Note: This post is part of a series and draws extensively on the previous posts. If you haven’t read them, you might find some of the discussion and terminology used to be a bit confusing. All grammatical/stylistic edits and insertions of comic relief are courtesy of rebeccableich :).
My first point of comparison between Japanese fandom/fandom of Japan will be the driving forces at work between the two eras, and some of the reasons why they differ. I’ll go into some of the similarities in the type of atmosphere/pervading sentiment between the late 1800s/early 1900s and today and why the reactions to them have been different since, even barring differences in medium and technology. My focus will largely be on the members of what I’m going to flesh out as the “elite” sections of each fandom, which I’ll try and clarify later; I’ll also attempt to briefly outline the more “common” fandom for comparison. My main points will be that the Meiji era fandom was characterized by a heavy almost “spiritual” component and an overriding sense of urgency in a desire to preserve a “dying” culture, while modern day anime fandom is focused mainly on entertainment and social concerns (although I’ll argue the spiritual component still does exist, but either much removed or in a different form). Obviously this type of thing hasn’t really been done before in depth (or at least I haven’t found anything so far, although I haven’t probed the academic literature or blogosphere deeply), so I encourage you to really attempt to critique my arguments and attack my positions so I can formulate better ones!
Note that most of the biographical statements, when not explicitly stated, are taken from Benfey’s The Great Wave.
The motivations behind the rise of Meiji ‘fandom’ can be divided into two main parts: preservationist and spiritual, both of which were at play in constructing the Japanese fantasyscape at the time. Most of the detailed analysis of the figures involved, referred to as ‘Japonisants’ by Napier (and the term I’ll be referring to them by), are from The Great Wave and also the first two chapters of From Impressionism to Anime.
Preserving “Old Japan”
Japan was in the midst of the Meiji Restoration, trying to catch up to the West and save their country from the fate of their neighbors like China. In the face of all this importation and proliferation of Western culture, the idea of what it meant to be “Japanese” suddenly was thrown into stark relief. There was a huge interest in finding and preserving what was perceived as Japan’s cultural heritage, both internally and internationally. Many “traditions” became codified and elevated during this era, first shunned by the Japanese in a wave of fascination with everything Western (Juni’ichirō Tanizaki’s Naomi tries to portray this type of sentiment) and then elevated in a backlash of anti-Western sentiment. The preservation of Japanese culture was in vogue, either physically. by reinventing and attempting to reclaim old traditions and customs, or mentally, by attempting to incorporate Western doctrine into previous Japanese history and thought (thereby making them originally “Japanese”).
However, before much of this nationalistic sentiment emerged, much of the “Old Japan” was in jeopardy. Old Buddhist temples were desecrated, old artwork was left in the streets, and many old traditions were quickly lost or discarded. This caught the attention of some figures in the West. Educated in Darwinism (and most notably, Social Darwinism), they saw an intriguing and alien civilization that was being snuffed out by one that was superior. So they went “fossil hunting”, trying to salvage what was left. To them, rescuing Japan was almost like attempting to study a species right before it goes extinct, pushed forward by the fact that this may be the last time they got to do so. While much of this sentiment is tied up in personal reasons (I mean, you have to actually have some interest in Japan before the specter of its death really matters to you), this was a powerful force that helped to intensify the early fandom of Japan.
Lafcadio Hearn journeyed to Japan in order to find the “Land of the Orient”. He had attended an art fair (they had a bunch of these back in the day all over the world) and was fascinated by the Japanese exhibition, which portrayed the country as the land of zen, bushido, and tea. Hearn, an outcast since birth physically (he’d lost an eye in an accident), ethnically (being half white and Greek), and socially (he was abandoned by his father and mother and later his relatives) saw in Japan a place where he belonged, a spiritual haven to which he could escape. This desire led him to eventually travel extensively around the country, in search of the land he’d imagined via his encounters at worldwide art galleries. Throughout his travels, his writings showed an increasing sense of despair and a mixture of bitterness and cynicism as he kept “bumping up against modernity” rather than experiencing the “Old Japan” he had hoped to find. Although he would later settle in Japan, marry a Japanese woman and become an English professor, he continued to seek out the traditional and bizarre in an effort to not only “preserve” the culture that he so longed for but to repurpose it, using it to promote the country to the West in the face of discrimination.
Ernest Fenollosa, on the other hand, was an art collector. He, along with some colleagues, were directly responsible for saving a vast amount of older Japanese artwork. They subsequently shipped them off to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where many of them remain to this day. Fenollosa stayed in Japan for a good portion of his life, fascinated with the culture and the art. But his interest was different from Hearn’s. He didn’t care for venturing into the backwaters and small villages in order to find the “real” Japan, other than when he was on expeditions to “liberate” artwork. He was content with his second-hand exposure in cities and the countryside. His appreciation of art was highly selective, elevating older Buddhist works while outright dismissing much of the Tokugawa era’s ukiyo-e. He himself was “converted” to Buddhism, but lived a profoundly non-Buddhist life. He also loved to comment on Japanese culture (often from a position of superiority) and make sweeping cultural statements even though he didn’t make a serious effort to understand the culture.
