Japan (1) – On the Cultural Supermarket

July 9, 2009

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Gordon Mathews, Global culture/individual identity: searching for home in the cultural supermarket. Routledge, 2000. ISBN 0415206162.

Absolutely essential reading for anyone involved in Japanese art/craft, especially those operating outside Japan. HIghly recommended for anyone travelling in Japan for the purposes of pursuing traditional Japanese culture.

Though the book also covers America and China, of particular interest are the first 75 pages devoted to Japan, plus the concluding 33 pages.

Chapter 1 talks about culture in general and cultural identity; how, these days, it is linked to nation-states in a world more interested in globalisation. The idea of a cultural supermarket is posited – individuals around the world constantly ‘going shopping’ and the identity issues associated with a smorgasbord apporach to culture both in everyday life and in the special vocational calling associated with traditional art/craft.

Chapter 2 sums up anthropological fieldwork interviews with dozens of Japanese practitioners working in the traditional art/crafts in Japan. Interestingly, they all seem to be born before 1950 and there’s no discussion for example of the traditional lifestyle ‘boot camp’ experiences for young people these days on Sado Island in the training of the next generation of taiko dummers. Nor the rigours associated with the young these days entering the world of geisha or entering the closed communities of sumo wrestler stables.

For any Westerner visiting or staying in Japan, coming to grips with the Westerness of Japan is one thing, but there are other equally important concepts to be grasped and appreciated: the discourse on being Japanese (nihonjinron), traditional apprenticeship in the arts (iemoto seido), operating in Tokyo and outside Tokyo, operating as a ‘Western’ artist in Japan and as a ‘Japanese’ artist in Japan. All are lucidly and brilliantly described.

Of particular interest to me are the implications for textile study, especially the very great divide between kimono/silk/urban/middle-class and the bast fibres/country/working poor, beyond the cultural (global) stereotypes surrounding kimono/geisha/Kyoto. Outside the scope of this study are the impacts of the internet (written in 2000) and how art/craft exponents born post-World War II tackle issues sch as fluency in English and overseas travel and teaching as part of their lifestyle. The transfer of skills from Japanese to non-Japanese is hinted at in the discussion of the huge numbers of foreign shakuhachi students living in Tokyo at any one time. Obviously the iemoto seido is largely a thing of the past (young apprentices are these days more likely to be middle-aged women attending kimono-wearing or craft classes) and the model simply doesn’t function as it traditionally did with foreign ‘apprentices’ living and working overseas. References to the influence of traditional Chinese culture are particularly pertinent given the importance of the Shoso-in collection and the ways in which the Japanese have come to transcend Chinese textiles and made Japanese textiles truly Japanese. The barriers artists come across are not dissimilar to products withdrawn from sale or ‘discontinued lines’ in the supermarket paradigm: I think of the adaptation required to work in plastic resin, used in the carving of traditional ornaments and hair combs from tortoise-shell, a material no longer available in the wild but a product of aqua-farming. I’m also struck by the use of synthetic substitutes in the modern ‘supermarket’ (as opposed to the ‘corner store’): silk replaced by silk substitutes, the machine-made so good it looks indistinguishable from the handmade, synthetic dyes replacing natural indigo, the outsourcing of things Japanese to China.

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