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Azuma Hiroki on Postmodernism


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)

W. David MARX
July 14, 2009

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

13 Responses

  1. W. David MARX Says:

    This also reminds me of when Derrida came to Japan in 1984 and did a talk with the leading ’80s postmodernists Asada Akira and Karatani Kojin. Karatani said something to the extent that deconstruction was “impossible” in Japan since Buddhist-influenced Japanese thought is already basically “deconstructed.”

    Derrida politely disagreed:

    “I wonder if deconstruction is truly so easy in Japan. I have my doubts about whether we can say that deconstruction is a direct element in Japanese-type thought. Certainly, Japanese often say that Buddhist thought or the Zen of Dogen was already a kind of deconstruction, but I wonder if that is so. If that were really so, then why, for example, has Asada’s book [Structure and Power] received such tremendous attention? If that phenomenon of Asada were nothing more than a repetition of deconstructive elements already found within Japanese thought, then it shouldn’t have called down such an enormous response in contemporary Japan.”

  2. R. Shaldjian Morrison Says:

    Thx for the intro. Look forward to reading the rest.

    I still think Frederic Jameson’s definition of postmodernism as the age (late capitalism) itself rather than a particular “mode of thought” is most appropriate; but it seems the Japanese tend to use the term only in its narrow sense.

  3. W. David MARX Says:

    There also does not seems to be much of the Marxist backlash against (the philosophy of) postmodernism in the vein of Terry Eagleton or David Harvey.

    Marxism had a much longer reign on Japanese thought than postmodernism, but it seems to also be “faddish” in the sense that it died with a certain generation.

  4. Beholdmyswarthyface Says:

    True that. I wonder if Komori Yoichi has said much on the subject.

    Lack of translations, too, are to blame: amazingly, Jameson’s 『Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism』 still hasn’t been translated, as far as I know.

    Let us hope the recent influx of Zizek translations will spur the Japanese to reformulate their conception of the postmodern.

  5. M-Bone Says:

    Ah, postmodernism. It is what you want it to be. I like “incredulity toward metanarratives”.

    I don’t think that this book is going to go over big outside of a select crew of Japanese culture watches, I read it in Japanese and thought that it has more to do with Azuma’s 2000s’ narcissism than proper theoretical conclusions.

  6. W. David MARX Says:

    I like the book in that he talks about a lot of things and summarizes a lot of the previous literature on these things. And I buy the “database” idea to a certain degree.

    But with all these guys, especially Miyadai Shinji, they seem to basically believe that coming up with incredibly simple and binary theories is somehow is the highest level of social theory. In fact, they are actually making society even harder to analyze by cramming very complex phenomenon into small boxes with not a lot of backing evidence to prove their own personal take on it…

  7. M-Bone Says:

    “they seem to basically believe that coming up with incredibly simple and binary theories is somehow is the highest level of social theory”

    Yeah, the same thing happened in the States with the generation of “Derrida’s Children”. People on the outside have a hard time telling when the French are joking.

    I actually like the Database thing, but the 動物化 idea as a whole is more of an “otaku studies” innovation than the way that the book has been pitched – a radical rethinking of pomo. On the whole, I think that Otsuka Eiji has been consistently more insightful on otaku.

    Another problem that I have with Azuma is that he is trying to solve the “riddle” of otaku, which means forming a metanarrative, which means that he’s falling into the same thing that, say, Said got bashed for (trying to break down a homogenizing view by creating one of the “offending” group) trying to get all pomo from a pretty much modernist telology (Japanese popular culture tripping on its roots – his use of Edo was pretty off putting – and people returning to instinct).

    He’s also telling us all about otaku without actually asking any of them what they think (Azuma likes box cramming too). We know Azuma watches anime, but did he 動物化? Like most of these meta-theories 動物化 is what happened to those other people.

  8. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    Just wanted to say, I enjoyed the design chosen to symbolize postmodernism (it *was* supposed to represent po-mo, right?)

  9. W. David MARX Says:

    The art is from a new “quote” series we have for when we quote from other works as text. (A little easy, yes, but we are trying to figure out how to do more content and do less gigantic essays that no one ever reads.)

  10. Connor Says:

    I read them.

  11. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    I read them.

  12. M-Bone Says:

    Ditto. If it is more and shorter content that you are looking for – why not reviews?

  13. Sean Says:

    I read ’em too.