Financial Orientalism: Capitalism, Culture and Technology

Event Scenes

Financial Orientalism: Capitalism, Culture and Technology


Japan has constituted a site of “Western” anxiety for some time. Until recently, fundamental problems in Japan’s banking sector, a general deterioration of confidence in the Japanese economy, coupled with instability in global financial markets provide new contexts to study global media representations of Japan. During the past year experts have warned of imminent chaos in the world economy, largely due to the instability of Japanese financial institutions and the Japanese economy in general. Yet, several years ago, the same commentaries warned of imminent chaos due to Japan’s unfair trade practices and “technological juggernaut.” Oscillating between questions of capitalism and Orientalism, of technology and ethnicity, contemporary commentaries on Japan’s role in the world may prove more important in defining our own anxieties regarding modernity, global capitalism and beyond than any insight into the threat supposedly emanating from across the globe.

Media Images of Japan

In a recent issue of The Economist we confront the following headline: “As Japan goes…so goes the world?” 1 The accompanying illustration portrays three mountain climbers, one each for the United States, China and Europe. A sumo wrestler of exaggerated proportions accompanies the three other properly equipped athletes. The illustrator expresses Japan’s inability to negotiate contemporary economic challenges through a sumo’s cumbersome physique. As the others reach a small level in the side of the mountain, the sumo slips, no doubt on his unhealthy diet of debt, and begins a troublesome fall. Yet the interdependence of contemporary economies threatens to bring the others down as well. The ascendancy of one depends on abilities of the others involved and in a world where local markets reflect each other and global conditions instantaneously, a dangerous fall awaits each and every climber.

Yet the sumo has something else to disclose as his heavy frame begins the precipitous journey down. Indeed, why has the illustrator chosen a sumo to represent Japan while the other cultural-economic figures resemble each other in size and dress, distinguishable only by symbols on their backpacks? Rather, why does a culturally specific figure such as that of the sumo represent Japan, while modern figures represent the rest? 2

In a recent issue of Time, we are witnesses to a wedding. 3 U.S. President Clinton is marrying China’s Jiang Zemin while then Japanese Prime Minister Hashimoto appears dejected and in despair. The headline announces “Asia’s New Order,” one in which China becomes the West’s bride in a possible economic marriage that leaves Japan marginalized. Hashimoto appears in a traditional Japanese wedding dress while the happy couple appears in outfits we are normally accustomed to. Why does Japan weep in traditional dress while the others seem poised for blissful modern union?

In a recent issue of Germany’s Der Spiegel, a geisha stylized in the image of old Edo prints holds the red circle sun of Japan’s flag in one hand. 4 The sun is melting away, seeping through the spaces between the Geisha’s fingers as she watches blankly. The cover is sober and the caption reads “Das gescheiterte Vorbild” – the fallen model. We are led to believe that a symbol of Japanese particularity – a particularity that perhaps was the very reason for prior success – cannot prevent Japan’s imminent demise. Once again, we are forced to associate a strong symbol of cultural particularity with an inability to negotiate the contemporary landscape. Japan has fallen and the reasons are strictly cultural.

In a recent issue of Newsweek, we are warned that the day of reckoning for global capitalism is approaching. World markets have become increasingly volatile. Government intervention is becoming increasingly common. International capital is trying desperately to move out from where its presence is the only stabilizing factor. Asia and Russia are on the brink of financial collapse. Why has recent optimism turned to despair and chaos so quickly and dramatically? Newsweek’s favorite response seems to be that the world is simply not up to the cultural values necessitated by global capitalism. 5 Once again cultural difference seems to drive unequal financial abilities. How are we to escape this financial black hole where culture seems destined to determine financial inequalities and particularities are sucked into oblivion by the gravity of universal necessity?

The Wall Street Journal Europe reported early this past summer that “Japan Can’t Export Its Way to Prosperity.” 6 Demand-driven policies are needed to revitalize an economy in “shackles.” Tax-breaks and export restrictions, or at least the elimination of export enhancement practices, while simultaneously implementing import enhancement policies are the most recommended measures, even though the latter seems contradictory to conventional economic wisdom. The development model that emphasized domestic protection and export enhancement worked under different conditions but it has now led to structural inadequacies and a lack of the internal competitive forces that keep businesses honest. The Japanese and now Asian “Development Model” has backfired necessitating change. With Japan stronger on the demand-side, the economies of other Asian regions would naturally benefit. A variety of other measures are offered to assist expansionary movements in demand with the result of a potentially interesting formula for Asian recovery. Sounds reasonable. But it seems that Japan’s policy makers are being asked to do exactly the same thing when years ago the rationale was to limit Japan’s exports, which were above “fair” levels.

