Japanese Fandom Through the Ages: Driving Forces and the Elite (Meiji)

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!

Meiji Fandom

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”).

Naomi was also made into a movie, A Fool's Love, which is also pretty intense.

Naomi was also made into a movie, A Fool’s Love, which is also pretty intense. Here we can see the sort of attitude the main characters Naomi (middle) and Joji (left) seem to convey.

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.

Two of the prominent figures involved include Lafcadio Hearn and Ernest Fenollosa.

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. 

Hearn and his wife. An interesting thing you'll start to notice in all of his pictures is his tendency to have his right eye facing the camera. His left eye is the one that was injured, and he was perpetually embarrassed to have it photographed or painted.

Hearn and his wife. An interesting thing you’ll notice in all of his pictures is his tendency to have his right side facing the camera. (His left eye is the one that was injured.)

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.

I mean, just look at that. Nothing screams "intellectual douchebag" like this picture, right?

I mean, just look at that. Nothing screams “intellectual douchebag” like this picture, right?

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.

I mean, he does look really intense in this picture, but I wouldn't have guessed he was going for a "Buddhist monk" thing just looking at the picture.

I mean, he does look really intense in this picture, but I wouldn’t have guessed he was going for a “Buddhist monk” thing just looking at the picture.

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.

I know - they're really milking it, but I couldn't care less.

A short teaser! I really appreciate the vacuum cleaner by the way – adds a great touch, right? :) (What would joshspeagle know about using a vacuum cleaner :p?) 

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? 

3 responses to “Japanese Fandom Through the Ages: Driving Forces and the Elite (Meiji)

  1. Hmmm. I’ve been following your Japanese fandom posts pretty intently, but this is the first time I’ve felt like commenting, mostly because I have minimal knowledge of the Meiji period and didn’t feel “qualified” to be critical of what you wrote. But since you asked for it, I will say, in all my ignorance, that while I find the comparisons between the modern and historical fandom interesting, I find their connection to be somewhat tenuous. I understand this idea of a broader “Japan mania” and general fascination with the foreign and the exotic, but you haven’t really established a direct link between the historical and the modern besides drawing hypothetical parallels here and there. This could be because of the approach you’re taking in this post where you tend to jump back and forth between the past and present instead of sticking to a chronological discussion. Maybe in another post you’ll be directly addressing the continuity, since I take it that this won’t be the last in your little series of posts.

    But, whatever. A minor pickling in what was otherwise a very well-written piece. You brought up an interesting point about the fantasy/reality-driven fanbase and it’s got me thinking. There’s definitely a whole post worth of discussion to be found in that little digression alone. Is projecting idealism and escapism into your anime viewing “inferior” to watching it for in order to find larger truths or expecting realism from it?

    Also, I’m sorry. I burst out laughing at your light novel/meta comment. What a curious blend of academic integrity and geeky college humour you have in your writing! Keep it up :)

    • Sorry for the late reply!

      because I have minimal knowledge of the Meiji period and didn’t feel “qualified” to be critical of what you wrote

      Ah, no worries. Actually, most of the time the most insightful comments on a topic come from the outsider/non-expert looking in. That said, the dumbest comments also emerge from here, but still – feel free to speak up! On that note actually, how do you think I’m doing at conveying the history? I want to make sure I get enough to make my arguments valid, but not too much to make everything a boring history lecture.

      I find their connection to be somewhat tenuous

      This is a good point, because in my opinion their connection is quite tenuous. You’ll find many people who try and push some sort of continuity, but in my opinion their both the result of fortuitous timing, and each one had a bunch of different factors going for it. So you’re completely right here, and I don’t want to push a direct link. However, comparing/contrasting things in itself can be quite helpful in understanding everything involved, and that’s what I’m hoping to do here. When I was first doing this, looking back at the historical “Japan Mania”, as you call it, helped me understand a little bit better where I was coming from and helped me appreciate some of the interesting things that characterize (anime) fandom today.

      That said, there are some things I think can fit into a more abstract narrative, but these are more trends than anything, and I think I’ve started hinting at what I think some of those issues are.

      I take it that this won’t be the last in your little series of posts

      Nope! You haven’t heard the last from me yet. ;)

      Is projecting idealism and escapism into your anime viewing “inferior” to watching it for in order to find larger truths or expecting realism from it?

      Well, anime clearly is in some part the former, right? But there also are many attempts to make it the latter, both from the producer-side and the consumer-side (I also think that LN adaptations straddle the gray zone between these two areas, which I’m hoping to write something up on in the coming days). Personally, my philosophy is that there is no “superior” way of watching entertainment – only you should be the judge of that. What right do I have to tell you how to watch or enjoy a show?

      In my opinion though (yay hypocrisy!), you should pick a viewpoint that gives you the most satisfaction out of watching shows. Whether this is escapism or elitist blogging and discussion, if it makes you happy then you win!

      your light novel/meta comment

      I’m glad I got someone to laugh!

      I think that says a lot (maybe too much, actually) about how LN adaptations have functioned so far, but I think the meta idea has been really taken far in a couple of the more recent adaptations (most noticeably OreImo and Oregairu), and I’m hoping to talk about it once I finish catching up to the shows.

      Sorry for the block of text, and thanks for the encouragement!

      • Sorry for the late reply to this. I think you’re doing a great job at portraying the history. I’m learning a lot and you’re making it pretty fun to read, so it’s all good. I’m curious to see what trends you’ve picked up and will highlight in future posts, too.

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