Banal Nationalism in Popular Japanese TV shows.

Though I hate to watch Japanese TV, I mostly have no choice in the matter. My wife watches TV, or keep it open almost the entire time she is at home. I guess she likes the sound. I often just put music on, even though lately I enjoy the quite.  But when I lived alone in Japan for the first time, I did find myself open the Israeli news or Israeli programs while cleaning or cooking, just to hear a voice. I guess people don’t like to be alone, and the sounds of people are talking, even though it is the TV, makes their loneliness a bit more comfortable to deal with.

So I have to watch, passively, a lot of Japanese TV shows. I submissively accept my fate, but also use that for my thesis, as I focus a lot on Japanese advertisements and certain aspects of their TV shows. Sometimes I come across things that I find very interesting. Through those TV programs, I can get a glimpse into the social reality of the Japanese society. Their fears, their beliefs, and prejudices.

One of the most prominent aspects of those shows, the “variety” shows, is banal nationalism. We tend to think that the Japanese are not nationalistic, due to the fact that we often view nationalism as a more right-winged militaristic, pro-war xenophobic kind of thing. But, as Michael Billing shows, nationalism can be very banal – as he calls it “banal nationalism.”. Banal nationalism is the everyday things we do, that manifest or creates the ground for our nationalistic views. But if everybody in your neighborhood will put the national flag in their front lawn, or everybody would see the national team’s game, even though they dislike the sport itself, those things could be signs of nationalism. Billing even gives the example of national symbols on money or popular expressions like “God bless America.”

The case of Japanese nationalism is a more peculiar one. It is less visible and more subtle. It is rare to see houses that hang the Japanese national flag. Usually, the Japanese society views everything militaristic with great caution and fear, as it reminds them of their past – which they try to bury. The absence of many of the “classic” nationalistic practices make Japanese nationalism elusive. But, if one will look closer, he or she will find Japan nationalism everywhere, particularly in many small daily life instances.

For example, they have tons of shows that deal with the view of foreigners in Japan. Meaning, what those “gaijins” think about us. What they mostly look for are compliments. “WOW” “Japan is GREAT.” So they give these foreigners Japanese food, for them to say that it is tasty. They show them around and film their amazed faces. Lately, they even catch people right off the plane, in the airport, and ask them for the purpose of their visit. Obviously, when people see a camera, they answer a bit differently, but most of them say things like “I always wanted to come to Japan,” as the Japanese audience feel an orgasmic sensation from hearing those comments. The ones who have a bit of a special case, they continue to follow them around.

Japan has a long history with the issue of “inferiority complex.” They had one with China. China was the center of the political system of the far east basically until the Europeans came and stripped China to the bone. Japan saw China as a role model and felt inferior to it. They adopted the Chinese writing system “kanji,” some sort of Confucianism; the Buddhism also came from China through Korea and many more. But, after a while, Japan tried to level the playing field, calling the Japanese emperor with the same title as the Chinese one in official correspondences and such.

Japan had the same dynamics with the West, first, when they reopened up to the world after long seclusion, they learned everything they could from the west, in order to survive. They understood that the West’s military power is unrivaled, and they have to attain this strength to survive, and not end like China – which was more or less their role model up until that time. At that time China was the became the role model of “how not to survive in the age of colonialism 101”. So they rapidly modernized and attained great military strength that ended fueling their own colonialism in East Asia. Then they tried to level the playing field with the West, to be seen as equal and modern. But they also viewed Japan as superior in many other aspects, mostly after the economic miracle of the 50s – 70s, which Japan became an economic superpower.

Those conflicting feelings of inferiority and supremacy, still visible to the “trained” scholarly eye. Through those TV shows, Japan uses the “others” gaze to reaffirm their own superiority. As if saying “here, the Gaijins think that we are SO AWESOME,” we must really be that awesome, maybe even more than they “the gaijins” do. Maybe if they like us so much, we ought to love ourselves as well, perhaps we are a fantastic place?

But it also incorporates their own high self-esteem – which could be viewed as nationalism. They wouldn’t give foreigners things to eat if they weren’t sure that they would like it. They wouldn’t go and make people experience stuff if they would hate them, right? So it is a final approval or quality check for their own beliefs about themselves. They think that they are great, but, they also need a bystander to affirm that for them, preferable “white western”.

