Cross-Cultural Materialism: Commodifying Culture in Japan


Mary Yoko Brannen (1992) ,"Cross-Cultural Materialism: Commodifying Culture in Japan", in SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, eds. Floyd W. Rudmin and Marsha Richins, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 167-180.

Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, 1992      Pages 167-180


Mary Yoko Brannen, School of Business Administration, The University of Michigan

[I am indebted to Richard Burt for a number of critical comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this essay. I would also like to thank Stephen Smith, Linda Lewis, Katsu Yamaguchi, Shu Ogawa, Robert Murray, James Wilson and Joe Tobin for their insights.] [Significant portions of this paper are published in 'Bwana Mickey: Constructing Cultural Consumption at Tokyo Disneyland,' in Remade in Japan: Domestic Life and Consumer Tastes in a Changing Japan,' added by Joseph Tobin, Yale University Press, July 1992. Used with permission.]

For the past couple of decades the world has been overwhelmed with reports on portentous Japanese productivity. This paper in contrast, is about conspicuous Japanese consumption. As much as it is true that Japanese students study hard and Japanese workers work hard, it is equally true that Japanese consumers consume hard. Profits generated by the exported end-results of such high productivity eventually result in increased buying power which in turn stimulates domestic Japanese consumption. The flip side of Japan's 1970's role as the world's preeminent producer nation is its 1990's role as the world's leading consumer nation. Much of what the Japanese consume - the tangible goods as well as the leisure activities which make up Japan's material world-is western in style and spirit, if not in country of manufacture.

Western products are omnipresent in Japan. Contemporary household furnishings, fashion, food, and leisure outlets are a pastiche of borrowed western elements and Japanese cultural constituents. The abundance of ostensibly western products in Japan lead many people to assume that corresponding Western materialist values have been imported along with the "western" goods. A closer look at the products, however, hints at an unsettling combination of the familiar and the peculiarly exotic. Consider, for example, designer exotic fruit (see appendix A for graphic representation) -common western food items which are not indigenous to Japan have been customized and further exoticized to most the gift-giving needs of a society which values high quality luxury items. Love hotels with exotic western exteriors such as a 'Cinderella's Castle' and the "HMS Loveboat' at once provide a retreat for lovers which is curiously both flamboyant as well as private (see detailed explanation accompanying the graphic representation in Appendix A). Other examples of this strange mixture of familiar and peculiarly exotic are, heated-seat western-style toilets for hemorrhoid sufferers, T-shirts with non-sequiters in English or French, and a variety of novel food concoctions resulting from "transcultural flavor marriages' such as curry flavored bagels, hot cocoa with 2% chili sauce, and "jelly' donuts filled with red bean paste, curry or fish sausage.

The Japanese are known worldwide as quintessential imitators and borrowers. Accounts of Japanese transcultural borrowing generally take on one of two critical views of the Japanese either as passive victims of Western (and in former days, Chinese) cultural domination or, as active, rapacious agents of cultural plagiarism. Both of these views of what might be called Japanese transcultural consumerism assume a one on one transfer of material goods (signs) and the societal sensemaking (significations) attached to them. in other words, these accounts assume that the transformed cultural artifacts will have the same material value for the Japanese as they did for their home-land consumers. Rather than understanding such transferred cultural artifacts as examples of 'Western materialism" this paper attempts to understand the workings of what might be called a "new Japanese materialism" by providing a close reading of the most successfully transferred western product to Japan to date - Tokyo Disneyland. In the following explication the passive notion of 'Westernization' is replaced with the more active and do-mystifying notion of . recontextualization" in order to de-pecullarize and de-exoticize Japanese consumerism by placing the transfer of cultural artifacts in the context of Japanese history, politics and semiotics.


"We really tried to avoid creating a Japanese version of Disneyland. We wanted the Japanese visitors to feel they were taking a foreign vacation by coming here, and to us Disneyland represents the best that America has to offer."  - Toshiharu Akiba, public relations's spokesperson, Tokyo Disneyland

Though the Walt Disney Company wished to diversify its first foreign theme park by including some home-country attractions such as a "Samurai land" or a show based on a Japanese children's tells like "Little Peach Boy,' the Japanese owners of Tokyo Disneyland, the Oriental Land Company, insisted that as near an exact copy of the original as possible be constructed. [The Walt Disney company receives 7% of Tokyo Disneyland's profit from admission, food, and merchandise.] The phenomenal success of the theme park, which opened on April 15, 1984, suggests that the Japanese owners' reading of consumer preference was well founded. In 1988 attendance reached 13,382,000, making Tokyo Disneyland one of the most popular diversionary outing sites for the Japanese. More money is spent by the Japanese at Tokyo Disneyland than by their American counterparts at either Disneyland or Disney World, most of it on souvenirs such as stuffed Mickey Mouse dolls, Mickey pins, T-shirts, and designer accessories. The Japanese have already spent over ten billion yen on Disneyland paraphernalia. The theme park is not only a sensational hit among Japanese consumers of leisure-time activities but is also a favorite site for student groups on school pilgrimages (shugakuryoko), who had previously favored destinations of traditional historical-cultural relevance such as Kyoto or Nikko, where they would visit such ancient temples and shrines as referred to in their history books and classical literary texts. In 1988, 1,171,000 of the park visitors were students on such organized school outings.

