Assembling Japan

Modernity, Technology and Global Culture

by Griseldis Kirsch (Volume editor) Dolores P. Martinez (Volume editor) Merry White (Volume editor)
©2016 Edited Collection VI, 251 Pages


Assembling Japan focuses on Japan’s modernization as a long-term process that is reliant on changing technology and that has led to the nation’s full engagement with the global system. This process forms a complex field of tensions, full of interesting dynamisms and synergies that can be best understood through the book’s methodology: anthropological analysis combined with historical contextualization.
The approaches in this collection are manifold. Some chapters examine the themes of modernity, technology and Japan’s global experience though popular culture, from reggae to football, from television to film. Other topics include coffee, travel, economics, cultural politics and technological innovation in the field of robotics. All of the contributions aim to show how these global interactions have occurred and continue to take place in twenty-first-century Japan.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Japan as an Assemblage
  • Part I Roots and Branches
  • Café Society in Japan: Global Coffee and Urban Space
  • ‘A Japanese in Every Jet’: Globalism and Gendered Service in the Jet Age
  • Rewrapping the Message: Museums, Healing and Communicative Power
  • Part II Contemporary Configurations
  • Football in the Community: Global Culture, Local Needs and Diversity in Japan
  • Relocating Japan? Japan, China and the West in Japanese Television Dramas
  • Japanese Reggae and the Def Tech Phenomenon: Global Paths to Intra-cultural Pluralism
  • Part III Technological Connections: Past, Present and Future
  • The More I Shop at Yaohan, the More I Become a Heung Gong Yahn (Hongkongese): Japan and the Formation of a Hong Kong Identity
  • Global Technologies, Local Interventions: Or Musings on Japanese Film
  • Branding Humanoid Japan
  • Afterword: Reassembling after 3/11
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index

← vi | vii →


The editors would like to thank two anonymous donors, the Faculty of Languages and Cultures, SOAS and Boston University for supporting the publication of this volume. We would especially like to thank our very patient contributors as well as Laurel Plapp at Peter Lang.

A note on the text. Japanese names in the text are in western order: first name followed by surname. Except for words now commonly used in English, all Japanese terms have been romanized according to the Modified Hepburn System. ← vii | viii →

← viii | 1 →


Japan as an Assemblage1

The Quandary

What does it mean to assemble and to be assembled? Here we use the terms to describe Japan as a modern nation that both makes and represents itself, while it is also imagined, scrutinized, studied and represented by non-Japanese. In the global culture of late modernity this is the condition in which all nation-states find themselves, but Japan appears to hold a distinctive position in this system. Attempts to understand Japan’s place in global modernity often describe Japan as reluctantly and only partially ‘international’, and frequently have posed three questions: to what extent has the world become a global village (cf. McLuhan 1967); to what degree has Japan become a worldwide presence (Matray 2001, Preston 2000); and what international forces are at play in Japan (Hook 2012)? In contrast, the essays collected in this volume aim to reconceptualize Japan as fundamentally global, seeing this state as the result of long-term processes that have influenced contemporary social discourses about and within the nation. By describing the complexity of ways in which Japan is unique as well as completely enmeshed in the more generic processes of modernity, our goal is both to produce a robust cross-cultural analysis and offer a nuanced understanding of the historical and cultural forces within the ← 1 | 2 → Japanese nation-state. To achieve this, the additional question of how best to understand the antimony between being local and unique as well as global and similar to everyone else needs to be considered.

Recent anthropological theorizing has tended to reject theories of a homogenous global culture and its smooth progression post-Cold War (westernization, the triumph of capitalism, etc.), countering them with concepts such as that of hybridity (Bhabha 1994), fusion, friction (Tsing 2005), disjuncture (Appadurai 1996) and, more recently, assemblage (Collier and Ong 2005). These contemporary theories try to account for the fact that shared economic and political structures, as well as a shared reliance on modern technologies, have not resulted in producing identical nation-states. For this reason, modified versions of Wallerstein’s (1974) centre and periphery model have been re-examined to explain the continued underdevelopment of many of the world’s southern nation-states – but how to explain the powerful discourse about the supposed distinctiveness of (over)-developed Japan?2 One way to understand this representation is to examine the role played by the narratives known as nihonjinron (theories about the Japanese) in constructing Japan’s idiosyncratic character. Here we outline a history for these socially constructed narratives in order to illustrate how assemblages come into being and are continuously reworked, acquiring powerful ideological strength.

