The French Connection

It is often said that opposites attract, and nowhere does this aphorism hold truer than in the relationship between the land of the rising sun and the land of the tricolore.

On the face of it, one would be hard-pressed to come up with two more starkly dissimilar cultures: the former is generally characterized as a conservative, tradition-bound society that stresses conformism, discretion and genteel social graces, while the latter is usually portrayed as an unruly, iconoclastic nation where innovation, unabashed pride and a rather more laissez-faire attitude to manners prevail.

Nevertheless, these two ancient, fiercely proud civilizations have long found common ground and looked to each other with a profound sense of admiration. Although France’s seemingly bottomless cultural treasure chest has long generated a mixture of envy worldwide, this adulation is taken to the extreme in Japan, where high culture often appears to be synonymous with Gallic culture.

Reciprocally, France’s longstanding love of all things Japanese has continued to grow and with the 150th anniversary of modern Franco-Japanese relations fast approaching, this odd couple’s love-in with each other shows no sign of abating.

Uncle Sam may outdo Marianne in terms of widespread cultural currency, but a more Francophilic country than Japan is hard to imagine. In a land where brand-name fashion is followed with religious devotion, French couture led by industry giants Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Yves Saint-Laurent has few rivals, and virtually every homegrown fashion icon, notably Issey Miyake and Yoji Yamamoto, has sought to establish their reputations in Paris early on in their careers.

French influence is ubiquitous in the arts in Japan, notably in animation. Industry leader Hayao Miyazaki cites Antoine de Saint-ExupÉry as among his primary influences and the dapper rogue in the Kazuhiko Kato classic Lupin the Third (Rupan Sansei) is none other than the grandson of Maurice Leblanc’s famed gentleman thief, Arsne Lupin.

Elsewhere, post-war literary icon Kenzaburo Oe is a former scholar of French literature and a one-time pupil of Jean-Paul Sartre, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s delicate piano miniatures owe a clear debt to Erik Satie, and the y y  music of bad-boy chansonnier Serge Gainsbourg inspired the Shibuya-kei sound that emerged in the 1990s, heralded by pop groups like Puffy and Cibo Matto.

Meanwhile, French influence also dominates in architecture and urban planning, where the modernist vision of Le Corbusier lives on through the work of Kenzo Tange, Kisho Kurokawa and others, while French-inspired boutiques, cafes, restaurants, art galleries and pedestrian malls proliferate in Tokyo and other Japanese cities.

Less obvious, perhaps, but no less significant is the cultural imprint that contemporary Japan has bestowed on its Gallic cousins. Japanese woodblock prints (ukiyo-e), first introduced to Europe in the 1860s, became a seminal source of inspiration for art nouveau, cubism and impressionism (a movement that even became known as japonisme), in turn influencing the writing of Charles Baudelaire and the music of Camille Saint-Sa‘ns.

Numerous modern French authors, notably Marguerite Duras, author of the screenplay for the 1959 film Hiroshima, Mon Amour, have looked to Japan as a source of inspiration. Manga and Japanese animation have long enjoyed enormous popularity in the land of AstÉrix and Spirou, where the influence of Osamu Tezuka and other Japanese animators has long been apparent in homegrown animations known as bande dessinÉe.

Japanese pop culture continues to gain currency in France, with pop acts like Daft Punk and Dimitri from Paris drawing inspiration from Shibuya-kei and the Japanese pop aesthetic.

Furthermore, Japanese cultural influence appears to have successfully permeated even that most sacred of French cultural domain Ð haute cuisine, with sushi and sashimi now competing with escargot and fois gras in France in an era of gastronomic globalization.

While Japan’s relations with Western powers have known considerable ups and downs, its relationship with France has proven remarkably stable. Contact between the two countries was first established upon the 1615 landing in Saint Tropez of Hasekura Tsunenaga, a diplomat and Catholic convert who also served as Japan’s first papal emissary.

Modern diplomatic ties between the two countries were inaugurated in Edo in 1858 following the lifting of the sakoku (national isolation) policy, and within a decade, Franco-Japanese relations were flourishing. French specialists played a central role in the modernization of Japan’s military, industrial and legal systems while the Japanese delegation at the 1867 Paris World Fair deftly captivated the imagination of the French public.

By the turn of the century, France was nearly entirely reliant on Japan for its booming silk industry, while France was a primary destination for Japan’s fledgling entrepreneurial elite, among them Sakichi Toyoda, founder of the Toyota Corporation.

Dialogue was maintained even through the Second World War, which saw Japan co-administer French Indochina together with the Axis-affiliated Vichy regime. Relations blossomed anew in the post-war era and reached new heights during the 12-year presidency of Jacques Chirac, a well-known Japanophile who has visited the country an astonishing 40 times and whose stewardship saw unprecedented emphasis placed on Franco-Japanese ties in the diplomatic, economic and cultural spheres.

A stroll down virtually any commercial street in Tokyo or elsewhere in urban Japan tells the story of the country’s adulation of all things French. Boutiques, cafes and restaurants bear French names (or at least pseudo-French ones) and otherwise strive for a Gallic feel proliferate in Omotesando (often described as the Champs-ElysÉes of Tokyo), Azabu, Jiyugaoka and other well-heeled Tokyo neighborhoods, and even the city’s most iconic structure, Tokyo Tower, is an obvious homage to Gustave Eiffel’s venerable edifice.

Japan’s devotion to French wine is such that the country represents the single biggest export market for Beaujolais Nouveau, and French luxury fashion leviathan Louis Vuitton generates nearly 50 percent of its worldwide sales revenue here. CD stores abound with classic recordings by ƒdith Piaf, Charles Aznavour and Serge Gainsbourg, as well as offerings by more recent acts such as Saint Germain, Air and others, while video stores and art-house cinemas prominently feature Jean-Luc Godard, Luc Besson and Leos Carax films and French visual art is accorded a special place of honor in Tokyo’s galleries. While it is no longer the most popular second language among Japanese, French language courses still draw large numbers of students, and every year approximately one million Japanese tourists disembark at Charles de Gaulle International Airport for a taste of the real thing.

Japanese tourism in France has grown to such an extent in recent decades that it has given birth to a whole new psychological disorder, known in psychiatric literature as “Paris Syndrome.” Approximately a dozen Japanese tourists a year require repatriation from the French capital following nervous breakdowns incurred by culture shock, language stress and the often alarming disparity between the real-life metropolis on the Seine and the city romanticized to no end in Japanese popular media. This much-discussed malady can be truly debilitating, with effects ranging from mild anxiety to full-blown agoraphobia or even worse.

At the heart of the matter is the fact that in spite of the mutual admiration between the French and the Japanese, the two cultures could scarcely be more divergent in terms of social grammar, etiquette and customer service philosophy, and while culture stress is scarcely unique to Japanese tourists in France, there does appear a somewhat utopian view of the country on the part of the Japanese that exacerbates such stress.

Bruno Asseray, the congenial Anjou-born diplomat currently serving as director of the Institut Franco-Japonais de Tokyo (IFJ), says preconceptions between the two countries are rife.

“A lot of people in Japan have a very mythical view of France, as do many French of Japan,” Asseray says. “Part of what we do [at the IFJ] is to try to dismantle this image and present a more realistic picture of the country.”

As with most myths, the origins of this utopian image are complex, rooted in history and fueled by contemporary cultural currents.

Saitama native Maki Mizoi says the media often holds France out as the birthplace of all the latest and greatest lifestyle innovations.

“In fashion magazines, especially those aimed at women, almost every time they introduce fashion from abroad, it comes from Paris,” he notes.

Nobue Okunoki, another resident of Saitama, agrees. “When my mother was young, at a time of rapid economic growth in Japan, rich people all had pianos and expensive French dolls,” she says. “Also, the Rokumeikan Hall where foreigners were welcomed and dance parties held on behalf of the Japanese government in the early Meiji era was French-inspired. All this has imparted us with an image of everything French as being Ôhigh class’.”

Asseray concurs with this depiction of prevailing Japanese attitudes towards his country.

“In modern times, France has come to represent a certain cachet, an image of luxury and style, and also of freedom of thought and inventiveness,” he adds. “At the same time, though, the Japanese see in France a land of formidable cultural heritage, the heir to an ancient culture that in large part defines our modern national identity, a characteristic which we share with Japan, and while our respective cultural heritages are very different indeed, the cultural capital that we share serves as a very potent meeting point between our two people.”

Nowhere is this meeting point better represented than at the Institut Franco-Japonais de Tokyo (Tokyo Nichi-Futsu Gakuin), which since its establishment in 1949 has served as the main nucleus of French cultural life in Tokyo, as well as in Yokohama where it maintains a branch. Located a short walk from JR Iidabashi Station, the striking modernist landmark does double-duty as a language school and a cultural center, featuring a library, a cinema, a restaurant with al fresco dining and a Left Bank-inspired bookstore with an extensive range of titles.

Anyone looking for further evidence of Francophilia among the Tokyo public need look no further than the IFJ, where bilingual conferences and screenings of rare films draw crowds from far and wide. What’s more, some 3,200 regular students (6,000, including long distance learners and students at the Yokohama branch) attend French language and social sciences classes taught in French.

This center, as Asseray points out, is merely part of an expansive network of French cultural centers in Japan that includes institutes in Kyoto and Fukuoka, five branches of the Alliance Franaise (in Osaka, Nagoya, Sendai, Tokushima and Sapporo) and the Maison Franco-Japonaise in Ebisu, which functions as an academic institute.

While Asseray notes that women (who account for about 80 percent of IFJ’s student body) between the ages of 30 and 45 and engaged in the workforce represent the institute’s largest demographic group, the director is reluctant to pigeonhole the institute’s students.

“They come from all walks of life,” he explains. “We don’t take a monolithic approach here. We have the capacity to fill very specific niches. If we have 15 students interested in a course on medieval philosophy, we’ll cater to that.”

The array of courses offered at the institute is indeed prodigious, ranging from internationally recognized language courses to a broad range of arts and humanities classes. Equally wide-ranging are the events held by the IFJ, which in addition to screening films and holding live performances, also hosts a steady stream of speakers representing the arenas of politics, literature and academia.

“We have some 200 cultural events here every year here,” Asseray notes. As regards the upcoming Fte Nationale on July 14, the director asserts that the IFJ is geared more towards year-round activity than towards specific festivals, although the notes that the institute will be holding a Bastille Day Ball on the evening of July 14. The real party, he says, will be next year, on the occasion of the 150th-anniversary of Franco-Japanese relations.

“This is the big one,” he says. “There will be a whole range of festivities to mark this occasion.”

As this 150th-anniversary celebration approaches, the relationship between France and Japan appears to be as functional and adoring as ever, and while on an individual basis the French and the Japanese may ruffle each other’s feathers from time to time, on a cultural level there appear no obstacles to a
further 150 years of amiti for this oddest of international couples.

Story by Benjamin Freeland
From J SELECT Magazine, July 2007