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Ad hoc Japonisme: How National Identity Rhetorics
Work in Japanese Advertising
Professor of Marketing
Managerial Science Department
Long Island University
1 University Plaza – H700
Brooklyn, NY 11201, USA
Russell W. Belk
York University Distinguished Research Professor
Kraft Foods Canada Chair in Marketing
Schulich School of Business
4700 Keele Street
CANADA M3J 1P3
Tel. 905 596-0079
Fax 416 736-5762
* Corresponding author
Ad hoc Japonisme: How National Identity Rhetorics
Work in Japanese Advertising
This study examines how a variety of national identity rhetorics are formed with the nuanced
aestheticization. We focus on visual rhetorics. We use advertisements for traditional, seasonal
gifts in post-postwar Japan as the context of inquiry. Two research questions addressed are: 1)
how different rhetorics of national identity are formed between the gifts advertised and the
audience, focusing more on visual than merely verbal elements, and 2) how visual genealogy—
specific cultural and historical references in contemporary images—is used in rhetorical figures.
Underpinned by a critical visual analysis (Schroeder 2006), we apply Western and Japanese art
canons to a visual social semiotic approach in order to interpret variations in the semantics of
national identity. We discuss three types of rhetorics of national identity: rhe-transfiguration, rhe-
truculence, and rhe-trepidation. The study suggests that national identity rhetorics activate a
“deep subjectivity” resulting from the aestheticized experience reinforced by the nation’s
Keywords: Visual rhetoric, National identity, Advertising, Gifts, Critical visual analysis, Japan
Ad hoc Japonisme: How National Identity Rhetorics
Work in Japanese Advertising
“Global structures organize diversity, rather than replicating uniformity” (Wilk 1995, 118). The
world seems swollen by cultural diversity, instead of embracing common identification in the
age of market-driven globalization. Since the early 1990s, the socioeconomic turmoil and
declining prosperity of developed nations and the large influx of migrants have caused a
resurgence of nationalism in many parts of the world. Digital media meantime has enabled the
densely webbed Internet to emerge as a borderless, transnational site of consumer networks.
Encountering post-colonial, post-gender, post-racial perspectives in social structuration today,
the shifting significance of nationality, its meaning, and the consequences in terms of the
consumer’s perception of national identity pose both questions and challenges for aestheticizing
identity in developing advertising and creative strategies. The spectrum of the rhetoric of
national identity that is prominent in cultural media implies that these issues may be perpetual
and haunt the nature of consumers’ identity.
This study investigates how visual rhetoric of national identity is devised with the
nuanced aestheticization in Japanese advertising. Visual rhetoric refers to the visual impact of the
object through a meaningful visible sign (Martin 2014). We offer a close reading of the
advertising images that exemplify aspects of Japanese identities. In order to interrogate Japan’s
self-image and view of the West and their manifestation in visual rhetoric, we examine both
brand and retail advertisements published in a key national newspaper. The latter are found in
particular in ads by department stores that promote both domestic and foreign brands. In order to
decode the changing meaning of self-image, our examination focuses on the advertisements
published in the newspaper in select years in the 1960s and 1970s. As an analytical method, we
employ a critical visual analysis (Schroeder 2006), and we use both Western and Japanese art
canons to interpret the variations in visual rhetoric of national identity.
This study addresses two primary research questions: 1) how different rhetorics of
national identity are formed between the gifts advertised and the audience, focusing especially on
visual elements, underpinned by Burke’s (1951; 1969) “new rhetoric” in drama, and 2) how
visual genealogy—specific cultural and historical references in contemporary images—is used in
rhetorical figures within the specific context. In other words, what are significant events,
policies, and tendencies that might have implications for national identity that occurred around
the time of advertisements? Contexts condition the consumption practice. Thus, a meaningful
context is requisite for gaining theoretical knowledge about marketplace phenomena (Arnould,
Price, and Moisio 2006; Askegaard and Linnet 2011). This study is unique as it uses gift
advertisements to examine the visual rhetoric of national identity. Another unique aspect is that
the ads discussed in this study are still lifes; a genre that is significantly neglected despite its
importance in philosophy, photography, and advertising (Bate 2009; Schroeder 2005).
Our study is significant because of its empirical investigation of the visual rhetoric of
national identity in advertising that uses the imagery of the Western still life art in the non-
Western context. Unlike Navarro’s (2016) study that interrogates the popular culture (Britpop) as
an instrument of governmental scheme for national branding and thus national identity, the
current study argues the use of the Western art in stimulating Japan’s national identity in cultural
media. The closest previous analysis is that of Roberts (2014) who conducted a study of national
identity in packaging in Russia. Another significant aspect of this study is that it demonstrates
the national identity of a monolithic, rather than culturally diverse, nation; its identity is driven
not by political ideology, but by historically-rooted, insularity within an imagined community
(Anderson 1991). It is partly a response to the profusion of global and regional brands and
advertising which have been embraced in the media, reflecting the proliferation of transnational
imagined communities (Cayla and Eckhardt 2008). These contributions are unprecedented and
add to what we already know about consumption, markets, and culture.
The remaining part of the paper is organized in the following order: (1) visual rhetoric in
advertising, (2) research context, that is, Japan’s national identity, the relationship between Japan
and the West in advertisements, and seasonal gift giving in Japan, (3) the methods, (4) critical
visual analysis of advertisements, and (5) aesthetics and national identity rhetorics in socio-
cultural context, and (6) conclusion.