According to the Tokyo Disneyland 1989 annual report, these substantial attendance and sales figures are attributed in part to the rapid rise in Japan's economic status to that of world power over the last decade resulting in a significant increase in per capita disposable income and a now attitude toward relaxation and recreation. The report also states that another major factor in Tokyo Disneyland's success is that the Disney philosophy of creating a "dream world' coincides with the current consumer trend in what Tokyo Disneyland spokespersons are calling "yuttarism " an attitude of attaching importance to relaxation and comfort. [From the Japanese adjective yuttari: easy, comfortable, calm, quiet.] According to the Dentsu Advertising Agency that handles the Disney account, consumers are "seeking quality in this world rich with things, [and] are starting to pursue affluence of the mind, time and environment."

While these factors explain some of the socioeconomic reasons behind the success of Tokyo Disneyland, they fail to account for the Oriental Land Company's insistence on maintaining the cultural purity of the original theme, park and its goal to turn the experience of visiting the theme park into a 'foreign vacation" for its Japanese visitors. After all, what is remarkable about Tokyo Disneyland is that the Japanese owners wanted an exact copy and think that it is an exact copy even though they have in fact adapted the Los Angeles Disneyland to suit the twos of Japanese consumers.   [The plan for the Paris Disneyland, which will open in 1992, on the other hand, has from the onset incorporated many European adaptations to the Los Angeles Disneyland.] The fact is that ultimately the Japanese not Americans have defined what Tokyo Disneyland is. That is to say, it is the importation of the artifact rather than its exportation which bogs to be analyzed. [My point is borne out more strongly by the fact that though Tokyo Disneyland started out as a joint-venture operation between the Walt Disney company and the Oriental Land Company the Japanese company bought out the American interest well before the park opened in 1984.]

Why, then, do the Japanese prefer a copy of the original Disneyland rather than a version incorporating their own history and culture, adapting it in their own terms? Broadly speaking, there are two ways of accounting for this question, one I will term the context-free and the other the context-bound account. Neither of these I feel is adequate. The context-free account derives from a certain discourse of symbolic domination in the West which is put forth by such twentieth century Marxist theorists as Frederic Jameson and Joan Baudrillard. [Although Jameson is a classical marxist and Baudrillard a post-marxist and therefore they have different views of the economy, nevertheless their theories of cultural domination and the view that they imply of cross-cultural domination is the same. See Jameson, 'Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism," Now Left Review, 146, July-August, 1984; Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, trans. Charles Levin, Missouri: Telos Press, 1984.] In this view, Japan's fascination with representations of American popular culture exemplifies the Westernization of the Japanese. Japanese materialism would be seen as homologous to Western materialism. While this account does not explicitly address cross-cultural domination, it implies that the West is the major global power and therefore as it gains power over other cultures it dominates those cultures the same way as it dominates people in the West, namely, by homogenizing cultural differences. Disneyland, for example, will mean the same thing in Japan as it does in the United States. In anthropological terms, this view would have it that the transferred popular cultural artifacts have the same meaning for the Other as they have for the home-country consumers.

The second answer, or context-bound account, articulated by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto in a recent article in Public Culture (Spring 1989) entitled "The Postmodern and Mass Images in Japan," is that Japanese society is based on a postmodern order of mimesis in which incongruous cultural artifacts are a facet of everyday life. [For a comprehensive discussion of postmodernism in relation to Japan see the South Atlantic Quarterly, 87, no. 3 (Summer 1988): "Postmodernism and Japan." For discussions of the postmodern in Japan by other Japanese commentators see: (1) Karatani Kojin, Hihyoo to Posutomodan (Criticism and the Postmodern), Tokyo, 1985 and (2) Asada Akira, Koozo to Chikara, Kigooron o Koete (Structure and Power: Beyond Somiotics), Tokyo, 1985.] In contrast to theorists like Jameson and Baudrillard who argue that meaning is context independent, according to Yoshimoto the meaning of cultural artifacts is context dependent. The symbolic ideologies of Disneyland work only within the greater context of its relationship with the American society. Only by maintaining this contextual distinction between the imaginary (Disneyland) and the real (America) is Disneyland able to reproduce the hegemonic ideology of Middle America.   [Joan Baudrillard deconstructs the opposition between .real" America and "imaginary" Disneyland in Simulations, trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton and Philip Beitchman, New York: Semiotext(e), 1983, p. 25, By asserting that Disneyland's ideological function as imaginary is to "save the reality principle' - to hide the fact that the rest of America is as imaginary as Disneyland.] The original signified meanings of Disney cultural simulacra. are consequently broken down by transplanting them in Japan because Tokyo Disneyland is decontextualized, surrounded by a people whose cultural logic is different from that of the park's originally intended audience. In sum, this account understands Tokyo Disneyland as a classic example of the Deriidean "decentering" of the 'trancendental signified" into a collection of floating signifiers - without origin or closure, and without a unifying "metanarrative."

