Editors’ Note: This piece is part of a SEAA column themed series on “Cultural Consumption and Performance in Asia.” The articles highlight different aspects of consumption and performance in a range of Asian regions. They examine issues such as cultural curation, the uses of the past, material culture, power and market, as well as the enactment of lived experience.
A group of foreign tourists in colorful rented kimonos walked down a street with preserved wooden buildings on each side, within a neighborhood marketed for its traditional Japanese atmosphere. As they chatted with one another in their home country’s language, one person in the group held out a selfie stick attached to a cell phone in order to record their activities in Japan. This series of photos or videos may be uploaded and shared later on a social media site. The surrounding environment and their clothing—perhaps the back of their obi (the kimono’s sash), their bodies in kimono, the street scene, or a rickshaw driver in costume waiting for tourists like them—would become props.
I frequently encountered scenes similar to this within many touristic districts in Japan, when conducting fieldwork on the Japanese culture industry from 2013 to 2017. They could have taken place in Kyoto, Tokyo’s Asakusa district, Kamakura, Nikko, or elsewhere. Tourism industries and cultural institutions are increasingly offering commercial experiences in which consumers embody a performative “tourist gaze” that “orders and regulates the relationships between various sensuous experiences while away, identifying what is visually-out-of-ordinary, what are relevant differences, and what is ‘other’” (Urry and Larsen 2011). A kimono rental is not only a brief transaction involving a piece of clothing, but a potentially standardizing and highly visible consumer experience that temporarily allows tourists to role-play Japanese cultural characters and perform their view of Japanese culture through their activities. The role of visually curating culture used to be performed by organizations, but is now increasingly assumed by consumers, given the rise of digital platforms based on user-generated online content such as Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.
Such socially embedded and embodied experiences are referred to in Japanese as taiken (literally meaning a “body test”). Consumers are invited to try curated spaces, services, and activities in a wide variety of contexts such as museums, touristic attractions, educational entertainment, and clothing retail stores. In a growing inbound tourism industry (with a record number of 31 million overseas visitors to Japan in 2018), taiken has become a cross-cultural means of communicating Japanese culture. In the form of interactive cultural experiences, it is believed to offer for instance exclusive access to the authentic and unique aspects of Japan.
Businesses and organizations are seeking commercial opportunities in encouraging tourists to experience Japanese culture through their bodies and actions (see Pine and Gilmore 1999), alongside tourism associations that link historical and cultural narratives to geographical sites. Kimono shops, which used to sell made-to-order kimonos for life occasions, are now expanding their services to include tourist rentals that accommodate different budgets. These shops currently advertise in English, Chinese, Korean, and other foreign languages to meet overseas tourists’ growing demand to experience Japanese culture by wearing kimono. A Kyoto-based company that holds traditional tea ceremonies in English even offers a Kimono Plan in collaboration with a nearby kimono rental company.
Tourists can also engage with cultural character types such as the Ninja and the Samurai through NPOs, theme parks, performing arts-based business enterprises, and even a store. They can undergo Iga-ryū School ninja training sessions in English and take samurai sword training lessons with professional actors. They can also participate in Zen meditation experiences that were reportedly practiced by samurai in the past and create a short samurai sword-fighting film at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport.
The foregrounding of experience-based tourism is believed to be able to guide tourist behavior. In 2017, Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzō asserted the necessity to alter the focus of overseas visitors’ trips from the “explosive buying” (bakugai) of merchandise (an overt reference to the Japanese media’s depictions of Chinese tourists’ shopping activities) to experience, especially to develop the economy of Japan’s rural regions. Mentioning the buzzwords insta-bae and SNS-bae, he suggested that touristic localities increase the kind of scenery that tourists can transform into aesthetically pleasing images suitable for social media platforms such as Instagram. Cities and businesses have launched Instagram campaigns promoting touristic activities in Japan, in conjunction with cultural experiences. They solicit, for example, images of people wearing yukata and kimono in local settings or engaging with objects evoking a particular Japanese cultural theme.
In this manner, cultural branding and curation are now outsourced to tourists, who become the most visible performers through their on-site embodied performances and their social media usage. A manager of a cultural theme park mused on the communication solutions offered by the conveyance of Japanese culture through the bodily senses: He had been worried about the language barrier faced by his staff with the influx of foreign customers. The body memory and sociality involved in such touristic experiences, in his opinion, could potentially provide an accessible introduction to foreign cultures and opportunities for cultural exchanges. However, several overseas visitors who participated in cultural experiences or visited cultural attractions told me that while they knew the actions they were doing and the name of the objects they were using, they did not fully understand why these actions and things were important.
There exists the risk of creating monocultures that negate the plurality of both the locals’ everyday experiences and consumer identities. We must acknowledge the multiple understandings of cultural meaning and media used in the digital documentation of consumer experiences. The focus of a commercialized cultural experience can easily pivot exclusively to consumer actions and appearances, ignoring the social and historical meanings underlying local practices, traditions, and interactions with material objects.
If businesses and other organizations offer the same kinds of cultural experiences for touristic consumption, they may well codify a predictable repertoire of characters, objects, and activities used to brand Japanese culture to the world and undermine the uniqueness promised by such experiences. In turn, this may also reinforce the travelers who wish to experience the stereotypical elements of a certain culture. When organizations and consumers shape cultural consumption in a feedback loop, it is necessary to think about whether an embodied but truly collaborative participation is possible in order to avoid an over-saturated and generically curated version of Japanese culture.
Heidi K. Lam is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Yale University. Her research interests include cultural performance/animation, the affective labor of service workers and consumers, and the cultural branding of Japan in Asia and the world.
Cite as: Lam, Heidi K. 2019. “Curating and Performing the Japan Cultural Experience.” Anthropology News website, July 8, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1199