From Toyota to Pokémon, from food to gadgets to art, Japanese products have permeated global culture. We asked writers to consider an object that they own or have owned that was made in Japan.
Arguably the most beautiful object I own – since I’m someone who believes that beauty resides in usability – is a black nylon ‘Porter’ rucksack made by Yoshida & Co., which I use almost daily. It accompanies me to the library, the swimming pool and supermarket, travels with me on long-distance flights, and has survived two treks in Nepal, where – stuffed with clothes – it even served as a pillow for a few nights. There’s nothing remarkable about the rucksack at first glance, but people who travel a lot will notice certain things about it: its ideal size, not too big or small (thirty litres, to be precise); the incredibly light but durable fabric from which it is made; the way its various pockets provide ample storage without upsetting the simplicity of its aesthetic. I can travel quickly and smoothly with it, slip through crowds without drawing attention to myself, and turn up at my parents’ house without looking too dishevelled. My mother refers to it as my ‘nice Japanese bag’, which is accurate, but also tinged with irony, given our family’s previous attitude to anything made in Japan.
To be ethnically Chinese anywhere in South East Asia is to be aware of a complicated relationship with Japan. I grew up in a family that had lived through the war in Malaysia, and, like many others in the region, had no wish to engage with Japan, not even in the smallest ways. Our cultural roots had absorbed not just a hazy awareness of a general Sino-Japanese rivalry but a more specific enmity spawned in the years of the Japanese Occupation of Malaysia, during which the ethnic Chinese population had endured particularly brutal treatment by the Japanese army. There was an unofficial boycott of Japanese goods in most Chinese households I knew in my childhood, which I understood was all about the lingering bitterness of war. But this was a difficult subject which no one wanted to articulate, and so the reasons they offered for their prejudice against Japanese goods had to do with quality, or rather, the lack of it. They’re mass produced. They’re cheap. They just take German things and copy them. They have no imagination. (All the things, incidentally, that people say about Chinese goods today). Living in a former colony, we still held the objects and institutions of Britain as our point of reference; and so for many years, we suffered the caprices of a black-and-beige Ford Cortina with a leaky roof rather than switch to the sleeker, more economical Datsuns whose popularity was increasing with each year.
But I was part of a generation whose lives were barely touched even by the knowledge of war; to us Japan represented progress, not destruction. We were also living in the throes of nation-building, engaged in the messy business of figuring out who we were, looking for a strong figure to lead us out of the shadows of colonialism and into a bright new future. And so the government’s ‘Buy British Last’ campaign was soon followed by its ‘Look East’ policy, a collaboration with Japan on training, education, management and trade. Our nascent Asian identity needed a foster parent, and in the early 1980s, Japan was the obvious candidate – a country that was not just economically powerful, but that possessed, too, a rich sense of its history and traditions.
While the admiration for European luxury goods continued, our view of Japanese products began to shift subtly. Half-hearted noises were still made about the quality of goods from Japan, but it was now impossible to deny their increasing presence in our lives. ‘Yes, I know, but they are so practical,’ people would say, as if higher aesthetic or moral considerations had been sacrificed for the sake of cost or efficiency. By the mid-1980s, the unofficial boycott of Japanese products was a rapidly fading memory. Every household without exception had a rice cooker, and every rice cooker, without exception, was made in Japan. Datsun cars, Hitachi TVs, Yamaha stereo sets, Sony Walkmans: these were the totemic objects of my adolescence, Japanese products that made our lives feel modern.
Where wealth and technology go, culture quickly follows, and soon it became acceptable, even desirable, to express an interest in Japan beyond the mere practicality offered by its products. My mother suddenly decided to learn Japanese, and delighted in comparing the differences between Chinese and Japanese (one of her favourite stories, much retold, involves Chinese-Malaysian friends of hers mistaking a bathhouse in Tokyo for a noodle shop due to a misunderstanding of the character for ‘hot water’: ?). She also took up ikebana, creating sprays of flowers arranged in recycled Pringle cans she painted black to resemble stone. My father, a talented calligrapher, spoke of how his flowing hand had been much admired during a trip he had made to Japan, and how very few people in Malaysia had the same appreciation of such traditional art forms. In just over a decade, the products of Japan had begun to change not just our appreciation of those objects, but of the country itself.
Nowadays Japanese goods occupy a different terrain in the psyche of most young South-East Asians. In Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok or Singapore, a made-in-Japan label represents the highest quality: either technologically advanced or, conversely, handmade in an ancient artisanal fashion – and always expensive. Even something with the quotidian functionality of a rucksack is to be admired if it is Japanese, for it seems somehow more than just useful. (The motto on the label that came with my rucksack read: ????, ‘Heart and Soul in Every Stitch’). Beauty and cultural self-awareness converge in the physical object; we’re buying not just the thing itself, but a vision of a country that has led the way forward, that lives the way we would some day like to live ourselves: a rich, graceful, conflict-free existence where people spend time making and enjoying the finer things in life.
Malaysian friends of mine save up to go to Japan – they speak of soaking in onsen and dining in exquisite restaurants where not just the food but the colour of the plates change with the passing of the seasons. Last month I noticed a new store in Kuala Lumpur that was selling Japanese jeans at nearly US\$300; when I asked the hipster sales assistant if anyone in town could actually afford them, he shrugged and said, ‘People got money these days.’ What he meant was, of course, that some people have money – a waiter in an ordinary neighbourhood restaurant would barely earn the price of those jeans in a month. But for those cash-rich consumers who make up the growing Asian bourgeoisie, Japanese goods symbolize refinement and good taste, the very opposite of what they stood for a mere thirty years ago.
The evolution of our taste is testament to the power of material goods in shaping the image of a country and its culture. Whenever I’m in Asia, I’m aware that most people see France as the epitome of European sophistication due, almost entirely, to its luxury fashion items; similarly, our appreciation of Japan has changed with our enjoyment of its products. When I think back to the early days of the ‘Look East’ policy, I remember the bemusement that most Malaysians – especially the ethnic Chinese – had for the new cooperative regime. The idea that we would all be fluent in Japanese and diligently practise karate seemed faintly ridiculous, yet today we do have an awareness of Japanese culture that we have gained not through history lessons about the Meiji Restoration but through a daily engagement with the products of Japan, whether a modest rice cooker or Suzuki scooter, or a more refined porcelain tea set or hand-stitched raw denim. We appreciate what we can see and use, not what history tells us to.
Illustration © Bunky’s Pickle