Postmodernism in Japan

Food for Thought

The Western impression of Japan is that it’s a beautiful country, but much of the populated areas of Japan are quite unaesthetic. They are densely packed with houses made of cheap, disposable materials and power lines littering any breathing spaces. Some pockets of Tokyo are pretty but modern and Western. If you want to see beauty in the Japanese sense, you’d have to travel to the countryside.

However, for the students of postmodernism, Tokyo offers more learning materials than any Western city. It is “hyperreal” in that you cannot trace the origins of what they are simulating or appropriating, creating a spectacle that even Disneyland cannot match.

Japan was never colonized, so the Westerners did not have a direct hand in construction. Furthermore, the limited international exposure of the Japanese means Western aesthetics that are only skin deep, stripped of historical or cultural significance—they are devoid of referents—unlike in modern Western cities where they are simply forgotten by the newer generations but can be recovered.

The most conspicuous example is the ornamental use of English words. They are nonsensical in their contexts, much like the American appropriation of Japanese characters in tattoos, except that it’s everywhere you look in Japan. For instance, an elderly woman wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with “The University of Arizona” likely has no understanding of the institution.

The transient nature of Japanese architecture, where a house loses its value once occupied, is rooted in practical responses to historical challenges like earthquakes, fires, and wars. What looks like a brick wall is rarely real upon closer inspection, evoking the feel of a Hollywood set.

However, this approach to truth is deeply embedded in Japanese philosophy, where the notion of an absolute, universal truth has long been deconstructed. When Jacques Derrida, the father of Deconstructionism, visited Japan, he was told he had nothing to deconstruct here. Japan’s philosophical traditions have always embraced a “post-truth” reality, adept at navigating life without reliance on universal truths.