The problem with these two accounts is that they share the erroneous assumption that exported cultural artifacts retain their original cultural symbolism. If the domination of the global economy by the West has produced a singular consumer appetite, thereby creating a homogeneous market for Western symbolic capital in the context-free account, why is it that the Japanese owners themselves asked to import an exact replica? And if the exported cultural artifacts, severed from their contextual meaning in the homeland, become virtually meaningless to the Other in the context-bound account, why would the Japanese go to an incongruous theme park and participate in activities that mean nothing to them? Is meaninglessness even possible for something that is purchased, maintained, and repeatedly experienced?

I want to argue, in contrast to these views, that the commodified cultural artifacts of Disneyland are recontextualized in Japanese terms at Tokyo Disneyland. This recontextualization of Disneyland is a specifically Japanese construction of cultural consumption and takes two forms: making the exotic familiar and keeping the exotic exotic. The first, appears in the way in which despite the owner's initial insistence on fashioning an exact replica of the original park, many Japanese touches in service and consumer orientation exist which render the park more comfortable and assessible to its primary client bass, the Japanese. The second, keeping the exotic exotic, is a way of distancing the self from the Other or, in anthropological terms, it is a way of maintaining the uchi-soto dichotomy [On uchi-soto dichotomy see takie sugiyama lebra, Japanese Patterns of Behavior, Honolulu: Univ. Of Hawaii Press, 1976, pp. 112-13. For a more sophisticated discussion of the same dichotomy which deals in distinctions between types of outsiders see emiko ohnukitiorny, Illness and Culture in Contemporary Japan, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 40-4] - the distinction between inside and out. What is significant about this recontextualization of Disneyland is that it complicates the usual way we understand cross-cultural hegemony. In the Western imperialist model of hegemony, imported cultural artifacts are either imposed intact onto the Other's culture or are domesticated by the Other; in either case the move is to make the exotic familiar. But, in the case of Tokyo Disneyland, the owners have insisted upon constructing an exact copy of the original and thereby keeping the exotic exotic to the point of effectively denying that they have familiarized it. My explanation for this difference in the way that Disney cultural artifacts are imported is that it represents a specific Japanese form of cultural imperialism. The process of assimilation of the West, the recontextualization of western simulacra, demonstrates not that the Japanese are being dominated by Western ideologies, but that they differentiate their identity from the West in a way that reinforces their sense of their own cultural superiority, or what we might call Japanese hegemony. .


We can begin to see how this process of assimilation works by looking first at how the Japanese recontextualize western cultural artifacts to make sense of them in their own terms. A reading of the Los Angeles Disneyland and Tokyo Disneyland as cultural texts helps to uncover some of the contextual differences in the modes of commodification. [Clifford Goertz, The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic, 1973.]

The original Disneyland's layout (Figure 1) follows a distinctly modern [I am using Jurgen Habermas's notion of the "modern" to mean that there is a connection between the self /subject (in this case the guest) and a sense of historical progression and moral improvement; in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, translated by Frederick Lawrence, Cambridge: Mit Press, 1987.] progression where, heading . out West" from Main Street, guests may relive the American romantic journey. The guests first fight their way through the turbulent waters of Adventureland, encountering savages and beasts along the way. They relax for a while in the civilized settlement of Now Orleans Square before they push forward on their quest for the American dream through the rough terrain of Frontierland. Finally, they reach Fantasyland, where their dreams come true. Tomorrowland is a fantasized extension of this limitless dream - the new frontier.

Whereas the original Disneyland can be read, then, as a romantic narrative, Tokyo Disneyland yields no such neat reading (Figure 2). Themes nostalgic for Americans but meaningless for the Japanese have been renamed and recontextualized to capture the attention of the now clientele, and in the process, the logic of Disneyland's romantic metanarrative is broken. [Joan-Francois Lyotard defines the postmodern as "incredulity toward metanarratives"-the breaking up of modern metanarratives which are then replaced by disjoint mini-narratives is a characteristic of the postmodern era The Postmodern Condition, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985, p. Xxiv, p. 31-7.] Mainstreet U.SA becomes the World Bazaar; Frontierland becomes Westernland; The Golden Horseshoe Revue becomes The Diamond Horseshoe Revue. Perhaps the most obvious visual break in the Disney metanarrative is the course of the railroad; whereas Disneyland's railroad encircles the entire themepark, Tokyo's version cuts off Adventureland and Westernland from the rest of the park. [I was told by a Tokyo Disneyland spokesperson that the structural reason for limiting the path of the Tokyo Disneyland railroad was that if it had been constructed around the entire circumference of the park, the elevation of the tracks at various points along the route would have allowed guests to catch glimpses of the surrounding environs of the chiba area thereby disrupting their "foreign vacation' experience.]

A Western postmodernist reading, such as the context-bound account put forth by Yoshimoto, would explain this by saying that the decontextualized cultural artifacts have lost their symbolic capital in Japan; therefore, the Disney metanarrative simply breaks down into meaningless simulacra for the Japanese. I want to show, however, that although the Western metanarrative does break down, the cultural artifacts are recontextualized and function as now mini-narratives at Tokyo Disneyland.


