The edge of obscurity : affect, precarity, and culture in rural Japan
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Japan has recently faced the threat of cultural continuity, a result of factors ranging from demographic issues to economics ones. A variety of methods have been employed to combat some of the negative economic effects and the potential disappearance of cultural heritage and tradition, especially in rural areas. Some of these methods include attracting domestic tourism through various media, encouraging young, urban individuals to move to rural towns and villages, and increased international recognition through the designation of important cultural heritage using organizations like UNESCO. However, underlying these ostensibly optimistic endeavors run intense feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, and hopelessness, feelings often associated with a sense of precarity. This paper argues that while such attempts at revitalization and recognition do have positive effects, they often come with significant downsides. The laws and policies forming the framework of UNESCO's “intangible cultural heritage” designation come from colonialist policies that continue to shape understanding of “cultural heritage” through the designation system and its governing body. In many ways, the system also implicitly encourages Orientalism among consumers of non-Western cultural heritage, some of which may be the result of intentional exoticism and essentialism on the part of the designation-seeking entities. These practices, inherited from colonial governments and bureaucracies, work in conjunction with preexisting conceptions of “heritage” and “tradition,” often linking them to rural, implicitly pre-modern areas and peoples, which perpetuates modernist lines of thought about successful designees. Abstractions of the rural from real places and objects significantly contributes to the feelings of a “vanishing” experienced by nations like Japan, but especially in declining rural areas. This, in turn, leads to further feelings of precarity, and this narrative of precariousness becomes embedded in national consciousness and discourse through media exposure. While attention needs to be paid to the potential instability of cultural heritage and precarity, the ways in which people approach these things warrant serious reconsideration.