Having returned from Japan just over a month ago I have become more aware of the differences between modern life in the West and the hyper-reality of modern Japan that seems to pride itself on imitating American and European culture. Since the implementation of the Marshall Plan, Japan has grown from a victim of nuclear war into an economic powerhouse characterised by rapid technological advancement. This technological advancement, fuelled by a plentiful supply of nuclear-generated electricity, has had many benefits for the Japanese people, but this development has often been at the expense of progress elsewhere in society.
As well as sluggish progress in social issues, the cultural imperialism of the West post-WWII has fused traditional Japanese values with Western consumerism to create a uniquely atomised society in which capitalism has morphed and become an essential part of modern Japanese culture. As a consequence the political discourse of post-WWII Japan remained predominantly right-of-centre thus making any substantial or radical reform challenging; despite this capitalistic political consensus the vestiges of non-conformity are visible, as with all societies, even if they are few and far between.
Due to the influence of Shintoism and Zen Buddhism over Japanese society, throughout Japanese history the relationship between the people and nature has been at the forefront of the way communities were formed and sustained. Indeed, it ingrained in modern Japanese society that respect and appreciation for the natural world, on a more spiritual level, are some defining characteristics of good citizenship. This cultural importance of nature also had economic consequences as the concept of material waste was frowned upon by society and so people only ever produced goods that would sustain the people so as not to take too much away from the natural world.
The use of the natural world in partnership with humanity was crucial in maintaining natural ecosystems as well as making sure that the economy was self-reliant, which Japan had to be as Tokugawa Shogunate employed a policy of economic isolationism from 1603 until 1854. Consequently this historic self-sufficiency remained strong throughout recent years whereas the United States and Europe embraced an international neo-liberal consensus focussing on using trade to bind nations together, thus creating economies based on unsustainable corporate-growth fuelled by overseas consumption rather than producing for the needs of the populace.
In 1965 Japan’s calorie-based self-sufficiency rate was 73% whereas now this figure is much lower and recently Prime Minister Abe’s government is now aiming to get this rate back up to 45%; due to dietary changes, population growth and economic policies focussed on exporting goods to the US, Japan’s long tradition of working with nature to only farm enough to live comfortably, rather than intensively produce goods for foreign markets, is over.
The domestic success of Japanese companies in agriculture and other industries, such as manufacturing, as well as the continuation of production to meet foreign demand are characteristics of a unsustainable late capitalist economy which is harmful for global sustainability. The excesses of Japanese capitalism, as with Germany in Europe to a lesser extent, are preventing the development of other countries as mass-produced electronic goods and vehicles from Japan inhibit the development of these industries in other countries. This dominance of Japan and a handful of other countries in the region creates a negative economic multiplier that sees capital flow into these few countries, thus leaving other countries without economic opportunities which in turn creates social tension around the scarcity of resources.
Capitalism on a national level creates a stratified society of wealthy individuals holding economic and political influence; in a globalised variant of capitalism it is the nations with existing money, which has often been as a result of imperialism and the theft of other countries resources, that hold power over the more numerous poorer countries. Even amongst the wealthiest countries (the G20) there is an ‘executive’ club just for the top few (the G7); the other thirteen are very economically and politically influential but the few at the top still openly demand exclusivity and separation from the ‘lesser’ big players.
Much like other ‘Western’ countries, Japan has made progress on social issues, particularly on the protection of women and minority groups, however, just like other countries, there is latent prejudice against these groups. Due to the monoethnic nature of Japanese society, racial tension still exists; a recent history of violence against ethnic minorities has seen latent racism remain pervasive in Japanese society.
Racism in Japan is somewhat prevalent however due to the small number of non-Japanese people in the country the issue of racism is not as serious as the sexism that is more widespread. Misogyny has been established in Japanese society for centuries from historic gender roles to modern objectification in anime and manga. In the Japanese language when the word for wife (家内) is split into individual characters it literally translates as “house” and “inside”; this linguistic misfortune has in part contributed to the long-lasting gender roles that still dominate much of civil society.
