Pompous Particularism vs. Pompous Universalism

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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?

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

36 Responses

  1. Carl Says:

    Classic understatement of the day:

    “To discourage lowbrow piracy, it might be better for us to try to improve, even slightly, the type of programs we air on a daily basis.”

  2. Thias の blog Says:

    Pompous Particularism vs. Pompous Universalism

    There was an interesting article on the neomarxisme blog, that contrasts the way people from the USA see the world and the way the Japanese see it.

  3. alin Says:

    marxy, quite agreable essay. one thing i have to say, all these things that you’ve been freaking out over (the ipod, the internet, debate , whatever ..) are and have been around or are or have been latently developing in particular fashions. ultimately neo-marxisme 2004-06 has been about marxy’s self-descovery and gradual understanding of japanese culture which is fine and beautiful if presented as such. it’s the pompous journalism that’s infuriating.

  4. nate Says:

    spoken from the position of someone who has claimed from the outset to out-understand marxy at every turn…

  5. carolalotta Says:

    sorry to interrupt the meta-analysis here, but – for the question of Japan’s uniqueness, i recommend having a look at the world value survey. Its results give a good outline of where Japanese people feel or judge things in a different way from other countries in the world (ie some Japanese feel they are religious, but do not believe in any kind of God – now that is a very common misinterpreted difference from the Western perspective) and where values and attitudes are or have become similar to other countries. Over the past 20 years there clearly has been some kind of coherence of value patterns between Japan and Western industrialised nations. Of course, not in every way. Very clear coherence can be seen in attitudes towards work, most of all between Germany and Japan – both countries have very similar development of their economy and labour market which can be suggested to have a strong influence on people’s attitudes and expectations.
    Still, certain differences remain. Most interestingly, Japan seems to go through a culturally lagged state of post-materialist attitudes (20 years after Western Industrienationen) at the same time as stepping beyond this, towards more emphasis again on material safety (with the whole discussion about the 下流社会).Similar to the example of religious attitudes again a co-existance of attitudes which seem to be mutually exclusive to the Western eye.

  6. marxy Says:

    (the ipod, the internet, debate , whatever ..) are and have been around or are or have been latently developing in particular fashions.

    I keep bringing up the iPod because the Walkman perfectly symbolized Japanese global success of the 80s and the fact that they did not even lead the market, but were three years behind in adopting the next generation in music player says a lot.

    Japan is probably still ahead in the number of gods inhabiting rocks, toasters, kleenex boxes, giant trees, squirrels, and soba noodles.

  7. Momus Says:

    every nation, not just the United States, considers itself exceptional to some extent.

    So says the New York Times in the article which has triggered this entry. Yes, but… As my blog entry today points out, the post WW2 period has seen an American imperium in which military might and cultural influence have combined to make the American Way a particular which aspires to be — and to an extent has become — a universal, and to hide its particularity. In the early to mid-20th century much of the world admired and emulated “Americanism”. Later, though, we stopped talking about “Americanism” and simply talked about modernization, globalization, markets, reforms and so on. The fact that these meant more or less the same thing as Americanism was elided. The United States became, as Jean-Luc Godard once said, “the only country without the name of a country”. A place which was no place and all places at once.

    I think this period has now ended. I’ve said before that I think the current Bush regime has done the opposite of what the first Bush regime did. Whereas Bush pere tried to create a “New World Order” with America at its invisible, omnipresent centre, Bush fils has situated the US. (This year’s Whitney Biennial was widely touted as the “post-American biennial” for exactly this reason: America, as an ideal, is over; what now remains in people’s minds is America as a military threat, as the Pew Research Center found recently.)

    The gloves are off, then. But empires cannot be sustained under these conditions. Far from being the height of the American Empire, this new attitude signals its rapid decline. Show the gun, ditch the charm, and it’s all over. As soon as you turn your back, somebody will jump you. We are entering a world of particularism, of every man for himself. The true end of the Cold War, with its “blocs” and “umbrellas”. Japanese particularism is more benign than its US counterpart, because it doesn’t combine it with war. They’ve been “special” longer, they’ve had more practise. But also, Japan has never presented its particularism as a model for others to emulate. “The Japanese Way”, Japonism, Japanize — these are things only artists talk about. If they work, they work by charm. You can’t call this particularism “pompous”. It has no ambition, no authority.