Visual Rhetoric in Advertising
Visual elements are critical for many advertisements. Visual imagery can be more powerful than
linguistic components of an ad. One approach to studying visual elements is a text-interpretive
perspective that draws on semiotic, rhetoric, and literary theories. The aim is to provide
systematic and nuanced interpretations of independent elements in the ad (McQuarrie and Mick
1999; Scott 1994). Advertising is considered using rhetorical figures if either the verbal and/or
visual components use rhetorical devices. Here, visual rhetoric is “artful deviation” that uses
elaboration, causes pleasure, and is unexpected. The figurative mode can involve a scheme or
trope. Schemes can be visual rhymes that are generated by repetition of the pictorial image.
Tropes consist of visual metaphors and visual puns that are created by destabilization, such as
distortions and hyperboles, and placement of the visual image in an unrealistic context. An
example of visual metaphor is an image of blue sky in a measuring cup instead of liquid
detergent in the Tide ad. While the image of the sky with white fluffy clouds in a cup is
unrealistic and hence amuses an eye of the viewer, it allows the viewer to imagine the Tide blue
liquid detergent compared to the blue sky: they add brightness to white. Japanese ad audiences
are generally more attuned to seeing such poetic visual metaphors than Western ad audiences
(Belk, Bryce, and Pollay 1985; See Phillips and McQuarrie 2004 for further examples).
Another interpretive tradition draws on a cultural approach (e.g., McQuarrie and Mick
1999). The experience of advertising is culturally bound. The viewer’s interpretive process
depends on tacit, culturally situated knowledge structures. The assumption that Western pictures
are mimeses of reality and are analogical to the world as we see it, according to anthropologists,
is called ethnocentrism (Scott 1994). This occurs when Western cultural assumptions are taken
for granted to be the standard by which human response is measured. For understanding the
subtlety of the visual aspects of Japanese advertisements and engaging Japanese “art historical
imagination” (Schroeder 2008)—that is, knowing the characteristics of Japanese art and
aesthetics—may help us to understand the visual conventions of local consumers. The unique,
introspective Japanese view on nature, visualization of the passage of time, rich imagination
influenced by animism, and originality conceived out of imitation—“Japanization”—are often
stressed as the principal characteristics of Japanese arts (Stanley-Baker 2014).
On the other hand, visual rhetoric about national identity provokes and boosts a sense of
nationhood. Burke (1951) calls “persuasion” the old rhetoric, while claiming “identification” as
the new rhetoric; the latter is both a deliberate device and an end, as “when people earnestly
yearn to identify themselves with some group or other…in such identification there is a partially
dreamlike, idealistic motive, somewhat compensatory to real differences or divisions, which the
rhetoric of identification would transcend” (Burke 1951, 203). Images of cultural artifacts,
landscapes, and common places, as well as members of the national body repeatedly circulate in
consumer culture and penetrate into the interstices of daily life. Images associated with the
nation’s past provoke nostalgia and solidify identity (Roberts 2014). Things that promote social
harmony and cohesion—symbols of collectivity with which people identify themselves—are
rhetorical (Clark 2004). National identity is fundamentally rhetorical and its media markers
invoke a sense of “imagined community” (Anderson 1991).
Japan’s National Identity
While there are signs here of the influence of what has been termed “scapes” (Appadurai 1990)
and global structures of common difference (Wilk 1995) as well as Japanized adaptations of
Western material culture (Brannen 1992), to regard these as permanent shifts in Japan’s relation
to Western and Global consumer culture is misleading. Rather, they were temporary strategies in
a shifting regard for the West and the global.
A slogan of nineteenth century Meiji era, datsua-nyūō (quit Asia, and enter Europe),
suggests an utter disillusionment with Japaneseness. It shaped the rhetoric regarding Japan’s
national identity. Interactions between Japan and its Western Other made it possible for Japan to
understand itself and differentiate Japan from other Asian nations (Creighton 1996; Iwabuchi
1994). It diverges from Hongkongers’ paradoxical multicultural identity—the Chinese culture
fused with Western influences—for whom how the stereotypical racist representation of the
“other” serves to project a common conceptualization of their own identity (Olivotti 2016). No
unified “Japaneseness” exists in reality but it is constructed by a discursive strategy: the process
of a two-way exchange, or “complicit exoticism” in Iwabuchi’s term (1994). Japan became
inclined to use the Western Orientalist construction of “Japaneseness” to confirm its
“Japaneseness” and differentiated itself from the West, rather than adopting nationalist
ideologues. Japan’s “self-Orientalism”—as a result of complicit relationship with the West—was
in a sense the strategy of actively constructing the national cultural identity by exploiting the
West (Iwabuchi 1994).
In order to define the self, Japan had to have the idea of the West—the imagined West.
The image of the West was not consistent but often contradictory, however. Rather than
Occidentalizing the West, Japan’s concern was explicating the Self, with the West and the
imagined Western gaze as its reference points. In the 1970s, nihonjinron, “a non-fiction genre of
literature consisting of theories of ‘Japaneseness’” arose (Iwabuchi 1994, 55), essentializing the
Japanese with such stereotypes as homogenous and collectivistic. But in the 1980s, the Japanese
gained enough confidence to characterize themselves without reference to the Western gaze. In
fact hybridized “Japaneseness” had occasionally found favor among the white Western Others,
from foreigners in kimono in ad campaigns to such art movements as the revival of Art Nouveau.
