I am starting to work on my courses for next semester and am getting excited to teach one of my favorites: an upper-level seminar called “Japanophilia: Orientalism, Nationalism, Transnationalism.” The course looks at the genealogy of the obsession with the idea of Japan both inside and outside of the archipelago, starting with the Jesuits and other early visitors, then turning to the Nativists, late 19th-century Orientalists, wartime nationalists, and of course postwar Japanophilia around the globe. The class has become easier to teach as more and more scholarship in English has emerged, ranging from Christine Guth’s Longfellow’s Tattoo’s and Koichi Iwabuchi’s Recentering Globalization to Anne Allison’s new Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination, though I also rely heavily on translated primary sources and a hodgepodge of readings from cultural studies.

One issue that students are interested in and that comes up frequently in discussion is the disembodied specter of Japan in American advertising and media: Trader Joe’s “Zen” products, for example, or Xeni Jardin‘s various “WebZen” posts at Boing Boing. I have to admit that these bother me more than they probably should. Zen is not just a sign of Japanese cool but a specific form of Mahayana Buddhism with its own distinct institutions. It has ritual, dogma, practices, and beliefs; it is not, or I guess I mean that it shouldn’t be, a substitute for Orientalist stereotypes. When was the last time you saw Jesus shampoo? Or “WebMuslim” being used as a kind of shorthand for some vaguely defined otherness?

In one discussion in the seminar a few years ago, I remember that students tried to classify the various flavors of Japaneseness that frequently appeared in the American media. “Zen” references tended to go hand in hand with inscrutability that overlapped with cool and cold design or perhaps we could say minimalism. A related form was a samurai-esque emphasis on clean lines, shapely, sword-like forms, and some gibberish about “the way” being applied to consumerism. Check out some recent Infiniti commercials to see recent examples. Another variety was the “Those Wacky Japanese!” flavor of reporting on Japaneseness, which always involved implicit ridicule. Think of stories about Japanese fashion trends that focused not on “serious” designers but on wacky shoes, Engrish t-shirts, or hybrid versions of urban American clothes. Another example was the type of television shows that focused on “zany” Japanese game shows. Of course many members of the class loved these and other materials and thus found themselves examining their relationship to Japan not just as students but as consumers of Japanophilia, which was of course one of the objectives of the course.

I am still waiting for some sort of sustained critique of Japanophilia in American media, sales, and marketing, though, something that would situate such representations of Japan in the context of US-Japanese relations, the Cold War, and its collapse. Allison gets at such issues in her consideration of millennial consumerism, but I wish she had aimed her sites lower, even, than “popular culture” and “toys,” to hit the broader spectrum of appropriations of Japaneseness used every day to sell commodities or what passes for news.


  1. I blame DT Suzuki.

    The presentation of Zen in America as a mystical philosophy, with aesthetic — rather than ethical or emotional — implications goes way back (Nitobe should get his share of the blame, too, as well as whatshisname… Okakura, the tea/zen guy). The Japanese government contributed further by hyping the samurai ideal, which brought forward nihilism (and there’s a good dose of nihilism in Zen, some say) as a “Japanese” trait.

    Are you using the recent book on Sadayakko?

  2. I guess I’m talking about something different from the 20th century transnational flow of Zen, which ranged from nationalist promotion to Orientalist appropriations to some pretty serious engagement. The uses of Zen that I see flourishing in the world have no relation to originary meaning (I think this is typical of postmodern configurations of language; what is absent, I think, is what Derrida called the “transcendental signified,” though I’m not really much of a deconstructionist) and instead are playing off problematic associations with bigger stereotypes about Japanese culture.

    I assume you mean Lesley Downer’s _Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha Who Bewitched the West_? Maybe from 2003? I haven’t read it or intended to use it. Do you recommend it?

  3. I agree that the use of “zen” is detached from its theological context, but I think there’s actually a history of that detachment: it’s detached, not unrelated. That “transnational flow” has eddies and offshoots which I think lead pretty directly to things like Jon Stewart’s “Moment of Zen”….

    Downer is what I mean, yes. I’ve skimmed bits and pieces of it (I teach a course on Japanese Women which I think it might be useful for someday), but not read it closely. I was kind of hoping you had and could tell me more about it….

  4. This is getting interesting. Could we distinguish between references to Zen that at least acknowledge the existence of spiritual beliefs and practices, such as meditation, on the one hand, and references that seem only to connect the product to exotic Oriental otherness? Xeni Jardin’s “WebZen” posts and Jon Stewart’s “Moment of Zen” seem to me to riff off of the idea of the non-logic of koans and the notion of walking meditation, while Zen blueberry muffins and shampoo . . . Well, I have trouble seeing the connection.

  5. It’s not a bad distinction, but I still think it dehistoricizes the term more than necessary; I’m not convinced that the people who slap it on blueberry muffins don’t mean something by it.

    If I want to be stubborn, I could try to argue that they are referencing the culinary tradition of Zen, though in a distinctly NorthEastern way, of simple, healthful, vegetarian food….

    More seriously, though, I think “Zen” in these cases is probably a cool code for “hippy, but clean” or “sixties, without drugs.” “Zen” is also a cool word: it’s short, simple, doesn’t really mean anything (I’ll be honest), and starts with a Z (which is a very popular letter right now).

    I’m trying to think of other cases of religious groups whose names take on commercial meaning, and the only ones that are coming to mind are “Quaker Oats” and “Jew harp” (which is a generic name, of course, not a perfect match). There’s the Amana appliances, which take their name from the communitarian Christian movement in Iowa which started the line, but it’s a place name first. There’s Pennsylvania Dutch paints.

    You might also want to look at the use of “Lotus”, which is a very rare flower, except in certain sutras….

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