Japan vs. the Other

Food for Thought

As an island nation, Japan perceives the outside world as the Other. The awareness of the Other is particularly pronounced in neighborhoods like Aoyama. Just as Japan is a mystery to foreigners, the Other is a mystery to the Japanese. Because there are few immigrants, authentic representations of foreign cultures are practically nonexistent, which makes the Japanese arguably the greatest cultural appropriator.

Harajuku smells like teen spirit, out to prove something to the Other. The image of the Other takes on a life of its own, removed from reality and fetishized. The familiar Western interface makes for easy entertainment for Western tourists, like Japanese tourists visiting Little Tokyo.

There is general acceptance of Western superiority here, which helped Japan ascend rapidly after the war. I think it’s sensible. The Japanese are pretty good at setting their ego aside when necessary.

When someone superior stands in front of you, you are compelled to compete either at their game (like making better pizza than Italians) or at your own (like being preoccupied with what defines “Japanese cuisine”). In that process, you lose sight of yourself because who you are is not measurable. Such an attempt would result in an inferiority complex or imposter syndrome.

The West towers over the rest of the world. It signifies cutting-edge and sophistication. It is almost impossible to escape the Western gaze. For that reason, one must plow through the web of self-consciousness to see what is unique about Japan.

Once a nation joins the ranks of advanced economies, it cannot survive by competing. Measurable qualitative improvement, like faster, cheaper, and better, is merely a function of effort. Competitive advantages lie with developing nations willing to do anything to survive. Japan has long passed that point. It must now focus on being different, not better.

Being an island nation is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it naturally produces unique products because it is isolated from the rest of the world, but on the other hand, it has a hard time seeing its own uniqueness.