    But it’s nice to think that, just as Japan pioneered the iPod by inventing the Walkman 20 years before it, so it’s pioneered American unilateral particularism by being closed all those years. Last time I went to the US I saw a sign from the Homeland Security Bureau boasting about how it was keeping “America open for business”. Somehow, it managed to suggest the opposite, to conjur a picture of a closed America. Impossible to conceive of 100 years ago — bring me your huddled masses, said Liberty! — but all too easy now. And just think how “particular” that closed America would become, and how provincial its news broadcasts would be.

    There’s a little flavour of it in today’s Guardian, which sees the media as the only force opposing the current regime in the US, or rather, sees the New York Times as that. And sees Bush asking “Who will rid me of this meddlesome press?”

  8. marxy Says:

    Far from being the height of the American Empire, this new attitude signals its rapid decline.

    Especially seeing that a vast majority of Americans want nothing to do with the American Empire. We thought it was much cooler when we assumed everyone in dictatorships secretly loved heavy metal and wanted to buy a denim jacket. We may have been a rich asshole like Andrew McCarthy in Pretty in Pink with a heart of gold but now we are straight-up James Spader.

  9. dzima Says:

    This line has made me come back from Neomarxisme retirement:

    75% of our admiration with Japan may have been a secret obsession with capital.

    Not only I don’t disagree with this statement but I think it’s one of the most lucid and sane things you have ever written down on this here blog. Standing ovations and wolf-whistles to Marxy (I’d find it even more interesting if you expanded that thought into a full-fledged essay).

    But before that, you seemed to have rewritten history by saying “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”. I bet you changed your mind only in the last 48 hours because the editorial page of Neomarxisme has always had a regretting tone about the fact that Japan is different to America. Vide for example your essay on the different release date of Star Wars in Japan (amongst dozens of others).

  10. Momus Says:

    Yes, that’s a key point. You can stay unAmerican by getting rich, but you can’t stay unAmerican by getting American.

  11. marxy Says:

    I will admit that the Star Wars essay was a convoluted form of whining.

    Clearly, my problem with Japan has never been “difference” because otherwise, why would I like Japan in the first place? My problem has been when the less-desirable difference starts impeding on the other differences – when the bad points of uniqueness start to eat up the good parts.

    For example, if the yakuza somehow made Japan a better place, there would be some kind of moral dillema – but they don’t. They are not only medieval and pure evil, they tend to screw up a lot of what Japan has going for it.

    The question then is, how much of the bad parts are connected with the good parts? I think some pimples can be eradicated, but I will admit that some go with the territory.

  12. Chris_B Says:

    Momus: wecome back. Nice to see that you’ve kept the Golden Shovel well polished.

    Marxy: why bother with trite statements like amoral whirlwind of American-style capitalism? You are old enough and well read enough to know that amoral capitalism is in no way unique to America. If anything this lowers the quality of your writing to the populism of Momus.

    Carl: I got a great chuckle out of that quote myself.

    Oh. Winny Kaneko got sentanced today to 1 year in jail. That and the You Tube thing and pakuri, etc. My question is now “does japanese society recognize the value of authorship more or less than other places?”

  13. Momus Says:

    For example, if the yakuza somehow made Japan a better place, there would be some kind of moral dillema – but they don’t

    As an avid Neomarxisme reader, one thing I’ve learned is that the yakuza control the music industry, the sex industry, professional wrestling, the art world… Ever liked anything in one of those areas? Let me put that another way — ever liked anything outside one of those areas? Flower arrangement, perhaps?

  14. alin Says:

    For example, if the yakuza somehow made Japan a better place, there would be some kind of moral dillema – but they don’t. They are not only medieval and pure evil, they tend to screw up a lot of what Japan has going for it.

    again you’re getting the axis of evil syndrome. (now i’m not a big fan of the yakuza so don’t get me wrong). you’ve lowered the stake from us vs. japan to good japan vs. yakuza.

