For the past 8 years or so, I’ve been a fan of the Japanese group Arashi. Although I use the word ‘fan’, in reality it’s pretty lowkey and sometimes I don’t keep up with them for years. Recently, however, I checked in with them again through a newfound obsession with their show on Fuji TV, VS Arashi.
I figured I might as well check what I’ve missed music-wise, and came across a song called Kokoro no Sora, released in 2015. The theme for the song, the accompanying video and even the album, is Japan. More specifically, Japan as viewed from the outside.
Now, not only did I recognize traditional Japanese things and influences in the video set design, costumes & choreography, I also came across the ‘Japan from the outside’ bit. And things suddenly got a lot more hilarious. And by hilarious I mean “I thought about this too much and things turned really serious all of a sudden”.
So here’s the thing right: Arashi decided they want to go back to their roots, back to Japan, back to being proud of your nation and cultural heritage. Which is fine! I applaud the sentiment. I have no issues with national pride (usually, there are some exceptions). But there’s a problem that comes with wanting to show something from the outside, when you’re all way inside.
First there’s the obvious problems: how do you overcome a bias when you’re Japanese, making a video about Japan, for other Japanese people? Spoiler alert: you don’t. You just can’t. There’s too much bias involved. What they did manage, however, is a perfect portrayal of the image Japan would like to have.
I’ve worked with Japanese people on a couple of official occasions, sometimes for several months. If there’s anything I learned from this, it’s that the Japanese have a very specific image they’d like to show outward, the ‘quintessential Japan’ as promoted by the Japanese, so to speak.
This image they’d like to portray includes (but is not limited to) the shamisen, stylish kimono in almost monochrome colours, a red/black/white colour scheme, cherry blossoms, and for some strange reason? Checkerboard floors. And, to be fair, it is a beautiful image, one that really gives that sense of tranquility and pride of the national history.
But it’s an image that’s created, almost a willful fantasy. It’s not wholly inaccurate – shamisen and kimono are very real and historically relevant items – but it’s also far from complete. Which in itself is understandable: you can’t convey an entire cultural history with just one image, so you have to make choices.
However, I feel like this specific created image is more of a fantasy version of Japanese culture rather than its actual rich culture and history. By using the red/black/white colour scheme, you deny yourself of the beautiful vibrant colours of women’s kimono’s, and of the blue sky over mount Fuji. By limiting yourself to the cherry blossom, a beautiful yet fleeting wonder, you ignore the lush greens of the Japanese summer or the fiery reds and oranges of the momiji in autumn.
By limiting yourself to one specific image time and time again, you also run several risks. The biggest one of this is accidentally rewriting your own history and culture. If you think I’m exaggerating: I’m not. It actually happens all the time. Tell enough people enough times that your culture consists of kimono’s and folk dance and yamato nadeshiko ( the “personification of an idealized Japanese woman” according to Wikipedia), and some people will start to think that’s all there is. After all, that’s all that’s ever shown, right?
The Japanese government, like so many other governments around the world, is notorious for its blatant rewriting and censoring of history . For example, see: comfort women in Japanese occupied areas during WWII. Sure, this is one of the most extreme examples I can think of but also by far one of the best. Of course, I realize all governments change history. It’s what they do. History is written by those who won, after all.
But history is also rewritten and shaped by those who actively select only certain parts of it and disregard the rest. This is how you get massive misunderstandings about your own nation’s history. To take my own culture as an example, a lot of Dutch people believe the story that Saint Nicholas’ help, Zwarte Piet, became black by going through so many chimneys that he got covered in soot. This disregards the history of blatant racism and slavery, which suddenly makes it a very harmful history that hurts a lot of current and past residents of the Netherlands.
That’s not to say the Japanese misunderstand their own historical heritage. But given enough time, and given enough dramatic but historically inaccurate reenactments in the media, and a new image will start to form. And once that new image is inside people’s heads? It’s going to be real hard to get it out.
To take this all back to ‘showing Japan from the outside’: it’s a nice idea, yes. Like I said, I applaud the sentiment, and I appreciate this owning of your own national history in a time where globalization is erasing cultural identities left and right. More cultures could and probably should celebrate their own history.
But in all honesty I’d personally much rather you’d show your own culture from the inside. Tell me what you think your country is about, and show me that. Because the real outside image of Japan? Let’s be real here: it includes bright colours, hello kitty, robots, and sushi. It’s the polar opposite of what most Japanese actually want the outside to think, yet here we are.
Japan is a country of contradictions. It’s the country with one of the lowest crime rates in the world (if not the lowest), yet it spent half of the previous century at war. It’s a country that prides itself on its history and traditional culture yet its technology is some of the most progressive in the world. It’s proud of its (image of) homogeneity yet it’s not only home to some of the most extreme and different subcultures in the world, it also got its supposed homogeneity by ruthlessly suppressing anyone who doesn’t identify as 100% Japanese – and then some. The Japanese proud of being Japanese and looking Japanese yet their beauty ideals are surprisingly Western and their governmental system and military are all based on different Western ideas.
And it’s about time that Japan embraces its own contradictions and celebrates them, because they are what makes this country so beautiful and interesting and worth looking deeper into. And the sooner it accepts what its real image outside of Japan is, the sooner it can fix this gap between the two images and reconcile the contradictions the way it does with all the other contradictions it faces. And then maybe, I could take a video like Kokoro no Sora more seriously. Maybe.