‘Japan is unique, and cannot be compared to any other nation in the entire world’. Such statements have been made within and outside of Japan in the mass media since the end of the Second World War. They can be traced further back, but gained particular currency during the era in which its economy expanded on the back of technological innovation (1974–91), leading to the growth in Japan’s economic power and the acknowledgement that as a nation-state it was also part of global capitalism. Nihonjinron arguments implied that if Japan was going to be part of a largely western phenomenon, then it would be a singular component of the world’s system. No matter that its corporate capitalism resembled Germany’s (Dore 2000); ← 2 | 3 → that its system of company consultation had been created by an American (Aguayo 1991); that its democratic constitution was mostly written by foreigners; its education system was modelled on that of the United States; or that its post-war industrialization had been achieved on the back of nuclear power – it was claimed that Japan’s ability to forge these elements into an economy that became ‘number 1’ (Vogel 1979) was due to its ‘unique’ past and cultural qualities.

Nihonjinron as a discursive set of theories still exists in the twenty-first century and in all its forms it emphasizes Japanese cultural, physical, psychological and social extraordinariness. Such theorizing ends by creating distance between Japan and the countries to which it is being compared, presenting both sides as irreconcilably different. Despite their many flawed assumptions and sometimes ludicrous claims – there exist books on the unique Japanese brain, nose and digestive system – nihonjinron became a significant rhetoric in post-war Japan and to some extent they have hindered inter-cultural exchange with the rest of the world (Befu 2001, Yoshino 1992). Yet for any scholar of nationalism statements of Japanese uniqueness are not necessarily hostile ‘to any mode of analysis’ as Peter Dale (1986: 100) has argued. Nation-states perforce develop discourses of group distinctiveness that call upon long histories, links to the soil and arcane customs, as well as a shared language and a collective identity (cf. Anderson 1991, Gellner 1983, Hobsbawn and Ranger 1983). However, from a western perspective, Japan may not only seem ‘different’, but also rather exotic in the most Orientalist and travelogue of ways: it has samurai, Zen and geisha as well as manga, anime and sushi!

Frequently cited as one source of this ‘different’ difference, is the era of Japan’s closure ‘to the world’ (sakoku 1633–1853), implying that such long term insularity was bound to breed exceptions and exceptionality. Pre-war nativist theories about the Japanese climate, its ‘unique’ seasons, the threat of living with typhoons and earthquakes or the experience of being a nation of islands (see Watsuji 1961) have also been used to construct theories of why the Japanese are so different. Moreover for countries in which belonging is premised on a narrative of immigration such as Australia and the United States, Japanese myths of autochthonous origins and its post-war ← 3 | 4 → restraints on immigration, resulted in closing the doors to any sort of sharing of experience in the process of nation building.

National constructions of history and uniqueness notwithstanding, it is also important to note that Japan has had a long history of interaction and exchange with others. The country’s most common exchanges have been with its East Asian neighbours: with China from the second century CE onwards (cf. Tsunoda 1964); and with Korea, which frequently acted as mediator for Chinese culture. For nearly 1,500 years, Japan paid tribute to Imperial China, adopting and adapting aspects of Chinese culture and society over the centuries it traded with the middle kingdom (Chūgoku). From the sixteenth century it also established trade relations with the Portuguese, and later the Dutch, while extending its trade routes into Southeast Asia. During this era Japan also expanded into Ezo (Hokkaido) and the Ryūkyū Islands (Okinawa). Thus the sakoku era was not a time of total isolation: Korean and Chinese diplomats regularly visited Edo, and the shogunate maintained its trade routes throughout East and Southeast Asia as well as continuing to trade with the Dutch.

From the Meiji Era (1868–1912) onwards, western countries, such as Britain, the United States and Prussia/Germany established economic and political relationships with Japan. In both the pre- and post-Meiji eras ideas and technologies were imported, improved, adapted and also discarded (Tobin 1992). In short, Japan has long been part of a wider world system. Moreover during Japan’s Imperial era (1868–1945), the extension of a form of Japaneseness was promulgated through its colonial institutions in Hokkaido, Okinawa, Manchuria, Korea, Taiwan and other parts of its Pacific empire (Saaler and Koschmann 2007).

