Over the past 35 years Japan has really carved out a niche for itself when it comes to consumer goods. For every item one can imagine, there are so many variations; some very sophisticated and luxurious, others unbelievably fanciful or cute. The Japanese are simply the best at making products that entice. And why is this so?
This is the questionTaro Koyama and Miki Kunichica scholars of product design and luxury brands set out to answer with a short paper published in 2014 called “Made in Japan From an Anthropological and Psychoanalytic Perspective.” I ran across their work when Googling “Japan and pedophilia”– a topic of great interest to me.
The thirteen-page treatise is divided into five sections which I will attempt to summarize. These are:
1. Made in Japan from a psychoanalytic perspective
2. Made in Japan from an anthropological perspective
3. Japanese climate and made in Japan
4. Case study: The traditional luxurious kimono
The first section was by far the most difficult to read for someone who has taken very little psychology. It begins by explaining Japan’s system of beliefs. Sufficiently isolated, Japan developed its own strong culture based native animism supplemented with borrowed Buddhism, Taoism and bits of Confucianism. Animism, which purports humans are just feature of nature like anything else, is the overriding viewpoint of the Japanese. It is an ancient among belief systems and has flourished unimpeded.
The word “castration” is used throughout the paper to describe how the human psyche is modified by certain events which impede pure enjoyment (Freud stuff). An individual example of this which all human experience, is that at some point during infant-hood we are “castrated” as we become separated from our mother’s loving gaze– our first sense of “pure enjoyment” thwarted. Similarly, on a much grander scale, pagan cultures were “castrated” by more powerful, organized groups that subjugated the people and imposed their systems of belief. This occurred across the globe, but the islands of Japan escaped.
Historically, military aggression was often accompanied by cultural oppression and the imposition of religion on conquered people. Major world religions such as Christianity and Islam were imposed by rulers, while ancient indigenous religions (such as animism) were suppressed or extinguished. In Japan, however, monotheistic religions such as Christianity did not replace animism since the missionaries who came to Japan were expelled.
Thus the animism, the native character of Japan remained in tact while many other cultures endured castration and remained forever changed. Castration, takes human beings from a state of perpetually seeking pure pleasure and inserts a barrier…a prohibition imposed by a paternalistic God or “father God.” The longing for pure pleasure is replaced by the desire to abide by the prohibition and appease the “father God” through moral obedience. The authors, Koyama and Kunichika seem to suggest that societies as a whole benefit from this sense of loss (though prohibition) as it somehow brings about conscience and moral law:
Therefore, absolute enjoyment is recast as prohibited (though not impossible in principle), and by accepting this law of prohibition― which the father or father-god imposes on child― moral order comes about and people develop a cherished conscience.
In Western culture the castration of our natural enjoyment is replaced moral law and we develop a sense of guilt. The authors suggest this self-restraint brings about a higher, more grown up human order, when they write:
From a psychoanalytic perspective, since Japanese people are not thoroughly “castrated,” they are demi-humans or children.
Considering also that in Japanese society shame is emphasized rather than sin, castration is incomplete, and therefore Japanese people are “childish” or unable to become adults. In other words, Japanese people are “perverted” because people who do not think of the law of castration as prohibition― but, rather, deny this law in their minds…
So in lieu of conscience brought about by the notion of sin against a moral law, the Japanese keep things in order by shaming. The authors go on to compare Japan to Alice in Wonderland, where “the law of science is reversed or perverted.”
…in Japan the way of life― one’s sense of value, work-life balance, and so on― are reversed from the standpoint of Western culture. Japan is a kind of holy place of perversion. It is very difficult to find mature adults in Japan; most are childish people who bully the weak, women, and workers.
It is at this point that the authors use Japanese animation arts (anime) to illustrate. They claim that Japanese men are not mature enough to be respected by adult women; thus they love young girls and depict women as girls in their comics and animation. (This is something I’ve suspected and read elsewhere…). The authors write:
In Western society, transitioning from a girl to a woman is good and normal, but in Japan, remaining an immature girl is desirable.
Since Japanese men are incompletely castrated, they neglect the order of morality and love the cruel scenes depicted in comics. Therefore, Japanese hentai comics often portray barbarous scenes in which girls are raped; such scenes help immature adult men, or demi-humans, compensate for their inferiority complexes.