Much of the exotic Disneyland is already familiar to the Japanese. Disney movies and Disney paraphernalia have boon a part of the Japanese childhood experience since the late nineteen forties. Japanese parents that I have interviewed say that they can relate to the wholesome virtues embodied in the Disney philosophy and therefore feel secure about the positive educative effects that the theme park will have on their children. In addition, the park is safe, meticulously kept clean, and the employees are always courteous --all characteristics which fit in with the Japanese visitors' own high standards and expectations of service. Disney University, the forty hour apprenticeship program for now hires at Disneyland, pumps out employees (or 'cast members' as they are called by insiders) socialized in the Disney corporate culture whose demeanor is governed by the following three rules: "First, we practice the friendly smile. Second, we use only friendly and courteous phrases. Third, we are not stuffy." [Quoted in John Van Maanon, "Whistle While you Work: On Seeing Disneyland as the Workers Do," unpublished paper presented at the panel on the "Magic Kingdom" at the American Anthropological Association Annual Meetings in Washington D.C. On November 16, 1989.] These same three rules (among numerous others) can be found in any Japanese training manual for new hires in service oriented jobs. These are the rules that have produced the ever-present Japanese 'service voice" a slight adjustment on Disney's version which involves a manner of courteous speech in a pitch at least one octave higher than one's regular speaking voice) which greets customers as they enter a department store, take a ride on an elevator, or ask for assistance at an information counter for example. Likewise, this service voice is everywhere at Tokyo Disneyland - the guide who leads tours of the park uses it, the crowd control staff uses it, food service people use it, and of course, the park's public announcement system employs it. Other areas in which the manner of service has been slightly adjusted to meet the expectations of the Japanese clientele at Tokyo Disneyland are that the name tags of the employees feature their last name rather than first, street signs and signboards have subtitles in Japanese, and all the soundtracts in the attractions are in Japanese.

So, even though there is some of the exotic which is already familiar to the Japanese at Tokyo Disneyland, in direct contradiction to Yoshimoto's context-bound account and Tokyo Disneyland's own proclamation of the pureness of their copy of the original, there is an abundance of small but obvious ways in which the now owners have made concessions to the Japanese consumer. After all, would we really be led to believe that capitalism takes such a unique form in Japan that business people can ignore the fundamental marketing technique of adjusting the product to its target market? By looking at their adjustments we can begin to got a sense of the difference between consumer capitalism in Japan and the United States.

1) World Bazaar, Mainstreet, U.S.A has become the World Bazaar. Alhough Tokyo's version has retained the quasi-Victorian architecture of the storefronts, the quaintness of the original is lost owing to the enlarged scale of the buildings (Tokyo Disneyland's storefronts are full-size as opposed to the original ones, which are done to three-forth=s scale) and their angle of placement to the street (the original facades face in at an angle toward you as you walk up Main Street whereas those at Tokyo Disneyland are situated at right angles to the street). These changes in the architecture of the storefronts plus the covered walkways and glass roof over the entire World Bazaar (a necessary protection against central Japan's often rainy weather) give Tokyo's Mainstreet more of the feel of a large suburban shopping mall than of a homey town center. In fact, Tokyo Disneyland has more commercial space than the Disney complexes in Anaheim or Orlando, and the owners complain that it still is not enough. There is much more emphasis on shopping; each visitor to Tokyo Disneyland "rids an average of 6,000 yen (about $42.00) on souvenirs per visit.

Another architectural change which also reflects the strong consumer emphasis of Tokyo Disneyland is Cinderella's castle which stands at the end of the World Bazaar. The original Disneyland features Sleeping Beauty's castle, but in the midst of Japan's newly found economic prosperity, it is no wonder that Tokyo Disneyland chose to feature Cinderella's castle with its associated ,rags to riches' theme (Cinderella, after all, was not born into royalty) because it relates more directly to the Japanese historical experience.

The gifts sold at the World Bazaar are also different from those that can be purchased at the original Disneyland. Whereas stores on Disneyland's Main Street sell mostly Americana items, the World Bazaar features gifts from around the world. In addition, the gifts at Tokyo Disneyland are of higher quality and consequently are more costly than those at Disneyland. This is in keeping with what the Dentsu Advertising Company has identified as the key words that identify Japan's current consumer product trends: personal, high function, high quality, global, and genuine.

Rather than serve a nostalgic sentiment as Mainstreet does for Americans, World Bazaar serves the gift-giving needs of the Japanese. The Japanese system ofsenbetsu obliges the traveler to repay a farewell gift of money with a return gift, which must conform to three rules: (1) it must be worth half the yen value of the original gift; (2) it must be a specialty of the locals visited on the trip - a meibutsu ; and (3) it must have a legitimating mark - a kinen tag or wrapper proving that it was purchased on site. So, at the World Bazaar you can buy mementos that serve the functions of both moibutsu (local specialties) and kinen (legitimating mementos) - all Tokyo Disneyland souvenirs have TOKYO DISNEYLAND marked on them, whereas Disneyland mementos have no such identification. Visitors to Tokyo Disneyland make it a point to mail postcards to family and friends from the Tokyo Disneyland postbox because all mail is stamped with a special Mickey Mouse kinen stamp. This postal kinen stamp is reminiscent of the ink pads and rubber stamps with a picture and name of the locale which are available at virtually all travel sites throughout Japan so that visitors can stamp their travel diaries with legitimating mementos.

