Monday, January 12, 2009

Politics: Appeal of Japanese Culture

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The international press has given increasing attention to the popularity of Japanese culture worldwide. Everything from glasses worn by Sarah Palin to children's cartoons on television (animé) to comic books (manga) have originated in Japan, prompting some to consider Japan to be the first real rival to the "soft power" of United States culture that spreads through movies, television, the Internet, and many other subtle means. What is the appeal of Japanese culture? University of Tokyo professor Roland Kelts thinks he knows. In a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor, Kelts noted "The Japanese model is of self-denial and the sublimation of selfish desires for the sake of group harmony. This is becoming a multipolar world. The desire to be a part of something harmonious rather than the leader of a pack is growing."

For all my attempts to categorize United States culture as being out of the "emotional world" as described by traditional Chinese medicine, that isn't the face that is presented to the world through Hollywood and, for that matter, the George W. Bush administration. Instead, that image (and the very fact that it is just an image argues that the reality is still in the "emotional world") is that of the "physical world." A macho leader, whether it be John Wayne or the 43rd president, does what he feels is best when he feels it is best, and the opinions of others don't matter much. This is the present-focus and force-using perspective of the "physical world." Someone doesn't like John Wayne's style? He'll probably end up shot. The United Nations doesn't support what the US wants to do? The US government will just do it anyway--it can always veto any action against it in the Security Council, which never proves necessary anyway. Even when the leader is a woman, she comes across macho--say Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft in "Tomb Raider" or former secretary of state Madeleine Albright telling leaders in Haiti that they can leave "voluntarily and soon, or involuntarily and soon." The view presented is of a clear choice of good and evil, with good always prevailing.

This is the image of the United States that has been perpetuated outside of the country, no matter how divorced from the reality within the country that this image may be. The United States is seen as a "physical world" actor on the world stage, doing whatever it wants, whenever it wants, and unafraid to use force to achieve its objectives, always convinced it is on the side of good.

The world that generally balances the "physical world" is the "spiritual world". The "spiritual world" operates in a rather timeless state, in which the past and the future share the stage with the present. Rather than taking action based on an individual's desires in the present, the "spiritual world" tries to achieve harmony with the others around them to avoid conflict. Furthermore, actions are taken with a view to the future--if it would cause trouble in the future, it won't happen, and the past provides clues about this. The "spiritual world" presents a completely different, holistic contrast to the viewpoint of the "physical world".

Japanese culture, as described by Kelts, meets the definition of the "spiritual world". It tries to achieve harmony and has shades of gray instead of black and white. This is not surprising, since the "national culture" of Japan is generally regarded to be in the "spiritual world," specifically that part of the world associated with the "large intestine" organ in traditional Chinese medicine. As a balancing perspective to that of the macho "physical world" presented by the United States, it is not surprising that Japanese culture would be turned to as an alternative.

Of course, the "physical" and "spiritual" worlds are supposed to be in balance according to theory. It should be expected that both US and Japanese culture will both influence the world, ideally at the same time, in order for the world to achieve a healthy state. The difference--as seems to be reflected in the US media--is that the "physical" world doesn't seem to understand that need for balance, and tries to maintain its hegemony. Meanwhile, the "spiritual" builds up toward the balance. If theory holds, it's likely a better time to be invested in Japanese culture worldwide than it is to be invested in Hollywood and other purveyors of "physical" culture.

No comments: