Enjoy your sushi at Christ's tomb

The Orient Strikes Back

March 16, 2001

The West used to entertain itself with random views of the East. World fairs and grand expositions had on display Formosan villages and Ainu tribal rites. Now the East is entertaining itself with random views of the West.

In Japan, there are dozens of village-like theme parks devoted to the wonders of Europe. There is Huis Ten Bosche, 152 hectares of canals, windmills, tulips and wooden shoes. The more permanent guest can buy an on-site Dutch house and live the life of a burgher without leaving Japan. This is one of its attractions. As travel writer Cleo Paskal has written:

"Today's Japanese tourists don't want to be bothered by the horror, not to mention the expense and trouble, of the real thing. They want a New York they can visit for a weekend and a London where everyone speaks Japanese. They want a sanitised Japanese version of the rest of the world - a virtual vacation."

In the past decade or so, using the highly successful Disneyland as a model, a large number of virtual vacation places opened in Japan. Little Ashibetsu in Hokkaido, having lost its coal-mining industry, decided on a complete Prince Edward Island-like Anne of Green Gables Lane with a number of otherwise out-of-work Canadian actors playing Anne and her family.

Tohoku has a Swiss Village complete with Heidi's cottage and a view of a Matterhorn look-alike. In Niigata's Russian Village, one could, without the difficulty and danger of actually visiting Russia, see the Suzdai Cathedral, eat pirozhki , drink bortsch and enjoy a folk song and dance troupe and the talents of three performing seals direct from Lake Baikal.

Over in Shingomura in Aomori, you can visit the last resting place of Jesus Christ. It was his brother, Iskiri, who was crucified, you see. Christ himself escaped to Japan, married a local woman named Yumiko, had three daughters and lived to 106 years of age. It is his "descendants" who have opened this Christ's Tomb Tourist Attraction.

Then there is Nixe Castle in Noboribetsu, a full-scale replica of the castle and hometown of Hans Christian Andersen. In Kure is Portopialand, which includes all of Spain's Costa del Sol in some form or other. You can find a number of New Zealand Valleys in Hiroshima, Yamaguchi and Shikoku that specialise in sheep shows, an exotic entertainment in non-mutton-eating Japan.

For those in a hurry, there is the Tobu World Square, where you can see 1/25 scale models of more than 100 of the world's most famous buildings. The Taj Mahal is next to the Empire State Building, which is next to Saint Peter's Basilica, which is next to the Eiffel Tower, and so on. All are complete down to the smallest detail - they were made by the people who gave us Godzilla - and they offer the world at a glance.

This kind of virtuality is, of course, what Disneyland has so profitably dispensed, and the theme of "It's a Small World" is literally illustrated. The results are various. As the author of this survey indicates, though the parks are meant to amuse, "their designers may not have anticipated all the sources of the laughter they provoke".

At the same time, however, we are invited to consider the implications of this kind of cultural display. The theme park evolved from "villages" of the fairs and expositions of the 20th century. And these, in part, came from department stores with their cultural shows, and the still earlier arcades of Europe, small worlds lovingly collated by Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin. Underlying all of these is the assumption that foreign countries are just too foreign to be comprehensible. These translated versions are the best way of understanding them.

The assumptions of Virginia's Williamsburg and Shuzenji's Britain Land (a slice of 17th-century British countryside complete with homes and shops) may seem similar, but Joy Hendry points out a number of differences. The most important of these is how mimesis is understood in the West and in the East.

A paradigm is seen in Japan's Ise shrine, which has been renewing itself every 20 years (existing building torn down, perfect replica erected next door) for centuries. The new one is locally considered just as "authentic" as the old one. It is not an imitation, it becomes the real thing. This is something that the West cannot countenance, though, as Benjamin has pointed out, making copies was demeaned only with the introduction of European modernity - something Japan is sporadically spared.

Another avatar for the Japanese theme park is the classical formal garden of the 17th century, where "hills, waterfalls and bridges said to recall different parts of Japan" were grouped together in a manner Walt Disney later made familiar in his "Small World". This kind of citation is to be seen as offering an experience analogous to the original. In a culture that traditionally learned by meticulously copying, there are still pockets unthreatened by "European modernity".

The Japanese theme parks are not, however, protected from contemporary economics. Anne of Green Gables no longer roams the lavender fields of Ashibetsu. In the continuing recession, the theme parks are folding one by one, done in by an economic imperative of which they hoped to take advantage. In this land of impossible local prices, it is now cheaper to fly cut-rate to Amsterdam than it is to visit Kyushu and stay at Huis Ten Bosche.

All of these issues are expertly and interestingly laid out by Hendry. But despite the pop-inflected title, her book is no light read. It is a scholarly investigation of its subject and comes with all the academic paraphernalia.

Donald Richie, an American who lives in Japan, is the author of many books on Japanese culture.

The Orient Strikes Back:
A Global View of Cultural Display

Author - Joy Hendry
ISBN - 1 85973 928 X and 333 6
Publisher - Berg
Price - £42.99 and £14.99
Pages - 256

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