These were signs of the triumph of Japanese influence, at least in material culture (e.g.,
Creighton 1996). In the late 1980s, when the Japanese overconfidence reached its apogee, the
reverse-importation of the Western hybridized “Japaneseness” became fashionable. But this
nihonjinron discourse waned after the burst of the bubble economy amid an accelerating
economic globalization (Iwabuchi 2015).
The Co-existence of Japan and West in Advertising
The co-existence of Japan and the West in advertising and other media has been discussed in the
interpretive analysis of consumer holidays, such as Valentine’s Day (Minowa, Khomenko, and
Belk 2011), as well as in traditional gift giving rituals (Matsui, Minowa, and Belk 2012). In their
semiotic analysis of print advertisements, Minowa, et al. (2011) decipher signs of creolization in
the representation of gendered Western consumer holiday. They find that a Western food,
chocolate, acts as the artifact of this ritual, and that women’s confessions of love act as the ritual
protocol. Together they play a critical role in the hybridization process and inversions of gender
power relationship. Matsui et al. (2012) find the co-existence of Japan and West as one aspect of
department store ads for seasonal gifts, while arguing that the change in symbolic meaning of the
gifts “from commitment to detachment” occurred over a period of time. Creighton (1996)
interrogates the images of foreigners—Occidental or white Western “others,” in particular—in
Japanese advertising campaigns. Essentialized illustrations of such images in ads are treated as
“fantasy excursions:” Their representations create “contrasting statements about the specialness
of being Japanese” (Creighton 1996, 137).
There are other streams of research on Japanese advertising in relation to the West.
Previous content analyses of print or TV advertising found growing materialism during the
period of high economic growth in Japanese ads, surpassing that of the US (Belk and Bryce
1986), and the persistent use of soft-sell appeals in Japanese ads, particularly those targeted to
females (Gould and Minowa 1994), as well as evidence of both the Westernization of Japanese
ads (Belk and Pollay 1985a) and the sustenance of the Japanese tradition (Mueller 1992). There
was a tendency to use Western signs—for example, English language, Western models and
celebrities, Western artifacts—as elements in Japanese advertising of the period; these were
regarded as symbols of prestige and modernization (Belk and Pollay 1985b). In their grounded
theory investigation, Okazaki and Mueller (2011, 227) find that the notion of “Westernization” is
a complex concept intertwined with “economic transition, globalization, and Japan’s own
cultural evolution.” Over a period of time, and in times of economic downturns, they find that
functional product merit appeals are increasingly utilized, although Japanese advertising still
remains uniquely Japanese, blending traditional soft-sell appeals that use verbal and visual
metaphors. Okazaki and Mueller (2008) refer to this indescribable unique quality as the
“subtlety” of Japanese advertising.
Seasonal Gift Giving in Japan
We further contextualize our study by focusing on seasonal gift advertisements. Seasonal gifts
sent in the midsummer (chūgen) and the yearend (seibo) are the two most important annual gift-
giving rituals. They are sent to people to whom the giver is formally indebted (Benedict
1946/1989) or to influential people (Rupp 2003). While gift giving is a major form of
consumption in Japan (Clammer 1997), unused gifts end up recirculated (Daniels 2009).
Japanese Ethnologists tend to believe that the roots of ritual obligatory gift-exchanges are found
in religious commensality (Ito 2011). While seasonal gifts were predominantly foods, the
marketplace has created “trendy” gift items from apparel to consumer durables, partly reflecting
the socioeconomic conditions of the time (e.g., Francks 2009; Matsui et al. 2012). Befu (1984)
characterizes these traditional, reciprocal gift-exchange practices with such Japanese concepts as
hare (sacred), ōyake (public), giri (obligation), and tatemae (appearances sake). To symbolize its
sacredness of nature, the gift is wrapped, and tied with red-and-white paper strings (mizuhiki),
and an auspicious symbol called noshi is attached to the wrapping. By altering the decorativeness
and signs of authenticity, they convey the significance of the gift-giving event, the status of the
giver’s family, and the value of the gift. Today, these signs may be simply printed, or may not
even appear, on the gift wrapping paper.
Seasonal gifts have occupied a significant place in print advertisements in Japan’s history
(Yamaki 2006). While ads for seasonal gifts are found in various media and also in brand
advertising, we focus on newspaper ads by department stores because, throughout the 20th
century, both social agents were mirrors of the changes in Japan’s socioeconomic conditions and
its relation to the West (Creighton 1992). The ads promoted materialism and indoctrinated
alternative lifestyles in consumers through constellations of domestic and foreign brands.
Department stores in particular played a pivotal role as instigators of gift giving rituals by
reminding consumers of old customs, imparting new ideas, and providing support services.
Special department store areas— “gift centers” and “gift salons”—are designated for
consultation and display of gift items for major rituals and rites of passage, often staffed by a
certified “gift advisor,” “gift Meister,” or “gift concierge.” Each department store has its unique
wrapping paper and wrapping services (Hendry 1995). Department stores contributed to the
“aestheticization of everyday life” (Tamari 2006) by introducing Western lifestyles. Over the
years, seasonal gift giving rituals have waned somewhat as a result of individualization and the
abolition of empty formalities in social institutions, while the popularity of the department store
as a type of retailer also slowly but steadily declined after the end of the bubble economy in the
early 1990s and has been augmented by other types of retailers.