Kindai no chokoku (overcoming the modern)

A few years ago Japan was at the center of controversy over the internal systems that created inequitable trade practices. Now Japan is at the center of controversy over the internal systems that threaten to disrupt large portions of the world’s economy. Several years ago Japan was too prosperous and threatened to destabilize the world economy. Now it is not prosperous enough with the same result. The problem lies in the way we perceive the causes of these inequalities and the way the media and political or economic commentary reinforce problematic associations. In both cases the causes are internal to Japan and representative of a cultural particularity that is not up to the task of universal economic necessity.

Ultimately, such representations lead to the perception that Japan is trapped in its culturally specific past and is unable to effectuate necessary change. Particular Japanese systems of education and social relationships do not encourage sufficient individual ingenuity and creativity. 7 Representations in the media reinforce the stereotypes that align a “Japanese character” with insularity and a lack of innovation. It is still not considered inappropriate to assert that the Japanese can make something better but can’t make anything really new. Their cozy business relationships and structural preferential treatment practices are “abnormal,” or at least foreign to traditional Western business structures, and serve to stifle competition or create bad debt. There always seem to be secret relationships or hidden knowledge at work beyond the gaze of interested Western business interests. These putative internal dealings and protocols of secrecy also support the notion that Japan is still a mystery of timeless proportions. Representations that focus on cultural particularity certainly do not emphasize change. Traditional cultures are not usually associated with great innovation or universal discourses. Unanimous in the representations that depict the current crisis in Japan is the assertion that Japan is dealing with its current problems in a peculiarly “Japanese” and even archaic way. Yet by implying that the very structures responsible for Japan’s success are now leading to its demise we associate Japan with the atemporality of Orientalism.

Thus Orientalist discourses find a convenient medium in current financial crises, but it is certainly not the first time economics and Orientalism have combined in very recent memory. Less than two years ago a short article with vast implications appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique that warned the West of an ominous marriage of Japanese culture and technology for export. Marc Bosche’s warnings in “L’invisible ‘colonisation’ japonaise” belie a threat from a foreign and distant place – the ‘Orient’ -, a threat that seems to leave the integrity of the West in question. The 1980’s and early 1990’s saw the rise of Japanese multinationals and Moslem fundamentalism. Both seemed to blur the idea of national boundaries and pure cultures on different levels by opening unto the West a certain loss of global potency and internal consistency – the former with nefarious neo-colonial infiltration, and the latter within the global balance of power and European anxieties over immigration. Yet we may better comprehend the problem of the Occident/Orient divide by realizing that the ‘Orient’ is not always on the ‘outside.’ 8 The anxieties we associate with ‘Orientals’ and particularly Japan in my chosen context is that they seem to destroy the West’s internal integrity and autonomy.

Similar admonitions have come in a variety of forms and sources since Japan’s rise to the privileged ranks among the world’s economic leaders. Japanese multinationals purchased American movie production studios in the late 1980’s causing great anxiety. It would seem then that Japanese ‘symbolic purchases’ precede Japan’s ‘invisible colonization.’ The acquisition of and investment in a variety of cultural industry leaders such as MCA-Universal, Walt Disney, and Columbia earned the wrath of critics around the world. 9 These practices were to spell the end of American cultural sovereignty, and confirm Japan’s unfair business tactics in their quest for world economic domination and their propensity for cultural commodification and consumption. Would the norms and values of the United States gradually shift as the subtle influence of Japanese ownership controlled the play of meanings in mass media? Japanese ownership seemed to put America’s very essence in question. In a neo-colonial world of vertical integration and ‘global localization,’ it is not surprising that the issue of national autonomy should become a concern. Yet it seems that these fears may help define the problems global capitalism discloses locally, rather than distinguish external national or cultural influences.