Accordingly throughout its history ‘Others’ (Outsiders/foreigners/immigrants) were not conceived of as entirely different human species, but were readily embraced and incorporated as Japan interacted with others and later expanded its empire. The immediate post-war era also saw Japan’s successful incorporation of many aspects of life associated with modernity: democracy, capitalism and the continued adaptation of, as well as further innovations in, western science and technology. However, as noted above, after the Japanese Empire was dismantled, theories of Japanese uniqueness began to gain currency. There had been nativist agitators in the past ← 4 | 5 → who had called upon Japan’s history and tradition as markers of difference from East Asian others and who had argued that this distinction allowed Japan to lead these others (McNally 2005). Such assumptions of difference and superiority had been central to Japan’s colonial expansion, but the discourse altered as Japan worked to become a nation-state after 1945. It no longer sought to be inclusive of its non-Japanese subjects but became about excluding all non-Japanese. It became a nationalist discourse; this is an important shift that needs some elucidation.

In the 1980s and early 1990s nihonjinron called upon the early successes of modernization – while at the same time postulating that all foreign ideas had been indigenized, becoming ‘truly Japanese’, and held them up as examples of Japan’s unique ability to succeed on the West’s terms. It was this sense of having managed to keep up with the western Joneses that had underpinned Japan’s colonial expanses in the early half of the twentieth century and which had led to a sense of superiority towards the countries it invaded and colonized. Post-war, much as Japan adopted western institutions and material culture, it nonetheless considered itself to be part of Asia, and still a superior power (Iwabuchi 2002). However Japan’s colonial and military actions during the first half of the twentieth century, the apparent reluctance (and sometimes outright refusal) to deal with this past, as well as the nation’s alliance with the western bloc during the Cold War, prevented Japan from completely interacting with Asia throughout most of the post-war period. As during the Meiji Era, the West was once again the focus of Japanese attention.

This is the context within which the emergence of post-war nihonjin theories must be understood. Effectively blocked from looking towards the ‘East’, Japan looked towards the West. Furthermore, having national symbols that were regarded as tied to its expansionist and militarist past by its close neighbours, made it difficult to find a positively connoted post-war, post-military national identity amidst considerable American influence during the Occupation (1945–52) and after. Moreover because Japanese culture was seen as having survived much change more or less intact, theorizing on what made Japan special as well as different from a seemingly overwhelming West, made sense in a way that it provided people with a distinctiveness they could embrace. ← 5 | 6 →

Throughout the 1980s and during the time of the bubble economy (1986–91), then, publications of nihonjinron treatises boomed and also became increasingly popular in the West, where they were used to explain why Japan, a small island nation with few resources other than that of its large population, had become economically successful. Attempts to internationalize Japan, and to thus make it more open to investors who had been frightened away by a strong currency and an apparently impenetrable culture (Katō 1992) were only half-hearted – and directed towards predominantly English-speaking countries. Thus even as it continued to be fully involved in a process of economic and political globalization, post-Imperial Japan was never seen as truly international or ‘global’ in the same way that Britain once had been or the United States seemed to be. Indeed, academic work on global Japan has examined the nation-state both in terms of its economic reach (Wan 2001) and its soft power around the world,3 but it rarely has addressed the question of whether or not Japanese culture and society had in any way become more inclusive. Rather there have been frequent publications on Japan’s resistance to immigration and its less than successful attempts to become ‘more international’ (cf. Chung 2010). The Japanese themselves seemed to take pride their reputation as impenetrable, ferocious samurai-like business competitors and inheritors of a rich cultural tradition that foreigners could only ever admire but never really understand. To reiterate, Japan has developed a nationalist discourse that downplays its long-term engagements with the rest of the world.

Yet through the 1990s Japan remained a sort of centre state for other Asian countries, skewing centre–periphery models that placed the West at the core of the globalization process. In fact the same criticism was initially made of Japan’s centrality that has been made about ‘western-style’ globalization, namely that it was only a one-way exchange which replicated colonialism rather than being a balanced system of give and take. Moeran (2000) has even argued that Asia was seeing a kind of Corollanization by Japan, with its industrial and cultural products flooding Asian markets. Japanese ← 6 | 7 → politicians and intellectuals talked about a ‘return to Asia’, a re-integration of Japan into the Asian (economic) context, which was welcomed by some Asian countries, such as Malaysia, that were keen on Japanese investment; and eyed distrustfully by others, such as China and South Korea, who feared a return to Japanese imperialism, albeit through economic and cultural rather than militaristic means. This re-entry into Asia was seen as an example of Japan’s soft power, an interesting downplaying of a policy that was built on the ‘hard’ economic influx of Japanese products that included everything from toilets to automobiles, as well as ground-breaking new forms of technology.

