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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.

Lamenated poster with bilingual text. The English reads: 'Clothing for rent': We rend out traditional Japanese clothing. You can wear our kimonos, samurai armor or ninja outfits. Choose from our large collection [text illegible]/ House Number12 [text illegible]"

A poster advertises rental services for traditional Japanese clothing. Heidi Lam

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.

A sword-fighting lesson and demonstration with samurai at a theme park. Heidi Lam

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.

Commercial cultural experiences targeted at overseas tourists similarly allow individuals to encounter Japan directly by inhabiting characters and using objects with their bodies. Characters and objects could travel between media platforms, appear in the material world as merchandise, and even be layered onto the body.

Many of the touristic experiences revolve around cultural characters and objects that overseas tourists had likely encountered in in their home countries and that may have inspired them to visit Japan (Seaton et al. 2017). The 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics presentation, which took place at the Rio Olympics’ closing ceremony in 2016, featured not only Tokyo’s iconic landmarks and Japanese athletes but also Pac-man, Doraemon, Hello Kitty, and Super Mario, among other characters. In the presentation, Prime Minster Abe transforms first into the animated version of Super Mario in a video before emerging on stage in a costume. Commercial cultural experiences targeted at overseas tourists similarly allow individuals to encounter Japan directly by inhabiting characters and using objects with their bodies. Characters and objects could travel between media platforms, appear in the material world as merchandise (Allison 2006), and even be layered onto the body.

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.

Please contact Shuang Frost ([email protected]) and Heidi Lam ([email protected]) with your essay ideas and comments.

Cite as: Lam, Heidi K. 2019. “Curating and Performing the Japan Cultural Experience.” Anthropology News website, July 8, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1199