If the purchase of American production studios created tensions similar to the ones expressed by Bosche in 1996, it may be interesting to observe cultural representations within the Hollywood movie genre. One may witness the way cultural representation and changing global politics interact. Since the 1970’s we have witnessed a variety of American action films depicting the loss of American autonomy as a result of external forces. These forces could be held in abeyance with a good use of old-fashioned American know-how and, of course, military technology. Besides the ubiquitous Soviet threat as the Cold War came to an uneventful climax, the Arab states provided the most consistent villains of the genre. South Americans became the next targets of this cultural anxiety when the American government warned that (imported) drugs were the most dangerous threat facing America’s youth. The Arab states regained their status during the Persian Gulf War, but the Japanese also participated in this system of Western impotence and quickly became the violent object of a symbolically impotent American economic/political policy. Black Rain attests to the menace of a Japanese infestation of Western soil in the form of counterfeit currency. In Rising Sun, familiar American landscapes are juxtaposed with Japanese scenes, and the action unfolds close to home yet is controlled by the seemingly sinister manipulation of Japanese interests. Interestingly, Europe did not escape representation within the genre. In Die Hard, the villains are an assembly of international terrorists, many with various European accents. Rather than reveal anti-European sentiment, the film’s representation of elite villainous foreigners seems to express a fear of deterritorialization and a new breed of global government that is more and more subject to the interests of an elite group of multinationals. 10 Again, the action unfolds on American soil, and specifically in the new headquarters of a Japanese corporation. The climactic ending to the first Die Hard disclosed that the terrorists had no real cause or political motivation besides the maximization of profit. Their motive for destruction and loss of life was thus somehow less pure than a good ideological battle between the West and its Other.

In “L’invisible ‘colonisation’ japonaise” Bosche does not acknowledge that his representation of Japanese neo-colonialism is highly ideologically charged and inscribed with questions of power. As I mentioned earlier, Bosche begins with the problematic assumption that there is an Occident and an Orient, a strategy all too easily accepted by both apologists and bashers alike. He then attributes qualities to this rather facile binarism. The Occidental, he asserts, ‘understands culture as a body of ideas and values, not like a flux of visual objects.’ 11 Bosche does not, however, explain how these values and ideals are transmitted. He assumes a phenomenological reading of cultural production in the West, as though culture could be divorced from its very own materiality. This epistemic elitism in Bosche’s argument seems to denigrate the East and the commodification of culture supposedly emanating from it. To his credit, however, Bosche later discounts the concept that culture is strictly a set of values, but in so doing he retains an alignment of the commodification of cultural forms to a distinctly ‘Oriental’ economy. Even when the Japanese export ideas, they do so only from within considerations of production – management systems, quality controls, efficiency, etc. According to Bosche, the Japanese are the main culprits in the commodification of cultural forms, and the products that litter the shelves of the once consumption-neutral consumer centers of Europe are very problematic indeed.

Selon le sociologue Marshall Sahlins, la culture, c’est aussi cette proliferation d’objets elle-meme, cette inflation de la consommation pour elle-meme. Ceux qui controlent les signes de cette proliferation et qui la dotent de normes et de criteres deviennent en quelque sorte les maitres de ce jeu de signes – et peut-etre aussi de ce jeu de sens. Leur socioculture devient dominante, meme s’il est difficile, a l’heure des firmes transnationales, de specifier l’origine de sa creation. On peut y distinguer quelques grandes influences culturelles nationales. Et si l’omnipresence du style de vie a l’americaine dans les biens et services qui envahissent l’Europe est reele, on doit aussi reconnaitre que des productions symboliques japonaises et asiatiques s’y melent. Un autre mode de vie. 12

Bosche’s ‘other way of life’ serves to reinforce the incommensurability of East and West. Yet Bosche does not realize that his very argument appears in a multitude of Japanese texts of the early 20th century. One such commentator, Kuki Shuzo, expressed the anxiety of modernity in his critique of the Western cultural forms similarly infiltrating the integrity of modernizing Japan. Kuki argued that the billboards, fashions, and Western dance halls of Japan in the 1920’s confirmed the inevitable colonization of Japan by Western cultural forms. 13 Japan, the historical site of idealistic vigor, risked succumbing to the materialism and commodification of the West. In fact, the issue of Japan’s Westernization caused so much intellectual activity in Japan during the first half of this century that there is even a name attached it: kindai no chokoku, ‘overcoming the modern.’ Many intellectuals openly questioned the relationship between the West, still centered on Europe at the time, and the non-West. Spurred by the realization that up until that point the world seemed to be progressing linearly towards a centralized organization of power with Europe as the center, Kuki and many of his contemporaries sought to question the inevitable Westernization of the world. Yet I am not concerned with the success, failure or implications of their efforts in this essay. Nor will I trace the implications of Kuki’s modernism in relation to Japan’s own violent colonial practices. 14 I would simply like to assert that the prior Westernization of Japan should be understood under the same categories implicated by contemporary commentators in their anxieties describing the putative current colonization of Europe and the West by Japan. Cultures and local histories are never pure.

