Like many people born in 1991, I first became aware of Japan when someone handed me a Vulpix trading card. Back then, I didn’t know the cunning foxes with nine tails of east Asian folklore, but I was mesmerised by the lo-fi, cuddly ecosystem of Satoshi Tajiri and Ken Sugimori’s creation. As a result, my later years of primary school played out against the inevitable backdrop of rash trades, battle themes and the inevitable banning of the card game from my Year Five school playground. I still recall being personally affronted when my classmate Theo traded his Charizard for a hundred and fifty energy cards. I jettisoned my pocket money on slivers of shiny card, and soon afterwards on generations of video games. I vividly remember losing my shit when my Gameboy went missing at Whipsnade Safari park.
If it had been just a video game with a trading card sideline, perhaps the fad would have faded fast. But Pokémon was ruthlessly effective in building a franchise to vacuum money from the shallow pockets of nine-year-olds. I watched the dire animé series for well over a hundred episodes, and particularly liked the Squirtle Squad, a not-so-subtle reference to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle craze of the previous decade. I went to see the equally dubious films. I bugged my guitar teacher to transcribe and teach me Lugia’s Song from Pokemon: The Movie 2000- which in all fairness is a deft piece of film composition. Much later, I would visit Mount Aso, which inspired Mt Chimney1 in Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire.
As I slouched on into secondary school, I discovered pop punk and Playstation. It’s not that I ever left Pokémon behind, but it became a smaller part of my life. I still played a medley of Japanese video games, from Sonic and Mario to Final Fantasy, The Legend of Zelda and Shadow of the Colossus, but I don’t think I felt even a passing curiosity about the land of digital abundance to the east. I was too busy getting stoned in the woods, moshing at the Pioneer Youth Club and trying to figure out my sexuality. So Long, and Thanks for All the Video Games.
In the summer of 2007, Japan came back into my life. I was staying with an animé-loving pal who I’d met the previous summer. She lived in Hebden Bridge, a cheerfully unconventional little town in the Pennines: ‘where lesbian school teachers retire to dye their hair in peace’, as an approving friend put it. It proved to be, by some degree, the most influential week of my life to date. Anna and her friends showed me Leeds, which I instantly fell for; two years later I’d wash up there as a wide-eyed fresher, working my way through the city’s supply of Red Stripe and potato waffles. And one evening on the same trip, we sat down in front of Spirited Away (2001), a Studio Ghibli fantasy about a young girl who gets trapped in a strange, often hostile bathhouse, working for a witch who steals one of the kanji from her name.
I didn’t care that much for Japanese animation at the time, and I’m still not an avid animé geek. However, I knew immediately I was watching something special. From the evocative soundtrack, heady with someone else’s distant memories, to the impossible visual richness of the world of the spirits, the whole movie is a testament to the endless creative force of the human imagination. Later, aboard the Nankai Rapid line south of Osaka, I would remember Chihiro on the train.
I soon watched more of Hayao Miyazaki and his studio’s sprawling cinematic output. I love the way these films can speak to adults about adult themes such as environmentalism, war and discrimination, without losing their childlike wonder. An excellent example is Princess Mononoke, which gives its protagonists and antagonists an essential moral complexity, understandable motivations and an ambiguous ending. If you grow up with Western cinema, fantasy and magic are often associated with moral absolutes, goodies and baddies, grand showdowns and sweet victories. Not here. I would much later fall in love with Japanese naturalist cinema, which is a world apart from these movies visually, although typically with the same deft handling of human emotions.
Art in Full Bloom
So what, you might well ask. Of course your life has been shaped by Japanese culture; you went to live there! Not everybody likes udon or zen gardens or photographs of the Tokyo underworld, or has seen the straight-to-DVD sequel Mewtwo Returns2. However, you’d be mistaken. Japanese culture had big and unexpected influences on the way people around the world think and talk, long before the ’90s and the western animé boom.
Take Impressionism, for example, the movement of painting that launched modern art. When Claude Monet painted his wife Camille rocking the fuck out of a kimono in 1876, he was obviously celebrating Japanese culture; but other influences of the Japanese art which flooded into Europe from the 1850s were less obvious. Japanese art was often deliberately asymmetrical; it had its own kind of perspective, but didn’t use full perspective in the Western sense; and instead of filling in gaps on the canvas with background or decoration, paintings sometimes faded away into gold clouds. Sometimes large areas were left blank. All of this appealed greatly to a generation of artists who were moving away from realistic representation, to capture emotions- impressions- rather than accurate appearances.
Particularly influenced by japonisme was a Mister Vincent Van Gogh, who discovered Japanese prints while he was living in Antwerp in 1885. If you look at the hypercolour magic of his Almond Blossom (1890), you really can’t not see the cherry blossom and vivid blue skies of older Japanese art- below, you can see Van Gogh, Hiroshige Utogawa and Hokusai Katsushika. He painted his own interpretations of famous Japanese prints, including Hiroshige’s famous Sudden Shower over Shin-Ohashi Bridge (1857, copied by Vince 30 years later). Van Gogh himself said that his beloved Provence was ‘the Japan of the South’, its brilliant sunshine making colours vivid, even hypersaturated. At one point he declared, with some exaggeration, that ‘all my work is based to some extent on Japanese art’.
