Session 5
An Apology for "Drop Dead Cute":

The Global Context of Japanese Contemporary Popular Culture and Aesthetics

Organizer: Dong-Yeon Koh, The Korea National University of Arts

Chair: Dong-Yeon Koh, The Korea National University of Arts

Scholars of postwar Japanese culture often emphasize the historical memory of the atomic bomb, the subsequent experience of demilitarization, the strong American presence, and its economic and political intervention in Japan as elements of a framework to explain the current development "cute" aesthetics in Japanese manga and animation. This panel explores the more complicated picture of Japanese people's self-image as passive, infantilized "victims" and their historical memories of the Second World War, by inviting scholarly efforts to situate the recent development of Japanese contemporary art and popular culture in diverse historical and social frameworks. Important topics include: the role of otaku culture in Japanese art, especially in relation to highly sexualized images of pubescent boys and girls, as well as uncritical technophilia; Japanese people's efforts to come to terms with their own economic and cultural powers during the postwar years; and the relationship between Japanese and American culture and history as viewed in the recent development of the Japanese avant-garde and Japanese manga and animation. The panel includes papers from art history, anthropology, sociology, and history that might offer a better understanding of the distinctive Japanese experience and its subsequent impact on the development of Japanese art and culture during the postwar years.

1) Shige (CJ) Suzuki, University of Colorado, Boulder

Who Is Responsible for the War?: Nakazawa Keiji’s Barefoot Gen and the Construction of the War Memory

Several scholars point out that Japanese popular cultural texts (anime, manga, film, and TV drama) about the wartime experience emphatically depict the Japanese from the perspective of the “victim.” For instance, Takahata Isao’s anime film Grave of the Fireflies (1988) fictionally depicts the tragedy of the two orphans who has suffered from the US air raids in the last phase of the WWII and their struggle to survive the hardships after the war. While reflecting the social and historical reality of the period, the film also constitutes an imaginary position of the Japanese only as the victims, which ideologically brings about the collective amnesia about Japan as a perpetrator of the war. Nakazawa Keiji’s long-seller manga series, Barefoot Gen, also narrates the same historical past through a viewpoint of a six-year-old boy. Yet, Nakazawa’s manga, based on his own experience as a hibakusha, creates distinctively different ways of representing the wartime/postwar experiences from Takahata’s film. In this manga, Nakazawa Keiji avoids the narcissistic sentimentalism and addresses the intricate causes for the violence conducted by the Japanese on both Japanese and other Asian people. It also resists and even criticizes the ideology of victimhood that has lingered in the postwar Japan. In my paper, I would like to examine how Barefoot Gen examines and represents the nation’s past in terms of its aesthetics and politics and its ability to articulate the accountability of the citizens in the postwar period.

2) Artur Lozano Mendez, Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona

Holier-than-Cute Techno-Orientalist Discourse

This contribution builds on techno-orientalism, a discourse defined by Morley and Robins (1995). Instances of techno-orientalism from the nineties onward paradoxically present Japan as the archetype of Western postmodernism--the accent on mass consumption culture and cuteness (kawaisa). Techno-orientalism was essential in spreading an image of a hyper-technified, dehumanized and materialist Japan. It emerged at the end of the sixties, when the international “regime of translation” could not maintain the “schema of co-figuration” (Sakai Naoki) that bound together exclusively the words "West - Modernity - Progress." It posed Japan as a menace for the survival of the European/American cultural heritages and lifestyles (70s, 80s). Such ludicrous forecasts did not materialize and so the discourse has found another way to disavow the stab at “pluralisation of modernity” (Alastair Bonnett) represented by Japan. Think of the contempt and scorn distilled by articles at Wired, news about Japanese robots (presented as cute or eccentric, but also as an unpractical waste of money), by the character attributed to Western otaku--everything that informs “technologies of recognition” nowadays (Shih Shu-mei). When that image is criticized or ridiculed (be it on moral or aesthetic grounds), what the West is disavowing is no less than its own enhanced mirror image. Techno-orientalism has developed like a Freudian symptom, it's a discursive malformation that conceals a repressed conflict: the grudge that the citizens from Western countries hold against their own social model, and the projection of its most displeasing features to other societies.

3) Dong-Yeon Koh, The Korea National University of Arts, Seoul

Murakami’s “Little Boy” Syndrome: A Victim or Aggressor in Contemporary Japanese and American Art

This paper examines the ambiguous nature of Murakami’s criticism toward the postwar Japanese condition—as the artist most effectively captured in his phrase “A Little Boy,” which was also the title of his curated exhibition at the Japan Society of New York in 2005. As Murakami wrote in his introduction to the catalogue, demilitarized Japan after the Second World War underwent a collective sense of helplessness, and the metaphor of a little boy is intended to describe Japan’s supposedly unavoidable reliance on its big brother, America. The name “Little Boy,” in fact, originates in the code name used by the American military for the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. The proliferation of “cuteness” in Japanese contemporary art, which draws upon youth culture, especially otaka culture, evinces a common urge among the postwar generation in Japan to escape from their horrible memories and sense of powerlessness. Murakami’s rhetorical analysis of Japan’s self-image seems, however, contradictory, given his extremely aggressive business tactics, which can find no counterpart in the Western art world—not even in the efforts of Murakami’s predecessor, Andy Warhol. Like <My Lonesome Cowboy> (1998), whose hyper sexuality defies its pubescent and immature appearance, his art, theory, and art marketing indicate the paradoxical nature of his theory of impotence. By focusing on his manifesto and writings published on the occasion of his 2005 exhibition and his style of managing Kaikai Kiki Ltd., this paper delves into the dual nature of Murakami’s interpretation of postwar Japanese art and culture, particularly in relation to those of America.

4) Adrian Favell, Aarhus University (also UCLA

After Murakami: Cosmopolitanism, creativity and the changing international experiences of young Japanese artists in the post-Bubble period

The international success of Takashi Murakami, and his curated touring shows “Superflat”, “Tokyo Girls Bravo” and “Little Boy”, has created a dominant frame for the presentation and reception of Japanese contemporary art: one that emphasises the cross-over of pop culture and pop art, an aesthetics of cuteness, and Japanese art as a nationally-specific reflection of the country’s post-war complexes and social problems. In many ways, while seducing the West with a very commercial neo-japonisme, it is a frame that distorts and misrepresents most contemporary art from Japan since the economic “bubble” of the 80s and early 90s. My paper thus presents the new generation of Japanese artists, focusing in particular on artists featured in a group show presented during the Yokohama Triennale of 2008, called The Echo <>. These emerging artists, all around 30, incorporate post-national themes, attitudes and experiences in their work, as a result of very contrasting international experiences to Murakami’s 40something “bubble” generation. They reject the passive-aggressive anti-orientalist strategies adopted by the previous generation, which includes Murakami and artists such as Yoshitomo Nara, Mariko Mori, Makoto Aida, and Yukinori Yanagi, ideas rooted in post-war obsessions from childhood, an inferiority complex about the US and the West, declining and marginal “otaku” sub-cultures, and the experience of the 80s/90s economic boom years. Rather, the younger generation, including fast-rising artists such as Kohei Nawa, Kengo Kito, Kei Takemura, and Taro Izumi are producing a very different art that reflects a sense of Japan’s changing role in Asia and the world, environmental concerns, new technologies, and new forms of youth and street culture.

Discussant: Marie Thorsten, Doshisha University, Kyoto