03 November 2010

Japan is often painted as a rather xenophobic, nationalistic place. Foreigners are forever dubbed ‘gaijin’ and treated, if not with contempt, at least with a slight condescension speaking volumes. During a couple of lectures by a Japanese woman from high society, she continuously asserted that we in the audience simply couldn’t fathom what being Japanese meant. A foreigner can never truly understand great Nihon.

But this view of Japan as a closed-off culture is belied by the strange, almost self-hating craving the Japanese seem to have for European history and philosophy. It is displayed in many, many, many anime and games. Where there are plenty of games and series about Japanese lifestyles and history, you need only turn around to step on another one that features that particular, bizarre element of Japan’s seeming worship for Europe.

It’s impossible to count the amount of JRPG’s that take place in some abstract medieval (or Tolkienized) world of knights, castles and dragons. Japan had its own castles, to be sure, but these are often distinctly European and feature elements grounded in its culture. Whenever those games aren’t freely taking inspiration or looting names, elements and ideas from religions all over the world (the average list of Final Fantasy items and bosses reads as a who’s who of spiritual icons from the most exotic cultures), they seem to have a strong preference for Christianity.

There’s hardly a religious core to be found in this: rather it’s the powerful iconography that is (ab)used. Anime characters will carry around preposterously sized crosses, angels and devils zoom around, god and his entire army of winged luitenants descend from the heavens to wreak destruction on poor Tokyo… Japan has had a conflicted history with Christianity half a millennium ago, which may serve to illustrate why especially this superstition holds such attraction to the generally Shintoist population. Their free usage of all this speaks against Japan’s supposed xenophobia, instead showing a culture that isn’t afraid to look at others (even if they don’t seem in the slightest interested in the thoughts behind them, only their graphic power).

Another strong example is the oftentimes ridiculous obsession Japanese media seem to have with the German and French language. From pop bands like L’arc en Ciel to anime characters called ‘La Vie en Rose’, you again don’t have to look far to notice a trend that mirrors how high society in Europe once thought it the apex of civility to be as French as possible. Again, it hardly matters to Japan that they’ve misspelled names or only superficially dipped into what they abundantly parade around. A latest fad has many series pull off grotesque caricatures of life as a butler during Victorian times. Imagine that: Japanese characters prancing around in the most coquettish manner, selling it as English high society.

At times you can almost believe it springs from a cultural desire to be something else, a kind of self-hatred. But then you are reminded of the endless shows about Japan’s own history and there’s only one conclusion left: Japan is truly non-national. In their popular culture they transcend all cultures, cherry-picking at random from whatever is interesting. Whatever is in vogue, whatever sells, whatever is the new hip! It may be disgustingly shallow, laughable in its obvious superficiality (if you’re from the culture that is being so preposterously caricaturized)... But there’s a universality at work there as well. The Japanese don’t care what is or isn’t their culture. They’ll assimilate everything at will and make it their own.

That doesn’t sound very xenophobic, does it?