2) Mickey Mouse: By far the most popular of legitimating mementos is some commodified form of Mickey Mouse. The cartoon character's popularity in Japan is neither recent nor accidental. Like their American counterparts, many Japanese under the age of forty-five watched the Mickey Mouse television show as children and when prompted will readily join along in a Japanese version of the Mickey Mouse song. In addition to these shared meanings of Mickey, however, the Japanese have other recontextualized meanings for him. For example, whereas in the United States Mickey Mouse is a symbol used predominantly on children's items, in Japan he is as common a symbol on adult items as on children items. When an American adult sports Mickey Mouse attire, usually in the form of casual wear such as a T-shirt, sweatshirt or a watch, it can be understood as nostalgia with a specific reference to his childhood experience of sitting in front of the television with their Mickey Mouse ears on, being a part of the Mickey Mouse Club, and perhaps wearing his first watch-a Mickey Mouse watch. Alternatively, sometimes an American adult wears Mickey Mouse items in order to be anti-establishment. The example of a business person wearing an expensive Mickey Mouse quartz watch comes to mind.

On the other hand, when a Japanese adult sports Mickey Mouse attire (and this would more likely be a female adult) it can be understood as nostalgia for childhood in general rather than a specific reference to a certain experience. Furthermore, rather than being antiestablishment, Japanese wear Mickey Mouse paraphernalia because they think it is cute (kawad ). In addition to adult clothing items, Mickey Mouse can be found on quest towels, adult size bed and futon shoots, and at present he is being used as the mascot for money market accounts because of the matching alliteration between Mickey Mouse and Money Market. What sound-minded American would entrust her money to a "Mickey Mouse" account?

3) Food: The restaurants at Tokyo Disneyland originally served only western food, but there were too many complaints from visitors who were accustomed to being able to eatobento (Japanese boxed lunches) on outings. So now there is the Restaurant Hokusai on Main Street which serves tempura and sushi and the Hungry Bear Restaurant in Westernland has added curry rice (a favorite luncheon item for the Japanese) to their menu.

Another modification in terms of food items is that there are not as many food vendors on the streets of Tokyo Disneyland as at the Los Angeles Disneyland. Whereas visitors can buy hotdogs, ice cream, snow cones, cotton candy, hot pretzels, churros, for example at food stands at the original theme park, the only option at Tokyo Disneyland is popcorn. The scarcity of such food stands in the Tokyo version is most likely due to the fact that Japanese consider it impolite to eat while walking.

4) Westernland: Traveling west from the World Bazaar, Frontierland has been renamed Westernland. A spokesperson for Tokyo Disneyland answered this question by saying 'we could identify with the Old West, but not with the idea of a frontier.' [It is understandable that the Japanese, whose frontier has always been well-defined by water on every side of their country, might not be able to identify with the concept of the American pioneer spirit of expanding the frontier of a seemingly endless mass of land. Nevertheless, the concept of expanding their national border by colonizing other countries is hardly now.] Interviews with Japanese men between the ages of twenty-eight and forty-five help to explain this identification with the West. Each claimed to have grown up with such western television shows as Rifleman, Laramie, Wyatt Earp, and the Lone Ranger. What draw them to those shows, they said, was the simple, non-religious, yet moral content - the good guy triumphs over evil (seigi wa katsu). [To understand the extent of the Japanese identification with the American Old West one need only to observe the Japanese "cowhands' on the Japanese-owned cattle ranches in the United States and Australia (a recent area of Japanese foreign investment) enthusiastically dressed up in chaps, boots, spurs, kerchiefs and cowboy hats.] Many of those interviewed likened this morality in the western television shows to that of a long-running samurai program called Mitokoorno .

5) Diamond Horseshoe Revue: Although Disney World is responsible for the renaming of this attraction from the original Golden Horseshoe Revue, Tokyo Disneyland made a conscious choice in favor of the renamed version. The original made sense in terms of the Disney metanarrative -the adventuresome American travels "out west" on horseback to find her/his dream - in this case gold. The renaming upsets this western narrative. However, gold does not have much cultural significance in Japan. Japanese have not traditionally worn wadding rings, but if they do, they favor silver or white gold because they feel it is less ostentatious than yellow gold. In addition, silver is indigenous to Japan - it was formerly mined in northern Japan. Of course, diamonds are generally considered to be ostentatious, but when pressed with this contradiction, Japanese I have queried have simply responded by saying that "diamonds are a sign of wealth.'

6) Adaptations of narrations: Although most of the narrations delivered by ride operators and tour guides at Tokyo Disneyland are direct translations of the original Disneyland versions, there is a substantial amount of adlibbing by the Japanese facilitators. These adaptations usually take the shape of Japan-specific puns, jokes and creative explanations. For example, when the trunk of a huge African elephant, strategically positioned for optimum aim, fails to spray the cruise boat's passengers with water, the Tokyo Disneyland ride operator explains that luckily the elephant's trunk is stopped up with hanakuso (buggers). Humorous references to kuso (a vulgar generic suffix attached to the various bodily orifices from which mucus or excrement is expelled) is commonplace among children and adults in Japan where people are much less inhibited about bodily functions than in the United States. The American version is that the elephant did not have time enough to got a refill.

