What do you think of when you think of Japan? What words would you use to describe Japan? I’m sure most people would think of technology, Hello Kitty, sushi, and maybe geisha. They would use words like “bright”, “colourful”, “crazy”, and “strange”. I’m sure I’ve used a lot of these words and ideas, and I don’t generally have a problem with them.
Stereotypes and clichés are what they are, and they exist for a reason. Japan is bright and colourful, and does produce amazing technology and more Hello Kitty merchandise than you can shake a folding fan at. When people visit Japan for the first time, they often experience some kind of culture shock because, to the general tourist, Japan does seem to have a culture which is vastly different to that of the West.
I don’t have any problems with the stereotypes and clichés, but I do hope that people will open their eyes a little more and try to see beyond them. Today, the British media had two stories about Japan. In the Guardian, a piece by Charlie Brooker entitled “Green Kit Kats, toilets that lift the seat themselves, helpful strangers – Japan feels like another planet“:
And in the Evening Standard a piece by Emma McCarthy called “Tokyo is trending: the rise of J-Pop“:
Both articles, to my mind, did very little to depict Japan as anything other than strange and quirky. Brooker describes a visit to Japan as “akin to recovering from a serious head injury” and talks about Japan as “another planet” where the Kit Kats are green (ah, but has he seen the blue ones?) and going to the toilet is “like defecating into a robot’s mouth“.
McCarthy, on the other hand, is a little more positive but focusses mainly on the “new” J-Pop craze and how Japanese street style has “trickled into high fashion circles” with the likes of Nicki Minaj and Katy Perry leading the way (um… Gwen Stefani and Lady Gaga, anyone?).
The up-coming J-culture event, Hyper Japan, was mentioned in the Evening Standard article (although sadly without dates or website links – 24th-26th Feb, more info here). Personally, I think it’s wonderful that this event is happening and that people can learn more about how strange and quirky Japan is, or how mad the music and fashion are. But I hope that the people who attend Hyper Japan also take the time to sample some exquisite sushi at the Sushi Awards 2012, check out some classic artwork at the Japanese Gallery stall, or talk to some tour operators (like Inside Japan Tours) about what visiting Japan is really like. Last year there were even chances to experience martial arts, calligraphy and the tea ceremony.
I realise that, actually, martial arts, calligraphy and tea ceremony are as much stereotypes of Japan as Hello Kitty, but what I’m saying is that I hope people realise there is more than modern pop culture in Japan, and that actually it’s a country with an interesting history and a vast culture which includes not only the bright, colourful trends of today, but also the bright, colourful trends of the past (just look at kimonos – not exactly dull, are they?).
Charlie Brooker says he’s in Japan “to write some travel pieces for [the Guardian], which will appear later in the year“. Let’s hope he stops watching the TV, gets out of his hotel room, and experiences some of the other side of what Japan has to offer.