Japan from the inside out

Time for the US to become Japanized?

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, October 9, 2007

A CULTURAL WAR HAS RAGED in the United States for decades, with no sign of either a negotiated settlement or an unconditional surrender by any of the combatants. Rather than human life, the real victim of this battle has been social cohesiveness.

Similar conflicts occur in Japan, but despite the growing trend toward individual expression in this country—which has paralleled the American cultural war—a long tradition of cooperation and group harmony seems to be a factor in resolving these conflicts before they cause serious harm to the society, become ridiculous, or both.

A case in point are the concerns over the promotional materials used for the recently released film, Sukiyaki Western: Django, directed by Takashi Miike. The Japanese work is based on the movie Django, a Spaghetti Western directed by Sergio Corbucci. Miike used that film as a device for retelling the story of the late 12th-century Taira-Minamoto war as recounted in the Tale of the Heike. In other words, it’s a samurai drama remade as a Western, with an all-Japanese cast speaking in English. (Here’s a previous Ampontan post about the film.)

Problems arose because one scene of the movie shows a man lynched Western-style hanging from the crossbars of a torii, the distinctive gateway to Shinto shrines. This image was used in the film’s publicity posters, television commercials, and trailers. (You can see both the poster and the trailer at the other post.)

Not everyone in Japan thought this was cutting edge and cool. The priests at four Shinto shrines e-mailed objections to the picture’s distributor, Sony Pictures Entertainment. (The company is also a member of the film’s production committee, the vehicle for financing most Japanese films.) The complaints said the use of the image was an “inappropriate (form of) expression” and “a desecration of the holy torii”.

The Association of Shinto Shrines, which has a nationwide membership of about 80,000 institutions, also made their objections known to Sony. But it is worth examining the way they expressed their objection in the original Japanese:


It isn’t possible to express all the nuances of this in comfortable English, but to get literal about it, one might translate the sentence as, “Wouldn’t it be better to have a movie that anyone could watch in an enjoyable way, with peace of mind?” Even in that short sentence, there are several instances of honorific and polite language that cannot be adequately conveyed in English. Indeed, the association chose the form of the sentence itself as a way to soften the impact, yet still communicate its message.

An association spokesman told a reporter for the Asahi Shimbun:


“Freedom of expression is important, but won’t the people involved have to consider how (the scene) might be taken?”

What was the result of their objections? The production committee apologized:


“We have no excuse for causing a sense of discomfort.”

Sony also modified the posters, commercials, and flyers by deleting the scene. Yet they did not remove the scene from the movie itself. They said:


“People interested in the film will watch it, and if they see the whole film, they will (do us the honor of) understand(ing) that it is not a desecration of Shinto shrines.”

And with that the situation seems to have been resolved. In any event, the issue did not turn into a pitched battle, nor did the media go out of its way to be emotionally inflammatory.

One can well imagine what might have happened in a similar situation in the United States. One side in the dispute would have warned that the moral fabric of Western Civilization was fraying at the seams. Columnists and talk radio would have begun baying at the moon, which could have lasted as long as a whole week. There might well have been demonstrations outside of movie theaters.

The other side in the dispute would behave no less obnoxiously. They would assume a holier-than-thou posture and don the mantle of free speech and free expression to cloak the studio’s desire to turn a buck and the director’s desire to throw cinematic spitballs. They would make the hilariously inapt observation that great art has always seemed offensive to some at first. (Ignoring that most of the material people find offensive seldom rises to the level of mediocre art, much less greatness.) They would dismiss the people making the objections as philistines and fascists, and in general act as if the film were the artistic equivalent of Martin Luther whaling away on the door of the Wittenburg church.

In Japan, the problem was resolved painlessly and politely. Both sides showed some respect for the other, and both came away with what they wanted.

In the United States, however, a similar issue would have provided the would-be saints and sages on both sides of the aisle an opportunity to pound the pulpit and to receive a thrill from indulging their emotions–further widening the gulf separating the two sides.

Some Japanese complain that their country has become too Americanized. I’ll leave it to the Japanese to determine whether that’s true—while regretting that most Americans will never know the benefits to be obtained by becoming Japanized.

2 Responses to “Time for the US to become Japanized?”

  1. James A said

    I’ll admit, it is nice not having Godwin’s law rear its ugly head in conversations.

    The only thing that offended me about Django was the acting, especially Tarantino’s.

  2. Overthinker said

    A nice amicable resolution, but let’s not forget about those that prefer to firebomb publishers and the like: Japan is no stranger to harsh confrontation after all. Perhaps it would be nicer still if all opposing sides could be more, uh, Shinto….?

    Actually in the States, I understand that if a television programme at least gets too controversial, enough to upset a group equivalent to this, it’s changed PDQ for fear of upsetting advertisers through unwanted controversy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: