TOKYO – In the days of VHS cassettes, a visit to a video rental shop here for a Hollywood blockbuster would often end in disappointment — all the copies would be out except the dubbed one. Listening in English while reading the Japanese subtitles was considered infinitely preferable because English was inherently cool.
Today, an increasing number of young Japanese think it’s just too much trouble when they can watch a dubbed version instead.
It appears that Japan is increasing looking inward and walling itself off from outside influences — a trend that's showing up in everything from movies to music to learning languages. Even as the supposedly irresistible tide of globalization washes against Japan's shores, insular and parochial attitudes are strengthening.
“When I was a university student, courses like English literature, German literature, French literature and foreign languages were difficult to get into, they were so popular," said Takashi Koyama, a professor at Akita International University. "Nowadays, those courses are struggling to get students.”
Last year Japan celebrated the 150th anniversary of its reopening to the outside world, persuaded by American gunships to end two centuries of self-imposed isolation.
Japan has traditionally been a curious mix of closed-mindedness and the enthusiastic absorption of outside influences. In the century and a half since signing that treaty with the United States, this "country of contradictions" has struggled in its relationships with all things foreign.
The trend was certainly on display at this year's Academy Awards ceremony.
The event was the most successful in Japanese cinematic history, landing two gongs, including the first ever full Oscar for a non-animated movie. But even as Japan bathed in the glory of Hollywood approval, pundits and politicians were lining up to explain how the victory by "Okuribito" ("Departures") in the foreign language film category reflected the "unique Japanese concept of death."
The success of "Departures" is part of a renaissance in Japanese films that has coincided with a loss of interest in Hollywood productions. As recently as 2000, imported movies outsold Japanese productions by more than two to one. In 2007, Japanese films took the majority of the box office total for the first time in more than 20 years, and last year, only three overseas films managed to break the top 10.
"Younger Japanese audiences don’t connect so strongly with Hollywood films recently," said Yusuke Horiuchi of Toho-Towa, which distributes overseas films in Japan.
The increasing market share of domestic movies can be at least partly explained by a recent bump in the quality of Japanese film; it’s difficult to make the same case for the local music industry.
"J-pop" is still dominated by saccharine acts manufactured by a small number of talent agencies and hit factories here, and yet they too are outselling international artists like never before. The last few years have seen a steady decline in sales of overseas bands with Japanese artists cornering 81 percent of the market in 2008.
The causes of this increase in parochialism are somewhat hard to identify. A sense of cultural pride, particularly among young people, has certainly developed regarding the popularity of Japanese manga, music and fashion, across Asia, and around the world. The "hungry spirit" that drove Japan’s development from post-war decimation to economic superpower, has inevitably faded; and with it, the notion that interaction with the outside world is a necessity rather than a wish. "As Japan has become more prosperous, fewer people are taking the trouble to learn foreign languages," Koyama said.
The current global slowdown has been brutal to Japan’s export-driven economy. Whether this reliance on foreign economies emphasizes to Japan the interdependence of today’s planet, or whether the nature of this "imported crisis" increases resentment at the world beyond its borders, remains to be seen.
But whatever its roots, some are worried a rise in nationalist sentiment is mirroring this loss of interest in foreign languages and foreign affairs. "The decline in the English ability of Japanese people also means that people are becoming isolated information-wise," Koyama said. "Even some of our young diplomats can’t really function in English properly, which means they can’t get information from abroad. It’s a dangerous trend."
At Akita International University, Koyama teaches all of his classes purely in English. One of the principal aims of the university, founded only five years ago, is to raise the standard of English among young Japanese.
The ministry of education is concerned that the English ability of the Japanese population is slipping behind that of its Asian neighbors, such as Korea and China. So it's introducing language classes in public elementary schools, though on an ad hoc basis, often using students' mothers as volunteer instructors.
Indeed, this year's Academy Awards were also memorable for the very limited English in the two directors’ acceptance speeches — in fact, the younger filmmaker appeared even less comfortable in English than his compatriot, more than two decades his senior.
Kunio Kato did manage to raise a lot of laughter with his halting 40-word acceptance speech for the best animated short, even being hailed as the, "Best Oscar Speech Ever."
Some observers in Japan however, no longer see creeping isolationism in a globalized 21st century as a laughing matter.