Back in the Néomarxisme days, one of the first major debates was the state of Japan’s “postmodernity”: whether Japan perfectly embodied the ideal postmodernist society, and therefore, was the best place to look for clues to our global future. In his newly-translated book Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals
(originally published in 2001 as 『動物化するポストモダン―オタクから見た日本社会』), professor and critic Azuma Hiroki (東浩紀) deconstructs this self-association with postmodernism in Japan, arguing that the idea of a “postmodern Japan” has more to do with 1980s’ narcissism than proper theoretical conclusions. (Wikipedia links added by editors.)
Theories of postmodernism emerged in France in the 1960s, spread to the United States in the 1970s, and were imported into Japan in the 1980s. Postmodernism is a complex and difficult discourse that grew out of an amalgamation of structuralism, Marxism, theories on consumer society, and critical theory. Its circulation was thus largely confined to universities. In Japan, however, it was acclaimed outside universities in the mid 1980s as a fashionable mode of thought for the younger generation, but then subsequently forgotten together with the era. As a fad in theory, Japanese postmodernism was often referred to as “New Academism.” Even after postmodernism (i.e., “New Academism”) disappeared from Japan, theories on postmodernism remained a subject of study in English language universities throughout the world and affected subsequent academic trends. As I have written on these differing circumstances in an earlier essay, I ask those who are interested to consult that text. In any case, what is important here is not really the content of the theories of postmodernism but the fact that in Japan this highly complex body of thought turned into a kind of faddish media frenzy.
As a few critics at the time have already pointed out, this postmodernism fad was connected to the narcissism that permeated Japanese society in the 1980s. The discourse on postmodernism popular in Japan at the time was unique in the way it deliberately confused and intermingled questions over what encompassed “postmodernism” and what encompassed “Japaneseness.”
The claim endorsed by postmodernists at the time went something like this: Postmodernization refers to a process that occurs after modernity. However, Japan was never completely modernized in the first place. Until now this has been considered a defect; but as we progress to a new stage of world history from modernity to postmodernity, it rather promises to become a benefit, because this nation, never fully modernized, is easily able to embrace the process of postmodernization. For instance, as modern perceptions of humanity never fully penetrated Japan, it can adapt to the collapse of the concept of subjectivity with little resistance. In this way, Japan will emerge in the twentieth century as a leading nation boasting a fully matured consumer society and technological prowess…
Whereas modernity equals the West, postmodernity equals Japan. To be Japanese is thus to be standing at the forefront of history. Historically, this simplistic formula could be conceived as a repetition of the claims of the prewar Kyoto School that Japan was able to “overcome modernity.” Concurrently, it was also a direct reflection of the economic climate of the times. In the mid-1980s, in direct contrast to the United States, which had been suffering a protracted period of economic tumult since the Vietnam War, Japan suddenly stood at the zenith of the world economy, having entered a period of short-lived prosperity that would end in the bubble economy.
Postmodernists in Japan during this time elected to draw on the work of the French philosopher Alexandre Kojève. Nothing better expresses the reality of Japanese postmodernists’ desires than this choice. As I explain further in the following chapter, Kojève is known for ascertaining two different types of possible social formation in the postmodern era: the animalization of society as seen in the U.S. model and the spread of snobbery as illustrated in the Japanese model. In this regard, Kojève is oddly sympathetic towards Japan, and he predicts that the Japanization (or snobbery) of Westerners will prevail over Americanization (or animalization). In the eyes of Japanese in the 1980s, the prosperity of the times no doubt signified that we were heading toward the realization of this prospect.
Phrased another way, the prosperity of the 1980s enabled Japanese society to forget superficially the existence of its complex towards the United States, which we have examined. “Now the United States has been defeated! We no longer have to speak about the penetration of Americanization in Japan but rather must consider the advancement of Japanism in America!” The rise of postmodernism as an intellectual fad was supported by a climate that produced such claims. This same set of factors in turn aided the spread of otaku culture. The image of Japan that obsesses otaku is in fact no more than a U.S.-produced imitation, yet the atmosphere described above was the very thing that conveniently allowed people to forget about these origins. (16-18)