The influence of Japanese art is acknowledged in other art movements too, including Art Nouveau (about which I know little, except that it produced some amazing Parisian metro stations). Going further into my own wild ramblings for a moment: take a look at the portrait to the right. Look at the jagged, stylised way that the lord’s cloak is shown in the portrait to the right. Tell me you can’t see stirrings of cubism in that.
Architects and sculptors nicked ideas liberally from Japan, too. At the Bauhaus School of Building and Design (founded in 1919), radical European architects were inspired by Japanese houses, with their tessellating rectangles, relatively few and simple items of furniture, and whole-wall cupboards. Bauhaus architects like Bruno Taut also liked the large windows and praised the ‘utter purity‘ of Japanese design. Sometimes, architects absorbed design ideas from China through Japan, like the overhanging upper floors that you sometimes see in Japanese gatehouses. You can see the large windows, slightly overhanging upper floors and tessellating rectangles, in modified form, in the Bauhaus Hauptgebäude in Dessau. Bauhaus designers also borrowed from Japanese designs when creating functional, geometric household items like teapots.
Strip it Back
In the 1980s, after fashion had spent two decades cycling through an increasingly deranged colour pallette, it was largely Japanese fashion designers like Miyako Issey and Kawakubo Rei who convinced people to wear black again. You can see their influence in everything from hilarious OTT animé costumes to a new wave of gothic fashion. Kawakubo likes to work roses into her designs, and work with spandex, polyester and lace. She swings between high concept and aggressively synthetic anti-fashion, in a manner that aligns perfectly with gothic excess. I know even less about fashion trends than I do about Art Nouveau, but I do know the dark corners of Camden, and even I can recognise the gothic cred of some of her designs. It’s cool to think that a piece of Japan follows you into those dark corners, where some goths cluster smoking under a lock.
Minimalism also has deep roots in Japan. Not just minimalism, the art movement, but minimalism the pattern of behaviour, the way of life. Zen philosophy has at its heart the concept of ‘mu‘, nothingness, and this shapes Japanese culture in all sorts of interesting ways. The tea ceremony is an excellent example of this. Attendants kneel in a small room with perhaps a single scroll on the wall, drinking tea from simple, rough bowls. Tea ceremonies have popped up throughout history in different forms, and not everybody has approached them with a minimalist vigour- some lords liked to buy gold-plated tea bowls and sit in rooms covered with paintings of tigers and fabulous beasts. But the heart of the tea ceremony, as it’s still practiced today, is minimalist.
Japanese minimalism didn’t invent its western counterpart, but they influence each other, nonetheless. You can draw a straight line between the minimalism of Japanese-style rooms, where furniture is often folded or placed in cupboards when nobody is using it, and an obsession with ‘decluttering’. That line would pass straight through Marie Kondo, the latest hawker of a fad philosophy, asking ‘does it spark joy’ on her own Netflix show. One of my favourite Japanese painters, Toko Shinoda, is a minimalist who takes inspiration from calligraphy.
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Although music matters a lot to me, the examples I’ve given have largely been visual cultural artefacts. This isn’t accidental. Japan has been described by Alan Macfarlane, a sociologist, as ‘arguably the most artistic civilization on Earth‘. I don’t know whether that’s true, but Japanese culture is intensely visual, to an extent that I sometimes found overwhelming. Japanese storytelling, music and cuisine have all exerted sway over other cultures at one time or another, but it’s Japan’s visual arts that have really bled into global culture, and changed the way we build, design, dress, decorate and think.
What a Legacy
In 1962, US Secretary of State Dean Acheson remarked that Great Britain had ‘lost an empire and not yet found a role’. The social historian Dominic Sandbrook later gave an indirect answer to that question, arguing that my homeland is a peerless exporter of pop culture: everything from James Bond and Harry Potter to Led Zeppelin, The Kinks and The Smiths.
Once more, I find myself drawing out a thin thread of connection between the two island nations. Like Britain, Japan lost an empire, and like Britain, its second, economic empire is much reduced in global power. But Japan is an exporter of culture out of all proportion to its size. It has the power to send people on quests for the triforce, change the seating arrangement of your living room, and put black back in your wardrobe. There will be some people who disdain this elevation of beauty over power. Personally, I think it’s not a bad role to have.
1- I wrote about visiting Mount Aso here: https://theworldsoutside.wordpress.com/2019/09/04/nearer-the-smoke-travelogue-part-2-hiroshima-aso-kumamoto/
2- it’s a tour de force, exactly as stupid as all the others. I just like the chutzpah of making a sequel to a film where everyone had their memory wiped at the end.