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- vol 2 -
The WA Boom and
Modern Japanese Japonism
 
 
But why WA? Why Japanese-ness now? For some people it is nostalgia, and for some other it is freshness. The end of 20th century in Japan was the time of westernization in many ways and busyness. For those born before or at the beginning of the rapid economic growth, the Japanese-ness gives them a kind of sense and time to cherish their old days. Then for those born in the 80s and 90s the traditional as well as early 20th century Japanese-ness appears to them as something fresh and even unique.
 
The WA Boom
1. Films
2006 was a remarkable year for the Japanese film industry, for the Japan-made films not only marked the highest box office sales in the past but also exceeded that of foreign films for the first time in 21 years. These films that hammered out records in ticket sales and attendance include a number of love-romance stories, yet doing as well or even better are the samurai films (which are called “jidai-geki” = history play, or “katsugeki” = historical action) and films that focus on the good old days of Japan.

The sound of the word “samurai” has always been a cool one among the young generations, but samurai (history) dramas on TV were by no means geared toward the generation that were more attracted to love romance dramas. If the filmmakers made samurai films in the same sense of making samurai TV dramas, then the films probably wouldn’t have made such huge success. What gave them so much attention was the effective use of the actors and actresses together with the latest film technology. The young and most popular actors and actresses of the day play the roles of the main characters, and the older and experienced ones play the supporting roles that are essential to the stories. By bringing the leading young figures of the important roles the film obtains freshness as well as grabs attention of the younger audience, and including experienced figures adds depth and the kind of feel that settles down the lightness as compared to having only young actors and actresses. Additionally, the films make full use of the latest technology so that they would become highly entertaining not only story-wise but also visually and auditorily. In this way, the samurai films quickly gained and popularity became part of the mainstream films in Japan today.
 
Samurai / History Films: some of the recent hits
Title Year Main Actor/Actress
Tasogare Seibei
(The Twilight Samurai)
2002 Sanada Hiroyuki / Miyazawa Rie
(Ujio in The Last Samurai, Kenji in Rush Hour 3)
Zato-Ichi 2003 Beat Takeshi             
(=Kitano Takeshi: comedian, actor and film director)
SHINOBI 2005 Odagiri Jo, Nakama Yukie
Bushi no Ichibun 2006 Kimura Takuya (aka “Kimutaku”)
Oh-Oku 2006 Nakama Yukie
Sakuran (English desc.) 2007 Tsuchiya Anna             
(popular fashion model, actress and rock musician)
Tsukigami 2007 Tsumabuki Satoshi (Hyakkimaru in DORORO)
(DORORO)(English desc.) (2007) Tsumabuki Satoshi
 
Japanese films other than samurai/ Sengoku-Edo history films include those that take a look on Japanese society closer to today as represented in ALWAYS Sanchome no Yuuhi (Sunset on the Third Street: 2005 www.always3.jp/ ). ALWAYS is about the life of the people living in 1950s Tokyo, the days people were leading rather poor but happy and mentally vital lives recovering from the war. In a way, the lives during those days might have been much “healthier” than today. People were poor but had dreams, and strong bonds existed among the neighbors. The scenes of the small, old Japanese houses, the half-built Tokyo Tower, trams running in the middle of the wide streets, the old-fashioned cars moving around – those sights known and unknown at the same time appear amusing and interesting for the younger generations, and invoke a strong sense of nostalgia for the older generation who actually grew up during those days. Many of the audience regardless the age subconsciously reflected back on the kind of warmth that have faded today, feeling a sense of small happiness and composure.
Released in 2005, the film marked an attendance of approx. 2.7 million people and box office sales of 3 billion yen, winning the Japan Academy Awards in 14 divisions including the Best Picture.

Another kind is the type like Mushishi just released a week ago (3/24 2007) featuring the connection of nature, old Japanese beliefs (myths, stories, ghosts, spirits, etc.) and lives of people. It is said that the creator of the story (originial manga) does not set the time a specific era, though the characters appear in Japanese traditional clothing and the worldview heavily resembles that of old Japan, perhaps around 18-19C. The theme as well as the worldview of this story is very “Japanese”, that is to say, many of the readers and viewers of Mushishi will have a nostalgic feeling as if peering into the primal scenery of Japan.

All the kinds of films mentioned above did of course succeed for their entertainment quality. This could be said especially for the younger audience, as for them, the worldviews are unknown and seeing them is not too different from seeing any other SF movie. Nevertheless, one Japan-themed film being soon after another and most of them becoming hits over several years tells that something more than the qualities of each film feels appealing to the general public. And this “something more” is probably the sense of “WA”, the sense of “Japanese-ness”.
 
