A smell-free never-never land: Japan, to the West, is a blank screen on to which we project our terrors and fantasies

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The Independent Online
A BRITISH newspaper ran an article last week stating authoritatively that the Japanese economic miracle was over. The nation's rigid cultural structures made it incapable of innovation and, as a result, the United States was now leaping ahead technologically.

A few days later the New York Times ran an article stating authoritatively that the Japanese economic miracle had scarcely begun. Indeed, last year Japan - supposedly in recession - surpassed the US to become the world's largest manufacturer, a position it will now consolidate by exploiting the new economic miracles springing up around it in Asia.

I have no idea which is right. In fact, never having been there, I have no real idea about Japan. But I know what I like, so I incline to the New York Times view; it sits nicely with my fantasy life. And, like everybody else in the West, when it comes to Japan I have some highly authoritative fantasies.

Depending on your age, these fantasies will be dominated by one, two or three distinct themes. If you are old enough to remember the war, there will be the theme of the Japanese as a cruel and suicidal nation possessed by strange, bloody rituals and brutal xenophobia. Then, from the Fifties, there is the theme of the ingenious, downmarket imitators - the Japanese as producers of cheap knick-knacks copied from Western originals. Finally, from the late Seventies onwards, there has been the theme of the Japanese as overwhelmingly competent - industrial managers of genius, designers of infinite innovation and workers of fearsome loyalty and dedication.

Each successive vision of Japan has been regarded as definitive, and yet they are utterly contradictory. Each seems to imply a quite different world view. But that is the point: our generalisations show us to be spectacularly and definitively ignorant. Nothing we think or say about Japan is ever remotely consistent with anything else. As a result, that nation is now the most fertile generator of national dreams, myths and arguments on earth. Once, when few of us had been there, we used to write our aspirations, anxieties and prejudices on to the blurred image of the United States; now, when very few of us have been there, we use Japan.

If, for example, you think there is a crisis in our education system, you will use something you have read somewhere about Japanese schools to hold them up as examples of discipline and continuity. Equally, if you like our schools, you will hold up the Japanese education system as an anti-individualistic nightmare of rigidity and oppression. If you worry about society, you may point to the spectacularly low levels of crime in Japan; equally, you may rail against the awesome, suffocating, ant-like conformity of the Japanese. Or: Japan is booming; no, Japan is failing. No two economists agree. Japan, often with the most impressive, statistics-laden evidence, can prove anything to anybody about anything.

Japan is not simply a country, it is also a non-specific condition of the Western mind, the blank screen upon which we project our fantasies and terrors. Never mind the obvious material effects of the videos and the cameras; simple, immaterial fear and awe of the country's achievements can change our lives.

In the United States the Lexus, a Toyota car designed to improve upon Jaguar, Mercedes and BMW, has become both a sacred, aspirational object and a humiliating affront to the failings of Detroit. It is more of an idea than a car, and its advertising has now abandoned any pretence - the latest newspaper ad did not bother to mention the car, it simply boasted about the quality of previous Lexus advertising. Equally, fear of Japanese educational discipline has now driven American corporations such as Coca-Cola to accompany their own advertising with bizarre exhortations to their young, under-achieving consumers to 'hey, do your homework', a sure sign that competitive cultural paranoia has now superseded the environment as the OK anxiety in American life.

The shatteringly rapid construction of the world's second-largest economic empire is the most obvious reason for all this. Japan jumped from plastic knick-knacks to cars and consumer electronics within a few years. The country's world economic dominance now seems a fact of life but, in reality, almost all of it came about in the Eighties. It now accounts for one-seventh of the entire world economy and is the world's biggest net creditor. The United States is the biggest debtor.

So we worry about Japan, its character and intentions, as we would about those of any conqueror. Japan is everywhere. Look up: Japanese products will almost certainly be somewhere in your field of vision. But the obvious concern about such ubiquity is compounded by the sheer, infuriating foreignness of the conquering people. No country seems quite so strange or resolutely indecipherable.

Mainstream news stories emanating from Japan, when they are not economic, are simply weird. From time to time we learn about the nation's mysterious obsession with pure Japanese rice; with suicide - a book called The Complete Manual of Suicide was a huge bestseller; with heated lavatory seats; with strange, apparently sado-masochistic, sexuality; with the mystifying royal family - the Empress Michiko, for some reason, once lost all her powers of speech; their chain-smoking combined with their low rates of lung cancer; the way they die from overwork and the intensity of the relationships between Japanese sons and their mothers, a form of 'emotional incest' said to be 'almost a defining feature of Japanese society'.

The message of all such stories is: these guys are unbelievably weird. And, when combined with the economic stories, the message becomes: these guys are unbelievably weird and very frightening. They are taking over the world and are absolutely nothing like us. Monstrous visions form in our minds. They might as well be Martians. Like alien visitors they sleep in capsule hotels. Their food involves either a gamble with instant death or crawls about on the plate. They don't say what they mean and they regard you with amazed contempt if you don't carry a business card. To them we smell disgusting. Their smiles are patronising. They steal our ideas, our art and our music; they even copy our monuments. They play golf but suspiciously badly. They own everything and they make everything. We have seen the future and it misses putts, carries a business card, smiles, bows, takes photographs and does not smell.

The real theme behind these and all the other waves of Japan-anxiety that have swept the West since Pearl Harbour is anonymity. Name 10 famous Japanese. You can't, can you? Most people could not name one, but they could probably run off a thousand Americans. The Americans are a nation of brightly lit superstars, the Japanese seems to be a single, odour-free mass.

In fact, a survey conducted by Japanese television found that the words most immediately evoked by the idea of Japan were: Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Sony, Panasonic, Canon - all corporations. America had Washington, Lincoln, Chaplin, Kennedy and Monroe; Britain had Shakespeare, Churchill and the Queen - all people. Japan means mass production, the West means a succession of great individuals. As the author Taichi Sakaiya puts it, Japan is, to the West, nothing more distinct than 'a black box belching forth industrial products'.

Such a vision is, of course, a modern version of the most persistent Western nightmare - the loss of self. All our culture tells us that we are on a private road to personal salvation. Non-conformity is the defining, difficult, heroic virtue. The most enslaved corporate animal on Wall Street or in the City thinks and talks of his own amazing individuality and escapes from work by watching television and films that glorify outlaws and dissidents.

But, as Sakaiya lucidly points out in his book What is Japan? Contradictions and Transformations, history and culture, not least the demands of the cultivation of rice, have endowed the Japanese with a will to conform. They wish, above all, to be respected by and to belong to a group. They may indulge themselves in a similar fantasy life to the West, but they wish only to live out the dream of perfect belonging.

These are more crass generalisations. They feel true for the moment. But all Western versions of Japan are protean. Suddenly, we may be overcome by a wave of great Japanese novelists or a generation of politicians whose names actually stick. But I doubt it. And I also doubt that many of us will start taking holidays in Japan. It doesn't sound that great. The bewildered confrontation is destined to continue. They'll keep smiling at us and we'll keep smiling back, wondering just how badly we smell.