Despite aforementioned extant studies, the literature in advertising research reveals that
there are very limited interpretive studies on the changing meaning of Japan and the West or gift
giving rituals in advertisements, focusing on rhetoric of national identity. Prior advertising
studies on rituals are in Western contexts. Otnes and Scott (1996) for instance studied rhetorical
expressions used for ads in the context of rituals, but they only investigated Western
advertisements. With regard to a historical study of self and other in globalizing 1930s China,
Zhao and Belk (2008) provided a synchronic analysis of calendar advertising. Thus, the current
study is significant in filling a thematic gap: the historical study of national identity rhetorics in
ads about consumption ritual in a non-Western nation. Another significant aspect of this study is
that, unlike previous qualitative studies of advertising that involved semiotics, we develop a
semiotic analytical framework explicitly incorporating critical visual analysis (Schroeder 2006),
a method that utilizes formal analysis of art history. While the critical visual analysis proposed
by Schroeder (2006) exclusively uses visual canons of Western art, our approach found it
appropriate to be flexible and employ the visual canons of both Western and Japanese arts. This
framework allows us to interpret the visual images in advertisements that reflect social changes
as well as cultural differences in visual canons and traditions.
Another contribution of this study is that, extending Booth’s (2004) “rhetrickery” and
Stern’s (2008) “rhetruth,” we suggest three types of the rhetoric of national identity devised in
the gift advertisements studied. Booth (2004) proposed examining critically the floods of
rhetoric—both good and bad. He then coined the term rhetrickery, or cheating rhetoric; it is the
entire range of dishonest communicative arts that produces misunderstandings and potentially
harmful results. In contrast, Stern’s (2008) “rhetruth” is the strategic execution of ethical,
beneficial messages for the public good; it protects ineffective listeners from skillful but
unethical rhetrickery. Both authors were influenced by Burke’s (1951; 1969) “new rhetoric” in
drama: the identification formed between the character and the audience visually, more than
merely narrative speech, through dramatic performance and scenery. In this spirit, we detected
three types of rhetoric of national identity that emerged from our data: “rhe-transfiguration,”
“rhe-truculence,” and “rhe-trepidation.” They are discussed in the data analysis section. Our
terms are also influenced by Burke’s (1969, 22) contention that “identification is affirmed with
earnestness precisely because there is division,” and “the Rhetoric deals with the possibilities of
classification in its partisan aspects; it considers the ways in which individuals are at odds with
one another, or become identified with groups more or less at odds with one another.” A
summary is provided in Table 1.
[Insert Table 1 about here]
In discussing basic principles of rhetorical analysis, Kenney and Scott (2003) suggest four steps:
(1) formal description, (2) analysis of historical context, (3) interpretation from a particular
critical perspective, and (4) evaluation from that perspective. When it comes to specifically
Burkean Rhetoric in which the ad aims to foster “identification” with the audience as a means of
persuasion, comprehending how identity is formed in the historical context is of prime
importance because products are strongly embedded in culture and history, and because of the
“identifying nature” of this historical context (e.g., Alexander 2013; Grinshpun 2014). They
admit, however, that prior studies on visual rhetoric have lacked methodological clarity
generally, and a specified analytical framework in particular.
Our primary analytical method involves critical visual analysis (Schroeder 2006) of gift
advertisements in Japanese newspapers from select years in the 1960s and 1970s. We enhance
our critical visual analysis by incorporating visual social semiotics. In the following paragraphs,
we provide a brief summary of critical visual analysis, and discuss how visual social semiotics
arguments our understanding of the rhetoric of identity used in visual images in advertising—a
pervasive mode of semiosis (i.e., meaning production) and a fundamental way of knowing the
world (Mick et al. 2004). Advertisements influence our self-concepts and conception of a good
life (Belk and Pollay 1985a; Schroeder 2006).
In today’s visually oriented world, the other senses are subordinate to vision for
understanding the world. Critical visual analysis (Schroeder 2006, 303) is “an interdisciplinary
method for understanding and contextualizing images.” Unlike other visual methods, by utilizing
tools developed in art history, critical visual analysis allows researchers to understand specific
cultural and historical references—visual genealogy—in contemporary images. It illustrates how
cultural codes and representational conventions may be utilized to interpret contemporary
marketing images. In our analysis, imageries in cultural media such as advertising are treated in a
similar way to artworks’ treatment in the formal analytic tradition of art history. The objective of
a formal analysis is to examine how intended meanings are communicated. In this way, historical
precedents and the rhetorical vigilance of images are also elucidated. The categories of analysis
include: subject matter, medium, composition, genre, line, light, and form/style (Barnet 2000).
For example, Schroeder (2006) shows how a code that represents “ideologies of the group
portrait” can be used to represent identity in marketing communications by formally comparing
group portraits of the Golden Age of Dutch art and photographed ads for CK One by Calvin
Klein. Advertising is “the site where capitalism and aesthetics merge” (Campbell 2014, 138).
Berger (1990) has done something similar with other art genres and other ads. In our study, we
draw an analogy to Schroeder’s (2006) work and make comparisons between the depiction of
food (or material objects) in the still life paintings from various art historical eras and gift
advertisements from different time periods. By doing so, we demonstrate how the selection of
motifs as well as the style informs cultural codes of ideologies of cuisine and symbolizes
Japanese identities vis-a-vis the West.
