Every so often, that is to say, about once a year, the Japanese press gets excited about Western school textbooks. More specifically, the press gets excited about the way Japan and the Japanese are depicted in Western school textbooks. A collective howl goes up over the fact that pictures of samurai and geisha still prevail in textbooks from Louisiana or Bavaria or Scotland or wherever. Such images might suggest to ignorant foreigners that modern Japanese still go around brandishing swords. These findings are often followed by instant soundings taken in Paris or Chicago to find out what Westerners really think of Japan. And what Westerners think is rarely found to be satisfactory.
"What do you think of Japan?" is the first question any Western celebrity arriving at Narita airport is required to answer, as though it matters what Brad Pitt or Britney Spears thinks of Japan, as though a mere glimpse of Narita's airport lounge would elicit any interesting thoughts at all. But interest is not the point here; it is a ritual, a formula. Foreign guests express their admiration, and their hosts accept these verbal tributes gracefully.
"What do you think of Japan?" is also how ritual exchanges between less celebrated Westerners and Japanese taxi drivers begin. The required answer is as bound by ritual as the question. Certain stock phrases are to be avoided. Admiration of samurai, kimono, Mount Fuji or geisha is, on the whole, not well received. For, like those wrong-headed textbooks, this might suggest that modern, international, metropolitan Japan is not sufficiently appreciated.
Given the overwhelming success of Western books with "geisha" in the title, it is understandable that contemporary Japanese are a little touchy about what some call "the Fujiyama-geisha view of Japan." It is indeed patronizing to admire a country only for stereotypical images of the past. To be sure, anyone who tells a Japanese taxi driver that he is from Chicago will be subjected to remarks about gangsters, and Dutch visitors will hear more about tulips and windmills than they might wish, but that is different. They are not Japanese.
Why do Japanese care so much about what Westerners think of their country? I say Westerners, because the views of fellow Asians or Africans are not nearly as eagerly sought. Great media careers in Japan have been based on the so-called "blue-eyed view" of Japan, but never the "brown-eyed view." Obscure Mormons from Salt Lake City have become television stars for doing nothing but holding forth in passable Japanese on their opinions of Japan. Nigerians or Filipinos are yet to launch similar careers.
Why? Why this obsessive interest in what Occidentals think? Part of the explanation lies in the peculiar geography of Japan. Like Korea, Japan was always on the periphery of a great empire. The cultural metropole was in China, and Japan was forever trying to catch up with the latest trends and fashions in art, clothes, literature, religion, politics and philosophy. News of these trends arrived from faraway cities, such as Chang'an, Nanjing, Kaifeng or Beijing.
This made Japanese feel like country cousins and fed their anxiety about what others, and specifically others living nearer the centers of power, thought. There are stories about old rivalries with the Koreans, who were always a little closer to the Chinese metropole and thus, in Korean eyes, more civilized. As a deliberate ploy to make the Japanese feel provincial, Korean envoys would compose letters to the Japanese court in such obscure Chinese phrases that their Japanese recipients had trouble deciphering them.
In time, of course, power shifted West. Chang'an and Beijing were replaced as the sources of fashion and wisdom by Paris, London and New York. But the peripheral attitudes remained the same, including an ardent curiosity in views and trends from abroad. I have had more than one South Korean explain to me that Koreans are better performers of Western classical music than Japanese.
Existing apart from the center, wherever that may be, has often had an energizing effect. Japanese curiosity in the outside world, the willingness to learn and the anxiety not to be left behind explain to some degree why Japan has been the most prosperous, most technologically advanced Asian nation for at least 300 years. The period of so-called isolation between the 17th and 19th centuries was no exception. Travel to and information from abroad were indeed restricted, but members of the Japanese Elite were still better informed about the outside world than their more complacent counterparts in China. Unlike the mandarins in Beijing, Japanese officials, including the shoguns, almost never assumed that Japan was the center of the world. They could accept Western science, geography and medicine, if it made sense, without feeling that their culture would be fatally undermined. That is the intellectual advantage of being on the periphery.
