Writing Technologies

Technology and the Cultural Location of Japan

Kumiko Sato

Haraway’s cyborg manifesto came almost too conveniently for Japanese and US scholars alike, because what it proposed sounded similar to the identity model developed by Japanese intellectuals, whether Soseki or Mishima, who struggled to hypothesize the subject that is modern yet Japanese. The conceptual confusion stemming from the 1980s technophilic shift was the inversion of historical and geographical order – Japan’s past was presented as the world’s future. It also signified that the Japanese model of modernity reemerged as the postmodern. The question of culture, left unanswered in postwar Japan, returned in a Western philosophy of the 1980s modeled in part, in a configuration scarcely believable to the Japanese, on Japan’s global industry and pop culture. The decade observed an ironic integration of Japanese culture and technology never imagined by Nishida or Mishima.

For scholars, this crucial shift in philosophy signified that technology had become a core component of Japanese culture. The idea of techno-Orientalism, proposed by Morley and Robins in 1995, 4 best explicated the trend in associating Japaneseness with technology – now the West’s fear of the Orient went hand in hand with the fear of high technology. Toshiya Ueno’s ‘Japanimation and Techno-Orientalism’ (1996) further argued that anime that adopts Asian settings from American cyberpunk ‘reproduces a “Japan” imaginarily separated from both West and East’ by appropriating the Otherness of Asian automatons. 5 The application of cyborg philosophy to Japan actually meant rephrasing the same cultural condition in a new language of technology. The cyborgian philosophy transforms humans into transgressive beings on the metaphysical level, thereby providing us with the deconstructionist illusion of decolorization and desexualization. But the gender and racial signs inscribed on the cybernetic body in Japanese science fiction can hardly be sublimated by a philosophy of technology.

Reading Japanese identity in the technological milieu of film and literature has become popular in the 1990s. Some of the earliest academic writings on the subject were Chon Noriega’s ‘Godzilla and the Japanese Nightmare’ (1987) and Susan J. Napier’s ‘Panic Sites: The Japanese Imagination of Disaster from Godzilla to Akira’ (1993). Noriega points out that, whereas monsters in American science fiction films remain as the Other, those in Japanese films ‘challenge our constructions of the self and the other’ by presenting themselves as a product of cultural history with which people sympathize. 6 Contemporaneously Takayuki Tatsumi identified various cyborgian identity models in Japanese science fiction, which are collected into the book Full Metal Apache (2006).7 Tatsumi genealogizes the metallocentrism of the Japanese body in science fiction from Ken Kaiko’s The Japanese Three Penny Opera (Nippon sanmon opera, 1959) and Sakyo Komatsu’s The Japanese Apache (Nippon apacchizoku, 1964), through Otomo’s Akira (1988) and Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo II (1992), to Korean immigrant writer Yang Sok Il’s Through the Night (Yoru o koete, 1994).

Today one can hardly miss anime or manga that present cybernetic characters, from the serious ventures of Ghost in the Shell and Serial Experiment Lain to the otaku-inducing consumerist hype of militant android angels and maids. Frankly, scholars are overwhelmed by the accelerated production and consumption of anime and manga, and deeply anxious about not being able to valorize the academic quality of this overflowing culture taking its rise from Japan. Perhaps a more disturbing problem for scholars of Japanese literature and culture is that what one says about Japan is no longer about ‘Japan’. Today cultural boundaries are increasingly eroding, as cultural differences are no longer invented through exports and imports across national borders, as in the modern era, but are produced by the acts of consumption in which one participates. Recent scholarly publications, such as Koichi Iwabuchi’s Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism (2002) and Anne Allison’s Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination (2006), examine the globalization and localization of Japanese culture through marketing of anime, video games and so forth.8 Similarly, the business of configuring Japanese identity through the relationship between culture and technology will undergo changes expected from this gradual erasure of differences between culture and technology. One of the pressing questions for Japanologists will be about how the indigenousness of culture persists while the dominance of technology in defining culture advances.

4. David Morley and Kevin Robins, 'Techno-Orientalism: Futures, Foreigners and Phobias', New Formations, 16 (1992), 136-56.

5. Toshiya Ueno, 'Japanimation and Techno-Orientalism: Japan as the Sub-Empire of Signs', Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, Documentary Box #9 [accessed 20 March 2007].

6. Chon Noriega, 'Godzilla and the Japanese Nightmare: When "Them!" is U.S.', Cinema Journal27.1 (1987), 63-77 (p. 64). Susan J. Napier, 'Panic Sites: The Japanese Imagination of Disaster from Godzilla to Akira', Journal of Japanese Studies 19.2 (1993), 327-51.

7. Takayuki Tatsumi, Full Metal Apache: Transactions Between Cyberpunk Japan and Avant-Pop America (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006).

8. Koichi Iwabuchi, Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism (Durham: Duke Universityi Press, 2002). Anne Allison, Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

  Technology and the Cultural Location of Japan