Flagging the national identity, reinforcing Japaneseness

The case of the national idols pre- and post-2011

Yunuen Mandujano, PhD Candidate, Universidad Autonoma de Ciudad Juarez [About | Email]

Volume 14, Issue 1 (Article 3 in 2014). First published in ejcjs on 31 March 2014.


This article discusses the way in which Japanese ideological elites have been using a pop idol group to reinforce ideas of a past cultural nationalist movement—nihonjinron—regarding the national identity among contemporary Japanese society. Building on the theory of banal nationalism of Michael Billig, it is argued that, particularly after the crisis created by the 2011 Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, the intensity of the messages embedded in the popular culture phenomenon studied here became highly nationalistic, flagging continuously and ostensibly a positive and admirable imagery related to the idea of Japanese uniqueness. The qualities already naturalised in the society through nihonjinron began to be presented and represented, reinforcing the Japanese spirit parallel and seemingly independent to the ‘new nationalist’ trend that has been present in the political circles of Japan since the 1990s.

Keywords: cultural nationalism, banal nationalism, Japan's new nationalism, Japanese popular culture, pop idols.


Japan entered modernitylate in the nineteenth century when, pressed by internal and external situations, the governmental elite took measures to turn it into a nation-state. Since that moment, Japanese society has experienced recurrent nationalist movements directed from above and aimed at different objectives—from the establishment of Japan as an imperial power in Asia to the reinforcement of national pride and identity during times of social crisis. During the last couple of decades, many analysts have claimed that a ‘new’ wave of nationalism has extended into the political arena with the potential of evolving into the military resurgence of Japan, threatening Asia’s stability. On the other hand, there is another field in which we may also find the increasing presence of a nationalist discourse, particularly obvious since 2011, which has not yet received sufficient critical attention, perhaps because its content is not explicitly belligerent: Japanese popular culture. 

In the present article, based on an extensive critical analysis of Japanese media content related to the phenomena of interest, I discuss the ways in which Japanese ideological elites—media, government and corporations—have been using some popular culture idols to reinforce ideas on the traditional qualities of Japanese national identity within contemporary society, ideas that achieved a hegemonic stance after the cultural nationalist movement of nihonjinron, which peaked between the 1960s and the 1980s. 

Building on the theory of banal nationalism of Michael Billig, I argue that, after the crisis created by the 2011 Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japanese elites reinforced the use of popular culture as an ideological medium to flag continuously and ostensibly the positive and admirable imagery related to the ideas of Japanese uniqueness of the nihonjinron discourse. The objective of this flagging can be seen as having an omote and an ura: on the surface, the government and media openly promote an ideological campaign for the regaining of national pride and the strengthening of traditional national attributes within society, aiming for a quick economic and infrastructural recovery; however, taking into account the parallel increased nationalism in the political arena, it can be argued that the boost of the patriotic sentiment may have the concealed intention of easing the way for aggressive political moves to be accepted among society. 

The banality of nationalism

After World War II, the dominant ideologies of Liberalism and Marxism relegated the topic of nationalism away from the main debates about the new world order. Soon, however, the emergence of numerous movements that claimed national motives brought back to the table the notions of nation, nationalism and national identity. By the 1980s, it was undeniable that the concept of the nation was still one of the main forces behind conflicts around the world: nationalism was still an important ideological element used by power elites to move people for their own aims. 

Benedict Anderson(1991) defined a nation as an imagined, political, limited and sovereign community in which the members do not know most of the other fellow-members, but they still imagine that they all belong to the same horizontal comradeship for the sake of a shared culture; he considered nation and nationalism as cultural artifacts. Ernest Gellner (1983), on the other hand, was very critical of the construction of nationalisms or national ideologies, remarking the way in which they created a false consciousness in people, making them forget episodes of the past and, at the same time, creating a false memory made up of selected imageries. In the same tone, Eric Hobsbawm (2000a; 2000b) pointed out that invented traditions were critical to fix somehow unspecified and vague values and norms of behaviour that—nonetheless—were emotionally and symbolically charged to link the individual to a specific society; he called attention to mass-produced invented traditions, such as football competitions or other types of parades and ritualised mass gatherings, which have been repetitively used for official purposes to provide “a medium for national identification and factitious community” (2000b, p. 300). Anthony D. Smith (2009) also agreed on the relevance of symbolic resources and the differentiation between elites and masses in the process of formation of a national identity: through a careful selection oftraditions, symbols, memories and national myths, elites try to echo the needs, values, memories, and traditions of different segments of the population so they can be accepted.  