    1. medieval – so are a lot of things many of us love about japan

    2. pure evil – (someone’s watched the old star wars movies one time too many maybe). the yakuza and its modus operandi, like it or not is probably still, like the emperor, a living symbol of japan. how anachronistic this may be is a different story.

    the shimbashi tsutaya which is probably the most frequented by the generation of salariimen who brought us the walkman etc has a ridiculously long shelf of ken takakura and the like movies. now, i guess old school movie yakuza heroes might be somewhat different to the guys you have to bump into every day at the corner store but still ..

  15. Brown Says:

    Momus talked about: “a closed America. Impossible to conceive of 100 years ago”

    Really?

    http://newman.baruch.cuny.edu/digital/redscare/HTMLCODE/CHRON/RS018.HTM

    “Japanese particularism is more benign than its US counterpart, because it doesn’t combine it with war.”

    Not recently, no.

    “Japan has never presented its particularism as a model for others to emulate.”

    Look at what Imperial “ambition” and “authority” did in Korea, Taiwan, Okinawa…

  16. marxy Says:

    Flower arrangement, perhaps?

    I did an interview with Azuma Makoto for Theme and he railed against the hierarchy of the ikebana world. Apparently it is very Scientology: you keep paying absurb amounts of money to move up the ranking ladder.

  17. marxy Says:

    As an avid Neomarxisme reader, one thing I’ve learned is that the yakuza control the music industry, the sex industry, professional wrestling, the art world…

    You are forgetting street fashion, golf, and television program production.

  18. alin Says:

    ikebana: there’s also this.

    http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9078316

  19. nate Says:

    “Ever liked anything in one of those areas?”

    Is that to say that anyone who admires contemporary American art of any sort should tip their hat to bush the younger? While the yakuza may have done great things for professional wrestling in Japan, they stifle industries that would exist quite vitally on their own, like music.

    For marxy though (because books are long and take time), does yakuza involvement extend into distribution and advertising? In a company like sony, does it really get far up the ladder? far enough to effect international contracts?

    (american tv, gomen) The sopranos had a recent episode end on a couple gangsters trying and failing to shakedown the manager of a starbucks. Every cent being accounted for corporately, if one penny were to go missing, the manager says, “they’ll just replace me”. How entrenched are the yakuza really?

  20. marxy Says:

    In a company like sony, does it really get far up the ladder? far enough to effect international contracts?

    From everything I have seen and heard and have had whispered in my ears, record companies and television stations are relatively clean operations. It’s the people who supply the talent and content that are dubious. The jimushos decide which music artists go on the TV shows – not the labels – and so this means sales are more correlated with jimusho affliation than with label.

    The problem is that even if the current generation of yakuza die off, their way of business has set the general transaction patterns for a lot of industries. Pay-for-play on TV – like with Oosama no Buranchi – was started by yakuza production companies looking for a new business model. Even if they die off, the ethical barrier has been breached and non-yakuza companies may read the market and believe that it is fine to do the same thing.

  21. alin Says:

    The problem is that even if the current generation of yakuza die off, their way of business has set the general transaction patterns for a lot of industries.

    what makes you so convinced that it’s the yakuza who set up a way of doing things rather then them just doing a job in the larger scheme of things? and if you magically or by military campaign removed all yakuza you’d still find that little has changed.

    now you surely do have some points but your logic here is frightening. you need a saddam hussein or a commie in order to come alive.

    Look at what Imperial “ambition” and “authority” did in Korea, Taiwan, Okinawa…

    this old chestnut.
    trivia: the imperial army memorial replica watches are manufactured in china. so i guess someone must have gotted over the whole thing

  22. marxy Says:

    if you magically or by military campaign removed all yakuza you’d still find that little has changed.

    Well that is what I had originally thought: that tie-up arrangements and pay-for-play were “industry standards.” But where you see them the most are industries where 仁義 and connections mean more than product quality. Music Station was probably better off not having on MAX – a relatively unpopular act – and instead having someone on with actual market appeal. But they have to take them on to get Amuro Namie (my example is very ’96-97). If you got rid of the mafia threat (their jimusho head was later arrested for tax evasion), you may see decision-making change as well.

