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Technology and the Cultural Location of Japan

Kumiko Sato

Wakon yōsai 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 yōsai 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 yōsai? 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 bōei-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.

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1. Wakon yōsai 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.

  Technology and the Cultural Location of Japan