In existent nation-states where a national identity has been established among society, processes of nationalism that are not necessarily linked to specific political aims can be persistently found. One of these is cultural nationalism, which presents at moments in which the identity is perceived as weak or threatened and is generally aimed at the recovery of the national sentiment in a society (Yoshino, 2005). Another is banal nationalism, which implies a constant and unmindful reminder of nationhood in everyday social and cultural practices: people are exposed to a recurrent flagging of everything national that becomes a constant reminder of their belonginess to one nation in the world (Billig, 1995). 

Both of these nationalist processes may appear as non-aggressive, apolitical, even positive, and so be considered by some as patriotism—which, as Michael Billig (1995, p. 55) argues, is seen as the opposite of the dangerous and irrational nationalism of the other. Nevertheless, no matter how banal they may seem, they have the potential to become “that familiar monster: the self-righteous call to national anger” (Billig, 1995, p. 103). This is the danger that can be particularly perceived in a country with a history of wars and devastation due to ultranationalist movements.  

Japan’s turbulent twentieth century and the nihonjinron discourse

The process that transformed Japan into a nation-state, incorporating it into the world of modern nations, began with the Meiji restoration movement of 1867-1868. The leaders of the movement—and the new government—were aware of the need of transforming Japan into a nation-state in order to negotiate on equal terms with Western powers and resist their colonial voracity. To this aim, they needed to produce a sense of community among people; thus, they promoted the imperial institution as the most powerful unifying force of Japan and the centre of social and national identity. 

By the beginning of the twentieth century, this ideological campaign, internal economic and military progress, and the international context concurred and gave place to Japan’s ultranationalist expansionism in Asia. Japan won wars against China and Russia and took control over Korea, Taiwan, Manchuria and other territories of the region. The gained position caused an outburst of nationalist pride that further unified the sentiments of the population and inspired Japanese intelligentsia to promote the indigenous traditions of Tokugawa times that had claimed that Japan was destined to be at the centre of the world. However, as Japan advanced in Asia, the interests of the United States in the region were threatened and a war against the Western power began, resulting in the devastation of the country and defeat in the Pacific War.  

Japanese intelligentsia had been working since before the war ideologically to integrate the nation; people like Yanagita Kunio (1942) and Watsuji Tetsurō (1961)1 had already written about the peculiarity of Japanese culture and society aiming for such unity. But, after the mystical veil and political power of major national symbolic institutions—the Emperor and Shinto—had been removed with the Postdam Declaration in 1945, the need to strengthen the national identity in order to maintain national unity and be able to direct society towards the rebuilding of the nation became a major concern among political and intellectual elites. Pre-war theories on the national identity reappeared at the same time that an opposite trend blamed Japanese feudalistic and pre-modern values for the tragic situation in which the nation was at that moment. Then, the publication in 1947 of the Japanese version of The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture (Benedict, 2006 [1946]), a book written by American anthropologist Ruth Benedict based on her wartime study about Japanese society, caused a deep impact among intellectuals and became the source of more discussions about the pertinence or inaccuracy of the national image it portrayed. 

The defeat and destruction of Japan due to an ultra-nationalist military campaign, the presence of Occupation forces, and the debates on the merits and burdens of Japanese traditional values had the effect of creating among Japanese people a self-denigrating and shameful sentiment regarding their national identity. Previously powerful national symbols—as Kimigayo, which functioned as a national anthem, and the Hinomaru,the national flag—had also become reminders of the defeat and the feudalist values, becoming a source of shame and anger for many. 

However, by the end of the 1960s, due to the rapid rebuilding of the country, internal policies for industrial expansion, and international circumstances, Japanese people were experiencing the benefits—and harms—of an accelerated economic growth and incorporation into the so called First World: improvement in the life-style of most citizens was accompanied by civil movements and politically radical demonstrations, which threatened the still-weak national unity. It was then that a cultural nationalist movement began to take force. The interest on rebuilding a positive national identity and on finding reasons to defend a cultural exceptionality generalised and spread from intellectuals to journalists, artists and businessmen, and from these to the general population; Japanese intelligentsia began to produce a continuous ethnocentric discourse named nihonjinron2—treatises on Japaneseness—which stressed the distinctive qualities of Japanese society in order to redefine Japanese identity as confident, favourable and prideful. 

