Japanese Cinema and Otherness: Nationalism, Multiculturalism and the Problem of Japaneseness

By Mika Ko, Routledge, 2012

Reviewed by Andrew Dorman

The Sheffield Centre for Japanese studies in partnership with Routledge has produced a series of extensive works dedicated to situating Japanese cultural and political topics into the various contexts of east Asia, regionalism, globalisation, internationalism, and foreign policy. Mika Ko’s contribution to this series – Japanese Cinema and Otherness – tackles the deeply problematic issues of nationalism and multiculturalism in relation to cinematic representations of ethnic and cultural ‘others’ in the Japanese social milieu. Taking into account a variety of works from the 1960s onwards, the book strives to relate the representation of certain minority groups to prevailing discourses on Japanese national identity and contemporary trends of multiculturalism through a close analysis analysis of narratives and visual styles.

Ko’s work comes at a point when the study of Japanese cinema is becoming increasingly outward-looking in its scope. Very recent publications, such as Intellect’s Directory of World Cinema: Japan (2010) and Yoshiharu Tezuka’s Japanese Cinema Goes Global (2011) focus on the internationalisation of a cinema that has so often been essentialised as intrinsically Japanese. Going further back, Eric Cazdyn’s The Flash of Capital (2002) discusses the ‘break-up’ of national subjectivity (which Ko makes reference to) as a result of global interactions, while Koichi Iwabuchi’s Recentering Globalization (2002) traces the extension of Japanese cultural influence in mainland Asia as an affectation towards multiculturalism. Japanese Cinema and Otherness is not dissimilar from Iwabuchi’s work in the sense that Ko uses the rhetoric of multiculturalism and the idea of a more globalised Japan to focus attention onto the tenents of Japanese nationalism.

As a result, Ko’s work proves to be more inward-looking, turning attention back onto the nation and national subjectivity as much as uncovering representations of multicultural Japaneseness. Not only is this one of the book’s strengths, it also helps distinguish Ko’s argumentation from current research on the global dimensions of Japanese cinema and society. The end result proves to be an important addition to the field, particularly for the way in which it attempts to move beyond basic ideas of Japaneseness and nationalism towards a more complex understanding of how Japaneseness is both constructed and challenged in contemporary films.

One of Ko’s central contentions is that certain films which reflect multicultural sentiments in the contemporary society actively construct different ‘versions’ of multiculturalism that, over the course of the book, prove somewhat contradictory. Furthermore, the text sheds light upon dominant constructions of nationalism connected to multiculturalism suggesting the emergence of a new Japanese national identity that both subverts traditional notions of supposed cultural and racial homogeneity, and reinforces Japanese cultural exceptionality. As Ko argues: ‘while the resurgence of nationalism and the promotion of internationalism and multiculturalism may appear to be opposing trends, they are, in fact, two sides of the same coin’ (1).

In her investigation of nationalism and internationalism-multiculturalism as ‘two sides of the same coin’, Ko neatly divides her attention between dominant discourses of Japaneseness and cinematic portrayals of prominent minority groups. The opening chapter deals with the core tenements of national identity through an examination of controversial nihonjinron and kokutai ideologies. Tracing the development of these concepts (and their relation to the emperor system), Ko suggests that the promotion of contemporary multiculturalism and cultural hybridity disguise the maintenance of nationalism and functions to ‘neutralise’ the conflict between the ‘Japanese’ and their ‘others’ (31). The following chapters seem to bear this out, particularly in relation to the multicultural cinema of Takashi Miike and how his films Shinjuku Triad Society (1995) and Dead or Alive (1998) allegorise the breakup of national subjectivity and the distortion of Japan as a coherent geopolitical image.

Also notable is the attention given to the othering of specific groups – Okinawans and Korean diaspora or Zainichi. The research here is particularly revealing of how minorities are accommodated in Japanese cinema, yet in ways that maintain stereotypical images and contribute to what Ko refers to as Japan’s ‘cosmetic multiculturalism’. The analysis benefits from Ko’s continual awareness of the complexities evident in Japanese multiculturalism and her conception of it as cosmetic. What can be ascertained from this is that Japan’s increasing openness towards outsiders has a profound duality: on the one hand, cosmetic multiculturalism presents a challenge to cultural essentialism, while on the other it serves to assimilate outsiders in preserving Japan’s unique ability to absorb the foreign. Thus, as Ko maintains in her conclusion, multiculturalism in contemporary films represents both a confirmation and a challenge to cosmetic multiculturalism and nationalist ideologies (172). Ko writes: ‘We should remember that cosmetic multiculturalism may potentially offer a space where the negotiation between the ‘dominant culture’ and ‘other cultures’…take place. In other words, although the ‘otherness’ of ‘others’ can easily be exploited, at the same time cosmetic multiculturalism offers the possibility for ‘others’ to exploit it and turn it into a device for negotiation and resistance (169).

With issues of ethnic and cultural hybridity and multiculturalism continually (albeit slowly) being renegotiated in a nation often singled out as one of the most non-diverse in the world, it is a shame that this study is not more extensive in its scope, restricting itself mainly to Okinawans and Zainichi. Some discussion of other ‘others’ – Ainu for instance – may have added to the analysis of such a broad category like multiculturalism. Moreover, although the choice of films works well for the most part, ranging as it does from the work of Miike to Shohei Imamura’s Profound Desire of the Gods (1968) and Yoichi Sai’s All Under the Moon (1993), the textual analysis is at times muddled: it is difficult for example to see how the analysis of Swallowtail Butterfly (1996) fits alongside Miike’s films and the overall discussion as cosmetic multiculturalism. It is also unclear in the early stages of the book as to what nihonjinron discourses Ko views as standing in the way of Japanese socio-cultural diversity, for the most part the concept hovers over the work as a faceless spectre.

These are minor drawbacks however. Ko’s argumentation remains persuasive and her analysis highly revealing of the cultural positioning of ethnic and cultural outsiders in modern Japanese cinema. What results is an absorbing and thought-provoking study that contributes original scholarship to the field and which should prove to be an indispensible source for students and researchers concerned with constructions of Japanese identity and the politics of otherness in contemporary cinema.