Before the latter half of the 19th century, Japanese did not care very much about the blue-eyed views of Japan. But as soon as the Japanese Elite realized that the center of power culturally, politically and militarily was no longer China but Europe and by extension the United States they began to care very much. Part of the struggle to catch up with Western powers was a strategy of defensive mimicry. This was in a sense a Japanese tradition. At various stages in its history, Japan took on the colors of the powers it respected or feared most. So it was in the early Meiji period, especially the 1870s and 1880s.
On public occasions and sometimes in private, too, members of the Meiji Elite discarded their traditional dress, once modeled after the undergarments of Tang dynasty Chinese robes, and began to wear European army uniforms, morning coats, ball gowns and top hats. Courtiers and other grandees adopted European-style aristocratic titles. Rococo, neo-Renaissance and neoclassicist buildings were erected. Concerts of European classical music were performed. A Prussian-style constitution was promulgated, a British-style navy built, a French-style bureaucracy developed and the Emperor, whose forebears had dedicated themselves to culture and ritual in the palatial seclusion of Kyoto, was boosted as a kind of Wilhelmine military monarch.
Japanese intellectuals discussed French poetry and English novels, an education minister proposed English as the new national language, and Japanese counts, marquesses and barons waltzed with their wives at the Deer Cry Pavilion, a pretentious Italianate building, designed by a British architect named Josiah Conder. All this in the name of "civilization," that is, Western civilization. To be civilized was to be modern, and to be modern was to be Western. And this extraordinary new hybrid culture not widely shared in less privileged Japanese circles, it is true was at least partly meant to elicit positive Western views of Japan. Although dynamic, industrious, imaginative and in many ways deeply admirable, late 19th century Japanese were suffering from a severe bout of country-cousin self-consciousness.
In 1885 the editors of a leading Japanese newspaper worried about the gap in civilization between Japan and the West: "What a difference there is between Japan, and either England or the United States in strength, wealth and civilization!... But our movements towards civilization would attract no notice in a country of the cultured West, where progress is constant and perpetual."
In fact, as could be expected, some Westerners were dismayed by all this defensive mimicry and lamented the destruction of older Japanese traditions. Others tittered at the earnest efforts to be civilized in the Western manner. Pierre Loti, the French author of Madame Chrysanthemum, likened the Deer Cry Pavilion to a second-rate casino in a French hot-springs resort, and the dancing, well: "They danced quite properly, my Japanese in Parisian gowns. But one senses that it is something drilled into them, that they perform like automatons, without any personal initiative. If by chance they lose the beat, they have to be stopped and started over again."
Anyone who has seen a Japanese pop music show on TV knows what he means, but the condescending tone quickly becomes grating. And in fact there was something tragic about the Japanese attempts to be "civilized"; for the harder they tried, the more ridiculous they seemed in the eyes of many of those they sought to impress. It also earned Japan an unfair reputation of being a nation of kitschy copycats. This left a lot of bruised feelings.
In a way, the building of a Japanese empire in Korea, Manchuria, Taiwan and the South Pacific, with its grandiose government buildings, its high-minded schemes to improve the natives and its harsh authoritarianism was a form of mimicry, too. To be civilized you had to have an empire. The British had one and the Dutch and the French, so why not the Japanese? That Americans and Europeans began to resent Japanese empire-building and tried to find ways to curb Japanese ambitions was seen by many Japanese, not entirely without reason, as a form of racial discrimination. Japan wanted more than anything to be taken seriously and treated as equal by the other imperial nations. When Western powers refused to endorse a statement of racial equality at the Versailles Conference in 1919, this was felt in Tokyo as a direct snub, which, in fact, it was.
Only a nation as acutely conscious of the opinions of others as Japan was in the 1930s could have felt so betrayed by foreign criticism. After a mild censure in the League of Nations of Japan's annexation of Manchuria, the Japanese Foreign Minister, Matsuoka Yosuke, walked out of the assembly and likened Japan's fate to that of Christ on the cross an odd comparison coming from an ultranationalist Japanese who advocated an alliance with Hitler. It was, of course, around that time that the Western image of Japan began to darken; no longer comical copycats waltzing in evening clothes, but modern samurai bent on brutal conquest.
Japanese belligerence, which actually started much earlier than World War II and was initially applauded in the West, especially when the Russians were among its early victims, was not unrelated to the defensive mimicry. There was something humiliating about the pandering to foreign opinion and the abject way in which native traditions were discarded as old junk. A nativist reaction was bound to come. It always does. In fact, it was already beginning during those early years of intense imitation.
