On the background of Anglo-Japanese relations John L. Tran examines the meaning of signs as symbols of otherness. The meaning or point of the signs he uses is derived from the cultural context, in which they are firmly immersed. The signs are however used extensively as a form of intercultural communication and exchange. But when they are uprooted from the context of environment they belong to, they can be used exactly in a way which strengthens clichè and supports generalizations of each other´s culture, or its domination (for instance through certain representations of other cultures in media, film, literature etc). In this article and associated series this aspect of development of simplistic representations and through certain media, in this case the advertising signs, are examined.
No Place Like Home | 2007
Over time any cultural difference can be assimilated if there is a material advantage in doing so.
Shame of the memory of this material gain requires the development and application of a suitable spiritual, cultural or mythical narrative.
The structure of this intervention can be determined either through the steady repetition and adaptation of certain behaviour, or through the manipulation of cultural signifiers by groups with vested interests.
Signs at their most basic are transmitters of functional information; they tell us where to go, what we are allowed to do, what delights can be found further down the road, how to avoid getting killed. However, they also give character to an area through their design, language, and by the invisible lattice of values they create around us. This is being done quite discretely; signs are quickly edited out of our perception if they are not relevant to what we are doing at the moment. Their value, or power, is only dependent on the meaning we assign to them. Without recognition they are absurd, mute, like money or personalities.
This series of images was produced as part of the 150th anniversary of the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of Amity and Commerce. This is an odd event to commemorate, as this ‘agreement’ was effectively forced on Japan, one of a series of ‘unequal treaties’ that western industrial powers imposed on China, Korea and Japan in the age of empire. A series of cultural events was coordinated by the British Council and the British Embassy to emphasise common ground between the UK and Japan, focusing on creativity in art and design, scientific research and innovation.
The rhetoric of the event described a long, seemingly unbroken, history of friendly cultural exchange and cooperation between the two countries. In the inaugural and closing speeches by the Foreign Secretary and British ambassador to Japan, the unpleasantness of the colonial sub-text of the treaty of 1858 and the Second World War were simply not mentioned. To expect anything else would be naïve of course; and it cannot be denied that the UK and Japan have enjoyed a special relationship. From pottery to battleships, curry to car design there has been a near constant to and from between the two countries over 150 years. The impetus for this project, however, was that despite various forms of cultural exchange and a desire to affirm a positive relationship, the majority of people I meet in Japan and the UK have impressions of each other that are so heavily determined by media representations (media in the widest possible sense) that personal contact can barely compete with an image constructed over years of exposure to films, literature, art, gossip, news stories and TV programmes. Ever since I can remember, most weekends on British television there is a war film. They alternate between being set in Europe and the Pacific, though occasionally there may be forays into Africa or mainland Asia. In other words, the defining paradigm for the British view of Japanese men, on the most widespread and influential media, is one of opposition. The opposition may be portrayed empathetically, as in films such as Hell in the Pacific, or None but the Brave, but more often than not Japanese male characters are ciphers; shadowy figures that run screaming out the jungle in fanatical disregard of their own lives.
From the mid-nineteenth century to the present-day the representation of Japanese women abroad has revolved around sexual fascination. Pierre Loti’s 1887 novella Madame Chrysanthème, which starts with him penetrating the land of Japan through an ‘enchanted fissure’ and ends up with him deserting his Japanese sexual companion, it is a narrative of exploitation that has seen innumerable permutations, from Madame Butterfly to the Brando film Sayonara. The gaze of early European and North American photographers in Japan, sought out ‘types’ rather than personalities when it was turned on the native population, and the female type most commonly found in these 19th century photographs is the geisha. This is not to say that this scopophilia was imported from the west; Japan had its own tradition of the gendered gaze in bijinga - woodblock prints and paintings of beautiful women - but what is notable, from the point of view of national identity, is how little the representation of Japanese women in contemporary Euroamerican media deviates from the sexual reductionism of the 19th century. We can see the trope of the available and exploited woman in, for example Kōyuki’s character in the 2003 film The Last Samurai, and the main protagonist Sayuri in Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha. It is difficult not to see the popularity of Araki’s erotic photography in Europe and America as being in some part due to this well-established history of subaltern representation.
Like it or not, whenever two countries celebrate diplomatic relations with an exchange of culture it is, in some part, an expression of fascination with perceived otherness. This is not necessarily a bad thing in itself, but the problem is, of course, that perceived difference can so easily be simply projection. British TV and newspapers love to dwell mockingly on the bizarre and perverse in Japanese culture, love hotels, panty vending machines, robot office ladies and the like, while eccentricity and idiosyncrasy are supposedly hallmarks of being British. NHK, the Japanese national TV broadcaster, loves the Cotswolds, Peter Rabbit and high tea (made with leaf tea properly brewed – never with a cheap tea bag squashed against the side of a cup for 5 seconds). What can be counted on not to appear in these national narratives is banality. Banality does not encourage desire, or make for an engaging identity. It also draws attention to the uniformity of modern life, and, by extension, the extent to which much of what we suppose to be our ‘unique’ identities is a by-product of the global market place; an economy which tantalises us with the promise of individuality at the same time that it extinguishes it.
text by John L Tran