Alter/native Imagi/nations


In recent years, the study of Japan has reached something of an impasse. With the ongoing recession and geopolitical shifts (Iida 2000: 32), a shrinking population and “crisis of reproduction” in both biological and social terms (Allison 2009: 99), Japan is increasingly perceived as less significant politically and economically. The crisis in Japan Studies, which was a crisis of legitimacy and subsequently procuring funding for area studies post Cold War (Harootunian and Sakai 1999: 595-598; 607), resolved itself with the rise of “Cool Japan,” which situated the nation again as an economic and political power in the world, and most optimistically even “decentered” the hegemony of the United States in global popular culture (Iwabuchi 2002). Soft power became an affective counterpoint to the diminishing hard power of the nation vis-a-vis China, South Korea and the United States (Leheny 2006: 212). Anime, manga and games bolstered enrollment rates at Japan Studies programs, teaching and publishing opportunities and research funding. The triple disasters - earthquake, tsunami and nuclear contamination - of March 11, 2011, ushered in a new phase of Japan Studies, marked by a renewed interest in political and public action. However, many of the underlying issues of the Japan Studies crisis remain unresolved, for example, why study “Japanese” cultures or experiences when they are widely shared around the world? Iwabuchi Koichi wonders if we are not contributing to “inter-nationalism,” where boundaries of nations are affirmed even as they are crossed, because “‘the national’ functions as one of the most marketable and significant local units” (Iwabuchi 2010: 93). Methodological nationalism, as in the insistence on “Japan” as an area to study, reifies the borders of the nation and makes it into a coherent object of analysis. Iwabuchi (2010: 90) charges that the uncritical focus on Japanese popular culture in many ways derailed scholarly work on people’s practices and cultural politics, while Jonathan E Abel (2011) hopes that the “cooling off of Cool Japan” as a hot topic will provide an opportunity for disciplinary reflection.

Coming out of this moment, the “Alter/native Imagi/nations” initiative intends to interrogate “Japan” in an age of global media flow. Japan here serves as a theme that gathers multifarious perspectives and thus offers a productive use of the term “nation”, aimed at the potentials of diversity rather than serving as a unifier or marker of sameness. Specifically, the initiative targets the potentials and limitations that “media as space” and “space as media” might have for political alternatives, the “imaginary” and “community” within this diverse playing field. We call for engagement that goes beyond established fields and methodologies, but at the same time remains sensible to the fact that the focus on “Japan” demands careful reflection on the role the nation, or rather the imagi(ned)nation, plays and can play in scholarly work.

Taking place from March 31 to April 1, 2012, only a year after the tragic events in Fukushima, our first gathering titled “Alter/native Imagi/nations: Japanese Media Spaces and ‘Japan’ in Crisis,” was attuned to the buzz about alternative social and political practices and imaginations arising inside and outside Japan. The workshop challenged participants to think beyond nativizing and nationalizing narratives, using their work in and about “Japan” as a touchpoint for critical thought and engagement. They were asked to think about the significance of Japan in their work and the significance of their work to Japan. This lead to discussions of the past, present and future of Japan and studies of and in that space. The workshop itself was mimetic of this, originating in physical encounters in Tokyo and spreading to a hybrid physical and digital space coordinated across three academic institutions and as many continents: the University of Tokyo, where organizers Martin Roth and Love Kindstrand met with half of the presenters, Leiden University in The Netherlands, where the other half met, and Duke University in the United States, where organizer Patrick W. Galbraith had moved. Communicating through digital and social media, visible to one another as video images, audible narration of PowerPoint slides and textual comments, this was, in a very real way, a new media space, a space to think “Japan” and beyond.

With the kind support of Asiascape, this section is dedicated to documenting the initiative, starting with the aforementioned first workshop, and will serve as a platform for future activities.


Abel, Jonathan E. 2011. “Can Cool Japan Save Post-Disaster Japan? On the Possibilities and Impossibilities of a Cool Japanology,” International Journal of Japanese Sociology (20).

Allison, Anne. 2009. “The Cool Brand, Affective Activism and Japanese Youth,” Theory Culture and Society (26:2-3).

Harootunian, Harry, and Naoki Sakai. 1999. “Japan Studies and Cultural Studies,” Positions (7:2).

Iida, Yumiko. 2000. “Between the Technique of Living an Endless Routine and the Madness of Absolute Degree Zero: Japanese Identity and the Crisis of Modernity in the 1990s,” Positions (8:2).
Iwabuchi, Kō’ichi. 2002. Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism. Durham: Duke University Press.

----. 2010. “Undoing Inter-national Fandom in the Age of Brand Nationalism,”
in Mechademia 5: Fanthropologies, Frenchy Lunning ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Leheny, David. 2006. “A Narrow Place to Cross Swords: ‘Soft Power’ and the Politics of Japanese Popular Culture in East Asia,”
in Beyond Japan: The Dynamics of East Asian Regionalism, Peter J. Katzenstein and Takashi Shiraishi eds. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

workshop 1 - Japanese Media Spaces and ‘Japan’ in Crisis

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Bringing together diverse perspectives, “Alter/native Imagi/nations: Japanese Media Spaces and ‘Japan’ in Crisis” provided a dynamic space for producing and mediating a broad range of questions, or “gaps,” which made apparent not only the difficulty of bringing together so diverse an array of perspectives, but also the potential for a collaborative inquiry out of which new scenarios might emerge.

workshop 1 - contributors

Sten Saluveer
Miho Aida
Mari Nakamura
Carl Li
Love Kindstrand
Martin Roth
Patrick W. Galbraith

new media space - the technical side of workshop 1

Recognizing the search for the conditions of an alternative not only as a theoretical perspective, but also as a profoundly practical agenda, one goal of this first meeting was to actively explore the possibilities contemporary media open for global academic engagements and their dissemination to an equally global, participating audience.