Dilemma of Japanese Artists


In the last two hundred years, there were primarily two historically significant events where Japan went through radical transformations, be it social, political or cultural. The two paradigm shifts that divided the lineage into “pre-“ and “post-“ occurred roughly a century apart.

The first historical turn came around the time of Meiji restoration in 1868 when Japan tried to eagerly learn the Western science and technology, as well as political and juridical systems that were far more advanced. Simultaneously, Western cultural values were brought about to the Far East; so profound as they were that people even started to dress like Westerners. Japan faced a critical moment to decide whether they were to reject its own cultural values in the face of new external forces or desperately cling on to their own. The former is the course of action that Japan ultimately took, which meant denying its own rich history together with identity. The vacuum created by the loss of cultural ground was quickly filled with the Imperialist ethos imported from the West, which led eventually to catastrophic humanitarian consequences and devastation.  

Indeed, the second significant event occurred at the end of the Second World War. Having been stripped of its political supremacy, the king Hirohito along with other loyal members was reduced to the status of a mere symbol. The American occupation of Japan lasted for several years. During that time, in order to prevent the resurgence of a fascistic state in Japan, GHQ with General Douglas MacArthur in command lobbied the Japanese government to draw up the article 9 of the Japanese constitution; the formal renouncement of armed forces as a means to settle international disputes. Also, in order for the nation to not hold grudge toward the victorious America, American culture including soap opera and fashion were extensively promoted across Japan. In essence, cultural industry was artificially foisted. A foreign culture was yet again superimposed on Japan, amalgamating with the ethos of the existent unique tradition and cultural heritage. As a result, a peculiar patchwork like culture emerged.

Whether to reject its own history by calling it old-fashioned, or conversely revisiting its history in an obsessive manner, the task of making art about Japan is a challenge in the 21st century. It is indeed a fascinating culture that is multi-layered, and various artists have attempted to dissect it from different perspectives. Whether Takashi Murakami’s Japanese pop and sub-culture inspired anime figurines or the aesthetic values explored by Junichiro Tanizaki in his seminal essay In Praise of Shadow, there are varying shades of grey. The order of things is disparately different in Japan from that of the West, yet they share economic appearance and neo-liberalist values.

In the US, Japanese culture and the notion of Zen were revisited and reinvented in the form of a simulacrum as Jean Baudrillard would call. Since D.T. Suzuki published a series of his writings in the 1940s, the immanentist nature of Zen has gradually been assimilated into American pop culture, primarily because of its tolerant nature with other religions. During the 60s, the Beat Generation writers with the leading figure Jack Kerouac popularised Zen, albeit in a slightly skewed way. What is perceived as Zen in the West might differ from the authentic Zen. The question yet remains of whether what appears to be Japanese in the West is the mere derivative and simulation of what is authentic back in the home turf. In a similar vein, the real challenge posing against anyone who deals with Japan in their art practice today is to convey the impression of being progressive and innovative as opposed to regressive, exploitative and imitative like a bad sushi restaurant in a remote island. As the audience has grown sophisticated, mere mimesis or mimicry might not suffice to create anything remotely interesting or thought-provoking.

Or are simulation, mimesis and mimicry things to be celebrated? Is it the way things evolve? No such thing as right or wrong in art. Perhaps, it is simply the process of “becoming”, with a creative and affirmative force in the Nietzschean/Heraclitus sense. Nothing is exempt from change, and everything is in a constant movement; no being or a thing, but “becoming and” the unceasing process of changes. In this respect, the simulation of the actual connotes something to celebrate, highlighting the process of “becoming”, morphing its form from one to another.



Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Shunryu Suzuki

Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig

Ecce Homo, Friedrich Nietzsche

The Ethics, Spinoza

Pure Immanence, Gilles Deleuze


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