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Japanese Subculture: Why Immaturity Matters

Immaturity is one of the keywords for understanding Japanese subculture, and in this article we will learn why immaturity matters in Japanese society.

“Immaturity” by Keith Vincent

Let us read the excerpt from an article entitled “The Geneology of Japanese Immaturity”(1) by Keith Vincent, one of the most prominent scholars of Japanese literature.

People seem to agree that there is something “immature” or “infantile” about Japan. This is true, it would seem, from perspectives both inside Japan and outside it. As I am sure you all know, the Japanese government has decided to embrace the image of Japanese immaturity––making Hello Kitty Japan’s minister of tourism in 2008, and promoting “cuteness” as one of Japan’s most lucrative cultural exports. The image of Japan as a perpetual adolescent has long been prevalent in the political realm, although now that the Japan Democratic Party has taken control of the government and asserted some autonomy vis a vis the U.S., journalists are asking if Japan is “finally going to grow up and go its own way.” (2) […]
It is perhaps for this reason that students interested in Japan seem so different from students who want to study, say, French or Chinese. When I interview students or read applications for study abroad programs to Japan, for example, students will of course talk about specific things about Japan that they like (the food, the fashion, popular culture, etc.) but they almost always also talk about their ‘love’ for Japan as such. Often they mention how this love for “Japan” has been with them ever since their childhood. Of course it is important to love what you study–in fact it is necessary to be passionate about any foreign language in order to truly master it. But still, there is something obsessive and otaku-like about the way these kids “love Japan.” Japan to them is not just another country. It is another world that seems to promise something that nowhere else has.[…] The strange intensity of this love may have to do with the fact that they associate Japanese culture with their childhoods. . . .
Of course I consider it part of my job to disabuse them of these fantasies and to get them to think about Japan and Japanese culture in more critical, not to say “grownup,” ways. My focus is on modern literature so I have them read lots of Soseki and Karatani Kojin, and this usually helps a little. The ultimate goal is to get them to stop thinking about “Japan” per se and start thinking about the people who live there and the books they have written and how these might both relate to their own lives and stimulate them intellectually. I suppose in a way you could say that I am trying to get them to “outgrow” the Japan of their childhood. But at the same time I want them to hold on to their memories of an “infantile” Japan and think about where this image might have come from historically. So rather than just “outgrowing” their fascination with Japan I hope they will use the image of an infantile Japan to think through how our understandings of childhood and “growing up” have themselves taken on powerful ideological meanings in the modern world. I would even say that one of the best reasons there is to study Japanese literature is the opportunity it provides for us to re-examine our assumptions about what constitutes maturity and childishness.
Why is this? Because the notions of maturation and development that underlie Japanese modernity have for so long been not only naive goals but also critical questions on the Japanese intellectual and cultural landscape. Saitô Tamaki has argued, for example that the process of henshin (“transformation”) that is so ubiquitous in manga and anime is a metaphor for accelerated maturation––and reflects the child’s desire to grow up.(3) It may also allude to a larger social preoccupation with the process of growth and development that can be traced back to the Meiji period. Japan’s experience of accelerated modernization from the Meiji period onwards was, after all, a sort of collective henshin. In some respects the sheer speed of this transformation proved traumatic, but it also contributed to a heightened critical awareness of the ideologies attached to notions such as progress, maturation, and “civilization.” […] [I]t remains true that no student of modern Japanese history and literature can ignore the ideological, rhetorical, psychological and other ramifications of the felt imperative to “grow up,” to “modernize,” to become a “first-class country” (ittô koku) in Meiji or, more recently, a “normal nation.”

Japanese Immaturity

In this article, Vincent, focusing on cultural castration by the United States after WWII as well as the issue of dependence on materialism in Japan, criticizes the ideological labelling of Japanese as “immature.”
If we accept the premise of “Japanese immaturity,” there may be some truth to both of these explanations of what has caused it. The trauma of defeat in war and the suffocating influence of an overweening mother might very well stunt one’s growth. But I would like to suggest that rather than asking whether the “the Japanese” are or are not “immature,” we ask instead what kind of ideological work gets done when we claim that they are. For one thing, panicking about “growing up” and “separating from the mother” invariably privileges a phallic, and usually heteronormative masculine subject. . . . And whatever one might say about this question on the level of the individual psyche or family dynamics, to apply this sort of psychoanalytic reasoning to an entire culture is deeply problematic. In fact, I would argue that rehearsing the narrative of “Japanese immaturity” has the effect of consolidating the Japanese nation around a collective trauma and thereby repressing our awareness that different people experience history differently. If there is hope for a nation to truly “mature” it lies in the affirmation and cultivation of this diversity and the recognition of more than just a single narrative of the postwar. This means recognizing that the nation–or any given generation–does not move forward in a single lockstep and that “maturity” can take many forms.
It also means addressing what has been called the “modernizationist” understanding of culture– the idea that there is some universal timeline of progress, with the “infantile” or “primitive” on one end and the “mature” or “civilized” at the other. In the modernizationist way of thinking, particular cultures or individuals are imagined as existing at some point on this timeline and thus being either “behind” or “ahead” or perhaps coeval with others. It is surprisingly hard to avoid this way of thinking even today, when some people would say that we ought to have moved beyond such a linear, modern way of thinking.

“Immaturity” by Masahiko Abe

Masahiko Abe, a Japanese critic-scholar of English and Japanese literature, considers “immaturity” as a strategy to make a new realm, in which languages are free from speaker/listener (i.e. teacher/student, ruler/ruled, strong/weak) relationships. In general, society needs static states through language in order to rule the world. What happens if, however, the immature/weak/ruled have a voice? Abe discusses the place for immaturity/childishness in our society, and its subversive power.

Abe argues that the concept of infantility, immaturity or minority was focused on in the age of modernization. Before modernization, authorities controlled information and communication in order to keep orders in favor of those who had power. However, Abe discusses, print and media technology developed during modernization, which enabled ordinary people to have access to and spread information that was not officially authorized. Narratives by the unauthorized—in other words, by the immature—may be shady, promiscuous and chaotic, but they may have subversive power against authorities. Abe’s argument on the infantility of narratives might shed a new light on Japanese sub-consciousness which you may be able to see in Japanese subcultures.

© Keio university
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An Introduction to Japanese Subcultures

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