Scarlett Johannson stars in the live-action adaptation of Japanese anime film, Ghost In The Shell.
Scarlett Johannson stars in the live-action adaptation of Japanese anime film, Ghost In The Shell.

Japan has an image problem. Those outside the country have a tendency to focus on the extremities and “exotic” aspects of Japan. Whenever I travel abroad and introduce myself as Japanese, people tend to respond by saying they are fascinated by or love Japanese culture.

But as soon as I dig deeper, I find that the “Japanese culture” that they talk about is one that exoticizes Japan and is thus unrealistic, imagined and unrepresentative. In fact, a common encounter goes something like this:

“Ah you’re Japanese! I absolutely love anime, especially Naruto – so what kind of anime do you like?”

“I don’t actually watch anime …”

“But Japan’s all about anime and manga, and all the crazy stuff you have like samurai and ninja – how can you be Japanese and not watch anime?”

Of course, in reality, while many Japanese do watch anime and read manga, many others like myself do not. And what may seem weird and “crazy” to non-Japanese about their conceptions of Japanese culture is often also weird to many everyday Japanese people.

While I do not believe that such views of Japanese culture are products of looking down upon Japan, these views are still inaccurate, naïve and frustrating. Whatever it is about Japan, I find the country to be exoticized more than perhaps any other, with only weird and crazy things fitting in with narratives of what Japan is about.

The media industry outside Japan propagates, reinforces and is at least partially responsible for this phenomenon, something I noticed in particular when I watched No Sex Please, We’re Japanese, a British Broadcasting Corporation documentary from 2013, which, to quote the BBC, “explores the Otaku culture – the world of nerds and geeks obsessed with computer games and Manga cartoons – which has led to a withdrawal of many Japanese men from the dating game.”

To blame the demographic change that Japan is undergoing on nerds, geeks and manga cartoons is simply absurd and inaccurate, and in particular, the implied suggestion that too many men are having “in-depth relationships with virtual teenage girlfriends.”

To blame the demographic change that Japan is undergoing on nerds, geeks and manga cartoons is simply absurd and inaccurate

The reality is that in Japan, as in most other countries, most men want to be in relationships, and many want to become married and have children. There may be a decline in the birth rate, but this is in line with demographic trends seen across the world that occur as countries enter a post-industrialization phase, and the key reason for the decline is the increasing age of marriage as a result of economic insecurity and fewer job opportunities for young men.

The BBC by no means produces only exotic explanations for Japanese phenomena, as the powerful and well-directed documentary titled Japan’s Secret Shame on Shiori Ito’s experience of sexual assault in the era of #MeToo demonstrates, but if even a well-respected media organization such as the BBC has a problem with exotifying Japan, it does not bode well for the rest of the media industry, especially in the private sphere, where the industry often has to focus on what sells rather than what is accurate.

A quick look at Vice Japan’s YouTube Channel would make this clear, with videos titled “Medical Sex Worker,” “JAPORN: Porn that Makes Girls Wet” and “High-Class Hostess” ranking at the top in terms of total views, which reflects how the consumer increasingly looks for the exotic and weird when it comes to Japanese culture.

The exotification of Japan can also take on a much more directly harmful twist, as shown by Logan Paul’s YouTube video of Aokigahara Forest, a place known as a common site for suicides by Japanese. In the video (since removed), Paul laughs at those who committed suicide at the forest.

Yet all the danger signs of the forest being depicted as a place of allure, mystery and fascination were already there. In 2015 and 2016, two films were released by Hollywood titled Sea of Trees and The Forest, both of which contributed to a fantasization of the forest as “a perfect place to die.”

In fact, I have had some acquaintances tell me that one of things they associate with Japan is that spooky suicide forest, although such links they have made with Japan have declined since the controversy over Logan Paul’s video.

The controversy over depictions of Aokigahara also shows that the issue of Japanese exotification stretches beyond media and into the film industry, and how what may be seen as benign exotification can become dangerous.

What may currently seem “benign” exotification of Japan is perhaps best shown by the 2018 film The Isle of Dogs, which stereotypes Japan using cliché cultural symbols such as poisoned wasabi, sumo wrestlers and mushroom clouds, and even has a plot centered on a white character named Tracy who is supposed to be  a white savior leading an uprising against corrupt politicians of “Megasaki,” a fictional city.

It is as is if Hollywood never learned from the debacle that was Ghost in the Shell, which whitewashed a remake of a famous Japanese movie by placing Scarlett Johansson as the “Japanese” protagonist and savior and built upon the image of Japan as a dystopian and futuristic society covered by neon lighting.

A less spoken-of, yet earlier iteration of the issue was The Last Samurai, released in 2003, to an overwhelmingly positive reception, despite its whitewashing lead role given to Tom Cruise and plot driven by myth that has embedded the view of the samurai as a blade-wielding ethical hero, despite contemporary Japanese society increasingly seeing the samurai not as a hero, but as a figure of corruption in Japanese history.

So the question is, what can we do to stop this exotification of Japan? A starting point would be for the Japanese government to end or reform its “Cool Japan Initiative” started in 2010, which has only helped further exotify Japan by promoting what makes Japan cool.

This concept of “Cool Japan” has been further adopted by NHK, Japan’s national public broadcasting organization, which has a show that “digs up … what is accepted as cool and trendy by foreigners,” and in doing so, plays into the hands of consumers who look for the exotic in Japan.

As publicly funded bodies, both the government and NHK must move away from this, and instead focus on trying to tell the world the story behind what Japan really is about.

Fortunately, some YouTube channels focus on this issue, whether it be Asian Boss, That Japanese Man Yuta, Life Where I’m From, and Rachel and Jun. While none of these channels are by any means perfect, they at least try to show Japan and its people in a representative light, providing context to what might seem weird and exotic but, in fact, is understandable and often rational given social norms.

Supporting these independent channels would be the least that public bodies could do in correcting or transforming conceptions surrounding Japan and its culture.

Shunta Takino

Shunta Takino is an intern and research assistant at the Asia Pacific Initiative, a think-tank in Tokyo. He recently graduated from the University of Oxford with a BA in philosophy, politics and economics, and has been raised both in the UK and Japan. He takes a particular interest in sociological approaches to international affairs.

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