A second example of narrative adaptation is when the ride operator explains that what the "bwana" dressed in safari attire beating away an alligator on the river's shore is doing is playing jan ken poh (a game of .paper, scissor, rock' - the Japanese equivalent of eenie meenie minie mo) for his life. "Since we Japanese have too short logs [a common self-depreciating complaint among the Japanese] to facilitate a swift escape, we must use our wits and negotiate for our lives. Everyone knows that an alligator's choice is limited to paper as he can't make a list [for the 'rock"] or scissors."


Western theories of hegemony generally assume that cultural imperialism operates in one way: the dominant West colonizes and subordinates the Other. The following examples, however, show a different type of cultural imperialism at play at Tokyo Disneyland. Here, Japan appropriates a cultural artifact from America (Disneyland) and uses it in rotation to its Western and Asian Others in such a way as to retain its own "unique" identity. [This penchant for asserting Japan's uniqueness is directly related to a genre of literature on Japanese society called nihonfinron (theories about the Japanese people). For an historical account of nihonjinron see kawarnura nozomu, 'The Historical Background of Arguments Emphasizing the Uniqueness of Japanese Society," Social Analysis 516, December 1980, pp. 44-63. For a comprehensive treatment of the subject, see Ross Mouer and Yoshio Sugimoto, Images of Japanese Society, London: Methuen Inc., 1986.] This Japanese form of cultural imperialism operates by continually reinforcing the separation between Japan and the Other, by keeping the exotic exotic. By preserving the experience of Tokyo Disneyland as a "foreign vacation" the Japanese owners attempt strategically to ward off any threat from the West to their identity. Nevertheless, this strategy is not completely successful, as closer examination of the contradictions or 'dual" way the Japanese respond to the exotic will show. [Here I am indebted to emiko Ohnuki-Tierny's discussion of the inside: outside distinction, (ohnuki-tierny: 1984, pp. 40-46) Where she distinguishes between the way westerners and non-Japanese Asians are marginalized. Ohnuki-Tierny argues that in the case of westerners the inside: outside distinction has a dual nature: sometimes westerners are seen negatively as the enemy or carrier of germs, and sometimes they are seen positively and are received by the Japanese with unsurpassed hospitality. Non-Japanese Asians, on the other-hand, are seen as .marginal outsiders toward whom the Japanese feel amibivalent or downright negative." My examples of Japanese hegemony at Tokyo Disneyland add to Ohnuki-Tierny's classifications of treatment of the Other by further breaking down the non-Japanese Asian category to account for specific differences in the treatment of Chinese and Koreans.] The Japanese view the Other positively or negatively; the positive response includes everything from respect to condescending appreciation, the negative ranges from ridicule to outright omission.

1) Meet the World: The name of this attraction would seem to suggest that it is about the various countries of the world (on the fashion of Disney's "It's a Small World'). On the contrary, "Meet the World' is about the Japanese; more specifically, it is a sixteen minute crash course on Japanese history. [This sort of confusion between title and content is not a rare occurrence in Japan, a recent Japanese book entitled People ft Japanese Know, put out by the Japan Times Publications Department, turns out to be a 'who's who' of the Japanese people.]

The show, which combines film and audio-animatronic technologies, begins as a young brother and sister sit on a beach and view the seaside. The sister asks her brother a question on the history of Japan. When he can't answer it a white crane (a Japanese symbol of longevity) appears and recounts the history of Japan and its relationship to the worid.

What this attraction is really about is Japan's relation with ft Other. The hidden agenda is to show that the Japanese, despite their numerous encounter" with people from other cultures through trade, are a unique people.

The first encounter with the Other (according to this history) is with China, when Japan's first emissary, Shotoku Taishi, brings back to Japan many gifts from China, which are flashed across the screen including pottery, art work, religious scrolls, artifacts from Persia and India, and the Chinese characters from which the Japanese develop their unique phonetic symbols -hiragana. Then the statue of the Great Buddha (a Japanese architectural treasure in Kamakura) flashes across the screen and the brother cries out in protest, 'You mean that's not really Japanese?" The crane assuages his fear by explaining that Japan never borrowed cultural artifacts directly but brought back the seeds from other countries and planted them in her own soil. "This is how we developed our own unique culture over the years," the crane further explains. The crane then narrates as "Yagi-san " and "Kita-san, " the Japanese equivalent of Mutt and Jeff, trace the intensive development of Japanese arts and crafts during Japan's period of isolation from other cultures, 1636-1853, by rapidly opening and closing fusuma (sliding partitions) on which the artistic treasures are displayed. [These are the popular names of yajirobe and kitahachi, characters developed by Ikku Jupensha, a famous comedy writer in the edo period.]

The boy's fear that there might be nothing that is uniquely Japanese is not particular to him alone, but is felt by many Japanese. Among the gifts the Japanese received from China, as reported in the narrative, are its writing system, the beginnings of its culture, its political administration, Confucianism, and Buddhism. [Although many of these 'gifts" were actually received indirectly through Korea. For example, the writing system was brought to Japan by Korean priests, and the great daibutsu itself was constructed by Korean artisans.] Learning culture at the feet of the Chinese, the Japanese have long felt a certain sense of inferiority in relationship to the Chinese and have therefore strived to distinguish themselves as unique.