Another type of these kinds of shows are about Japanese people going abroad. They have the normal type of shows that the celebrity of the day go and experience tourist attractions. But, they have another kind of shows, that are also used to enhance the Japanese views of themselves (nationalism). One show is when they send a Japanese craftsman, artists or specialists to other countries to help someone in a dire need. This is to show how amazing Japanese (mostly traditional) skills are. As the foreigners left speechless while watching the Japanese specialist work hard, and saves the day with skills that are unimaginable to them before that encounter.

The second type of shows that deal with Japanese people who live abroad, deal with Japanese people who live in untraditional places, like in Africa or developing countries in Asia and so on. In many cases, they try to show a success story, how these Japanese became rich, or famous. One time they went to I think it was Kirghistan and showed how a certain Japanese male became a celebrity there. In another case, they went to Italy to show how another Japanese male, succeeded in the “X-factor” show, to become extremely famous. They followed him around Europe when he got invitations to participate in many other reality shows, while telling his “amazing background story,” as he climbed Mount Everest and so on.

All those different shows, create the idea that the Japanese people, society, values, and state are amazing. If the “others” come here and are amazed, and we go there, and we are successful and can use our unique skills and ethics to help “gaijins,” we are surely an amazing people. Putting It all creates a story, about the superiority of the Japanese in many aspects. This is Japanese nationalism.

A good example is this would be the compliments the Japanese people received when “the world” was amazed by the way Japanese fans cleaned the stadium after their team’s matches in the world cup. They consider these kinds of things as signs for their moral superiority and triumph of their values, as other fans do not clean after themselves. But the thinking is deeper than just “other fans”, it goes like this.  fans -> other countries -> other moral and value systems -> we are superior in our values of cleanness and order, and caring for the other.

Obviously, they also show how “others” are superior to the Japanese in some aspects, as they modestly view themselves in some instances. But this is another story.

Another example of nationalism in commercials would be this commercial. You could see how many German people dance and sing “we love agriculture, as the “we love” part is spoken in German as the “agriculture” part is spoken in Japanese. While between these lines they say the name of the company “Kubota.” As they all finally reach a place looks like a “farmers market,” and all the Germans gather around Japanese women, who dressed quite different from the German surrounding her,  as it can be understood that she worked there and prepared the food they now eat. And in the end, it says Kubota even helps agriculture in Germany. As I can see it, it is we the Japanese, are so skilled, even Germany, a first world western country with amazing skills, use our help. For me, maybe some people won’t accept that claim, it is a kind of nationalism. I think that its nationalism because it shows how the “Japanese” make food for the Germans, as they all singing and dancing thanks to us.

Of course, they want to show the global aspect of the company. Only showing agriculture in Japan would downgrade this big corporation. It is understandable that they want to show that even among highly developed countries, our products a popular, and we succeed in our business there. But they could do it in another manner, without the act of gathering around the Japanese person who made the food. They could show German farmers use this company’s products, without a Japanese celebrity there to “make food”, and getting complimented for it.

Do not get me wrong; every nation needs to be proud of their culture and achievements. Evey nation has some degree of nationalism, as people usually like their state and culture. The problem with this Japanese version is that it heavily relies on the constant comparison, as it is mostly in the state of relativity to the others. How do we compare to them, how they, think about us. In Israeli TV those shows do not exist, and I never saw or heard people from other countries say that they have similar TV programs. The fact that they keep comparing themselves show how insecure they are about their own value.

But, the real problem is that it repetitively creates the rigid dichotomy of “us” and “them.” This dichotomy creates a xenophobic view of the others, and reduce the ability to accept cultural differences and understand them. The Japanese people are used to constantly measure different value systems against each other through those TV shows. When a society gets used to looking at “others” behavior or practices as representative of their moral values, and that they regularly have to compare those value systems and decide which is better, it leaves no room for acceptance. The thinking that those two (or more) ways to do something, are acceptable and none are better than the other, just different now existing in these kinds of shows. In my opinion, this makes it harder to accept differences that might arise from foreigners who come to LIVE (not to travel) in Japan.

It might be a bit harsh to say those things, but this is my analysis of these kinds of shows, and how they fit into the definition of “banal nationalism”, WHICH is prevalent in any country, not just Japan.

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