The whole of Japan, Oscar Wilde said in 1891, is “a pure invention”. There is no such country: “The Japanese people are…simply a mode of style, an exquisite fancy of art.”
That was his double-edged comment on what was called Japonisme, the 19th century fascination with Japanese aesthetics. It went on to inspire artists such as Monet, Degas and Van Gogh, and was a key tributary of the Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and other design movements.
Japan’s soft power, then, isn’t a new phenomenon. It arguably had more long-term impact than the victory over Russia in 1905, the first time in modern history that an Asian nation defeated a European one in military combat.
The savagery of World War II, the rubble that remained in its wake, the country’s re-emergence and recent economic decline is a story that’s often been told. Japan’s influence, and the ways we react to it, is now the subject of two recent books: Matt Alt’s Pure Invention, on how the country’s pop culture has swept the world; and Pallavi Aiyar’s Orienting, an account of her experiences during her time there.
For Alt, Japan’s products were tools for navigating a new landscape that had become “more connected and more isolating than ever before”. Japanese creators and consumers were thus “harbingers for all the weirdness of our late-stage capitalist lives”.
He illustrates this thesis with a variety of examples over the decades. Pure Invention surveys the video games, manga, anime, fashion trends, and gadgets that went on to have a significant impact worldwide.
Many are instantly recognisable. There’s Astro Boy and Hello Kitty; karaoke and the Walkman; Tamagotchi and Spirited Away; and the Game Boy and Super Mario Brothers. One of the virtues of the book is that Alt places these and others in social and cultural contexts to show the forces at play in the minds of their inventors.
In this way, the ubiquitous karaoke machine came about because of the culture of the “salarymen”, for whom unwinding after hours with co-workers or clients was part of the job. The character of Hello Kitty, today a massive multimedia franchise, was a reflection of the Japanese concept of kawaii, a quality of cuteness. And the characteristics of the otaku – those devoted to pop culture at the cost of social skills – shaped much of the manga and anime that so many became obsessed with.
Alt provides engaging pen portraits of the people behind these and other creations. Among them are Hideaki Anno and the Neon Genesis Evangelion, Hayao Miyazaki and his animated features, and Shigeru Miyamoto and Super Mario Brothers.
Illustrators such as Yuko Shimizu and Ado Mizumori are also given their due, as are the schoolgirls and young women who forged new styles and modes of communication in Tokyo’s fashionable neighbourhoods of Harajuku and Shibuya.
There is a darker side, too. In a somewhat reductive argument, Alt connects the dots between the rise of the infamous online message board 4chan and the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election, with the alt-right white supremacy movement and Bannon’s “rootless white males”.
Alt feels that because of recent economic and social tensions, Japan isn’t ahead of the curve anymore—but neither is it behind. Rather, “we in the rest of the developed world have finally caught up”.
For Pallavi Aiyar, though, “much the entirety of my Japan-oriented cultural capital” was the Walkman, snatches of songs by Tom Waits and others, and the work of Haruki Murakami. All that changed when she moved to Tokyo in the summer of 2016 with her diplomat husband, two boys, and two cats.
Her Orienting is a melange of personal anecdotes, reportage, and observations from the four years she spent in the country, interspersed with the occasional haiku. The freewheeling approach encompasses, among other subjects, cherry blossom festivals, how Japanese Buddhism has incorporated Indian gods, and attempts to learn the language.
This last endeavour proves frustrating. The two alphabet systems, the pictorial kanji, and the grammatical nuances were “my linguistic Waterloo, my lexical bête noir, my syntactical antagonist”.
She confirms her preconceptions of the country - “neon, robots, fast trains, consoles” – but also encounters anachronisms. Many restaurants don’t accept credit cards. Taxi drivers wear white gloves and elaborately thank passengers, but the Japan Taxi app is byzantine. The Japanese pride themselves on their unique culture, but it’s profoundly indebted to China.
There is much to marvel at. Squeaky clean and technologically-advanced toilets, of course, but also the sight of young schoolchildren, entirely safe and often alone, hopping onto buses, changing subway trains and walking along thoroughfares on their way to and from school.
There’s also the miraculous lost-and-found service. Over the years, her husband left his iPhone in a taxi in Kyoto; her brother forgot his passport in a hotel lobby in Hokkaido; she left her laptop on the monorail to Haneda airport. Every single item was retrieved without fuss.
In Tokyo, all of this attests to “village-like levels of public faith”. When it comes to fitting in, there’s another side of the coin: “People even tended to hide their laughter by clasping a hand to their mouth, as though stuffing the joy back into themselves.”
This ties in with xenophobic and immigration-averse attitudes. “They feared losing the social cohesion and trust that made their cities safe and clean,” Aiyar feels. “The racism implied in the idea that foreigners were somehow criminal and dirty was rarely challenged in the domestic discourse.” Such attitudes “simmered rather than boiled over, and got mixed in with a general shyness and culture of suppression”.
However, she also meets Yogendra Puranik from Maharashtra, who had just been elected Edogawa councillor, becoming the first-ever Indian-born Japanese politician. Awed by the discipline and cleanliness he encountered during a year-long scholarship, he decided to make Japan his home. His community work and emphasis on “integration training” seems to have struck a chord with voters.
Another tale in Orienting is about the origin and popularity of curry, which is to Indian food “what chicken Manchurian was to Chinese food - a vague relative”. The history of raisu kari in Japan, writes Aiyar, dates to the 1870s, when British naval officers who had developed a taste for it in India passed it on to colleagues in Japan’s imperial maritime forces. Since the dish came from Britain, it was considered Western.
A more authentic version was introduced by Rash Behari Bose, who fled from colonial oppression to Japan in 1915. He married into a family of bakers and, in a nationalistic attempt to prove that Japanese curry wasn’t the real thing, opened the Nakamuraya restaurant serving “Genuine Indian-style Curry”. It still flourishes, and for Aiyar, the dish “passed the flavour test – full-bodied spice and pleasing consistency”.
Orienting can sag when it veers into areas such as prime ministerial meetings and Japan’s pledged investments for Indian infrastructure, including the high-speed rail corridor. Such extended episodes lack the personal, experiential feel of the rest of the book.
Aiyar is on surer footing when she writes of the “jugaad-shokunin dichotomy”, or why Japanese companies find it hard to do business with India. Shokunin is the opposite of jugaad: the pursuit of perfection through the honing of a single craft. “It was the sushi chef apprentice who trained for ten years before being allowed to cut the fish; it was the sake brewer who only dreamed of yeast.” Indian solutions can often be about patching loopholes, but for the Japanese, this approach is anathema.
When her sojourn nears its end, she happens to look up the speech that Rabindranath Tagore delivered at Tokyo’s Keio University in 1916. “My stay here,” said Tagore, “has been so short that one may think I have not earned my right to speak to you about anything concerning your country. I feel sure that I shall be told that I am idealizing certain aspects, while leaving others unnoticed”.
Aiyar relates to this, self-deprecatingly admitting to “bewilderment and delight, intuition and hunches, to vignettes and snatches of coherence”, while resisting assertions of authority.
In the 19th century, French jeweller Lucien Falize was to exclaim of the Japanese: “They have taught us the poetry of this world.” In their own ways, these two books are worthwhile additions to the shelf of volumes on the sensibility behind such teaching.Also read: Review | 'Orienting: An Indian in Japan': A moving portrait of the country, by a globetrotting journalist