On the other hand, social semiotics stems from Halliday’s (1978) systemic linguistics that
regards language as a resource for making meaning (Sun 2015). It uses semiotic “resources” that
include all the artifacts and actions used in communication (Jewitt and Oyama 2001). Shaped in
specific contexts for specific purposes, they can come to articulate different social and cultural
meanings that are not fixed. Jewitt and Oyama (2001, 134) define visual social semiotics as a
social semiotics of visual communication that entails “the description of semiotic resources, what
can be said and done with images (and other visual means of communication) and how the things
people say and do with images can be interpreted.” In their overarching social semiotic theory
for multimodal communications, Kress and van Leeuwen (1996) suggest that the image performs
three types of meta-semiotic tasks simultaneously in order to produce meaning: representational,
interpersonal, and compositional metafunctions. These metafunctions are discussed further in the
data and analytical framework section below.
While visual social semiotics is useful for designing visual images for meaning-making,
this approach does not incorporate the genre, style or historical references of the visual image in
the analysis. While Kress and van Leeuwen (1996) discuss the importance of “circumstances”
for the realization of pictorial modality, the artistic style and visual genealogy receive less
attention. Often the visuals in the advertisements use, or are directly based on, art works. At the
same time, visual rhetoric depends on historical situatedness of the audience (Kenney and Scott
2003). Thus, in order to increase the validity of analysis, we integrate critical visual analysis
(Schroeder 2006) and visual social semiotics in order to explain how images signify rhetorically.
As discussed previously, critical visual analysis also does not depend on structural
understandings of semiotics and does allow the audience’s free interpretation and “post-
structural notions of image production and consumption” (Borgerson and Schroeder 2005).
Genre: Still Lifes
As its subject matter, this study uses a still life motif, a depiction of inanimate gift items—mostly
food—in a confined space. The visual image in the ad is a sign and “[the still life is] an aesthetic
signified” (Barthes 1977, 35). The genre originated in wall painting of fruits and other provisions
in ancient Roman villas. They were called xenia, or hospitality; they meant “presents to a guest”
or “gifts of hospitality” (Ebert-Schifferer 1998). They adorned the walls in private houses to
display to guests the social status of the homeowner and the fertility of his lands. But, they were
also reminiscent of a formalized ritual: Exchanging a basket of foods as gifts among members of
equal social classes. While still life paintings in Western art are often associated with symbolic
suggestions of opulence, vanity, sexuality, and moderation, they may also be created as a means
to communicate self-identities with the depiction of particular material objects.
A popular saying by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin goes, “Tell me what you eat, and I
will tell you who you are,” which is similar to a Hindu proverb, “A man is what he eats.”
Manifested in private forms of devotion as well as in highly public social practices, food and its
consumption in a given society carry significant meaning, and are part of a symbolic system
(Loveday and Chiba 1985). Food is a metaphor of culture and self-identities of social groups: it
powerfully evokes nostalgia (Holak 2014). A depiction of food thus may serve as a statement
about society, issues of class, or other significant aspects of culture (Ashkenazi 1990), both in
still-life paintings and in contemporary advertisements. The importance of the still-life
photography in advertising is demonstrated by its own terms—commercial “pack shot” or a
“pack” (Bate 2009). Photographers organize, light, and arrange background, and shoot the still-
life objects for signification—to construct meanings within the image: with its aesthetic and
ideological choices, they subjugate desire of the audience.
Data and Analytical Framework
The data consist of newspaper advertisements for seasonal gifts. After exploratory examinations
of ads every five years from 1908 to 2008, we decided to focus our examination on specific years
in post postwar period—the 1960s and 1970s—chosen to coordinate events that likely affected
Japan’s self-image. This was a period of internationalization, prior to economic globalization.
The incidents include the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, the restoration of Japanese territory from the
US in 1968, the Tokyo Summit in 1979, and so forth. We feel that focusing on the ads published
after 1960s is appropriate because visual rhetoric in ads made significant changes in response to
macro factors during this period, such as advancement in printing technology and the inception
of advertising awards in the 1950s (Nakai 1991). Focusing on still lifes in black-and-white print
advertisements allowed us to concentrate on certain stylistic elements of visual rhetoric (i.e., eye
level, composition, perspective, ad layout) and eliminate others (e.g., color, cropping).
We collected data from Asahi Shimbun in microfilm format. Founded in 1879, the
newspaper has been a major nationally circulating daily; it has had “a wide coverage in the most
important metropolitan regions” (Asahi Shimbun 2015). The total number of the gift ads that
were primarily foods and beverages and without human figures was 214. From these ads we
selected those that have signs of national identity, such as icons (e.g., flag, map) or symbols (e.g.,
ocean, mountain), or that use domestic and/or foreign products for addressing identity. Here we
selected by judgment three ads (Figures 1, 2a, and 3) that employ rhetorics of national identity
and that suggest comparisons to still life works of art. The selection of the ads by such purposive
sampling is considered appropriate for critical visual analysis (Schroeder 2006).