Nihonjinron was a discourse in which ‘race’ was assumed as the determining factor of Japanese cultural uniqueness and, at the same time, culture was seen as infrastructural, directly shaping “social, economic and political phenomena” (Yoshino, 2005, p. 7). The basic premise was Japanese ubiquitous homogeneity: authors did generalisations under the assumption that Japanese minorities were not relevant enough as to disturb the national culture, while class, gender and regional differences were consciously left apart, an idea that was further reinforced by asserting an “equivalency and mutual implications among land, people (that is, race), culture, and language” (Befu, 2001, p. 71). 

The acceptance of this idea was facilitated by Japanese vocabulary: nihonjinron proclaimed that Japanese were one-minzoku, where minzoku may refer to race, ethnicity or nation according to the context. And the element that bonds Japanese minzoku, it followed, is Japanese blood, an idea taken from the studies on eugenics that associated blood types with racial categories and temperament (Befu, 2001; Oguma, 2002; Yoshino, 2005). Obviously, this overlapping of notions in the same term had not only ideological, but also practical implications: if it was said that Japanese were one community tied by blood, then resident Koreans, Ainu and anyone who was raised or living in Japan, but who had no ethnic Japanese blood, could not be considered part of the Japanese society; on the other hand, those who had never lived in Japan, but had Japanese ancestry, were to be considered as able to become part of the society, as language and culture were expected to be inherent in them. 

After establishing the premise of racial/ethnic/national homogeneity, Japanese intelligentsia were primarily concerned with exploring the “cultural ethos or collective spirit or, to be more exact, the characteristic mode of behaving and thinking of the Japanese that underlies objectified institutions and practices” (Yoshino, 2005, p. 46). The cultural model of Japanese society followed the notions and general ideas developed by scholars as Ruth Benedict (2006 [1946]), Nakane Chie (1973 [J 1967]) and Doi Takeo(1981 [J 1971]; 1988 [J 1985]), which, although already part of the everyday vocabulary, were to become of common use to define Japaneseness

According to the dominant discourse, Japan was traditionally a vertical and paternalistic society in which relations among people were always group-oriented and hierarchically defined, setting a frame or boundary for individuals to locate themselves and determine the type of behaviour that had to be shown and that largely privileged public virtues over personal desires. Discipline, avoidance of conflict and shame—and, thus, the favouring of the harmony that was said to be at the centre of Japanese nature—a unique æsthetic sense, a unique thought process reflected in the language structure and the patterns of non-verbal communication, and the syncretic or dual-value inclination were also part of the Yamato damashii (spirit of Japan) or the Nihon seishin (Japanese spirit) that nihonjinron promoted. These ideas were to be continuously used to explain also the Japanese corporation model that, with the economic growth of the 1960s and 1970s, was being acclaimed by Western businessmen, politicians and economic analysts as the key behind the Japanese economic “miracle.” 

As Iida (2002) puts it, during this period:

what held the discourse together was not a common theoretical concern, nor a commitment to the attainment of knowledge through reasoned debate, but rather pragmatic concerns and a moral and emotional imperative either to explain ‘Japan’ to outsiders or to seek the restitution of lost identity in national terms (pp. 164-165).

The model of Japanese identity constructed under nihonjinron by intellectuals and media was also soon supported and promoted by the government, turning it into a hegemonic ideology that was highly instructive on the behaviour and attitudes expected from Japanese; the generalising propositions implied that those not behaving as prescribed were not Japanese enough (Befu, 2001). 

Although the majority of the literature produced in this genre was not related to formal theoretical work, it was presented to the public as such through the figure of the hyōronka (critics)—intellectuals or quasi-intellectuals who gave opinions about some topic of their supposed expertise—which became imperative for the dissemination of the discourse and the shaping of the opinions of people through media. Their writings on nihonjinron were printed in popular editions to be mass consumed and they regularly appeared in television, radio, newspapers and magazines discussing the newest trends in Japanese ‘inherent’ qualities. 

The publication and media production directly related to nihonjinron peaked between the 1970s and 1980s. During the following decade, many elements pushed the discourse to the back among the interests of people: an economic crisis hit Japan, challenging the efficiency of the traditional models that had been previously acclaimed; the Great Hanshin Earthquake and the terrorists attacks in the Tokyo subway in 1995 exposed the inefficiency of Japanese institutions to protect people; society itself began to show signs of erosion—many youth subcultures took distance from Japanese ideals, many women refused to marry or have children when society expected them to, young people failed to enter the typical working system, etc. Consequently, many began questioning the value of the “narcisistic pride” embedded in nihonjinron (Iida, 2002, p. 208). Nonetheless, the ideas that were promoted by this cultural nationalism movement did not disappear; on the contrary, some scholars argue, they had been so greatly assimilated by the Japanese that it has even been suggested that the discourse achieved the status of civil religion (Befu, 2001). 

