An Explication of Bernard Rudofsky’s Advertisement from “The Kimono Mind: An Informal Guide to Japan and the Japanese”

The image of Japan when viewed through the medium of an advertisement is deceptive for their exists a gap between the seduction of the advertisement and the reality of the modern country of Japan. Moreover, approaching Japan may prove frightening for one who recognizes this difference, yet has had no way to actually test the difference by setting foot into the country. Finally, the elusiveness of Japan, its peculiarity due to its perpetual transformative state further adds to the confusion of trying to grasp it. These are the main ideas expressed by Bernard Rudofsky in Advertisement from his book “The Kimono Mind: An Informal Guide to Japan and the Japanese.” With these ideas in mind he approaches the idea of Japan with satiric wit, curiosity and solid historical grounding.

Rudofsky sets the scene for this piece by painting Japan as being among one of the last great unexplored yet inhabitable civilizations in the world, a treasure chest of unseen possibilities. Contrasting Japan with Europe and the Americas, he writes, “The only unknown country with a tolerable climate, with a fascinating albeit incomprehensible civilization hermetically sealed against contamination from the outer world, was Japan (Rudofsky 11).” That Japan was “sealed” served to account for the abundance of produced images, strange and mystifying, which emerged in connection with the country and its inhabitants. Rudofsky notes, “The picture the West had formed of her was rather two-dimensional – a country resembling nothing so much as a stage set (Rudofsky 11).” From this advertised image of Japan came the perception of what Japan was and what it could be. However, the lack of the real, the reliance on the image taken to be real created an imaginary Japan, a mediatized Japan.

As he goes on to note, the images depicted of Japan came in the form of mythical creatures, jaw dropping scenery, the uniqueness of their traditional dress and a curious look into the Japanese people’s quirky gestures and mannerisms, their overall demeanor. However, “The toy box has long since been pried open, the forbidden land surveyed and assessed, a census taken (Rudofsky 12).” What Rudofsky means by this is that the image when juxtaposed with the actuality of Japan, differed greatly and, by virtue of the opening of Japan in that a great Westernization descended upon and was taken up by the country and the people, but not without consequence. Moreover, the magnificent images of Japan were reduced, modernized and advertised through the lens of the West. The traditional dress had transformed into modern wear, the mythical creatures into airplanes and technology. Conversely, as written, “And yet, the mystery persists. If anything, it has deepened and darkened (Rudofsky 13).” That is to say, even with the modernization of Japan, there is still something untouchable and just out of reach, some facet of the Japanese character and landscape that escapes and eludes proper description.

For Rudofsky, this eluding haze of what “Japan” means lies in the transitory nature of the country and its culture. “The testing ground of humanism Japan has been called, and a country in transition. Indeed, so long she has been in transition – and will probably remain so – that we ought to consider her as being in permanent transition (Rudofsky 13).” It is this perpetual state of cultural transition that has transformed Japan, as Rudofsky notes, into “one big laboratory on a nationwide scale where the elixir of life is being distilled from the latest formulas (Rudofsky 13).” For Rudofsky, this also means that if one wishes to learn about the culture of Americanism, one should visit and observe Japan for the Japanese offer the perfect spectacle of American life, although completely physically detached from its actual shores. He writes, “Although theirs is a spotty, Japanese Americanism, its fragrance is overpowering (Rudofsky 13-14).”
He also notes the disappointment that befell those who took to Japan’s shores after its opening to the world. That is, those who imagined the country to hold countless riches were surprised to find Japan to be a relatively poor country and as certainly not as picturesque as displayed in its images. But, strikingly, even in spite of its visual poverty, Rudofsky goes on to note that, “What caught the eye and touched the heart was the spectacle of a country at perpetual peace; a harmoniousness of man and nature that had departed from the Western world with the advent of industrialization (Rudofsky 14-15).” What Rudofsky is pointing us to is the consequences of modernity as experienced through the eyes of those who may approach Japan from a Western viewpoint. Moreover, of the civilizational consequences of modernity.

Rudofsky goes on to note two important points. First, is the impressive ability of Japan to “catch up” to the rest of the world in terms of technological advancement, cultural modernization and ultimately cultural decline. Their seeming willingness to compete with America, greatly impressed Americans in that, “Her conquerors were thrilled, for nothing appeals to an American more than a redeemed sinner. Our ultimate failure to steer them along simple lines of joyous redemption is to be blamed, however, less on abstract verbal barriers than on the real gap between two nations harboring absurd opinions about themselves and each other (Rudofsky 16).” What Rudofsky is pointing to here is the connection between the Japanese and Americans in cultural pride and in the struggle to produce and progress, which is so vehemently stressed in both cultures. He writes, “Japanese have plotted with desperation a path through the muddles of American upper and lower middle class values, of bureaucratic and academic principles, while Americans have been living doggedly in musty Buddhist convents, inhaling the odor of sanctity and seeking revelation through undernourishment and overfatigue (Rudofsky 16-17).”

Second, and in closing the piece, he notes the elusiveness of the Japanese character and the country. He mentions the difficulty of expressing the Japanese in terms of cliches, which come much easier to him when talking about other cultures. What is unique for Rudofsky is the ease and the pride with which the Japanese transformed their country: “Although they carry a heavy burden of comparison with the past, they are nothing less than proud of having transformed a mythical jungle into a modern desert (Rudofsky 17).”
It is on this note that Rudofsky addresses the person fascinated with Japan, yet senses some danger of metaphorical collapse upon arrival. The person who, having read about Japan, having seen the advertisements, has come to have second thoughts, worries, about the real Japan. He ends the piece with, “Indeed, if he looks for a flash of enlightenment on contact, he is disappointed for even the shores may turn out to be largely metaphorical. What he needs is a divining rod or an article of faith (Rudofsky 17).”