On Japanese Popular Culture

Rejecting A Restrictive View

In reading an article in the Japan Times about popular culture in Japan, the article takes a position that is overtly or covertly taken by many purported conveyors of wisdom about Japan: the position that popular culture didn’t really exist until 400 years ago, when Izumo no Okuni single-handedly invented it.

The article proceeds to state:

She launched it. Popular culture before her is an oxymoron. Japanese culture was ancient, elegant, stately, nuanced, refined, classical, exclusive.

The rude masses had no part in it. They had their entertainments, circuslike and bawdy, courtesy of wandering musicians, dancers, ballad chanters, puppeteers, acrobats, swordsmen, animal trainers and the like, but if culture implies something transcending mere boisterousness, little of this qualified.

In other words, yes, there were wandering musicians, dancers, ballad chanters, puppeteers, acrobats, swordsmen, animal trainers and the like, but this wasn’t, you know, culture or anything.

Let’s try a little thought experiment.

Hold one of your hands out straight forward, palm down. Either hand will do, but don’t use both, or you can’t scroll down the next few lines. Your hand should be parallel to the floor or ground.

Now, look at an object (even the floor) below the level of your hand, and grimace and glare at it.

Did your hand magically rise higher?

No? It didn’t? Really?

Scorning that which is “beneath” you does not raise you higher; it only provides the illusion that there is nothing beneath you that matters.

Now, I love the stories about Izumo no Okuni. Having said this, the idea that no culture worth mattering graced the lower classes before her is a massive, enormous conceit.

Chronicler Bias

There is a trend in history where we take the attitude that nothing important mattered unless someone wrote it down. This skews history in favor of what a bunch of cloistered monks write behind stone walls. It shortchanges human life and reduces it to a set of things deemed “important,” while shortchanging events that did not suit the monks’ political agenda.

Why does so much of Europe’s history exalt grandeur in kings and emphasize unity and aggrandizement of the state? Because that helps monks. It is also what kings want to hear, but more importantly, it helps monks. So monks wrote it.

Similarly, the stance that Japanese culture was either a) massively stale, b) “fun” culture didn’t exist until 400 years ago because what “fun” culture existed doesn’t count, is an elitist fiction which helps a particular crowd. I’m sure Noh and Kabuki performers just love this reading of history, but it really comes down to this proposition:

This is the idea that if it wasn’t written in a book, and it wasn’t presented on a stage like Shakespearian plays, it’s not really popular culture.

The author tries to essentially make kabuki into the otaku bait of the 1600’s, the forerunner of anime and manga.

I hate to lecture, but as culture goes, every “genius” stands on the shoulders of giants. What would Shakespeare have been without the myths of Avalon and King Arthur? What would he have been without the writings of the Romans? What would he have been without a rich culture in locales across Europe, the stages upon which Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet fictionally played out?

Acting like Okuni invented dance performance is really conceited. I grant that she brought dance performance to a stage where even the upper classes, including people who would seriously write about it in a recently unified nation, would see it. In other words, she brought those bawdy entertainments to the upper classes, rather than civilizing the lower classes.

Also, it’s very difficult for me to accept the notion that during the late Warring States Period, there was some sort of dearth of entertainment going on. It’s just that this entertainment would have been on a warlord fiefdom by warlord fiefdom basis. More importantly, no one wrote about it to that writer’s satisfaction, so we don’t care.

I find this attitude to be itself cultural poverty.

The Power of the Niche

See, the real problem with this attitude is that it takes the stance that mass entertainment is popular culture, and mass entertainment alone.

This would be taking the attitude that anime that is not Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, Bleach, and Mobile Suit Gundam, is not popular culture, and is not, in fact, really culture at all.

What a poverty of imagination!

Niches are where rich details are legion. They foster character growth, interesting and bold writing and plot ideas, and nurture aggressive writing that takes chances. Much fails, but what really succeeds often breaks into the mainstream, strengthened from trial by fire with fans acting as an error-checking and beta testing service, their very existence often encouraging an attention to detail that shocks a mainstream audience.

If I had been studying Japanese culture in 1604, I would not have gone to see Okuni alone. I would have made a very explicit and thorough effort to see those wandering musicians, dancers, ballad chanters, puppeteers, acrobats, swordsmen, animal trainers, and the like, myself.

And I would have called it a fantastically rich culture, even while noting the dawn of a true popular culture over and above that which already existed and already provided the foundation upon which this popular culture would be built.

For one example, I humbly present one of my own posts on Yuki Onna, who became a fixture of popular culture, but who long preceded her introduction to popular culture in Japanese folklore.

J Sensei

About J Sensei

Blogger, writer, linguist, former Japanese> English translator, rusty in French, experienced in Japanese, fluent English native. Writing for Technorati.com and various blogs. Skype: jeremiah.bourque (messages always welcome). E-mail: [email protected]
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3 Responses to On Japanese Popular Culture

  1. Dave Keays says:

    Hello Jeremiah

    I got the feeling the article was putting down the way of the masses as “rude” and “bawdy”. The way most aristocracies treat the masses qualifies as “rude” and “bawdy” too. So I guess that low wasn’t too low for the “upper class” back then either.

  2. J Sensei J Sensei says:

    I guess I just see it like… for decades if not centuries, certain types of entertainment are popular with “the little people,” but when it becomes presented freshly to the upper classes and they fall in love with it, it becomes “culture.” I don’t think that’s a very deep understanding either of culture then, or anime and manga culture now.

    More crucially, this way of writing (and thinking) blinds people to where Okuni was coming from. If you think she invented popular culture, the roots of Edo period popular culture will go unexamined and unappreciated. That represents the loss of a learning opportunity, so no matter how rich Kabuki was/ is in culture, we’re still losing the context of it. That just won’t fly with me.