    The media would gain a lot of power by having all the yakuza go away, because they would have more freedom to choose their content. I don’t think it is as easy as “this is the way the Japanese system” works – that assumes a satisfaction from all the players. My guess is that almost all clean companies are dissatified with having their business held captive by yakuza demands, figuratively and literally.

  23. youngjamesey Says:

    Same with Wikipedia: instead of being a useful online encyclopedia, the Japanese version often acts as a reserve of taboo, secret information.

    i have to take affront to this because i’ve worked at a number of different japanese highschools, and Wikipedia is probably the website that i’ve seen japanese teachers use most as a pedagogical aid, in fact almost every teacher i’ve worked with, has cribbed their print outs from wikipedia. (and these are mostly 日本史 and 倫理 teachers), and while i dont peruse the dirtier sections of wikipedia much (it is really great for reading manga though) i dont see how its much different from the english wikipedia, where you can of course also learn about camel-toes and perreo… i think the difference is more a matter of early-adopter culture and popularity than anything else. the english wikipedia is far far more mainstream but its user base is far greater and probably has a much larger age-range.

  24. marxy Says:

    Wikipedia Japan has a lot of objective, useful reference info. However, it also gives normal people a chance to put out information in a legitimate forum that would not be considered “taboo” in America but is “taboo” in Japan. Like the height of male pop singers and the veracity of Densha Otoko etc. This may sound trivial, but I think it is a big deal for Japan. The internet dialogue is bleeding into the shukanshi already.

  25. Adamu Says:

    It’s amazing how much the comments have deviated from the main point of the post, which in a slightly modified form boils down to “when will Japan’s intellectual isolation prove a crippling liability rather than a fun source of international diversity?”

    Thing is, visiting foreign businessmen have been warned of a general intellectual isolation for years in travel guides. Unlike many places, you can’t expect even English-speaking Japanese to be familiar with prevailing attitudes on issues of the day. You’d be hardpressed to find a conversation between businessmen from the west and japan to involve much more than “japan vs west” comparisons and hearty laughter.

    There is so much talk of Japan attracting tourists, of standing up to Bush re the iraq war, taking a more active and independent diplomatic role, etc, but that cant hsppen if japan isn’t participating in a global conversation.

  26. nate Says:

    re adamus remark… I formed my final and lasting impression about pakkun the first time I saw him on tv (on a round table discussion about america) where he said that all of the americans he knows love bush.

    The foreign voices that join in the media are even more carefully culled than the Japanese voices. Depending on the status of national self-esteem, (now rather high) you have to be either inside or outside the group to make a criticism. When Japan is down on itself, or in the case of the individual Japanese person who is dissatisfied with Japan, foreign critiques are taken all too seriously. Right now though, the american meat industry can fuck itself.

  27. marxy Says:

    Pakkun is Japan’s leading expert on everything foreign thanks to his amazing skills in spoken Japanese.

  28. Chris_B Says:

    I for one am looking forward to a tasty bowl of Yoshinoya with extra hegemony sauce!

  29. P P Says:

    this old chestnut.
    trivia: the imperial army memorial replica watches are manufactured in china. so i guess someone must have gotted over the whole thing

    alin, you capitalist logician!

  30. nate Says:

    doesn’t pakkun share an alma mater with you, marxy? Same major even?
    Just patchworking some things from a hazy recollection…

  31. marxy Says:

    I think he was Comparative Religion. He was on the Glee Club. I was not. He is also 8 years older than me.

  32. nate Says:

    right you are! though the glee club thing is a schocking revelation. I had picked you for the sort.

  33. Chuckles Says:

    […the better parts of modern global society as a way to protect its cultural heritage against the amoral whirlwind of American-style capitalism…]

    Rich…rich… *Ahem* – and what exactly are the better parts of modern global society that do not owe their roots and sustenance to the amoral whirlwind of American capitalism?

  34. marxy Says:

    I think your idea hits close to the mark.

  35. Adamu Says:

    Guessing here, but does the fact that marxy went to Harvard – news to me – help explain the dismissive accusations of fancy book learnin’ that dot these comments sections? And how do you people learn these things?

  36. marxy Says:

    Shhhh!