Prime Minister Abe was recently praised by the Japanese media for increasing the number of women in the Cabinet however the gender balance is still not at 50:50; the number of women in the House of Councillors is only 38 out of 242 (15.7%) and in House of Representatives is only 45 out of 475 (9.5%) thus illustrating that the representation of women in politics is even worse than more religiously conservative countries like Russia and Saudi Arabia.
In terms of the wider economy women are also at a disadvantage as only 5% of listed company board members are women. Regarding salaries the gender pay gap among younger Japanese workers is around 15% lower for women and this rises to an astonishing 40% lower rate of pay for women over 40; although other wealthy countries are still not at pay equity for women, there would (rightly) be a public outcry if women were being paid 40% less than men doing the same job, which speaks to a wider mindset in Japanese society that women’s equality is given the same importance as in other countries.
Women are also objectified and hugely sexualised in Japanese pop-culture, particularly in anime and manga. Due to manga and anime being predominantly visual I can understand the need for artists to use imagery to capture the attention of the reader, but the sexualisation of women in these mediums in order to appeal to men is so overt and so unrealistic that I believe these depictions of women, when unchallenged, prevent the destruction of social barriers to women.
The acceptance of the LGBT community in Japan, in basic terms, has been a part of Japanese history; an equal age of consent and legal same-sex activity has been legal since 1880, and the right of people to change their gender has been legal since 2008. As with the LGBT community in other developed countries, acceptance for this minority is stronger among the young and, although same-sex marriage remains illegal, the stigma of the LGBT community is weakening as elected politicians are coming out in public and various political parties have declared their support for same-sex marriage in a very socially conservative country.
Although the progress of the LGBT community is encouraging, campaigns to expunge these systemic problems of sexism and racism have largely stalled as public attitudes have shifted to focus on ‘new’ civil rights issues. Racial minorities and women in Japan need to link the struggle that they face with the LGBT community so that Japanese society can be transformed for the better for all of the groups.
Other than the appreciation of traditions, modern Japanese culture is defined by two main parts: the veneration of Western culture, and consumerist capitalism. If you walk down any street in Tokyo, as well as the usual depressing outlets that make countries look unnervingly similar, the actual content of the shops, especially clothing retailers, is entirely dedicated to selling garments that imitate US fashion trends. Furthermore, from a European perspective, it is particularly unexpected as fashion trends are influenced by the United States but there are other brands that are specifically focussed on trends from Italy, France etc. The lack of such variation and the dominance of American symbolism in modern Japanese fashion is a consequence of the wider societal desire to imitate the United States, which was itself a legacy of the post-WWII US occupation and free-trade policies that exposed people to American styles.
However, although the dominance of United States is a response to the demands of consumers, the influence of French and British culture is also prevalent in modern Japan. From a young age children are raised with the idea that France, especially Paris, is the global centre of culture; as a consequence this perception has had various manifestations varying from the passive, such as the prevalence of the French language in Japan to signify prestige, to the manifestation of Paris Syndrome.
British culture has also been appropriated for aesthetic reasons; I would suggest that the political links between Britain and Japan, in particular the monarchic form of government, have been the driving force of British cultural influence. The British influence on Japanese culture is less pronounced than the US or French influence but there are subtle references to symbols of Britain; the union flag has been adopted by some people for stylistic reasons on t-shirts, phone cases etc., but this could be me coincidentally seeing people who were displaying souvenirs of a recent trip.
The other less obvious influence of British culture was actually pointed out to me by one of the people I was travelling with. A famous aspect of modern Japanese pop-culture is the focus on female ‘cuteness’, and, again focussing on fashion, the garments that people who adopt this idea of ‘cuteness’ are subtly similar to old Regency and Edwardian dress, depending on the style. I do not know whether this is coincidental however even if it is a coincidence I would also like to point out that the style seen as stereotypical in the West is named after Nabokov’s character Lolita, a 12-year-old girl who becomes sexually involved with her step-father; this could be reference to traditional Russian attire, or it could be a window into sexual fantasies common among Japanese men.