We followed Barnet (2000), Kress and van Leeuwen (1996), and Schroeder (2006) for
the data analytic process. In analyzing the advertisements, we looked at representational
metafunctions, and examined whether the promoted gifts were represented in a narrative or
conceptual mode. Then, we considered their interpersonal metafunctions: whether the gift image
is presented partially or in full view to create intimacy or distance with the viewer; if the object is
seen from high vertical angle or in frontal horizontal perspective. We interrogated compositional
metafunctions: placement and the salience of objects depicted as well as how these objects are
connected, or if they are portrayed realistically. We compared ads with art works that elucidate
rhetorics of identity and developed our analysis in art historical terms. We selected the genre of
still lives a priori. In addition, we collected institutional advertisements by department stores and
articles in the editorial sections that were related to seasonal gift giving to understand the ethos
of gift giving rituals and exo-semiotic system that framed the text. In order to interpret the
meaning of the West to Japan in advertisements, we studied advertisements published before the
Second World War that might have been targeted to the same audience decades earlier; such an
examination allowed understanding the consumer’s background knowledge and its relationship
Visualizing Japanese Identities in Gift Advertisements
Postmortem Resurrection: Awakened Self
The advertisement entitled “Let’s present beer to Madam” by Seibu (1963) is a revelatory
expression of the rising middle-class and their aspiration for modest luxury (Figure 1); it was
specifically targeted to the housewives who implement the seasonal gift-giving ritual. Expressed
against an undefined background, a foreign brand bottle of beer with two frosted glasses and a
covered stoneware jug are staged with an emphasis on the contrast between light and shade.
Minimal objects are concentrated to produce a sense of strict harmony and simplicity. The lack
of edges on the table creates a sense of indefinite space, while enhancing the monumentality of
the upright objects in the center.
[Insert Figure 1 about here]
“German beer.” The copy of the ad introduces the Western import, a potent source of
cultural meaning, to the implied audience, the educated consumer with an acquired appetite for
imports known by the country of origin. “With its good taste, it made German women
connoisseurs of beer. Genuine flavor. We wish for Japanese Madams to enjoy it also—as it has
arrived from Munich. But, it does not mean that it must be exclusive to Madam. We invite Papa
as well. The gift that goes down smoothly.” The verbal text elaborates and extends the meaning
of the visual image. The ad stimulates Japanese housewives to join their German counterparts as
a point of reference. If German women are connoisseurs, Japanese women should follow suit.
The identification is formed by communicating common values and interests (Mulvey and
Medina 2003). The title Madam (okusama) meant the segment of urban “good wives and wise
mothers,” ordinary yet influential in reconstructing Japan. In the 1960s, Japanese women as
housewives established themselves as “arbiters of the new urban household’s image, taste,
fashion and consumption” (Macnaughtan 2012, 96). Concurrently, advertising then promoted
their image as active agency in the domestic sphere (Yoshimi, 2006). Their insatiable aspirations
for a more affluent life, and their emulative desire for a more civilized life, stimulated the
Japanese economy and became the underlying theme for targeting marketplace offerings in an
age of international competition. Such aspirational appeals were, however, suggestive of a
geographical hierarchy: the West was an aspirational place to be (Mazzarella 2003).
Meanwhile, the production of beer rose fivefold in Japan between 1955 and 1964, and
beer became the most popular liquor surpassing sake by gaining the largest share of consumption
among the alcoholic beverages during this period. By the 1950s, the Japanese had domesticated
beer and other alcoholic beverages originally imported from the West. Throughout the 1960s and
1970s, beer ads were targeted to carefully defined, key subgroups (Alexander 2013). As
domestic beer brands were dominant players in the marketplace, a change in the Liquor Law in
1962 not only upgraded the quality of domestic alcoholic beverages, but also positioned imports
as appropriate seasonal gifts for their symbolic value.
The visual elements of the ad appeal to the consumers’ common identity: the wealthier
post-postwar Japan in the midst of high economic growth. Then Prime Minister Ikeda had
promised an income-doubling program in 1960 with his internationalization and liberalization
plans for trade and foreign exchange. In the Seibu ad, the individual motifs—the shadow, the
froth of the beer, the cracked nut, and the glass—symbolize evanescence, fragility, and the
fleeting nature of life in Western visual language. Here, the robust, monumental appearance of
imported beer seems to impart the transformational power from fragility to stability, however.
The light dramatizes the arrival of the imports from Germany, and gives a feeling that such an
event has metaphysical (transfigurative) properties; although the visual image lacks theatricality,
no lavishness or exuberant style is required for transforming non-elite Japanese into sophisticated
international citizens by consuming the Other.
The visual rhetoric of national identity used in this ad is “rhe-transfiguration:” The use
of revelatory appeals targeted to urban middle-class housewives, the driving force behind
society, who are receptive to intimate appeals for a renewed relationship with the West. This is a
conceptual representation of the Western object—imported beer—as symbolic of aspiration. The
whole figure of beer in profile produces social distance while the medium vertical angle, looking
at the beer horizontally, creates an equal power relationship between the imagined West and the
Japanese audience of the ad. The contrast between light and shadow creates a drama and
invitation for the imports to be consumed for traditional Japanese gift-giving ritual. Kress and
van Leeuwen (1996, 112) contend that symbolic suggestive pictures represent “meaning and
identity as coming from within, as deriving from qualities of the Carrier [of the image]
themselves.” It is this dramatic mood of the ad that helps act rhetorically to heighten the sense of
international identity. The affordable luxury denoted by the Western imports partly meant that
aspiration was within the grasp of housewives of the urban metropolis.