What this attraction shows is that the Japanese identity is never separate. The entire narrative of the attraction is framed within the subjectivity of the Asian Other - always in unsettled relations. This is evident by the way in which the attraction emphasizes Japan's uniqueness in relationship to China and by the complete absence of any mention of Korea in Japan's history. The attraction treats China positively with respect for its status as the source of culture (in much the same way as the West pays homage to Greece and Rome), but at the same time it distances Japan from China by emphasizing Japan's own development of the transferred cultural seedlings. The attraction treats Korea negatively by omission. [This negative treatment of the Koreans by omission is not a singular occurrence limited to Tokyo Disneyland. An even more poignant example of this is fact that the Korean monument for those Koreans (forced laborers) who made up one-forth of the 100,000 people who died in the August 6, 1945 bombing of Hiroshima was not permitted to be constructed inside the Peace Park and therefore lies by itself at a separate location across the river. Statistics as cited in the Now York Times, April 29, 1988.] I would argue that Korea is absent because it is the Asian country most similar to Japan and therefore most difficult for the Japanese to differentiate themselves from. Or, to extend Ohnuki-Tierny's classification system of outsiders, though the Chinese and Koreans are both .. marginal outsiders" and therefore more threatening than the Western Other, Koreans are the closest to the margin and therefore the most problematic. Korea is the nearest Asian country to Japan and is similar in size; Koreans are the largest population of foreigners in Japan and represent the greatest number of aliens who have obtained Japanese citizenship; and archealogical as well as linguistic evidence suggest some common origin between the Japanese and Koreans. [Japanese that I have casually interviewed regarding this treatment of the Koreans at Tokyo Disneyland explain that the Koreans remind the Japanese of their recent past, the bleak period of economic hardship in the wake of the war, and therefore reference to Koreans is often omitted in popular accounts of Japanese history because of this negative association. Although this explanation awaits further empirical confirmation, the possibility of my hypothesis is reinforced by Devos and Lee who report that the "Chinese were always (since the 7th century] given greater deference than their Korean counterparts, since they were thought to be the originators while the Koreans were carrying a borrowed culture." See George DeVos & Changsoo Lee, Koreans in Japan, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980, p. 15. Again, it is the shared status as borrowers of another culture that prejudices the Japanese against the Koreans.] Moreover, the Japanese imperial line can be traced to Korea. [Archeological findings in ancient Japanese tombs, in particular artifacts from the opening of Takamatsuzuka's tomb, support the theory that Japan's dynastic line includes Korean rulers. In addition, there is strong evidence that Prince Shotoku's mother was Korean. Devos and Lee (1980: pp. 1-14).]

Places in the narrative of "Meet the World" where the Koreans have been tellingly omitted are: (1) Buddhism first came to Japan from Korea in 552; (2) the narrative leaves out any mention of Korea's role in keeping trade with the outside world after Japan closed its doors to trade and travel in 1636 - the crane's version explains that this function was provided by the Chinese and the Dutch alone; (3) trade between Korea and Japan has been intense since the middle of the ninth century and has included both necessity items such as doe, beans, cotton, hemp and handcrafted articles, " wail as cultural artifacts such as temple boils, Buddhist images, histories, and Confucian writings. [In fact trade between Japan and Korea was so intense in the ninth century that the Japanese posted silla interpreters on tsushima island. See IQ-baik Lee, A New History of Korea, translated by Edward W. Wagner, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984, p. 95. See also pp. 191-96 For specific references to items exported from Korean to Japan.] [Though gaijin literally means outsider or foreigner, in popular usage its meaning has been narrowed to refer more specifically to Caucasian foreigners.]

The attraction deals with Japan's relationship with the West on two occasions. The first encounter with the West is by the Portuguese who are reported to have brought with them guns and Christianity. The second encounter is with the United States; Commodore Perry arrives in Japan in 1853 and announces to the Japanese that 'we didn't come here to fight but to trade.' Then, in quite a cursory treatment of World War 11, the screen and theatre are completely darkened for 30 seconds; the little boy cries out, 'kurai " ("it's dark"); and quickly the crane changes the subject away from the war by saying 'We've been looking at the past what about the future?" The attraction ends with a showing of slides of what the future will bring accompanied by the theme song 'We meet the world with love..Ai no tune de (in our love boat) ... we most the world with love."

2) Dr. Barker's Warranted Medicine: In Westernland there is an outdoor show where a confidence man, Dr. Barker, and his two sidekicks, a dolled up woman and a male flunky, trick the audience into buying magical healing potions. When I viewed the show, one of the "customers" was a Japanese actor dressed up as an American Indian. He was asked to come up on stage, and the confidence man began a hard sell routine to coerce the Indian to buy a potion. Whereas the doctor and his assistants spoke in the standard Japanese dialect (hyojungo ), the Indian spoke in a southern Japanese dialect which immediately categorized him as a hick. The doctor, remarking on the Indian's accent, insults him by asking, 'What are you, an Indian or a Chinese?" The comment was met with a round of laughter from the crowd. Here, the Chinese Other is treated negatively with ridicule. This is just one example of the type of Asian Orientalism at work at Tokyo Disneyland.