Capitalistic consumption in the other aspect of Japanese culture that is often remarked upon and the reason why it is pointed out by Western visitors is a combination of stereotypes of Japanese workers having absolute loyalty to their employer, which has a grain of truth to it, and its pervasiveness in Japanese society. This fusion of laissez-faire capitalism with these stereotypes, such as loyalty and a painstaking work ethic, has engrained a more free-market economic system as part of modern Japanese culture with this synthesis also creating the atomised society that Japan is becoming renowned for. Economically speaking any deviation from this dominant ideology, I suspect, is met with suspicion as it would also be undermining the national culture.
The prevalence of consumerism in recreational activities is also incredibly obvious. Walking down the street in any modern part of Japan like Tokyo are arcades and casinos which are based on separating people from their money through the temptation of more money or the promise of consumer products that, because they have to be won, are given an artificial value and foster obsessive behaviour. Indeed a 2014 survey by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry showed that around 5 million people in Japan are addicted to gambling. This pursuit of ‘stuff’ and money is what has made Japan into this highly competitive, individualistic society which is ironically contrary to the traditional ideas about co-operations within families and communities.
In regards to the discourse of Japanese politics, two ideas are dominant and thus key to electoral success: the preservation of tradition and traditional culture, and the continuation of neo-liberal consumerism. As a result of these two dominant ideologies the progress of left-wing parties at the ballot box, who often reject at least one of these ideas, has been largely non-existent. The three ‘left-wing’ parties in the House of Representatives currently have 25 seats out of 475, so are far from a majority; interestingly the overwhelming majority of those seats are those of the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) which has 21 seats whereas the Social Democratic Party and the environmentalist People’s Life Party both have 2 seats each.
Historically speaking the Social Democratic Party has been a junior party in various coalition governments throughout the 1990s as well as recent spells of government in the mid 1970s and 2009, however this attempt to introduce any form of progressive policies was largely blocked due to the senior parters in the coalitions often being right-wing neo-liberals. In Japan’s entire post war history there have been two left-of-centre Prime Ministers: Tetsu Katayama in 1947-8 and Tomiichi Murayama in 1994-6; radical leftism has never been close to government because the JCP is openly opposed to the current Japanese national anthem defining it is a remnant of Japan’s militaristic past, as well as the current military and economic relationship between Japan and the United States.
Because of the importance of tradition and capitalism in Japanese society it is unsurprising that the JCP has been rejected comprehensively at every national Japanese election. I would also suggest that another key reason for the Japanese electorate’s aversion to the JCP is the US narrative of North Korea and China being communists, with the latter being more relevant as there is still significant nationalistic fervour among the Japanese political class that resents the economic and military power of China. So long as the preservation of traditional culture remains one of the key focuses of government no significant economic change will occur as this cultural conservatism doesn’t often marry with socialist economics; if cultural preservation becomes of lesser importance the Japanese people may, over time, be more open to changing the economic and political system as the conservatism in regards to culture will become less pervasive in regards to societal progress.
The engrained traditions of Japanese society are what make Japan unique and not just another ‘Western’ country, but paradoxically it is this pervasive mindset of maintaining the status quo that make the organic growth of left-wing voices stunted as such viewpoints are at loggerheads with a cultural nationalism that dominates the Japanese political discourse. I have to willingly declare my ignorance of modern Japanese society as I have never been oppressed by it however, as a leftist, it is not difficult to see that the ideological discussions that take place in Japan exclude all radicalism. A hallmark of successful societies is that at one time or another the populace decides that there is some institutionalised problem with society that can only be rectified through substantive action; the United States has seen the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, Europe had the Spring of Nations in the mid 19th century.
As a result I believe that, even though Japan may continue to be technologically advanced and somewhat economically prosperous it will not emulate the West in one important way: occasionally destroying the established order and starting again from scratch. As long as Japan’s dominant form of nationalism is one that deems antiquity infallible, including extreme nationalism that support the divinity of the Emperor, Japan is doomed to become a Western society that has no substantive political reaction to modern culture, which, from a Western perspective, is a strange proposition.