Distinction: Progressive Self
The advertisement entitled “Ochūgen Nippon” by Matsuya (1968) is a Japanese version of
American Pop Art that glorifies brands of a consumer society (Figure 2(a)). The dominant
ideology encoded in the content of advertisements around this time is Americanism. While
cultural Americanization in Japan began in the 1920s and the occupier America became
everyday consciousness of Japanese in postwar Japan, Americanism in terms of lifestyle
consumption began after the end of occupation when the soldiers disappeared and America
became imaginary Other. It was then “America” became more interiorized and profound in
Japanese mind and identity (Yoshimi 2006). American artists such as Tom Wesselmann and
Andy Warhol formed the vanguard of American Pop Art in the 1960s. They used material
objects of everyday popular culture and addressed issues involving the status of the image, the
relationship among art, technology, and industry, and the American canon of beauty (Schroeder
1997). Pop Art explored the category between object and image, which had been hinted by the
American trompe l’oeil artists of the nineteenth century. Similar to a series of kitchen still lifes
by Wesselmann (Figure 2(b)), here the Matsuya ad represents a group of made-in-Japan
consumer goods as patriotic symbols of capitalist superiority.
[Insert Figure 2(a) about here]
[Insert Figure 2(b) about here]
The copy at the right top corner says “There are many Japanese-made products that can
be regarded as first-class on the world’s stage… Give the gift of Japanese products that are
useful for Japanese life as a mid-summer gift.” The visual rhetoric of national identity used in
this ad is “rhe-truculence,” or the rhetoric of aggression; it consists of persuasive appeals
targeted to increase the pugnaciousness (fighting spirit) of the audience in order to stimulate
tension and excitement. The Japanese products portrayed in frontal view seem to look directly at
the viewer and demand the strong involvement on the part of the viewer. The ad was published
in the midst of the US-Japan negotiations on trade restrictions on the Japanese auto parts market
and the renewal of the bi-national Security Treaty. It ironically echoed the Centennial of the
Meiji Restoration, which forcefully opened Japan to the West in 1868. The copy sounds a
reaction to Japan’s predicament of being driven to make concessions in negotiations bulldozed
by the US. The consumer products in the ad reflect the standardization of mass production and
the ostentatious pretentions of the Japanese middle class comprised of the newly risen “salary
men” in such elements as the pin-striped business shirt. This consumption, as in Pop Art, had
become a civic duty (Ebert-Schifferer 1998). Japan inflected an American “cornucopia
complex,” an obsession with the abundance of everyday consumer products such as those in the
ad; flat and shallow in perspective, they present a hasty jumble. The assembled gift items, mostly
“domestications” of originally foreign goods that came to enshrine “Japaneseness,” symbolize a
civilized Japanese way of life (Francks 2009). They mingle with indigenous products. A small
bottle of Ajinomoto MSG on the front leads a bottle of syrup, My Juice, on the left and a can of
choice toasted laver on the right. Behind the Suntory beer hides a box of the Shiseido laundry
detergent Soft. The fan and rice cooker are other symbols of Japanese modernity as well as key
components of Japanese consumer desiderata of the day (Belk and Bryce 1986; Belk and Pollay
1985a; Nakano 2009).
What makes this picture uniquely Japanese is the three circular images in the ad. The
largest of the Gestalt, evokes Japanese flag: a red circle on the white rectangle. This is a
perceptual visual rhetoric, where the images fuse structurally in the ad (Phillips and McQuarrie
2004). Using the visual image of the Japanese flag was resonant with current political events. On
June 26, just prior to the Matsuya ad, the US returned the Ogasawara Islands to Japan. To mark
the restoration of the territory, 23 years after the end of the Second World War, Japanese flags
were raised on the islands and at various ceremonies. The visual image of these Japanese flags
was displayed prominently in newspapers, heightening a sense of nationalism.
Degustation: Ambivalent Self
The advertisement entitled “Thoughtful Deep Breath” for mid-year gift by Seibu (1979) is not a
table still life but an illustration of products, representing the friendly relationship, in Japan’s
terms, between the West and Japan by a depiction of two products in a volleyball game (Figure
3). On the left, the Japanese soy sauce Kikkoman has just sprang to spike a ball. The Swedish
glass Kosta Boda jumped to block but to no avail. The ominously disproportional objects
outsized in a familiar outdoor scene appear surreal. The ordinary objects to which we hardly pay
close attention, are magnified and become disquiet rather than placidly ludic. The image of
outdoor induces a sense of release, while the instability of gift objects concurrently produces a
mood of bewilderment.
[Insert Figure 3 about here]
The ad uses “rhe-trepidation” as the visual rhetoric of national identity, which is targeted
to an anxious audience who are exposed to a message that addresses a questionable “bilateral”
relationship with the West and ambivalence about the “friendship” that obscures psychological
distance. The end of Japan’s miracle growth around the Oil Shock in the early 1970s saw the
beginning of the “trade friction” with Europe and the US (Francks 2009). With a huge trade
surplus, Japan was pressured to take more responsibility for foreign aid, while the devaluation of
the dollar negatively affected the Japanese exports and its economy. Restructuring of the
Japanese economy, at the rise of baby boom youth culture and the rapid acceleration of cultural
media production, was sought in domestic consumption, which included the government
planning and management of mass leisure (Daliot-Bul 2014). In 1978, the Japanese translation of
The Age of Uncertainty by Canadian economist Gulplace became the bestseller: It was a time of
harvesting and uncertainty.
