The Question of Periodization I: Japan as Galapagos?

Doryun Chong reviews Japan as seen in both national and international imaginaries

This is the first in a series of essays by the author addressing questions related to historical periodization, cultural particularism and the avant-garde.

During a visit to Japan in June, I experienced the same inconvenience I’ve had on my many visits in the past – the solution to which I’ve yet to figure out. As many visitors to Japan also discover, my American BlackBerry, which works in almost all the places in the world to which I travel, does not work in Japan. In the past I have rented a Japanese phone at Narita Airport and, more recently, carried a rental phone from an American company. Needless to say, I always miss my own handheld device, with access to email, contacts and schedule. It was during this last visit that I also read a column in an English-language Japanese newspaper, which included an expression that caught my eye: “Galápagos Syndrome.” The column used the expression to describe the fantastic technological advancement of Japanese cellular phones and to diagnose the bizarrely endemic problem of their exclusivity to their place of origin. A subsequent conversation with a colleague clarified that the expression has been around for some time and thus rather deflated the exciting “Eureka!” moment of finally coming upon a way to describe not only the minor inconveniences of visiting Japan but also a general condition of the country that has been on my mind. Indeed, it only took a quick Google search to find that there was a New York Times article almost a year prior that cites a certain Takeshi Natsuno – credited as the inventor of Japan’s i-mode mobile Internet system – using the expression. (1) Although it is unclear whether Natsuno is the one who coined the term, clearly it has been in circulation in Japanese domestic discourse.

The image of Japan as a secluded paradise with its own irreproducible ecology is an old, enduring one. In the 17th century, almost a century after the first global circumnavigations, Europeans still believed Japan to be a land of indescribable riches. It was the Portuguese and Dutch who finally made it to Japan. Or, to be more precise, the indefatigable missionaries and traders who traveled halfway around the globe arrived to a country locked down by the Tokugawa Shogunate’s sakoku (closed door) policy, and they were quarantined in Dejima, a manmade sliver of an island in Nagasaki Harbor. The condition of isolation that breeds a unique culture and society continues to have a hold on the contemporary Western imagination of Japan. We find the most recent example in the significant amount of publicity enjoyed by British author David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which is sitting on the top of my stack of summer reading. But of course, we know well that Japan didn’t stay closed to the outside world. It was “opened” when the American “Black Ships” arrived in Yokohama Bay in the 1850s, launching the medieval country on a path to modernization, which it accomplished at an astonishing pace until the debacle of the Asia-Pacific War put a halt to the seemingly unstoppable progress. The country’s rapid post-war recovery likely contributed to the emergence of Japan in the global imagination as a cipher for the future. At the height of Japan’s economic ascendancy in the 1980s, its urbanscapes and techno-cultures often served as a template for visions of the future – Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner and William Gibson’s cyberpunk novels being prominent examples.

Japan as the “future perfect” tense wasn’t simply a result of the bubble economy, however. In a recent conversation I had with Natsuyuki Nakanishi, the respected painter reminded me of the strange, yet telling, description of Japan by Alexandre Kojève, the Russian-born French philosopher known for his “End of History” thesis. Kojève said in 1968: “Consider Japan: there’s a country that deliberately protected itself from history during three centuries; it put a barrier between history and itself, so well that it perhaps permits us to foresee our own future. And it’s true that Japan is an astonishing country. An example: snobbery, by its nature, is the purview of a small minority. Now, what Japan teaches us, is that one can democratize snobbery. Japan is 80 million snobs. Next to Japanese people, English high society is a bunch of drunken sailors.” (2) Striking for its logical omissions and leaps, as well as for its colorful language, this statement apparently grew out of the philosopher’s travel to Japan in 1959, and is also symptomatic of a penchant among certain mid-20th-century Western intellectuals (in particular, French) for the highly aestheticized and formalized manifestations of Japanese culture, an even better-known example being Roland Barthes and his Empire of Signs.

It would be misstating the case if we were to see such pronouncements as simply uninformed and arrogant Western biases. The notion of self-sufficiency – or almost fatalistic determinism – seems internalized or even inherent in Japanese self-identity when a sentence like “Nihon wa shimaguni de aru” (Japan is an island-country) is uttered with startling regularity by the Japanese as a be-all-end-all explanation for a whole range of social and cultural manifestations that appear idiosyncratic to outsiders. This is not to say that historical progress is understood in Japan exclusively as being driven by an internal, archipelagic force. That the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the 1970 Osaka World Expo are often invoked as notable benchmarks in post-war Japanese history does suggest that seemingly contrasting tropes or models of self-sufficiency and external exchange are in simultaneous operation. If these moments of international glory carried into the apogean 1980s, bolstering a sense of historical progress into the future, what does the recession that is now almost two decades long and counting mean to that historical consciousness? Should the model of linear progress be revised? How?

These are questions that are difficult to answer definitively. Yet, it is important to ask them, as we (re)discover the “avant-garde” 1960s and reconsider the “Postmodern” 1980s, and as we obsessively think about China, which is marking its own historical progress with the same Olympics-Expo double celebrations, almost 40 years later.

  1. Hiroko Tabuchi, (July 19, 2009). “Why Japan’s Cellphones Haven’t Gone Global”. New York Times. Retrieved 2009-07-20. “The Japanese have a name for their problem: Galápagos syndrome. Japan’s cellphones are like the endemic species that Darwin encountered on the Galápagos Islands – fantastically evolved and divergent from their mainland cousins – explains Takeshi Natsuno, who teaches at Tokyo’s Keio University.”

  2. James H. Nichols, Alexandre Kojève: Wisdom at the End of History (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, Inc.): 85.

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