Does Japan really exist?

Oscar Wilde denied the existence of Japan. He wrote that “there are no such people, there is no such place”. What’s more, he wasn’t geographically incompetent. What he meant was that the Western conception of Japan is no more than a fantasy loosely based on the real thing, and when we say “Japan”, we’re actually talking about a distorted version that exists only in our heads. Wilde’s words are particularly relevant today as Japanese culture is increasingly idealised by the West. But is this a good thing? Does this interest in the East reflect modern cultural integration, or are we unconsciously demeaning the very society that fascinates us?

One could say that it’s about time we became ‘Easternised’, following the Western influences that shaped Japan after World War II. Japan has always held a reputation as exotic, but in recent years it has managed to become even more famous in the West, most notably in its youth culture. Different crazes that originated in Japan have swept over the global population of children and teenagers, so that words like Tamagotchi, Pokémon, and Godzilla are familiar to all. As more Japanese products are exported, interest continues to grow: the latest major development is the English translations of Japanese comics, or manga. Although these comics have been an important part of Japanese culture for years, it is only in recent times that they have started to fill the shelves of European and American teenagers.

Japan isn’t only making its presence felt through its products. Japanese culture as a whole has been labelled as ‘cool’: people download J-pop onto their iPods, teach themselves how to use chopsticks, and can be seen wearing t-shirts with Japanese characters scrawled across them. It’s not just a one-way process, either: in Japan, teenagers wear clothing with random English words printed on them, not for their meaning but for their status as foreign and exciting. In both cases, this cultural appropriation rarely reflects any true fascination in the country of origin itself; rather, it shows that we are attracted to the exoticism and mystery that is evoked through symbols representing that country. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung believed that different races develop different collective psyches, and, as a result, if one culture attempts to incorporate another within itself, it will only be able to produce a warped and spiritless imitation. Perhaps, through our interest in its exotic appeal, this is exactly what we are doing to Japan.

The West has always regarded the East as “mystical”. In an age where religion is constantly challenged by atheist attitudes, and science continues to account for the previously unsolved mysteries of the universe, our need for mysticism is greater than ever. Therefore, what is seen as commonplace in Japan is often perceived as something more profound or spiritual by Westerners. Without even realising it, we may be projecting our desires for the unknown onto that set of islands in the Pacific, and by doing so we are fashioning a land that exists at least partially in the imagination. If this is true, then Wilde was right after all: the Japan that we think we know simply does not exist. Not only Japan, but all destinations that we perceive as foreign and strange are threatened by our fascination. The sad irony is that the more we respect and admire a different culture, the more likely we are to imagine a biased version of the reality. This is the reason that the polar extremes of racism and blind worship of another race are both negative perceptions. To say “I love black people” is almost as bad as saying “I hate black people”, as both statements generalise an individual’s preconceptions onto a whole race.

So what’s the solution? Do we have to find some middle-ground between culture-rejection and culture-worship? In order to appreciate a culture for what it is, do we need to take a neutral stance, or worse admire everything in equal degrees and say that “essentially, we’re all the same”? Thankfully, the answer is no. The problem of distorted perception doesn’t arise from liking a country or race too much, and it would be foolish to try and curb our enthusiasm. The reason that we dream up false worlds is because we don’t know enough about the real ones. To get an idea of this reality, we need to match our admiration with knowledge. For example, by experiencing life within a country that fascinates us, we are more likely to have a clear perception of what exactly it is that draws us to it. Ultimately, the more interest that is generated by places like Japan, the more hopeful it seems that Westerners will be encouraged to get past the dream and learn about other cultures without the veil of mysticism or the burden of prejudice.

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