One way to defend one's dignity, even as one copies the ways of other civilizations, is to make a fetish of national uniqueness. It might seem from the outside that Japanese had remade themselves in the Western mold, wearing Western clothes, adopting Western ideas, imitating Western institutions, but somewhere deep down in the core of every true-born Japanese lay a purely Japanese soul, unsullied by anything alien. The phrase for this was wakon yosai, "Japanese spirit, Western knowledge." Western culture and learning, it was implied, was only for the head; the heart remained resolutely native.
Concern with national dignity was not the only reason for this view. Japanese officials were always afraid that foreign ideas would turn the heads of common people toward rebellion. Science, Christianity, liberalism, democracy these were all very interesting objects of study for the Elite and if you picked and chose carefully, some of these ideas might serve as useful tools to build a more modern, more powerful nation. But in the wrong hands, they could pose great dangers. Before you knew it, people might start demanding more liberties, as indeed at various times they did. That is why the more authoritarian Japanese leaders and their intellectual apologists liked to pretend that foreign ideas were nothing more than tools.
By taking such a line, Japanese nationalists came remarkably close to foreign Orientalists who assume that everything that looks Western in Japan must be superficial. The "real Japan," it is often thought, must be hidden away somewhere, out of the sight of ignorant outsiders, and utterly unlike anything else in the world. This convergence of views had political consequences after Japan's defeat in 1945. American and Japanese liberals wanted Japan to have a liberal constitution as the basis of a real democracy. Conservative Japanese officials argued that such an arrangement would not be in tune with the real Japanese spirit. And they were backed in this belief by the most reactionary members of U.S. General Douglas MacArthur's occupation administration, men who felt they were intimately acquainted with "the Oriental mind."
Before it came to that, however, a more radical form of nativism had its day. The 1930s and 1940s were not just a time of incessant warfare but, especially the early 1940s, also of cultural purification. Even the eminent writer Tanizaki Junichiro argued in those years of intense nationalism that foreign loan words, mostly from Chinese, should be purged from the Japanese language. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, such popular American cultural products as baseball and Hollywood movies were forbidden. This policy was not designed to impress foreign views of Japan, but was in line with official propaganda, touted all over the Japanese empire, that the Japanese spirit and Japanese culture were superior to anything the West might have to offer. It was the ultimate reaction to earlier efforts to import Western civilization.
Those dark days are happily in the past. Baseball, Hollywood movies, American fashions, French ideas and so on all came back with a vengeance. As soon as the war was over, Japanese became intensely interested again in the outside world and also in what the outside world thought of them. Once again, the Japanese cast themselves as eager pupils of a more powerful civilization. Some postwar efforts to incorporate Western fashions were as extreme as anything seen in the Meiji period. Hollywood movies were remade with local stars, made up to resemble their American models. Japanese pop music was often a form of superior mimicry. Intellectuals, sporting dark glasses and black berets, philosophizing in Shinjuku coffeehouses, sometimes looked as if they were acting out a Parisian fantasy. An exhibition of the Mona Lisa was so popular that young women had plastic surgery done to make them resemble Leonardo's model.
And yet some of the old attitudes the prickly sensitivity, the lurking sense of humiliation and the obsession with uniqueness never entirely disappeared. You notice it in the common ambivalence toward "foreign understanding." Japanese often complain of not being understood by the outside world. But foreigners who appear to understand Japan too well sometimes cause discomfort, as though they were spies or intruders in some sacred place. There is often an air of triumph, a happy sense of being reassured, when Japanese critics can point out how yet another foreign attempt to analyze Japan is based on fatal misunderstandings. It is as though the Japanese, to feel truly unique, need to be reassured that they are beyond understanding.
So when the Tokyo taxi driver, the reporter at Narita airport or the anxious newspaper pollster abroad asks Westerners what they think about Japan, they do not expect a sharp analysis or some illuminating insight. They want a token of admiration for the performance of modern Japan. When taxi drivers or pollsters stop asking that question, when Japanese don't give a damn anymore about what foreigners think of them, we will know that something fundamental has changed. But until that day, which I do not expect to see soon, the country-cousin anxiety will remain as an integral part of the real Japan.