As Japan slid into recession from 1991, it re-discovered its Asian neighbours culturally as well as economically. In economic terms, an increased number of goods began to flow – not just from Japan to the Asian mainland but also in reverse. Culturally, however, it took a little longer for the flow to become stable, particularly in the nations where memories of Japan’s past aggression were still strong.

Since the new millennium the interest in Japanese products has grown in Asia – and both material as well as cultural products from other Asian countries have gained more of a foothold in Japan. Culturally, this tendency has been accompanied by a small but decisive ‘Asia boom’ within Japanese popular culture. Other Asian countries, which had been missing from the conceptual maps of Japanese popular culture, returned to the attention of producers and consumers (Schilling 1999, Iwabuchi 2002, Kirsch 2015). More recently, the earthquake and Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011, resulting in the decision to close down all of its nuclear power plants in the immediate aftermath of the disaster and again for maintenance in 2013, mean that Japan now relies on other countries for most of its energy needs. Additionally Japan has also become much more involved in economic and political activities on the Asian mainland, especially in China and South Korea, despite persisting territorial disputes.

Hence what has been going on in Japan in its relation to the outside world in the past few decades challenges the common stereotype that globalization inevitably means westernization, although it firmly places Japan very much within the flows of the post-war new world system. We use the term ‘system’ to suggest that the modern condition is one of intricate ← 7 | 8 → interconnectivity, which may well be skewed toward core states such as the United States, the European Union member states and now China, who exploit the cheap labour force and resources of peripheral regions. Since a system is a form of complex relationships, this means that the flows can never be entirely in one direction. The rise of many Asian countries, with Japan having led the way, demonstrably makes the point that the world is not so easily categorized into centre and periphery as it was in the 1970s and 1980s: there are complex processes taking place. Many peripheral regions now claim their share of the centre – or are becoming regional centres themselves. In short, the processes of globalization are complex and irreducible to a simplistic or singular model.

Thus, Japan has always been an interesting case – which may have fostered the assumption by the nihonjinron literature that Japan was ‘special’. Definitely a core state when it came to economics, it also was not seen to be western and hence not in the same league as the United States and Europe. Accordingly its cultural delimitation as found in the nihonjinron literature becomes understandable – though its worst manifestations are not necessarily excusable. Moreover Japan’s cultural products, which have been arriving on western shores in various waves since 1853 (Napier 2007), have come to occupy a much more central status recently: Japanese manga and anime are now widely distributed and consumed around the globe (Allison 2006, Condry 2013, Yano 2013). Japan itself continues with its unabated consumption of cultural goods from other countries not just western ones. Thus old nihonjinron tropes of Japan versus the West no longer made sense. Products, both material and cultural, from other Asian countries were and are consumed in Japan, although they may have initially only occupied niches among the population, such as in the case of Japanese fandom for Hong Kong Chinese stars (Iwabuchi 2002) and later with the hanliu (Korean Wave) across Asia (e.g. Mōri 2004, Iwabuchi and Chuah 2008). These Asian cultural products were and still are consumed alongside domestic and ‘western’ ones, underlining once more the complexity of the system and the difficulties one faces when trying to talk about globalization. ← 8 | 9 →

Thinking ‘through’ Assemblages

Taking into account the fact that globalization’s complex processes involve long-term developments offers possibilities for a different sort of analysis of ‘global’ Japan. First, the very concept of globalization always leads to a re-evaluation of the self vis-à-vis the other or, in the words of Robertson (1995: 40), globalization invokes ‘the creation and incorporation of locality, processes which themselves largely shape, in turn, the compression of the world as a whole’. Localization, re-nationalization as well as conflicts within, and across, regions are a common feature of globalization, while trade and cultural exchange continue, albeit in unbalanced and sometimes unexpected ways (Appadurai 1996). Within the complex flows that dictate our world today inevitably come interactions we term cultural globalization. The academic discourse on cultural globalization (e.g. Pieterse 2003, Hopper 2007) is very well developed, but many have focused on how American culture, or its soft power, has dominated, dividing the world (again) into core and periphery states. In short, one is not modernized, or even westernized, but Americanized in such models. Japan might well seem a good example of this but, as we have argued above, its involvement in the process of cultural globalization could be said to have been ongoing for two millennia and the results have been anything but a Chinese pre-Meiji Japan or an American post-war state.

