Technology and the Cultural Location of Japan

Kumiko Sato

Wakon y?sai is a term that students of Japanese Studies can hardly fail to encounter in the course of their academic study. Often translated as ‘Japanese spirit, Western technology’,1 this word made its inception at the dawn of Japan’s modern era in the late nineteenth century. Wakon y?sai has proven itself to be quite a handy term for describing modern Japan’s relationship to the West and to what the West represents: knowledge, science, and advanced technology. The term’s usefulness stems from its character as a pair of compounds made of two supposedly opposing factors – Japan and the West, and culture and technology. This splitting, common in conceptualizing modern Japan, will serve as a rhetorical framework for this essay’s attempt to explain some of the trends in studies of modern Japanese culture and literature in relation to technology.

Japan’s confrontation with the West is an epistemological landmark that widely conditions our understanding of Japanese identity, culture and society. It has become dangerously normative for academics and non-academics alike to argue how Japan has been influenced, if not ‘invaded’, by imported knowledge from the West. In other words, writing about technology in the framework of Japanese literature and culture cannot deviate from the question of the imagined location of Japanese culture that precedes Westernization. It is in fact challenging to envision the location of Japanese culture beyond the dichotomy of Japan and the West, or culture and technology. Is there any Japanese culture outside this dilemma of wakon y?sai? Or, is it important anyway to seek Japan beyond the dual architecture of its modern identity?

Two of the most notable US scholarly writings that elucidate the intellectual history of Japan’s ambivalence about culture and technology are Tetsuo Najita’s ‘Culture and Technology’ in Postmodernism and Japan (1989) and Andrew Feenberg’s ‘The Problem of Modernity in the Philosophy of Nishida’ in Alternative Modernity (1995). Najita states that through translation of knowledge, from China and later from the West, ‘Japanese self-consciousness expressed itself with a primary reference to continuous “culture” and not to technological “work” – the latter, in the final analysis, being like Confucian knowledge attributable to the Other’. 2 Forced to locate a ‘self’ between being and otherness, the Japanese have found their cultural selfhood in the dynamic formation of differences – the otherness they embrace is not the liminal Other but otherness embedded within the Japanese subject. Referring to Yukio Mishima’s essay ‘In Defense of Culture’ (Bunka b?ei-ron, 1969) Najita further argues that the high-growth era of Japan in the 1960-70s left the question of ‘culture’ unanswered, and Mishima’s prophetic effort to separate culture from politics failed against the emerging high-consumerism.

Feenberg introduces discussions led by wartime philosopher Kitaro Nishida and his students, collected in ‘The Standpoint of World History and Japan’ (Sekaishiteki tachiba to Nihon, 1942), by arguing that Nishida launches a ‘simultaneous defense of traditional Japanese culture and affirmation of modern scientific-technical civilization’ (170-1).3 This philosophical trend, Feenberg continues, shares the same pattern with German reactionary modernism that succeeded in conceptualizing technology as Germany’s cultural heritage after World War I. Nishida’s idealized synthesis of cultural tradition and hegemonic technology in Japan was, however, too distant from the political reality of Japan in World War II – the nation was striving to be the father of all ‘Asian’ races and their cultural heritages while becoming the leader of ‘Western’ science and technology. Modern Japan cannot liberate itself from the double bind of the Orient that has also become the West.

What underlies both Najita’s and Feenberg’s arguments is the idea that Japan has constructed its imagined location by differentiating itself from the West. After the high-growth period in the 1960-70s, however, Japan seems to have shifted from an era of crisis in split identity to a culture of synthesis with technology. This ideological shift first appeared in American writings that later came to be called cyberpunk. Japan, which used to serve as the exotic Other of the West through its image of anachronistic spiritualism, now became the global icon of cutting-edge high technology, ranging from robotics and fuel-efficient cars, and Nintendo and Sony, to anime and manga today. The fast spread of Donna Haraway’s cyborg philosophy, originating from her essay ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’ (1985), reinforced the welcoming mood in the US for a post-human identity that problematized the Western epistemological framing of the subject. By 1995, when Mamoru Oshii’s animation film Ghost in the Shell succeeded in the North American market, building on the earlier popularity of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1988), the equation of Japanese culture with future technology was fairly complete.

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.

1. Wakon y?sai is a sort of travesty on wakon kansai (Japanese spirit, Chinese technology), a term proposed by the scholar of politics and Chinese poetry Michizane Sugawara (845-903). "Sai" signifies ability, aptitude, intelligence, and technology.

2. Tetsuo Najita, 'Culture and Technology', in Postmodernism and Japan, ed. by Masao Miyoshi and H. D. Harootunian, Postmodernism and Japan (Durham: Duke University Press), p. 9.

3. Andrew Feenburg, Alternative Modernity: The Technical Turn in Philosophy and Social Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), pp. 170-1.

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).