Japan’s imitation of the West

Memes often travel between neighboring countries and cultures like genetic material travels between bacteria in a colony. The imitation by one culture of another is rarely a pure copying though, but usually a kind of creative act: a selection, curation, editing, emphasising, painting over. But the distance between some cultures is greater than between others. Edward Seidensticker’s wonderful book Tokyo: From Edo to Showa brought home to me that Japan worked very hard as a nation to become Western during the 20th century: to adopt Western values, ways of thinking and attitudes, though not indiscriminately. Underappreciated labour perhaps. Western societies should feel flattered by this thorough imitation.  And if we find fault with Japan, we should perhaps also look at home, at our own societies, and ask if the root of the problem does not lie in something that we exported. It may indeed be that the problems we point out most readily in Japan are the ones that remind us of our own problems in some way. And today, when the sustainability and long term vision for Western societies is increasingly in question, one hopes, for Japan’s sake, that the imitation did not go too far.

We should also look closely at China, which seems to be evolving into a different kind of hybrid of Western and Chinese thinking, perhaps a less wholehearted imitation. Quantitatively at least, for example in terms of speed, the change in China today appears to match anything Japan has gone through. But qualitatively it may be different and it must be anybody’s guess today what direction China will ultimately take.

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