About the same time, when Japan’s political, economical and social spheres had to deal with the reality of the many problems they were facing, a renewed nationalist trend appeared in the political arena advocating a historical revisionism of the role of Japan during the Pacific War, promoting the revision of the Constitution to regain the right to build an army, favouring the recovering of ‘traditional’ medieval values, defending the public visits of politicians to Yasukuni Shrine, and supporting the dispute over islands with China and South Korea. 

The escalation of the trend among Japanese leaders during the last years has been causing worries among international analysts and governments. Amid this right-wing trend, the Japanese cultural industries emerged, slowly and after particular circumstances, as powerful promoters of the Japanese identity as defined by nihonjinron, without explicitly referring to it, but flagging the notions of the traditional uniqueness and qualities of Japanese society while keeping a façade of innocence regarding any nationalist aim. 

Reinforcing Japaneseness through popular culture

At the beginning of the new millennium, Japan was struggling with a decade of economic recession due to the bursting of the ‘bubble’ economy; the country had no powerful military force and there were growing social and political difficulties; at the same time, other Asian nations had initiated a process of accelerated industrialisation, threatening Japan’s position as leader in the region. In this context, Japanese national pride seemed to be in limbo; also, as nihonjinron literature was not as popular as before, the premises of Japanese identity that had been significantly naturalised during the 1970s and 1980s needed to find another place to be flagged in order to maintain their relevance. It was then that the admiration of Japanese popular culture abroad opened a new possibility of inspiration for Japanese elites; and, slowly, it was in this terrain where the flags of the national identity began to wave.

In 2002, an article published in the North American magazine Foreign Policy was proclaiming that Japan was reinventing its superpower. The author, Douglas McGray (2002) argued that Japan’s cultural presence in the foreign markets had been consistently growing, creating an important base of fans and consumers abroad, something that had the potential of becoming the key for Japan to recover its powerful economy and international influence. He called the phenomenon Japan’s ‘Gross National Cool,’ referring to Japanese pop culture production.  

In 2010, after a long period of planning and considerations, the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) established the Creative Industries Promotion Office under the name Cool Japan. It was to be in charge of planning and applying strategies to promote inside and outside the country a wide variety of products and industries related to Japanese culture: from fashion, music, video games, manga and television content to architecture, antiques, crafts, computer software and services, furniture, jewelry, food products and tourism. All these were recognised as strategic sectors that should become motors for the growing of the national economy (Keizai Sangyōshō, 2010). Although predominantly industrial, this was also a strategy of cultural promotion; the business elites were relying on Japanese cultural products to appeal to international markets and increase the value of the Japan brand—that is, the image of the country that was associated to all the national products and services. 

This campaign was completely redirected to focus on strengthening the Japanese identity after March 11th of 2011, when the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake caused a tsunami that demolished villages, damaged the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, and killed thousands of people, causing other troubles that the Japanese people had to face amid the emotional shock of having part of their country destroyed. As much as people around the world felt sympathy for Japan, many feared the economic, environmental and health threats that the disaster could mean at the international level. Even inside the country, there was a fear of radiation released from the nuclear plant affecting the water and produce, hurting the domestic demand of the few crops that had survived in the northeastern region.  

The Cool Japan Advisory Council—formed by business people, scholars, journalists and representatives from different ministries, or, representatives of all power elites—responded quickly with a strategy meaningfully called Creating a New Japan Tying together ‘culture and industry’ and ‘Japan and the world’. This plan put stress not on the economic, but on the ideological aspect of Japanese cultural production. The council members perceived the needs and opportunities that the circumstances were offering to transfer the core of the Japan brand from the ‘cool’ to the ‘traditional’ qualities of the Japanese; there is also implicit the hope that, by relying on those traditionally Japanese features, they could recreate the economic miracle of the 1960s:

[T]he spiritual strength and depth of the Japanese people as they calmly deal with the disaster is being praised by people around the world. […] Domestically, the earthquake has had the effect of reviving ‘empathy and solidarity’ and a ‘spirit of cooperation,’ qualities that traditionally existed among the Japanese people. […] At the same time, the Japanese people’s strong sense of responsibility in meeting delivery schedules, teamwork, innovation, and on-the-spot capabilities have allowed quick restoration of the product supply chain. And managers and employees, who despite being affected by the disaster, continue to engage in business so as not to trouble their customers. Undoubtedly, it is such ordinary aspects of Japanese society that are the heart of the ‘Japan brand.’ What is needed at this time are accurate supply of information that starts with the disaster itself and extends through to restoration, action to promote restoration of the affected regions and the revitalisation of Japan, and steps to restore shine to the ‘Japan brand.’ […] [A]ll concerned government ministries will need to stand together in implementing relevant measures toward these ends. […] [T]hey should return the Japanese people to the essential spirit that they traditionally possessed, while also achieving new ‘evolution’ (Cool Japan Advisory Council , 2011, p. 1).3

