No longer an ‘Other’: Japan take a “Selfie” on techno-Orientalist stereotypes

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The conventional stereotypical image of Japan.

Much of the Western world’s image of Japan is rooted in stereotypes of a technologically advanced but dehumanised society (McLeod 2013, p.259). This relatively condescending and reductive deformation about Japan emerged in the late twentieth century in response to the perceived threat that Japan’s rising economic and techno-cultural power posed to Western identity (Iwabuchi 2007, p.449).

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Japan’s high degree of modernisation and technological sophistication was destabilising the binary notions of West/East and modern/pre-modern (Yoshimi 1999, p.151). Japan’s technological excellence meant that the West was no longer able to maintain their presumption of technological and material superiority against this emergent ‘Other’ (Iwabuchi 2007, p.450). This manifested itself in increasing fears of Asian economic hegemony and reverse colonisation (Yu 2008, p.46), from which arose “techno-Orientalism” – a Western conception of Japan that simultaneously acknowledges and undercuts the nation’s technological strength (Paulk 2011,p.481).

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Japan’s technological superiority is associated with its adaptable ingenuity in appropriating pre-existent Western technologies such that they become representative of a uniquely ‘Japanese’ identified product (McLeod 2013, p.260).

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Just as the discourse of Orientalism functioned to build up the identity of the West by providing a basis for imperialist intervention abroad, techno-Orientalism is set up for the West to preserve its identity in a technological environment.

In the discourse of techno-Orientalism, the West maintains its cultural and moral excellence by projecting a dehumanised image of a technology-soaked Japanese society (McLeod 2013, p.260). According to Koichi Iwabuchi (2009, p.67), the most well-known image of techno-Orientalism is a paradoxical combination of traditionalism and high technology. This is most notably apparent in Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner (1982), which combines futuristic high-tech images of contemporary Japan and traditional aestheticised images of feudal Japan to create an image of “paradoxical alienness” (Iwabuchi 2009, p.69). This association of technology and Japaneseness serves to construct the image of a culture that is cold, impersonal and machine-like, devoid of any emotional connection to the rest of the world (Morley & Robins 1995, p.169).

In the opening scene of Blade Runner, an image of an Asian woman dressed in traditional attire is juxtaposed with the technological wonder of flying cars that dominate the vast industrial skyscape.

The opening scene of Blade Runner juxtaposes an image of an Asian woman dressed in traditional attire with the technological wonder of flying cars.  This suggests a Western desire to enclose the exotic ‘otherness’ of Japan with technologies so far in advance of the everyday in order to control it.

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In Metropolis, the primary antagonist is depicted with stereotypical Western features (McLeod 2013, p.272).

In response to these techno-orientalist stereotypes, recent products of Japanese popular culture have adopted an anti-Western sentiment referred to as “Occidentalism” (McLeod 2013, p.272). This refers to negative and essentialist portrayals of the West constructed by non-Western ‘Others’ (Nanquette 2012, p.188). For example, Metropolis, an anime film released in Japan in 2001, is set in an unnamed city resembling a pastiche of 1920s, 1930s and 1940s New York (McLeod 2013, p.272). Rather than using an Asian setting to evoke the future, Metropolis presents a vision of the future that is shaped by techno-occidentalism (McLeod 2013, p.272). This is perhaps motivated by Japan’s need to forge and affirm its global legitimacy and national identity in a globalised world. However, as Edward Said (1978, cited in Iwabuchi 2009, p.52) wrote, “the answer to Orientalism is not Occidentalism”. This is possibly due to the fact that Occidentalism is simply a counter-discourse that does not go beyond contesting and inverting common Western stereotypes.

Self-Orientalism, on the other hand, refers to the way Western orientalist knowledge has been internalised and self-inscribed by the East as a means of constructing and self-asserting a unique national cultural identity (Dirlik 1996, cited in Yan & Santos 2009, p.298).  This was evident in the 2003 “Visit Japan” campaign introduced by the Japanese government to attract international visitors (Cangia 2013, p.121). The use of stereotypical Orientalist representations revealed a traditional/modern binary of techn-Orientalism that had been internalised by the Orient, hence invoking self-techno-Orientalism – a “playing at being America’s Japan” (Iwabuchi 2007, p.460).

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The “Visit Japan” promotional videos present several shapes of the country, including its traditional culture, technology and “charming mix of elements of East and West” (Cangia 2013, p.121).

 

Rather than being a defensive, passive strategy, Japan’s self-techno-Orientalism marked the moment of declaring the triumph of an Orient which was no longer an “Other” (Iwabuchi 2007, p.71). Japan celebrated its cultural hybridity, having indigenised both tradition and modernity, while the West, having lost its traditions, could only claim modernity (Iwabuchi 2007, p.71). In this way, Japan’s self-techno-Orientalism served as an ideological manoeuvring, redistributing global power relations by structuring a new world order whereby Japan occupies a visible position of difference in a predominately modern world.

 

Reference List:

Cangia, F 2013, Performing the Buraku: Narratives on Cultures and Everyday Life in Contemporary Japan, LIT Verlag, Berlin.

Iwabuchi, K 2007, ‘“Soft” nationalism and narcissism: Japanese popular culture goes global’, Asian Studies Review, vol.26, no.4, p.447-469.

Iwabuchi, K 2009, ‘Complicit exoticism: Japan and its other’, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, vol.8, no.2, p.49-82.

McLeod, K 2013, ‘Afro-Samuari: techno-Orientalism and contemporary hip hop’, Popular Music, vol.32, no.2, p.259-275.

Morley, D & Robins K 1995, Spaces of identities: Global media, electronic landscapes and cultural boundaries, Routledge, London.

Nanquette, L 2012, Orientalism versus Occidentalism, I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd, London.

Paulk, C 2011, ‘Post-National Cool: William Gibson’s Japan’, Science Fiction Studies, vol.38, no.3, p.478-500.

Yan, G & Santos, CA 2009, ‘“CHINA, FOREVER” Tourism Discourse and Self-Orientalism’, Annals of Tourism Research, vol.36, no.2, p.295-315.

Yoshimi, S 1999, ‘‘Made in Japan’: the cultural politics of ‘home electrification’ in postwar Japan’, Media, Culture & Society, vol.21, p.149-171.

Yu, T 2008, “Oriental Cities, Postmodern Futures: Naked Lunch, Blade Runner, and Neuromancer’, MELUS, vol.33, no.4, p.45-71.

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One thought on “No longer an ‘Other’: Japan take a “Selfie” on techno-Orientalist stereotypes

  1. Wow, really interesting blog post Giverny. You can tell that this is a topic you’re really interested in. I love that you looked at occidentalism and self-techno-Orientalism rather than just orientalism in Disney films. Having not really delved much deeper into the topic beyond the lecture and tutorial (I didn’t choose to do a blog post on orientalism) I learnt something new in that Japan responded to western stereotypes with self-orientalism through their tourism campaign. Interesting that they have embraced both the traditional and modern now to form a new hybridised culture.

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