In a nutshell, the Japanese have not reached adulthood due to the fact that animism is still a strong factor and they were never effectively castrated by a monotheistic culture emphasising prohibition. The above quotes end the psychoanalytical section.
The anthropological piece that follows reiterates the importance of animism in the Japanese culture and further defines this feature as “multi-naturalism”– a belief in just one culture/nature that is manifested though various creatures and bodies equally. This is juxtaposed to the West where nature exists separately and man-made cultures in various forms are laid imperfectly overtop. The difference is a view of nature that is “one with” (Japan) vs. “making our way through” (most other cultures).
Japanese people do not distinguish themselves from natural beings and feel that humans change and expire as all natural beings do. For Japanese people, it is not peculiar for animals or plants to “speak” and become heroes or heroines in novels and other narratives.
Now we get to the climate and kimono part of the paper. The kimono is used as the shining example of Japanese consumer goods. It is wearable by both sexes, young and old in every season and is even expandable such that one can by a quality kimono and wear it for decades. As a wearable piece of art, kimono patterns are almost always in-tune with nature and the changing seasons.
The subtle and transitional Japanese seasons, as well as the culture of multi-naturalism, have engendered the complicated flora and fauna that are reflected in the patterns on kimonos. With kimono design patterns, Japanese express their keen sense of the seasons; the kimono is viewed as a device used to display the subtle transitions of the seasons, as with the use of the wind bell or moon-viewing dumplings.
This was followed by a couple more pages (titled section 4.) about expensive silk kimonos and the care of silk worms.
…the kimono exhibits a kind of luxuriousness in its determination of the sophisticated behaviors of the Japanese.
So the Japanese, fully in tune with nature through their animism, take great care in making kimonos from culturing the silk worms to ensuring the patterns represent their surroundings as interpreted though their animism.
The leap from claiming Japanese are “childish” to the production of “sophisticated” good surprised me here. I was officially lost in the arguments and would have remained so if not for the short conclusion which tied these two together.
From an anthropological perspective, there is traditional animism and perspectivism in Japan, and therefore Japanese people do not distinguish themselves from animals and plants
From a psychoanalytic perspective, Japanese people are children, and their basic desire is to remain children and reject maturity. The Licca-chan doll (the popular Japanese version of Barbi) reflects the feelings that Japanese girls should remain immature forever, while the Barbie doll reflects the desire of American girls to quickly become glamorous adults, get married, and have children.
These points summed up what I’d read (with the exception of the kimono talk), but all along I wondered why the title of the paper included “Made in Japan.” Finally the last sentence explained it.
In general, Japanese products leave nothing to be desired in the way of attentiveness or scrupulous care because customers are regarded as children who need care and great attention to detail.
If not for this last sentence I’m not sure I could have pieced the sections of the paper together, but now the premise was clear.
So what is so special about “Made in Japan?”
The Japanese are a tedious lot who expect pure enjoyment from their products and in turn find joy in the creation of such. It is what makes their products so wonderfully curious– fulfilling child-like fantasies that are part of the culture and creating interesting forays for the rest of the adult world who generally prefers to grow up.
Was any of this interesting to you? Well it certainly was to me. All along I’ve wondered why the Japanese are so good at perfecting and refining. I’ve been curious about their creativity which thrives under shame in their homes, schools and workplaces– the outcome of imperfect prohibition (castration) of their natural animism as I understand it now.
And while appreciate the Japanese beyond-Disney ability to regress and enjoy, I personally struggled with this preference for a child-like existence which includes passive-aggressive tactics and selfishness in my own life as a Japanese wife and later as someone trying to hold on to the culture and my identity following divorce. In the end I find, that I prefer to live as an adult with a grown up conscience among other adults who are similar in nature. Otherwise…I fear, the original reason for me Googling and finding this paper, research on “Japanese and pedophilia” would not be of special concern.
Made in Japan from an anthropological and psychoanalytic perspective, published in 産業経済研究所紀要 第 24 号 March 2014, by Taro KOYAMA and Kunichika MIKI, professors at Chubu Universtity, can be found online.