Such commentary takes post-war national entities as pure forms and fails to understand the histories involved. Bosche, for example, constructs a link between technology and ethnicity and does so with the use of a national culture as an ethnic unity. In this way, Bosche ultimately betrays what is at stake – meaning. Since those who control these objects of consumption are non-European (read non-Western), and since these will shape our norms and values, the West risks losing its very meaning. Yet Bosche makes it clear that American ‘goods and services’ are not as dangerous. The ‘other way of life’ designated by Bosche to create the incommensurability between Japan and the West serves to differentiate American and Japanese influences. Why? An inspection of the cultural forms originating from Japan yields some rather interesting results. The Japanese cultural economy is associated with technology, and in many cases a technology of leisure. 15 Implying that the Japanese are out to lull the industry of Western youth into accepting complacency, Bosche invokes a series of technologies of leisure to show that from a young age Japanese products affect our youth in an adverse, alienating, and distinctively ‘Japanese’ way. The process begins with Nintendo Game Boys and moves through comic books, the Walkman, hand-held video cameras, motorcycles, karaoke, and laptop computers. Yet the atomization of individual energies implied by these devices may be more of a necessity for a global high-tech labor force, capitalist modes of division of labor, and a compartmentalization of individual time and energies rather than a Japanese desire to ‘reduce the world to understand its essence, express it and manipulate it.’ 16 Even Bosche’s inclusion of the futon may be understood as a fear of being caught asleep while the Japanese work their inhuman way towards economic/cultural dominion.

Yet there is a much simpler association at work here. Bosche aligns technology itself with a Japanese cultural economy. The functioning of this alignment is made transparent when we recall that the single most important factor in defining Western modernity has always been technological superiority. Would the project of world industrialization (with the West as symbolic and material center) be so closely associated with Westernization had the technological impetus initially come from Japanese consumer goods? Of course, the answer is no because the Japan issue is a relatively recent one. One might argue, however, that the greatest Japanese influence on France, Germany and the rest of Europe occurred from the turn of the century to the 1930’s. Would Bosche turn back to 19th century European painting, especially in its Impressionist mode, to note that Van Gogh and others such as Toulouse-Lautrec were inspired by, and in many instances simply copied, prints in the ukiyoe tradition of 18th and 19th century Japan? Nor are the interactions of Japanese philosophers such as Kuki and Tanabe Hajime and their European counterparts widely publicized. The exchanges between Kuki and his French tutor in Paris, a certain Jean-Paul Sartre, have been documented, and one might wonder what the history of phenomenology and existentialism would be had Kuki not introduced the young Sartre to Heidegger. 17 And what of various forms of early 20th century European modernism without the modern Zen-for-export efforts of notable worldly missionaries such as D.T. Suzuki, 18 or the importation and reorganization of traditional Japanese arts such as hokku (haiku) for cinematography and various traditional Japanese plastic arts for other artistic movements by both Western and Japanese interpreters? 19 Of course, there was no need for concern in these historical contexts because the relationship of power did not cause a great deal of cultural anxiety at the time. Technology is the motor and goal of the future, and Bosche’s list of symbolic cultural technology for export is distinctly Japanese. That Bosche warns explicitly that our youth are the most sensitive to these high-tech cultural forms, only reaffirms this apocalyptic sense in Bosche’s future. Consequently, Bosche’s text discloses a sense that the age of dominion may be over and that the new powers are very foreign – much more so than simple crass American commercialism.