Thus modernization, its technology and the processes of globalization all form a complex field: one of tensions, of interesting dynamisms and synergies. These are the focus of this volume, which aims to contribute to the broader discussion on Japanese global flows in chapters that examine the range of cross-cultural consumption through the lens of Japan’s interaction with the global community. As already noted, rather than critiquing nihonjinron and its problems (cf. Refsing and Goodman 1992), the chapters in this volume aim to go beyond the usual tropes of Japan versus the West, and so come to paint a different picture of Japan. The Japan of this volume is one that interacts with other Asian countries while continuing to interact with the West. The approaches here are manifold – some papers examine ← 9 | 10 → the topics of modernity, technology and Japan’s global experience though popular culture (B. White, Martinez, Kirsch, Horne and Manzenreiter), others through food (M. White), travel (Yano), economics (Wong), cultural politics (Hendry) and technological innovation (Katsuno) – but all of them aim to show how this interaction takes place and how it is structured.

It is worth making some distinctions at this point. As noted above, hybridity, and more recently assemblage, terms that have been applied to such cultural and social developments, both have been critiqued for the implication that the resultant object, in this case the nation-state, is somehow inauthentic or ‘invented’. For example, as a modern society, some might say that Japan is no longer what it was; it is no longer even ‘oriental’ but somehow western. Or in a broader sense: if Japan, like other nation-states, has invented traditions and censored/edited its history in order to make a case for its unique identity, is Japaneseness authentic? Such suppositions ignore the sociological view that all reality is socially constructed (Berger and Luckman 1967) and fall back on Platonic notions that somewhere there is the real world or a real Japan whose ontology we can study and understand. What is really, authentically, purely Japanese? These are questions to be asked of all nationalistic ideologies and the critiques made about nihonjinron being a discourse of exclusion applies to all such philosophies. We prefer to see authenticity as a concept in which the definers, their intentions and the contexts surrounding the ‘authentic’ are the objects of inquiry rather than ascribing objective validity to the term.

To put it in another way: all modern societies are hybrid or assemblages, they are all the result of particular conjunctures (Sahlins 1981), disjunctures (Appadurai 1996) and it is these that form the field of study for any anthropologist. This was the tack taken at the time the panel on which this volume is based was held in Oslo, Norway in 2007. In order to come to an anthropological understanding of modern Japan, we argued that scholars also needed to consider longer term formations, the longue durée, which underpinned the creation of the twenty-first-century nationstate we all studied. These processes, as outlined above, included a recent history of interaction (both aggressive and more peaceful) of Japan with Asia and the West, but this interaction also had longer roots that we as anthropologists could not consider, relying instead on the work of a new ← 10 | 11 → generation of historians of Japan who are challenging nihonjinron assertions (e.g. Gordon 2013). By limiting the discussion to the modern or postmodern era, we required our contributors to examine Japan in light of not just multiple and rapid social changes, but also within the context of an era that saw rapid advances in technology.


VI, 251
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (December)
Japan Nippon Japanese culture robots
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. VI, 251 pp.

Biographical notes

Griseldis Kirsch (Volume editor) Dolores P. Martinez (Volume editor) Merry White (Volume editor)

Griseldis Kirsch is Lecturer in Contemporary Japanese Culture at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. Her most recent publications include ‘Next-Door-Divas: Japanese Tarento, Television and Consumption’ (2014, in Journal of Japanese and Korean Cinema) and Sino-Japanese Relations on Screen: A History, 1989–2005 (2015). Dolores P. Martinez is Emeritus Reader in Anthropology at SOAS, University of London, and a research associate at the University of Oxford. Her most recent publications include Remaking Kurosawa (2009) and Gender in Japanese Society (2014). Merry White is Professor of Anthropology at Boston University and a research associate at Harvard University’s E. O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies. Her most recent publications include Coffee Life in Japan (2013) and a cookbook, Cooking for Crowds (2014).


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