds the Japanese to be the most pessimistic of people, expressing far less satisfaction with their lot in life than might be expected given their relatively high per capita incomes. Yet, compared to other Asians, the Japanese are, like Americans, highly self-reliant and distrustful of government and, like Europeans, secular. It is the Japanese public, not the American public, that is most exceptional in the world.”
Whether it be the myriad sex surveys or recent IT usage data, Japan is quite often totally off the map compared with the rest of the world. Most other countries, despite drastic inherent cultural and religious differences, seem to be facing convergence in economic, social, and technological arrangements, but Japan still moves towards the Globalized Universal at a snail’s pace. This is great in the macro — for global cultural diversity and sources of alternative perspective — but perhaps bad in the micro — doesn’t Japan deserve to have lower consumer prices and lower work hours in the near future?
The proudly-outlying Japan provides a nice antithesis to Momus’ idea of pompous universalism: “the belief that, as Paul McCartney sings in ‘Ebony and Ivory,’ ‘people are the same wherever we go.'” America is the obvious stronghold of pompous universalism (PU), and Momus description of PU-related crimes — “bringing democracy to the Middle East at the point of a gun, market liberalisation to countries with centralised state control, or human rights to China along with a stack of Bibles” — are all pointing a big middle finger to the 50-star flag.
So what do we make of Japan’s stubborn refusal to believe that anything in its society has much resemblance to anywhere else in the world? Pompous particularism: the belief that cultures are so unique as to exclude oneself from any real global conversation.
Both concepts may be myths, but realities set them up as easy traps to fall into. Americans can turn on the TV to watch humans from all continents lining up to eat prefab fast foods and tear down Communism for blue jeans and rock’n’roll. In the same way, the Japanese do have extremely unique customs and cultural practices, and the linguistic isolation tends to create a very small echo chamber. But both fallacies have led to more bad than good. American transgressions have been destructive and obvious, and Japanese PP has been mainly invoked as a mercantile tool that keeps power, information, and profits within the hands of elite cabals.
This is not to say that Japan should throw tradition aside and start eating Taco Bell, but the mass refusal to even put oneself on the same conceptual plane as the rest of human society may at some point get in the way of embracing technological progression. My philosophy has always been that Japan should take on the better parts of modern global society as a way to protect its cultural heritage against the amoral whirlwind of American-style capitalism. Michael Porter’s idea is that the most successful Japanese companies already work in the same way as other internationally competitive firms around the globe and that the unproductive sectors’ multi-layered distribution systems never helped anybody. All that “this logistics system is based on Shinto” has always just been an excuse to keep prices high and certain pockets lined with yen.
I watched the 6pm NHK news on Saturday night: five minutes on the death of former PM Ryutaro Hashimoto followed by a one-minute story on kids playing soccer in the mud in Saga-ken. Then there was a story on installing bells in rural train lines up in Aomori. I feel a bit numb to Japanese difference these days, but the provincialism of the newscast suddenly blew my mind: Japan is different. There could be a strong case that the “local news as national news” angle does create good things like social cohesion, but with Japan’s GDP guaranteed to shrink in the coming years, the question is whether Japan becoming less and less of a market resembling other nations will make it essentially irrelevant to the rest of the world.
This will sound cartoonishly Marxist, but 75% of our admiration with Japan may have been a secret obsession with capital. It’s not that they have crazy cartoons and fashion: It’s because they have the money to go into super original directions. Japan should certainly approach convergence on its own terms, but if the rest of the world moves along in the same direction and our consciousness changes to match the times, we may find ourselves less interested in Japan’s version of contemporary culture: the fear that all artistic industries suffer an Orange Range-like descent into hell.
I have been worried about the rise of “Internet culture” in Japan, but the current Japanese You Tube craze thankfully had a mere two or three month lag with the States, compared to three years with the iPod. This is ideal convergence: same technology, different applications. Same with Wikipedia: instead of being a useful online encyclopedia, the Japanese version often acts as a reserve of taboo, secret information. Want to know the Kano sisters‘ real names? You aren’t going to find that in a magazine, but now you can with a computer. (The truth is, however, that these technologies are cracking media cartels and making Japan a bit more like the West, no?)
Almost all of the debate on this blog goes back to this particularism vs. universalism dichotomy: If you believe that Japan is so particular it cannot be changed, then as Momus says, Pompous Universalism becomes “a form of Cultural Imperialism.” If you believe in the universality of economic structures and their predictable effects on human behavior (the fundamental belief of both Marxism and Capitalism), then Pompous Particularism is just a protectionist excuse for opening a real dialogue. Japan is different — which global polling now puts this into objective data — and the deviation will probably continue for a long while. But we have to ask, where does embrace of uniqueness stop being a positive source of diversity and start becoming intentional self-isolation?