In one unexpected collaboration the J-Pop group Momoiro Clover Z teamed up with Hard Rock band Kiss to produce a single together. A single that also became a video with the participation of both groups of artists. The results of that you can check in the official channel of the bands in YouTube
Now, besides the unusual combination being interesting to talk about in itself, in this post I would wish to talk more about how this can illustrate a debate that permeates most of the commentaries regarding Japanese contemporary (pop) culture. The long lasting feud between Orientalism vs. Westernization.
On one side we have those who defend the idea that contemporary Japanese culture has “Westernized” (or Americanized) itself. Usually the defenders of this line of argument see a loss of “Japanese traditions” in today’s culture and see little difference between today’s Japanese Post-Modern Capitalist Society and the culture in what is often called “The West”. Thus, when calling contemporary Japan “Western” there is also a hint of nostalgia for a loss of something that used to be there. What kind of things, you wonder? Well, maybe the music video in question can help us answer that.
In less than one minute into the video, we can already observe a lot of what the “Japanese Tradition” usually stands for in the minds of the “Westernization” circle: Sakura (cherry blossoms), Carps, hand fans, wafuku, the mythical figure Kappa, etc… All that wrapped in an anime format with your curry rice here and there. In fact the end of the first verse makes references to a old children song sung in Japan and in Japanese migrant communities (koi, koi, hotaru koi) and to a long lasting game still played in Japan today (achi, muite, hoi!).
As the anime characters turn into their real personas in the video, the background remain being made of drawings, except that instead of anime now is the ukiyo-e style drawings that constitute the background with images of the mount fuji, the rising sun, and other motifs that can be called into the “Traditional Japanese” repertoire
Now they mimic Sumo wrestlers, before a few seconds later some creatures from the Japanese mythological repertoire give them powers and their clothes “evolve” into samurai looking armors.
As the video ends, one question remains. How come Japanese contemporary pop-culture lost its “traditional roots” if most of what we see from this January 2015 music video consists in those same elements that are referred as being lost?
Perhaps the other side of the debate might offer us some answers. For those who defend the “Orientalism” perspective, Japanese contemporary culture is the result of a orientalist gaze that looks for what is exotic and “unique” in it, feeling the need to read it as part of a irreconcilable difference between it and what is called the “Modern West”. Thus, to them, what is framed as Japanese contemporary pop culture often stands for a Western consumption of the exotic elements of Japan, having little to do with the lived experiences of actual Japan.
However, to them, the question that emerge from the video is what would explain then the fact that Momoiro Clover Z, a band who is far from being directed at an international career and that has its biggest audience inside Japan, decided to perform this song and video full of this traditional elements mainly to the local audience of Japan?
In the end, who emerges victorious from the debate between Westernization vs. Orientalism ?
My answer? None.
While the Orientalist side is right to make the critique that much of what is consumed outside of Japan in terms of pop-culture stands more to a exotic vision of Japan than to any contemporary lived reality, it neglects the fact that this is still a product of contemporary Japanese society, thus, constituting Japanese contemporary culture. Meanwhile, if the Westernization side is correct in seeing today’s society having little to do with those imagined elements of tradition, it both misreads it as “Westernization”, neglecting the fact that Japanese culture is also constantly shifting and, just as in any culture in the world, elements that made sense in the past does not necessarily make sense in contemporary society, thus rather than seeing it as a loss, they should be seeing it as contemporary; as well as it misreads what it calls “Tradition” as being more “authentic” and more “Japanese” than the elements present in contemporary culture.
What I propose instead is that we read the “traditional Japanese” elements in the music video not as “authentic Japaneseness” nor as “Western orientalism”, but as an “apparatus of subjectification”. By bringing these elements into contemporary pop culture, what Momoiro does is taking them from a previous territorialized context and instead inserting them as “pure-symbols of Japaneseness”. Thus, it creates in its local audiences a sense of “Being-Japanese”, or in other words, it produces “Japanese subjects”.
Thus, what this music video does goes beyond the debate between westernization and orientalism, but it happens in their midst. It does work with all these elements because it deals no longer with the idea of Japan, the island; but with the idea of Global Japan. Yet, we should not let ourselves be trapped by “West”-centric notions as if anything that happens is aimed at “The West”, for what Japan seems to be doing is related to “how to be Japanese in a global era.” One should not be impressed by how close Prime Minister Abe and the girls from Momoiro Clover Z got during his years in power.
As for who emerges victorious between Momoiro Clover Z vs. Kiss ?
That is an easier one: certainly both.