2. Books
Whilst aliteracy is becoming a social issue in the age of everything being digital, some books are selling off the shelves and some of those are of surprising characteristics and topics.
A book called Empitsu de Oku no Hosomichi was published last year, and it quickly became the book of the day. This book, Oku no Hosomichi with a Pencil (literal translation), is a book that contains all the passage from the famous historical travel book Oku no Hoshomichi (The Narrow Road to the Interior (Deep North)) written by Matsuo Basho, but in larger fonts that are printed in a light color instead of entirely black. Letters are printed this way so that the reader can trace the sentences little by little day by day, and this very analogue book for some reason became a big boom. The reasons behind the popularity probably lie in the nature of Basho’s passage and of his journey, and the analogue action of grabbing a pencil and tracing the lines in this age of typing. Basho’s journey was a slow and relaxed one which he often times did nothing but to appreciate the nature or feel the season in the air and observe the lifestyles of the people he saw on his way. His journey was relaxed with lots of loitering around and wasting time, but his passages are rich in expressions of the deep sentiments he felt on his journey. The people of the old times sought sentiment, love and beauty in the littlest things as well as waste of time and space. Extras were not meaningless for them, as they are today in the days of efficiency. This very idea of having extras, waste and slowing down, the sentiments and the cultivation five senses is what modern people attracted to.

Another bestseller of 2006 is a book called Kokka no Hinkaku (lit. Dignity of a Nation), which literally discusses about the dignity of Japan. The author Fujiwara Masahiko who is a mathematician states that Japan is the only nation in the world which has the “civilization of emotion and shape (N.B. literal translation of original Japanese “joucho to katachi no bunmei”)” and Japanese people in the latter half of 20th century have long forgotten this national character under the wave of rapid globalization. Fujiwara claims that revolution of pure logic and rationality cannot stop the accelerating deterioration of the modern society, and that what Japan needs to treasure right now are emotions than rationality, national language than foreign language, the spirit of bushido than democracy, and the “dignity of the nation”. Naturally the book aroused controversies here and there, but have surely grabbed the hearts of people and invoked the feelings of national pride.
 

3. Learning the Ways and Arts
With the increasing visibility of the WA boom, classes of traditional arts such as flower arrangements, Japanese calligraphy, tea, classic dance as well as martial arts (budo, bujutsu) geared toward adults are increasing. Japanese traditional arts teach the importance of spiritual balance, that is to say the emotions and the balance between response and motion, at the same time as developing concentration. An increasing number of people value these qualities, and some of the adults wish to have their children acquire these qualities so that they will grow up into composed and respectable adults.

Like this, it can be explained that the WA boom gives a sense of comfort, composure, calmness, relaxation and nostalgia, or perhaps vice versa – the WA boom is created from the modern people’s longing for those qualities that tended to be forgotten or neglected in the lives today. Films allow viewing the lives and culture of the past and stimulating curiosity as well as giving senses of nostalgia. Books like “Empitsu de…” remind the importance of “extra” time and space, of relaxing, of releasing oneself from the constant strain and stress of the busy life. Tea cafes mentioned in the previous page provides a chance to settle down for a moment, not only by their “WA” menus that are more familiar to Japanese people than western menus, but also with the entire atmosphere created by the space, interiors, lightings, etc. Learning traditional manners and ways is a way of learning the importance of balance between stillness and motion and the balance of emotions.

Behind this tendency of being attracted to “WA”, there is the change in the way people think about their lives. For decades many people have led busy lives constantly being pressed by time, always concerned about speed, efficiency and status. This part has not changed entirely today, but as seen in the other long trend of “iyashi” (healing, relaxation) and health, more and more people have started to value slow life, the quality of daily life. For a Japanese, maybe the very origin of the native culture is the place to seek those elements for a qualitatively rich life, instead of searching a foreign field. Taking in “WA” into the daily lives may be the nature of Japanese people.


At the same time, this quest for Japanese qualities builds a kind of nationalism, not a radical one but a pure affection for the native culture and tradition. Like seen in the public reaction to Kokka no Hinkaku, people taking pride in Japanese culture and admiring the spirit of bushido and manners are increasing. These qualities are taught not only through books and the arts, but are even actually naturally included in the Japan-related movies and stories described above. One of the convenient parts about history films is that they can portray themes related to human nature, sympathy, manners and the right and wrong very naturally, where as those elements tend to leave awkwardness in modern stories. I have not mentioned this above, but media plays a part in growing a sense of nationalism, too. International sports competitions like the Olympic games, FIFA World Cup, WBC, and various other championships are not just aired more but are gaining high viewership. Athletes representing the country are given nicknames like samurai (warrior, male) and (yamato-)nadeshiko (a name for a virtuous woman). Surely, the awareness of “Japan” in Japan is growing.

 
 
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The Modern Japanese Japonism

 

 
Made in Japan Contents
ANIME ORIGAMI BUDO
MANGA MASS ENTERTAINMENT JAPANESE TEA CULTURE
THE MEISTERS OF JAPAN PLAYFUL & PLAYABLE ELECTRONICS
 
Spirited Away (2001)
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  • Yasunari Kawabata
  • Banana Yoshimoto
  • Yukio Mishima
  • Inazo Nitobe
  • Japanese Tea
  • Bonsai
  • VAIO
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