Wednesday, September 22, 2004

The Exotica Of Extreme Japan

Japan intrigues me in all its extremity and its certain cultural manifestations, which can seem totally strange and weird for a Western observer.

I emphasize I don't want to fall into any Euro-centric, xenophobic or even racistic prejudices here. "White man's burden" type of colonialistic thinking is always typified by its morbid fascination with anything reeking of "exoticism", "alien", "other" -- which can sometimes make "healthy" (or "scientific") interest in foreign cultures seem problematic or at least ambivalent.

Think of, for example, the Western interest in Eastern religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Zen, etc.) which started with the 19th century Theosophists, continued with C.G. Jung and found its modern expression in the 1950s with American Beat Generation writers; or any phenomenon of "tribal" culture found from the so called Third World countries or the outskirts of "our" civilization: the "new primitivism" and its fascination with Native American cultures both in North and South America, the 1950s "Tiki" fad of Hawaiian/Polynesian origin, fashionable Maori tattoos of New Zealand, the all-encompassing New Age mysticism combining Hopi Indian beliefs to Sufism and Tibetan Buddhism; even the whole genre of "World Music", just to mention some examples.

Of course, as mentioned, it can get very difficult to discern the faddish interest in anything "exotic" from the genuine interest and sympathy for foreign cultures, and it's not really my task to find out which is which actually. Perhaps one can find here certain traces of Rousseau's 18th century "Back to Nature" thinking, but personally I'm more interested now in the hybrids of so called primitive or traditional cultures with our technological, modern way of life. Therefore Japan.

It's fascinating how in Japanese culture one can find Western influences that have mutated into something totally different and new, when it finds its expression in Japanese milieu and its characteristic and traditional way of thinking, code of conduct and mentality, which can appear as peculiar to us Westerners. I understand that Japanese tradition emphasizes heavily group pressure and conformity which can seem totally opposite to Western ideas of individualism and "personal freedom".

Could it be that certain expressions of contemporary Japanese culture are then some sort of "safety valves" to let off this steam: that mental pressure which is created by a strongly conforming culture? Thus, for example the often extremely violent/sexual content of manga comics or Japanese film could be expression of this psychopathology which can't be outvented in any other way in society which emphasizes a strict code of conduct, honour and conformity. And therefore these explicit and even antisocial, often unaccepted forms of expression act, in fact, as a preserving factor in society?