Report for the talk: “Reflections on four decades of fascination with Japan” in conversation with Bill Emmott

Japan’s Far More Female Future, Bill Emmott, Oxford University Press, 2020

Bill Emmott is Chair of the Japan Society of the UK. In 2016 he was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun for his services to Japanese relations. He has published several books on Japan including the post-bubble best-seller The Sun Also Sets: The Limits to Japan’s Economic Power. Despite this, he still thinks of himself as ‘an accidental Japanologist’ whose interest in and knowledge of Japan is the result of his having been sent there, in 1983, as the Tokyo-based Foreign Correspondent for The Economist.  In conversation with Simon Kaner, Bill reflected on the many key moments and personal encounters that have, over the course of four decades, shaped his understanding of the country and of the role of arts and cultures in enabling that understanding. He also discussed his most recent book project Japan’s Far More Female Future

When Bill first went to live in Japan in 1983, it was difficult not to marvel at scenes of wealth, with certain restaurants in Tokyo famously sprinkling gold leaf on rice, and suburban car-owners displaying an ostentatious preference for BMWs, Mercedes and Ferraris.  But at the same time, as he gleaned through discussions with the then British Ambassador to Japan, Sir Hugh Cortazzi, such scenes were contrasted by stories of corruption and scandal that had involved the Japanese Prime Minister’s office, which suggested that Japan’s wealth was not the miracle it at first appeared to be.  However, it is precisely these contrasting images of fervent consumerism and institutionalised criminality that the critically engaged artistic community in Japan at the time dwelt upon; notably in Itami Jūzo’s Marusa no Onna (A Taxing Woman, 1985) and Minbo no Onna (Minbo, 1992).  For Bill, this demonstrates the way in which art can play an important role in critiquing society, and especially so in Japan, where the majority of media outlets continue to conform to narratives spun by the status quo.

However, art can also function, or be made to function, as an intermediary between nations or — more cynically — as a means of wielding soft power.  While all countries are engaged to some extent these days in utilising art in this way, what Bill feels is noteworthy about Japan’s strategy is its focus on popular culture, or rather, ‘Cool Japan’: on manga and anime, rather than ceramics and classical art forms.  This has meant that, paradoxically, Japan is still not especially well known by the rest of the world.  Instead, certain images – sophisticated toilets, conveyor-belt sushi, and certain types of anime – have become exaggerated in foreign imaginations of what is ‘Japanese’. The challenge, therefore, is to facilitate more nuanced understandings of Japan by promoting lesser-known images of Japan abroad. 

Lafcadio Hearn’s house in Matsue
Image credit: “小泉八雲 (Koizumi Yakumo, Lafcadio Hearn)” by Tony Tani is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Bill’s interest in the role that a foreign observer might play in disseminating images of Japan is further manifest in his long-held fascination with the figure of Lafcadio Hearn, one of the earliest Western visitors to settle in Japan.  While Hearn has often drawn criticism for his part in ‘essentialising Japan’, Bill feels Hearn’s life can be re-understood through the way in which he acted as a two-way interpreter between Japan and the English-speaking world.  As he sees it, Hearn became respected and followed by reflecting images of how a foreigner sees Japan back to the Japanese people.  There is a danger that this process enables a two-way essentialism, wherein the foreign observer and what he observes are neatly characterised as in some way encapsulating ‘the West’ vs ‘Japan’. Nevertheless, it is apparent that Japanese audiences reserve a special place for the foreign observers who reflect their understanding of Japan back to them and ultimately this can be a means through which Japan becomes more outward facing. Certainly, this can be seen in the case of Bill’s first book on Japan, The Sun also Sets, which achieved huge popularity in Japan while being comparatively ignored in the US and Britain. 

Image credit: Installation by Naomi Kawase at centre Pompidou, Paris by dalbera is licensed under CC BY 2.0

It was precisely for this reason that Bill sought out a Japanese publisher commission to his latest book, Japan’s Far More Female Future, in the hope that it might have an impact in Japan.  The idea for the book came about when Bill met the owner of an art gallery in Nihombashi, Hirata Michiko, while travelling on the fjords of Norway with his wife.  Upon hearing about Hirata’s most inspiring clients, Bill made the decision to seek them out and hear their stories. The book comprises interviews with twenty-one leading women from seven fields, including the abstract artist Shinoda Toko, orchestral conductor Nishimoto Tomomi and film director Kawase Naomi.  While Bill is pragmatic about the challenges women currently face, and the work to be done to alter the status quo, he remains tentatively optimistic about Japan’s future and the future of women in Japan.  He concludes by predicting that the 2021 Olympics will provide a psychological boost, even if there are mostly Japanese spectators at the events, and it will enable Japan to project itself as the centre of global recovery, with women such as Kawase (who has been selected by the IOC to shoot the official film at the Olympics) at the forefront of the renaissance. 

Dr Hannah Osborne
Lecturer in Japanese Literature, University of East Anglia

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