Appropriating the Other on the Edge of the World: Representations of the Western Middle Ages in Modern Japanese Culture

Appropriating the Other on the Edge of the World: Representations of the Western Middle Ages in Modern Japanese Culture

By Atsushi Iguchi

Journal of the University of the Air, Vol. 28 (2010)

Abstract: This article explores how the Western Middle Ages is represented in contemporary Japanese popular culture. I will begin by describing the persistent recurrence in todayʼs world of images that originated in the Middle Ages. This cultural phenomenon, generally called ʻmedievalismʼ, has been a site where various forms of nationalist, religious and academic ideologies vie with each other to lay claim to the idea of Europe. Even though the European Middle Ages has little to do with Japan ̶owing to the latterʼs geopolitical remoteness from the former ̶images of the Middle Ages have nonetheless been frequently exploited in post-war Japanese popular culture. An examination of Vinland Saga by Makoto Yukimura, a serialized manga set in eleventh-century northern Europe reveals that the appropriation of the Middle Ages by Japanese popular culture is far from escapist. Indeed, on closer inspection, it will turn out that the ʻothernessʼ of European medieval culture to the Japanese does not prevent Yukimura from skilfully conveying the important themes of exile and homecoming, themes which are of paramount importance in medieval Europe, where the life of a human being was regarded as a homecoming to God. In an apparently faithful attempt to provide an escapist, entertaining replication of medieval European society, Yukimura allows the reader to have a glimpse of a world teeming with violence, crises of faith, and ruthless exploitation.

We have not been good friends with the European Middle Ages. Numerous thinkers, historians, writers, artists, and politicians have used and exploited the Middle Ages repeatedly during the past centuries, especially since the nineteenth century. The Middle Ages has indeed been a site where a variety of political, cultural and ideological standpoints with different needs and aspirations converge. To realize the persistence of this cultural phenomenon in modern times, generally referred to as ʻmedievalismʼ ─ defined by Alice Chandler as ʻa response to historic change and to the problems raised by the various revolutions and transformations of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuriesʼ ─ we need not look further than Richard Wagnerʼs rendition of medieval legends, Walter Scottʼs adventurous historical novels, and the pre‒Raphaelitesʼ idealized portraits of medieval literary figures. All of these, though often turning out to be historically inaccurate upon rigorous scrutiny, have been enormously influential in shaping our images about this phase in European history.

Click here to read this article from the Open University of Japan

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