A Brief Digression on “Elitism” in Fandom
Hearn and Fenollosa represent the two sides of fandom here. One which pushes towards making the fantasyscape more real, and the other which runs the opposite direction, trying to get the real to conform to the fantastyscape. We can see the same interplay between these two sides of fandom — I’ll call them the reality-driven and fantasy-driven — in many types of fandom today. Focusing on anime, just see the demographic at a convention or online. The majority of anime fans, based on these sources, seem to be fantasy-driven, making Japan conform to a vision that works with the fantasyscape they have taken from anime. The more elitist of us, however, seem to be more reality-driven, trying to see where exactly our fantasyscape fails and trying to put it in perspective. We seek to contain, rather than broaden; contextualize rather than extend. Now the question here is: is this true of fandoms in general? Is the subdivision of elitist and populist fandom related to whether fans are fantasy- or reality-driven? I’m going to hesitantly say yes, but I haven’t yet thought about this enough to say for sure.
Also, it’s so elitist to discuss elitism in fandom. Man — I’m so meta. I might as well write a light novel about it or something! (I think joshspeagle is an anime snob ;) and I’m also counting on him not noticing this parenthetical since I’m the one editing…)
Japan: The Spiritual Anchor in the Gilded Age
The obsession with Japan during the Meiji era also needs to be considered in relation to the popular era in the West. As the title implies, the West was smack dab in the middle of the Gilded Age. Coined by Mark Twain, this was meant to imply the shallow, exterior quality that seemed to characterize the time period. Consumerism was booming, values seemed to be empty, and many intellectuals — disillusioned with the Industrial Revolution — were looking for some sort of light that could give them hope. And that light came from Japan, which finally opened up to the West in the mid/late 1800s. So what came out of that strange, foreign land? An appreciation for natural aesthetics, a celebration of the “here and now”, a reverence for nature, a discipline and respect for values, etc. Essentially, everything that a desperate, disillusioned intellectual would want. Japan became a symbol — an ideal — that could guide them through the hollowness that seemed to permeate their society. Many purchased Japanese goods such as woodblock prints, fans, scrolls, and more, and some traveled on pilgrimages to Japan.
Van Gogh especially saw Japan as a source of spiritual inspiration — one only need see his self-portrait, where he portrays himself as an introspective Buddhist monk, to understand the extent that Japan served as a spiritual inspiration for him.
And this isn’t me trying to extrapolate from art style of anything, Van Gogh says it himself in a letter to his sister:
“I’ve also done a new portrait of myself as a study, in which I look like a Japanese.”
He later goes on to say in a correspondence to Paul Gauguin that he fancied himself “a simple worshiper of the eternal Buddha.” To him, Japan was a complete (if ultimately imaginary) spiritual ideal that permeated both his life and his work. As Appropriant said in my first post, “Van Gogh was a total weeb.” I concur.
Although he never visited Japan, Van Gogh had a vision of a country that contained a strong, supportive community of Japanese artists who lived together and shared ideas with each other, and much of his time in Arles (before he went crazy and had the whole “I’m going to cut off my ear” episode) was actually spent trying to achieve this “Japanese” dream of an artist’s colony. In a letter he wrote to his sister, Van Gogh says this explicitly:
“For myself, I don’t need Japanese prints here in Arles, because I am always saying to my self that I am in Japan. That as a result I only have to open my eyes and paint right in front of me what makes an impression.”
That’s some pretty intense fandom right there. Although this is only one example, we can see first-hand the amount to which Japan was a fantasy for Westerners. This clash between dreams/ideals — this fantasyscape — and reality in fan culture (well, everything really) hasn’t subsided in the intervening century as far as I can tell. And back then, like now, we had people worried about this sort of thing. Hearn also wondered about this in his writings, asking himself in his journal “whether I shall ever be able to discover that which I seek – outside of myself! That is, outside my own imagination.”
A Return to Elitism and Fandom
I’m sure you’ve noticed, but the cases mentioned above, for both the preservationist and the spiritualist motivations, are biased. They all involve prominent and/or wealthy individuals in society, and not just that — these are individuals who can afford to, and ultimately do, take the time to indulge in such tendencies. So they are by definition intellectuals with a niche interest, So you might ask about the general population. Was there any broader Japanese craze, or was it a mostly intellectual phenomenon? Luckily, the answer is the former. It turns out during this period there was a huge demand for everything Japanese by the middle and upper class. Enough so that most of the fans and ukiyo-e made in Japan during the Meiji era actually were intended for export and shipped off to the West. It became the “thing” to have Japanese decorations in your house and show them off at fancy parties. Now, did these people (the “populists”) care about Japan in the same way as the intellectuals described above (the “elitists”)? Not really. Much like popular trends today, it was almost a completely consumerist phenomenon.
Now, let’s go back and compare this to anime again. How much of anime is an intellectual endeavor versus pure consumerism? Obviously both forces are at work, but I would also argue that there are some parallels. At least, the pilgrimages to Akihabara (including my own, which will be up at some point!) seem to indicate this, as well as the general population of anime fans and convention goers.
But the nature of the two has some clear differences. The spiritualistic component is a bit different here. Is it really as intense as in ages past? Much of anime is popular because it serves as a “beacon” of alternate entertainment, but that isn’t the same thing as I’ve been saying in this post…is it? And is there any drive to “preserve” anime culture? Maybe not, but there definitely are very strong consumerist undercurrents in anime fandom that somehow don’t seem to be at odds with anime as a more “intellectual” pursuit. Why? I’ll try and expound more on this next time. In the meantime though, what’re your thoughts?