Japanese communities

Japanese communities
   The modern relationship between Britain and Japan dates back to the nineteenth century. As the richest and most advanced industrial power, Britain was the obvious model for Japan’s modernization programme following the Meiji Restoration of 1868; thousands of students and scholars were despatched by Japan’s dirigiste government to learn from Britain’s industrial, scientific, engineering and maritime successes. Many members of the future Japanese ruling class spent time mixing with and mimicking their British counterparts at universities in Britain; two of the current emperor’s children studied at Oxford University. The Japanese novelist Natsume Soseki, who came to Britain in 1912 and spent most of that time holed up in his room, famously hated the place. Afterwards he wrote, ‘The two years I spent in London were the most unpleasant years of my life. Among English gentlemen I lived in misery, like a poor dog that had strayed among a pack of wolves. I understand the population of London is about five million. Frankly speaking, I felt as if I were a drop of water amid five million drops of oil.’
   The short-lived Anglo-Japanese Alliance (1902–23) was interrupted by the clash of imperial ambitions which led ultimately to the Second World War; normal relations were restored again in the late 1940s. Despite this, however, the Japanese community in Britain was small throughout most of the postwar period (barely 1,000 people for most of the 1960s), and it is only really since the Japanese capital influx into Britain in the 1980s that the Japanese have become a significant economic and cultural force in this country. There are now over 50,000 students, company workers, government employees and their families registered as being resident in Britain, with almost half of these living in London and only 2,000 outside England. Many of these are attached to the UK arms of the banks, brokerage houses and electronics and automobile companies which have been established here from the late 1970s.
   In addition there are thousands of tourists who come to visit the land of kings and queens, country estates, twee English villages, Wordsworth, Austen, Sherlock Holmes, Burns, Shakespeare and Beatrix Potter that they have read about in comics and books. A cultural map of Britain for many Japanese tourists would look like a jagged line running up the spine of the country and would include the major sights of London, Stratford, Wedgwood, the Lake District and Edinburgh. Brave souls who divert west to visit Beatle City in Liverpool are often shocked to find a scarred, de-industrialized landscape radically at odds with their misty-eyed cultural memories. When not sightseeing, Japanese visitors crowd London’s Regent Street and Camden Lock, and most British universities have many Japanese students studying English and other subjects. The relationship between Japanese and British universities is increasingly a reciprocal one. Japanese language and culture has become an important area of study, and about 500 young British undergraduates enrol in Japan’s various public and private schemes every year to teach English. Servicing the famously fussy and dedicated Japanese consumer in Britain are the many restaurants, shops and bars which have sprung up in the major cities and which have introduced Japanese cuisine including sushi, tempura and noodles to a generation of British people. Japanese pop culture too has arrived in Britain; manga comics, anime, karaoke, walkmans, video games and tamagochi have become ubiquitous cultural commodities during the 1980s and 1990s. Japanese generic design, with its eye for detail and its minimalist, superficial aesthetic in industry (cars and electronics) and fashion (Issey Miyake, Muji) has become a major influence on British culture. Popular music from Japan has a certain kitsch (shonen knife) or cult (Yellow Magic Orchestra) following in Britain but has never achieved mainstream success. There are some indications that a new generation of Japanese DJs and artists like Ken Ishii and Boom Boom Satellite, bringing with them so-called ‘intelligent dance music’ may be about to change this. Perhaps more significant than the influence of Japanese pop culture, however, are Japanese ‘post-Fordist’ management techniques and industrial strategies which have been imported and copied by British companies; ‘just-in-time manufacturing’, ‘team-working’ and ‘total quality networks’ have become part of the mainstream language of British management.
   Despite the collapse of the bubble economy in Japan in the early 1990s and the longest recession in its postwar history, Japanese people still come to visit and live in the UK in large numbers. Indeed, notwithstanding the bitter legacy of the Second World War, there is every indication that the economic and cultural relationship between the two countries will deepen. Japanese capital has laid down firm roots here as a base for much of its European operations, and the many banks, car and electronic plants dotted around the country will not easily be uprooted.
   See also: Chinese communities
   Further reading
    Insight Japan 5(4), February 1997, special issue The Japanese in Britain.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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