The proposal was a complete reflection of the nihonjinron discourse on the traditional and unique Japanese “social, organisational and artistic ‘mechanisms’” (Cool Japan Advisory Council , 2011, p. 5). The plan was to reinforce Japanese identity and ‘self-image’in the context of a ‘story of recovery’ and ‘overcoming of challenges’ and, subsequently, show these imageries to the world in order to supplement the already admired innovative and postmodern side of Japanese culture associated to the Cool Japan phenomenon:

Japan must work quickly to dispel any short-term negative impact to its image by supplying information accurately and immediately. It must then continuously tell the world of the unshakably strong qualities of Japan and comprehensively engage in proactive public relations that highlight Japan’s recovery. Moreover, as the world’s concern focuses on Japan, it must also send out messages that utilise the power of sympathy and feelings of gratitude (Cool Japan Advisory Council , 2011, p. 7).

Following this call for action, national media, cultural producers and companies began numerous projects aimed at the revitalization of the affected zones, using a discourse aboutJapanesesolidarity, endurance, strong spirit and love for their country. Thus, everything became dependent on an internal campaign for nationals to embrace their Japaneseness, so the national brand could be “restored and new fans of Japan created by broadcasting a new Japan ‘story’” (Cool Japan Advisory Council , 2011, p. 14). 

Flagging Japanese inherent traits in the national ideal men

In Japan, a country that “has one of the highest rates of media consumption in the world” (Galbraith & Karlin, 2012, p. 10), the tarento—the local version of celebrities—have become essential for the dynamic of the national economy. The high intertextuality and self-referentiality, which characterise Japanese media and make tarento part of the everyday life of people, also create a sense of intimacy and an affective connection in the audience that potentially increase their impact on other social spheres by mediating between the ideas and objectives of elites and citizens. In the contemporary Japanese context, pop idols are the tarento par excellence; although they have been around since the late 1960s, their symbolic qualities and place in Japanese media have evolved from representing mainly the tastes of teenagers to be at the centre of the tarento system by their ability to appeal to large audiences regardless of sex and age (Galbraith & Karlin, 2012; Mandujano Salazar, 2009). This is not to say that all idols have such broad appeal; nonetheless, Japanese elites seem to have found in some of them the most adequate representatives to disseminate—among national and international audiences—the ideas they want to become dominant, as, in this case, those about the Japanese identity. 

One of the main examples of this practice is Arashi, an all-male idol group that has been filling Japanese media content since 1999. The five members’ media image evolved through the years from that of typical adolescent idols to that of professional media personalities that came to represent a model of masculinity aimed to be comprehensively pleasing: eye-catching within average limits, fresh and amusing to target women and young men; but also diligent, workaholic, group-oriented, and constantly sacrificing their personal life for their group, their management company and their fans, features that make them potentially acceptable for mature male audiences and traditionalist social sectors.

Between the years 2008 and 2009, in the context of policies of national cultural promotion implemented by the METI as a prelude for the establishment of the Cool Japan Office, Japanese media began to refer to Arashi as kokuminteki aidoru (national idol), arguably because it was becoming evident their dominance in the entertainment industry and their increasing acceptance among wider sectors of society—that is, the title at this moment seems related essentially to industrial success. Nevertheless, soon, such a label began to acquire a more fundamental connotation as Arashi and its members began to be more and more related to national campaigns that involved not only the advertising of products or services, but also the endorsement of Japaneseness. 

