|by Kara Knafelc|
| The Kawaguchi Sex Museum sits at the foot of Mt. Fuji, Japan's most beloved -- and phallic -- icon. The figurines within represent either War or Love: one half of the museum displays the paraphernalia of the samurai, while the other exhibits carved figures once used to teach the privileged art of a good fuck. This odd little segue of an edifice, while it pays tribute to the highly romanticized Edo Period, also exemplifies the divided mind of the Japanese culture as a whole. This is a culture that has always been tolerant of extremes, even invested in them. The question is how the Japanese will embrace the whole new set of extremes ushered in by the monumental changes of Japan's recent history.
Mt. Fuji, once the site of religious pilgrimages, is a striking symbol of these changes. Besides the sex museum at its base, the mountain also boasts a vending machine at its gracious, 12,395-foot peak. This crowning glory, a Suntory soda machine, purveys Pocari Sweat and Oolong Tea with the precise rhythm of a slot machine. Japan's rigid economy of tradition seems to meet the new economy of commodity at this lofty point: just high enough to inspire altitude sickness, the summit of Mt. Fuji (an extinct volcano that last blew its top in 1707) feels like the apogee of a revolution, the cusp of a transformation. Its extremes are heralded by the ping-ping of coins dropping steadily into the machine, a unique tribute to the uberaccessibility of all things shiny and packaged.
Only recently has commercial culture reared its enormous, ravenous head in Japan, seemingly counterpoised against the nation's age-old, deeply entrenched belief system. Until the middle of the twentieth century, Japan existed in glorious cultural isolation; outside attempts to conquer the island had been preternaturally doomed to failure. When Kubla Khan sent his Mongolian army to conquer the Land of the Rising Sun in the late thirteenth century, a set of twin typhoons repulsed and destroyed the would-be invaders. The Japanese affectionately nicknamed these timely, fleet-wrecking storms "divine wind." Or, to translate: kamikaze. For centuries the Japanese held their archipelago -- and their culture -- to be impregnable.
The spirit of the divine wind could not, however, repel atomic clouds from Japan's sky. Into the disillusioned afterglow of a nuclear winter marched Douglas MacArthur, who announced to the Japanese that the emperor was no longer God, that they were now "liberated," and that (by the way) there would be chocolate for everyone -- even if Japan's cities had been decimated. It was this other holocaust, the Eastern death by fire, that led to a new constitution, a new parliament, and the now-legendary rebuilding of Tokyo. These radical changes inspired new myths and new fears: Japan finally began to abandon Shinto and Buddhism and construct the Cult of Convenience that has come to suggest a crisis of faith.
This breach is nowhere more profoundly evident than in the lives and works of post-war Japanese artists. Yukio Mishima illustrates the more dramatic schism of mind, being, and spirit, the imbalance of the traditional with the new. Mishima was at once skilled at penning Western-style novels and traditional Kabuki plays. Far from moving toward a new world of convenience, however, Mishima was instead attracted to the militaristic and manly values of traditional Japan. His suicide in 1970 by seppuku, or ritual disembowelment, was enacted as a display of his loyalty to the imperial system -- Mishima's romanticization of samurai ideals. His assistant, attempting to finish the job (according to tradition) by severing Mishima's head, failed and had to try it three separate times.
In stark contrast to Mishima's severe traditionalism is the wild digital ride of photographer and video artist Mariko Mori. This model-turned-art-star revels in an ecstatic realm of Warhol-esque pop surfaces, blending the futuristic, the plastic, the cyborgian, the ancient, and the spiritual. While she refers to Japanese traditions in her works, in everything from her choice of gender representation to her clothing, she doesn't attempt to recover any authentic history. Instead, she pulls ancient elements from time and places them in ambiguous, space-age landscapes. Mori's self-portraits as girly girl, as intergalactic geisha, as subway cyborg say nothing of the individual in time and everything about consumable fantasies of identity in manufactured settings. What appears to be a fabulous narcissism is also a new take on the Japanese fascination with ritualized imposture (in the vein of Kabuki theater). Mori's interactive critique of consumer culture is simultaneously belied and enhanced by the sense of fun implicit in her work.
Although laments over the rise of commercialism have become familiar to the point of cliché, the ping-ping of demand is fresh. And it's faithful: from the crest of Fuji-san to the interiors of pachinko parlors where off-duty salary men dream of outsmarting pinball machines, the ghost in the apparatus whispers its promises. Even the soundtrack of this Postmodern world jives with it. Rap groups like Sha Dara Parr bust rhymes about Pacman while karaoke machines pump out calliope-like revamps of The Carpenters, and all these riffs play carefully over the rigid surface of politics. After all, cultural hegemony becomes obsolete when authenticity becomes irrelevant; the depth of tradition collapses and flattens into endlessly reproducible sounds and images. The burgeoning Japanese pop movement works this surface. All-consuming, it endlessly re-dresses and exhibits itself, and its sounds are those of a happy child in a frenzy of pleasure. But this isn't a naïve sound. Carefully composed and styled, Japanese pop constructs deep grooves and complex layers from the grab bag of global music.
While such hyper-engagement with commercialism may seem thoroughly superficial or pathologically disengaged, perhaps this careful respect for surfaces actually reflects a reluctance to participate in an imposed system that is alien to a once-proudly imperialistic nation. Democratic discourse is the pill that Americans are taught to swallow as a panacea for all social ills, but it is not Japanese. In Japan, tradition, habit, and belief must live on in holy paradox alongside consumerism and pop culture. Although the leap of faith once required at the altar of a divine emperor might now be approximated in a random vending selection, Japan's centuries-long coexistence with extremes has set the stage.