3) Cinderella's Castle: Cinderella's Castle at Tokyo Disneyland is a repository of all the sinister themes and characters from Walt Disney's stories. The Tokyo Disneyland brochure invites you to this attraction with the question, " Can you capture the evil forces of the Disney villains in the castle?' Upon entering the castle, one is surrounded by evil images from such Disney movies as the Black Cauldron, Fantasia, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White. As I walked through the castle I had a nagging sense that something was strange but couldn't quite grasp what it was exactly until I ventured upon the "Mirror on the Wall" from Snow White. This image in the mirror was speaking its line "Mirror mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them ail..." of course in Japanese, but in a foreign (gaijin) accent. Evil is represented as foreign. This is of course not unlike our custom of giving evil characters in spy movies foreign, usually German or Russian, personae.

5) Gaijin 25 - the Western Other at Tokyo Disneyland. The treatment of gaijin at Tokyo Disneyland is complex. On the one hand, the fact that the Japanese wholeheartedly welcome Disneyland to Japan praising it as 'the best America has to offer," and the fact that gaijin employees at Tokyo Disneyland are treated with respect suggest a positive attitude toward the West. Yet, on the other-hand, the above example of evil gaijin voices at Cinderella's castle suggests a negative attitude. Somewhere between the positive and negative treatment is the way in which although gaijin employees occupy high status positions at Tokyo Disneyland, they are kept distinct from the other Japanese employees. [This is in keeping with Ohnuki-Tierny's observation that "the Japanese demonstrate (a] favorable attitude [toward westerners] as long as the westerners can be kept at a distance." Ohnuki-Tierny: 1984, p. 42.] There are two categories of gaijin employees at Tokyo Disneyland: cast members who drew up as Peter Pan, Snow White or Cinderella, and authentic craftspersons such as Swiss clock makers, glass blowers, and silver smiths. These gaijin employees function as 'authentic artifacts" with whom the Japanese guests can have their pictures taken to legitimate the experience of the 'foreign vacation." In order to maintain their distinction as "exotic,"gaijin employees are asked to speak only in English and not to wear name tags, presumably so that guests cannot become familiar with them. In addition, rather than functioning as facilitators of the Disneyland experience, like their Japanese counterparts, gaijin employees are put on display. Gaijin cast members are displayed daily in a group at the place of honor at the front of the Disneyland parade, and gaijin craftspersons are displayed throughout the day at their boxed-in workstations not unlike animals in cages at the zoo. This paradoxical treatment of the Western Other - bringing the gaijin in but keeping her at a distance - is homologous to the Japanese solution to the problem of keeping the national language pure while accepting a limitless flow of Western loan words - create a separate alphabet reserved especially for Western loan words - Katakana.


My account of Tokyo Disneyland allows for difference in the present postmodern moment to show that Western cultural imperialism is not the only nor the most prevalent form of imperialism in Japan. In this paper I have tried to avoid projecting on to Japanese materialist culture our own culture's past, present, or future or our culture-bound narratives of modernization and postmodernism. Moreover, I have tried to show that cultural imperialism works in a more complicated way than previous theories have allowed. They assume that there is either a systematic encoding of Us by the Other or that there is a totally incoherent re-encoding which fractures the American narrative and makes nonsense of it. Both accounts limit our understanding of the way in which the politics of culture works, especially in terms of cultural imperialism.

By contrast, I have undertaken an anthropological cultural critique. [Here I refer to the notion of cultural critique as put forth by George E. Marcus and Michael M.J. Fisher in Anthropology as Cultural Critique, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986, pp. Ix-x.] In my account, the process of encoding is neither completely systematic and non-contradictory, nor is it completely unsystematic or contradictory; rather, it is an inconsistent process by which meanings get negotiated. By allowing for inconsistencies in the process of encoding cultural artifacts, I have shown how the Japanese encode - making the exotic familiar (as in the case of the U.S. and China) or do not encode (as in the case of Korea) other cultures and then reincorporates them to use for their own purposes, in some cases for the purpose of consumer comfort, in others to advance their own hegemony.

Further inquiry in this area would demand a rethinking of the very conception of hegemony which has dominated recent accounts of cultural imperialism. This would, of course, demand that capitalism itself be understood as a non-unified practice, as Japanese versions make dear. Current accounts of hegemony assume that one group is dominant and the other subordinate. In terms of cultural imperialism, they assume a related opposition between colonizer and colonized. But, what my analysis of Tokyo Disneyland suggests is that the opposition between dominant and subordinate groups does not apply to the Japanese and American (or Western) groups. The importation of cultural artifacts is not necessarily imposed on the Other. Disney, as colonial emissary for the West, has not succeeded in colonizing and subordinating the Japanese at Tokyo Disneyland. In fact, the importation of Disney cultural artifacts has been selective, it is already part of a hegemonic process by the Japanese. Lot me close, then, by formulating this problem as a question: how is the concept of hegemony to be modified to account for antagonistic relations between two dominant powers?  [My notion of hegemony assumes the absence, of course, of outright conflict as in the case of Cold War.]












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Mary Yoko Brannen, School of Business Administration, The University of Michigan


SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism | 1992

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