In 2010, Arashi’s national representativeness became officially acknowledged when the Ministry of Land Infrastructure Transport and Tourism (MLIT)—which was also applying a policy of cultural promotion through the close cooperation with cultural producers, media and corporations—designated the group as Ambassador of Tourism Promotion4 for the worldwide campaign Japan. Endless Discovery. The official announcement and media reports stated the expectation that Arashi,acting as the “face of Japan” inside and outside the country, could help increase the national and international tourism (Kankōchō, 2010b). A few days later, the Japan Tourism Agency (JTA)—dependent on the MLIT—announced a joint campaign with Tokyo International Airport to promote domestic tourism (Kankōchō, 2010c). By September of that year, Japan Airlines (JAL), one of the main providers of domestic flights in that airport, signed Arashi for its national advertising campaign and began using the group’s music and image in one of the planes that served three important domestic destinations. In the press release from JAL, it was stated that Arashiwas chosen to be the image of the airline not only because of the group’s popularity, but also because it shared with JAL the goal of sending a joyful message from Japan to everyone and because of its role as the “face of tourism” (Japan Airlines, 2010). 

Around the same time, the JTA published a book aimed at the promotion of national culture and distributed it among all elementary, middle and high schools in Japan with the explicitly-stated objective of inspiring in the young generations love for their country and the desire to work for its constant improvement (Kankōchō, 2010d). The book was called Nippon no Arashi (Arashi of Japan) and it presented the members of the idol group ‘rediscovering’ their country: through essays and conversations they had with local people in different regions and among themselves, they encouraged Japanese people—particularly children and teenagers—to value the different local and more ‘traditional’ cultures—as those of the rural towns—and to regain pride in their country:

We have contemplated true globalisation, but the best way to get close to the world is to move forward while having at the very core of ourselves the thoughts of Japan, of our town, of our family, of ourselves. Right now, what we have to do is to be truly proud of ourselves as Japanese. In Japan, where we are living, there are many people who are kind and sincere. Living in the big cities it has become difficult to see that; this is why we went on a trip to reencounter those people […] and produce in Japan a storm of kindness5 (Arashi, 2011, p. 9). 

On the other hand, the international campaign Japan. Endless Discovery began broadcasting spots around East Asia, which showed the idols inviting people—speaking in Chinese, Korean and English—to visit Japan and enjoy both ‘typically Japanese’ tourism spots, food and products—hot springs, views of Mount Fuji, Buddhist temples, sushi, etc.—and the ‘new Japan’related to the imagery of Cool Japan (Kankōchō, 2010a). This strategy towards the revitalisation of national tourism was two-fold: outside the country, while promotingthe already popular products and conventional imagery of Japan, Arashi was expected to attract international fans—foreign tourists and consumers—by appearing warm, inviting and empathic; in contrast, the national campaign was more ideological and did not stress the same imagery; instead, it was aimed to regain domestic interest and pride in less widespread cultural elements that could be related to ‘essential’ Japanese qualities. 

At this point, after being named national idolsby media and sanctioned as such by the government and important corporations, Arashi achieved more popularity and perhaps more respect among the entire society, because, as Aoyagi noted about the Japanese idols, “the more recognition the performers attain, the more seriously they are viewed by the audience” (2005, p. 163). Since then, representations of these idols can be seen as stimulated by the mixed discourses of them as male idols and as Japanese ambassadors, implicitly suggesting that their representation of Japanese post-modern masculinity is part of a national ideal.

For example, in the cover story of men-oriented magazine GQ Japan of June of 2010, the heading recites: “The day the national idols become real good men. Today, the five-member group Arashi has become the representative of the era” (Tatsuta, 2010, p. 37). In fact, the same magazine designated three of the five members ‘Man of the year’ over the period 2008-2011,6 and has featured all of them in different numbers, showing how Japanese media have been linking the discourses of masculinity and national representation in the same text when referring to Arashi.

At the end of 2010, one more element reasserted Arashi’s national representativeness: their designation as Master of Ceremonies for the Kōhaku Uta Gassen (NHK), an annual musical competition between female and male artists.7 Performers, judges and masters of ceremonies are chosen by a committee of the public broadcaster NHK and are supposed to reflect the most representative media personalities of the year in a ‘national’ sense; for this reason, all media—including private corporations—report on the event. As a highlight of the event that year was Arashi’s performance of a song called Furusato (motherland), produced specifically for the occasion. The lyrics conveyed a discourse concurrent with that of the book Nippon no Arashi, flagging allegedly traditional Japanese personality qualities, aesthetic sense and imagery, as can be seen in these lines:

In the sky that approaches the twilight, I found the clouds of the train; I feel like going back to the town of those dear scents.
The people that I want to meet are there, they are waiting with open kindness; the colours of the mountains, the wind and the sea, the one place where I can be myself.
The people that I want to support are there, they are walking believing in tomorrow; the flowers, the stars and the bridge of the rainbow, everything is inside their heart.
They want to cherish forever the happiness that they feel for being alive; the flowers, the stars and the bridge of the rainbow, it is your motherland, it is my motherland; this is our motherland (Koyama, 2010).8

A new level in the flagging of nationhood in Arashi’s media representations is discernible after March 11th, 2011. The natural disaster that had devastated the northeast part of Japan and caused damage to the nuclear plant in Fukushima meant also the threat of a major general crisis, as expressed by the Cool Japan Advisory Council (2011) when it called all ministries and Japanese people to work together in order to achieve a quick reconstruction of the country, in terms of infrastructure, economy and national spirit.  