Thus Bosche betrays why Japanese economic hegemony is more dangerous than the American kind. 20

Des industriels japonais detectent, en Occident, des idees interessantes d’innovation. Ils achetent la technologie ou commandent des etudes a un laboratoire occidental en pointe dans le domaine vise. 21

The Japanese, it seems, do not create technology, but rather steal it. This tiresome, yet persistent, stereotype would not even warrant closer inspection except that the tendency to depict the Japanese as masters of protocols of stealth and secrecy betrays the possibility that people like Bosche are most anxious about the fact that somehow the internal consistency of the West itself is in peril. We believe that there is a secret to the West’s putative cultural/economic/ military supremacy and that the Japanese may steal it through their propensity for profits. Bosche also betrays his ideology by the very title – l’invisible colonisation – unseen (read unfair) colonization by the masters of ninjitsu themselves. This internal anxiety over a modernity not realized in humane institutions and class/cultural/gender equality and justice is only compounded by the fact that the West can no longer even claim technological/economic superiority.

And so we return to more recent conditions. Bosche’s conclusions and those of others like him writing only a short time ago now seem rather inappropriate. And yet the representations seem frighteningly similar. Globalism is a universalizing discourse more powerful than all others before it, regardless of its current problems, because of the technology that makes it possible and the potential financial rewards that motivate it. But the paradox of globalism is that it simultaneously seeks to eliminate difference globally, and emphasize it locally. Thus local problems intensify under the scrutiny of global information and political institutions, and global projects rely more and more on, and must equally accommodate, local particularities. As economies and politics around the globe become increasingly interrelated and volatile, we are exposed to a landscape where culture and geopolitics breed nicely with finance and economics creating new (same) Orientalist discourses that serve only to reinforce established opinions and tired stereotypes.


1. The Economist, June 20, 1998.

2. On page 20 of the same issue appears an illustration depicting an ill warrior in the popular image of a samurai for the West with yen-stylized headgear. Besides the obvious association that it reinforces (Japanese business people as modern warriors – no shortage of commentaries in the 1980’s drew comparisons between Japan’s feudal past and modern business strategies for success), it also forces us to associate weak contemporary economic indicators with cultural-specific and anachronistic causes.

3. Time, July 13, 1998.

4. Der Spiegel, June 22, 1998.

5. “Global Capitalism” in Newsweek, September 14, 1998.

6. Wolf Jr., Charles. “Japan Can’t Export Its Way to Prosperity” in The Wall Street Journal Europe, Vol. 16, No. 83, June 3, 1998.

7. Dourille-Feer, Evelyne. “Craquements dans le modele japonais” in Le Monde Diplomatique, March 1998.

8. Morley, David and Robbins, Kevin. “Techno-Orientalism,” in New Formations, Vol. 16, Spring 1192, p. 143.

9. ibid., p.138

10. One might also consider the science fiction genre and its current tendency to depict violent and aggressive aliens as nomadic, locust- like, consume-and-move-on insects, a slip of the anxiety associated with the nomadism of global capital and its non-sedentary demands. This tendency represents an anxiety regarding the potential loss of internal consistency and a recognizable homeland.

11. Bosche, Marc. “L’invisible ‘colonisation’ japonaise” in Le Monde Diplomatique, November 1996, p.25.

12. ibid.

13. For a succinct and insightful analysis of Kuki’s project, see Leslie Pincus, “In a Labyrinth of Western Desire,” in Japan and the World, eds. Masao Miyoshi and H.D. Harootunian. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993, p.222-236.

14. See Pincus, “In a Labyrinth of Western Desire.” [15} In this context, the work of Slavoj Zizek would be of interest, especially his ‘Theft of Pleasure’ in ‘Eastern Europe’s Republics of Gilead,’ New Literary Review 183, Sept/Oct 1990, p. 36.

16. Bosche, Marc. p.25.

17. Light, Stephen. Shuzo Kuki and Jean-Paul Sartre: Influence and Counter-Influence in the Early History of Existential Phenomenology. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987.

18. Sharf, Robert. “The Zen of Japanese Nationalism,” in History of Religions, Vol 33:1, August 1993, p.3.

19. Morris, Mark. “Buson and Shiki: Part I,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. Vol 45:1, 1985, pp. 255-321.

20. Americanization seems acceptable since it has now defined itself as the center of the West. Japan remains that which is categorically refused in the West. The recent emergence of information technologies largely dominated by American corporations has not seemed to cause as much cultural anxiety.

21. Bosche, Marc. p.25.

Gerry Psomiadis is a writer and Ph.D. student who is currently living in Europe. He is researching modern intellectual and ideological complicities between Japan and Europe.