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Revisiting the Gross National Cool: Layers of Self and Other since prewar Japan

Living in London now, in an environment where Asian (and in this case East Asian) culture is peripheral, I am hungry to see or hear representations of almost any kind, and am unbothered in my rampant consumption of Japanese cultural products. But growing up in Singapore as an ethnic Chinese, I felt conflicted about the widespread popularity of Japanese films and books.

By Ying Bi Lee

Living in London now, in an environment where Asian (and in this case East Asian) culture is peripheral, I am hungry to see or hear representations of almost any kind, and am unbothered in my rampant consumption of Japanese cultural products. But growing up in Singapore as an ethnic Chinese, I felt conflicted about the widespread popularity of Japanese films and books. Many of my peers’ grandparents had lived through Japan’s occupation of our country from 1942 to 1945, and it felt strange revering a culture that had instigated acts of military and sexual violence against us barely half a century past. It should go without saying that I do not, and did not, hold those from Japan now accountable for acts they did not themselves carry out. But experiencing the two sides of this coin has enabled me to place my finger on the conflict between two layers of Self and Other of which I am on different sides of.

Over a decade after the term began to be used to describe the power and popularity of Japanese cultural exports, Japan’s Gross National Cool has not dimmed. The world continues to be enraptured by the Japanese film and animation industry – supposedly in its 4th Anime Boom; Japanese literature – like the never-ending fascination with Haruki Murakami; and many more dimensions of contemporary Japanese culture – see the (often random and meaningless) Japanese script adorning apparel / visions of a Neo Tokyo inspiring (as well as being popularised by) everything from Blade Runner to Stranger Things to Kanye West, apparently.


What does it even mean?

The widespread appeal of Japanese cultural products across both Western and Asian markets has been credited to the industry’s adaptation of Western culture and media into a Japanese cultural essence. It appears interesting and exciting – ‘exotic’ to the Western viewer, ‘modern’ to the Asian viewer – while remaining familiar and relatable. For a more in-depth examination, check out this article on The Murakami Effect, which uses the example of Japanese literature to explain the effect behind Japan’s Gross National Cool.

This idea of a Japanese essence and a Japanese capacity to assimilate and indigenise the foreign is not one that is merely theorised by scholars of contemporary Japanese popular culture. It is one that finds its roots in ancient Japanese myths and religion, and which has been mobilised by the statist Shinto nationalism in Meiji Japan (1868-1911) to articulate its understandings of Self and Other, and to justify its foreign policy and military action leading up to the end of the Second World War.

Facing the threat of Western domination in the latter half of the 19th century, distilling and claiming a Japanese essence became the cornerstone for the construction of a Japanese national and cultural identity. Perhaps this essence is best expressed by Japanese scholars of the time.

Okakura Kakuzō writes: “The Indo-Tartaric blood of this race was in itself a heritage which qualified it to imbibe from the two sources, and so mirror the whole of Asiatic consciousness. The unique blessing of unbroken sovereignty, the proud self-reliance of an unconquered race, and the insular isolation [initially natural, then self-imposed by the Tokugawa Shogunate] which protected ancestral ideas and instincts at the cost of expansion, made Japan the real repository of the trust of Asiatic thought and culture.”

Anesaki Masaharu writes: “Our nation [Japan] is the only true Buddhist nation of all the nations in the world. It is thus upon the shoulders of this nation that the responsibility for the unification of Eastern and Western thought and the continued advancement of the East falls.”

Drawing from discourse on the mixed racial origins of the Japanese, which is said to hybridise Northern and Southern Asian races in ancient times, and later the Chinese and Koreans, this unique quality of Japaneseness was identified as a capacity for assimilating the foreign without tarnishing or transforming the Japanese essence. The Japanese emperor and people, Shinto nationalists also claimed, descend from the Shinto Sun Goddess Amaterasu. Meiji Buddhists declared there was no difference between the Emperor’s Law and Buddha’s Law.

This divine ancestry and unique essence bestows the Japanese race with a divine and historical mission to unite Asia in a pan-Asian co-prosperity sphere, represent the highest ideal of Asia, and protect it from the West – thus forming the justification behind much of Japan’s domestic and foreign policy in the Meiji period, and leading up to the end of the Second World War. The Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare produced the (then secret) report, “An Investigation of Global Policy with Yamato Race as Nucleus” (the Yamato being the dominant ethnic group of Japan). The Imperial Rescript on Education enforced the use of government-published textbooks and Shinto ethics texts in schools, including Kokutai No Hongi: Cardinal Principles of the National Entity of Japan, distributed to Japanese schools in 1937 as a guide on the distinctiveness of the Japanese nation. The historical indigenisation of foreign cultures was said to enable Japan to harmoniously assimilate colonial subjects in Taiwan and Korea. Plans for the Greater East Asia Co-Prospserity Sphere was frequently accompanied by the phrase “Asia for the Asians”/ “Asia for the Asiatics”.

Japanese stamp showing the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere

It’s important to note here that the issue is not only about the act of assimilating or appropriating foreign influences within domestic contexts, but the discourse surrounding it: speaking of it as ‘indigenising’ suggests an immutable, exclusive essence, rather than ‘synthesising’ the East and West to articulate a new, modern experience of contemporary Asia. Speaking of ‘indigenisation’ and ‘assimilation’ continually reinforces the distinction between Japan and its many Others. In this way, Japan did not only define an Eastern Self and a Western Other, originating from the disparity in economic and military power between Asia and Western colonial powers, as well as treaties perceived to have been unequal. It also defines within the Eastern Self a Japanese Self against Other Asian nations and races, where Japaneseness is pure, essential, and superior.

In more recent times, Tokyo Disneyland’s Meet the World exhibition, which operated from 1983 to 2002, celebrates Japan’s assimilation of foreign influences as central to Japan’s prosperity and Selfhood. The global pervasiveness and passion for Japanese cultural products, and the self-congratulating perception of this phenomenon, some argue, conveniently helps Japan suppress and overcome its historically constituted, problematic, and uneven relationship with other Asian nations. Some go so far as to believe that rapidly industrialising Asia is a space where Japan’s nationalist pan-Asian project has been reactivated.

This is not an agreement with the above statements, or an indictment of Japanese culture and cultural products, or the people that enjoy them – but a call to parse through the different layers of Self and Other, one nestled within the other like a matryoshka doll, with Japan at its core. Articulated by Japan during the Meiji period, and made impossible to rescind by the military aggression committed during the Second World War. Viewed through the lens of Japan’s history of importing and assimilating foreign cultures in pre-war Japan, we can understand the centrality of Japanese popular culture in modern times. Perhaps, then, we might be able to articulate a truer, more plural experience of contemporary Asia and Asianness.


Further reading:

  1. Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism, by Koichi Iwabuchi, 2002
  2. Buddhism and Japanese Nationalism: A Sad Chronicle of Complicity, by Nicholas F. Gier
  3. Japanese Cinema and Otherness: Nationalism, Multiculturalism and the Problem of Japaneseness, by Mika Ko, 2010
  4. Making a Moral Society: Ethics and the State in Meiji Japan, by Richard M. Reitan, 2010
  5. Trajectories: Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, edited by Kuan-Hsing Chen, 1998




Featured image: Akira, 1988 from

Other image sources: The Blade Runner set at night vs. Liam Wong’s stylised photography of Shibuya in Tokyo today, and


Ying Bi is an editor, writer, and radio presenter and producer. A student of International Relations, she is passionate about the intersection between politics, identity, media and art.




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