The members of Arashi, in their roles as national idols and ambassadors of Japan, rapidly took a leading part in the media efforts to lessen the survivors’ tragedies and focus the society on working for the strengthening of the nation. Since the disaster, Japanese media have been giving full coverage to the multiple activities that Arashi has been doing towards those aims: helping in the cleaning of the zone, talking to victims, giving free concerts in the affected areas and performing in other parts of the country specifically as fundraisers and crusaders to maintain people’s awareness of the needs and challenges of the victims, and committing themselves to keep reminding Japanese about the positive qualities of their society and country. The many advertising campaigns that they have endorsed since the disaster have been also filled with such messages; many companies have turned to Arashi to promote their products and services in order to use that national discourse. 

There has been a rush of content relating the idol group with the message of a need to focus on a quick recovery and with the discourse on prideful Japanese identity as the way to achieve it. For instance, less than a month after the earthquake, Arashi performed Furusato in a special concert called Uta de tsunagō (Let’s connect through songs), produced by NHK and aimed to encourage the victims of the earthquake; in the concert, the members also expressed their confidence in the strength of Japan. From this moment on, Furusato was to be continuously used as an anthem of national bonding and national pride in much NHK content. 

Around the same time, the national broadcasting of a TV commercial spot of AU KDDI—a mobile phone company that had signed Arashi as image for its advertising campaigns—showed the idols praising the qualities of Japanese people as “gentle, hardworking and a bit shy,” and then talking about their wish of knowing more about Japan and connecting with their compatriots. On June 30th, 2011, Nippon no Arashi was published for sale around the country as a fundraising strategy; it became a sales hit, and the media broadly covered the announcement of the money being donated for the rehabilitation of education and tourism spaces that had been affected by the disaster (Kankōchō, 2011a; Oricon Style, 2011). In July, the video Message from Japan, produced by the JTA, was broadcast on the Japan National Tourism Organisation Website and on big screens in 133 countries; it presented the five idols expressing their gratitude for the support that Japan had been receiving from around the world, while they also showed different tourist landmarks inviting people to visit the country (Kankōchō, 2011b). Simultaneously, the media productions related to Arashi increasingly required them to travel inside the country to promote all the less known ‘national treasures;’ or, to go to foreign countries to promote Japan in those places and to show the Japanese audience that their country was well-regarded around the world. 

In 2012, the magazine Nikkei Entertainment (Kimura, 2012) publishedan article on the significance of Arashi’s transformation from national idols into Japanese ambassadors; it remarked their strategy of “becoming global by staying in Japan.” In the interview, the members expressed that they considered it more important to ‘strengthen’Japan than go abroad.  

The case of Arashi allows us to follow the subtle and well-coordinated cooperation among the Japanese government, business, media and cultural producers to produce a wide-ranging flagging of certain elements related to national identity, a trend particularly evident since 2010 and increasingly ideological after the earthquake and Fukushima crisis: the contribution of the members of Arashi to the tourism campaign was presented as a generous participation for the sake of their country; the promotion for JAL was presented as relatively independent—just one among the many Japanese products and services that Arashi endorsed—so the use of the group’s image while being ambassadors of tourism could be seen as a regular marketing move that relied on the high intertextuality characteristic of Japanese media; media were able to flagnational identity and pride elements through the coverage of the idols’ regular entertainment activities; and their producers and sponsors could capitalise on the increasing attention and the status that they won as they were transformed into ‘national idols.’  

As it was openly stated in the strategy released by the Cool Japan Advisory Council (2011), the promotion of the nation is currently part of an emergency policy, so it can be found related to almost any media content and to most popular celebrities. Thus, Arashi’s case is not unique. There are other idols used by power elites, but with different focus; for example, the female counterpart of Arashi—the group AKB48 formed by dozens of girls—and the male group EXILE. Both assemblies have enjoyed wide success in the Japanese entertainment industry—and done fairly well in some parts of East Asia—so they have also been called ‘national’groups by the media. After the disaster of 2011, they were also very active in charity activities for the victims of the earthquake, and the media reported on all of them. On December 14th, 2013, the groups were presented as representatives of Japanese popular culture and performed at the banquet offered by Japanese Prime Minister Abe to the leaders of the Southeast Asian countries attending the ASEAN-Japan Summit (Sankei Digital, 2013). Thus, their images have been related to the Cool Japan phenomena, but the flagging in them is mostly related to the economic possibilities of  promotion of popular culture, rather than to the representation of the average Japanese and the flagging of a national identity. 

