Saturday, July 17, 2004

Big in Japan

It always piques my curiosity when something from one culture becomes relatively more popular in another. As a New Yorker, the first examples that come to mind are bagels and especially pizza. Were it not for emigrants to the United States, pizza would in all likelihood have remained a regional delicacy; perhaps tourists returning from Italy would be telling their friends, "If you're in ever in Naples you have to try this flatbread thing they have topped with tomato sauce, cheese and basil!"

Another example is the Thaipusam, the South Indian festival of self-flagellation, which is so prominent in Singapore and Malaysia that my copy of the Singapore-Malaysia Lonely Planet states that the festival cannot be found on the subcontinent at all, an assertion which a Malayali friend insists is false.

In this entry, however, I want to discuss the disproportionate popularity of the Chinese martial art Bajiquan in Japan. As a child of the digital age, I had assumed that the disproportionate prominence of Bajiquan in Japan was because it was the style employed by the character Akira in the Virtua Fighter series of games. According to my martial arts instructor, I got it the wrong way around; I neglected to consider why the designers of Virtua Fighter would pluck that particular style out of its supposed obscurity.

Interest in Chinese martial arts in the last few decades can in large part be safely credited to Bruce Lee. However, China was still closed to foreigners in the 1970s so the closest that interested non-Chinese could get was Hong Kong or Taiwan (which was for the best, considering that many great masters left the mainland when the Communists took over and what few were left were hounded into hiding or even death by the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. To describe the "Contemporary Wushu" promoted by Beijing as "bowdlerized" would be generous.)

Prospective Japanese students preferred Taiwan for a number of reasons. As a former Japanese colony, Taiwan had a familiarity that Hong Kong lacked. The inevitable colonial resentments aside, Japan still held a certain prestige in the eyes of native Taiwanese (as opposed to post-Revolution immigrants from the mainland); as late as the 70s, Taiwanese regarded a degree from a Japanese university more highly than one from a Western university.

For whatever reason, the martial arts instruction of Liu Yun-Chiao, one of whose specialties was Bajiquan, at the Teachers' College became popular among prospective Japanese students; hence the prominence of Bajiquan in Japan.