The danger behind the reiterative flagging of Japaneseness 

Half a century ago, in the middle of Japan’s accelerated industrialisation, nihonjinron worked to spread the idea that the nation’s successful recovery, after the devastation suffered during the Pacific War, was due to the unique characteristics of Japanese paternalist society with the stoic and hardworking salaryman as the key of the economic miracle. By the beginning of the millennium, Japan was immersed in an economic crisis and the society seemed to lack the previously-shown abilities to help itself out from it. Right-wing ideological leaders began to blame the situation on the shift from the paternalist to the maternalist society and its “narcissistic and hedonistic consumer culture” (Yoda, 2000, p. 866). Nonetheless, the power elites began to focus their attention on this consumer culture to boost the economy by increasing the value of the Japan brand around the world and, locally, by promoting a renewed pride in traditional culture and values. 

The Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 became a turning point for the focus of the policies related to the Japanese cultural promotion: they became more intensely ideological. In the case of the idol group Arashi it becomes evident that its media representations have been filled with a nationalist discourse that flags, using Billig’s words, “familiar stereotypes[…] so that speaker and audience can claim to recognise and regain themselves” (1995, pp. 102-103). At the same time, as media stress ideals of Japanese masculinity and some personality features—such as stoicism, loyalty, devotion to the work and the group—of the members of the group while they are called ‘national representatives’ and the ‘face of Japan,’ the social model that puts men as the core of the nation is also promoted. However, instead of being presented as the rigid and old paternalistic set of values, it is disguised to be appealing to the taste of contemporary consumer society.

What makes this more significant is that this banal representation of a paternalist national discourse in the popular culture field developed at the same time as the trend of nationalism in the political arena intensified, affecting diplomatic relations with China and South Korea, and rising international worries about Japanese military intentions.9 The discourses are not the same: nationalism in the political field has practical aims, as the rights over disputed islands and the regaining of the right to have an army; while the one embedded in popular culture is mostly aimed at the strengthening of the national identity and pride and hardly ever makes reference to controversial political topics. Nevertheless, the seemingly positive and peaceful campaign for the reinforcement of the national identity in Japanese media cannot be seen as completely disarticulated from the major political and military aims that have been lingering for the last two decades in the minds of Japanese right-wing leaders. There is always the potential of these two to merge and, although the official position of Japan is to be a pacifist nation, the boosting of the national sentiment among people and the sense of crisis at some point may work to support an aggressive action led by the government towards other states if this is done in the name of the protection of Japan’s unique and commendable qualities. This is the reason why Billig (1995) identifies the banal as the ‘most dangerous’ form of nationalism.


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[1] The Japanese custom to write first the family name and then the personal name is respected in the case of Japanese people mentioned here.

[2] Also known as nihonron—treatises on Japan—and nihon bunkaron—treatises on Japanese culture.

[3] The original emphasis found in the source has been respected.

[4] Kankō rikoku navigator.

[5] Translation by the author.

[6] Matsumoto Jun in 2008, Sakurai Sho in 2009, and Ohno Satoshi in 2011.

[7] This concert has been held annually since 1951 by the public broadcaster NHK as part of the special programming celebrating the New Year. Currently, it is a broadcasting of four and a half hours that goes live through the last hours of the year. It is regarded as one of the most important media events and shows, usually having the highest annual ratings (see http://www.videor.co.jp, http://www1.nhk.or.jp/kouhaku/history/).

[8] Translation by the author based on selected lines of the lyrics from the performance of Arashi during the Kōhaku Uta Gassen of 2010.

[9] See Blanchard (2013), Marquand (2006), Nishi (2012), Ozawa (2013), Sieg (2013).

About the Author

Yunuen Mandujano is a PhD candidate in Social Sciences at Universidad Autonoma de Ciudad Juarez (Mexico). She received the degree of Master in Asia and Africa Studies with a specialty Japan from El Colegio de Mexico in 2009. She is writing her doctoral dissertation on national representation in contemporary Japanese media through male media idols. The author has published in Mexican journals of social science and Japanese studies.

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