This is a narrative representation: aided by the illustrated trajectory of the ball, the
existence of two vectors is implied: from the bottle to the glass and to the ball. Actions of the gift
objects allow the audience to craft a story. The image on the left functions as given and on the
right as new (Kress and van Leeuwen 1996). Two levels of processes in interpersonal
metafunction seem to be operating to show the three-way relationships: one is between the
material objects, and another between them and the viewer who looks down the game from a
high vertical angle to imply the spectator’s power over the oversized gift objects. The visual
image questions our idea about the order of dominance; are we the omnipotent consumer of these
objects, or are our minds occupied, and thus controlled, by objects we desire and consume?
This ad also exemplifies Japanese affinity for animism and playfulness in visual art. Two
objects, the Japanese brand Kikkoman soy sauce on the left and the Swedish brand Kosta Boda
are diagonally arranged creating a tension in a dynamic encounter of two products. Alluded to by
the composition, they are asymmetrical not only by the country of origin but also by social class
and appearance—the prestigious glassware brand from Sweden and the everyday seasoning for
the Japanese, accented with a ribbon. Kikkoman claims in a male voice, “I’m, these days, an
international in taste [appeal]” while sleek Kosta Boda replies in a female voice, “Oh, you are
not the only one; I’m also an international receptacle [capacity].” The verbal text serves to
explain the visuals. Here two products, equal in their court surroundings, despite the difference
in the country of origin, meet and establish a provincial familiarity, the significance of which is
subsumed in the athletic spectacle of the international tournament.
On the other hand, personification of animals and material objects were historically used
in Japanese arts for satirical purposes to criticize the social and political conditions of the time
and to deride human folly. They were also used to portray a fantastical world of ghosts and
demons to stir fanciful imagination about the supernatural. The seemingly playful and innocuous
Seibu ad seems to connote such layers of meaning. This ad was published in the midst of the
Tokyo Summit, and being “international” was a national agenda. The ad seems to be a parody of
Japan’s anxiety in the age of uncertainty and internationalization. Japan seems to be caught by
the dilemma about its identity—the traditional self versus the Westernized self. There is an
honest self-assessment and realization about self-worthiness. And, there is an effort to overcome
that weakness: to mythologize the everyday seasoning and make it as “international” as the
Western glassware. The ad seems to reflect Japan’s ambivalence about moving forward without
knowing its self—which had been aggravated by internal problems such as the Lockheed Payoff
Scandal in 1976—while twirling and dashing out of breath dealing with the “fair play” with the
West. Advertising images mirror anxieties and social conditions, and offer fantasy solutions
through the deployment of images (Bate 2009).
Aesthetics and National Identity Rhetorics in Social Cultural Context
In investigating the Japan’s self-image and its view of the West as manifested in visual rhetoric
of national identity, we have conducted a critical visual analysis of gift advertisements from
the1960s and 1970s with emphasis on the social context. Rhetorics in this period utilized less
traditional Japanese aesthetics, unlike those used in periods of the nation’s crises. After the post-
bubble, lost decades starting from the early 1990s, more ads used auto-laudatory appeals that
heightened ethnocentric beliefs. In those ads, the images of ethno-sanitized gifts with Japanicity
were juxtaposed with the foreign to provoke an implicit nationalistic visual rhetoric.
In the following, we illuminate how the national identity rhetorics from the current study
are linked to consumption, markets and culture within their contexts and boundary conditions.
Aesthetics and National Identity Rhetorics
The gifts represented in the advertisements in this study spoke of Japan’s self in the post-postwar
period of internationalization: the awakened self, the progressive self, and the ambivalent self.
They are codified as post-mortem resurrection, distinction and degustation, respectively. In the
advertisements of seasonal gifts, or the sites of rhetoricity in the cultural media, we find three
types of rhetorics of national identity: rhe-transfiguration, rhe-truculence, and rhe-trepidation.
For each, the visuals of ads sampled in this study were articulated by rendering the still life of
Western art, much as the 17th century Dutch/German repast scenes, 1960’s American Pop-Art,
and Magritte-esque, surrealistic still lifes. What is unique here is the use of the Western art to
provoke a sense of Japan’s national identity. This further leads to several questions: Why was the
use of Western art important at this time? Was it aesthetics or taste that was important for these
identity rhetorics? If national identity is constituted in socio-historical discourses, what was place
of the Japanese art in advertising to (re-)form the identity?
Venkatesh and Meamber (2006) argue that cultural products with artistic and aesthetic
appeals are created and circulated by cultural actors drawing on parallel meaning systems.
Advertising plays a key role in the culture production. Advertising imagery helps the audience
experience the world as a vehicle for individual and cultural identity construction, while acting
as an instrument of aesthetic commoditization and imparting moments of aesthetic stimulation
and pleasure (Schroeder 2002; Venkatesh and Meamber 2009). The advertising imagery of
Western still lifes had become appealing to the post-postwar Japanese consumers because, in
part, during the period of Japan’s rapid socio-economic transformations, the domains of culture
and aesthetics were sites of rhetoricity where a desire for transformation was articulated (Iida
2002). Furthermore, advertising purports to transform the subjective desire into the objective
social truth (Mazzarella 2003). Japan’s internationalization through the cultural production and
marketing stimulated the mass non-elite consumers’ aestheticization of everyday life. Being an
international person (kokusai-jin) then seemed to require acquiring “taste” of Western cultures,
which should be applied seamlessly to consumption. It enabled mass consumers to feel
assimilated to, or even surpass, their imagined Western counterparts. The internationalization of
the 1960s and 1970s aided mass consumers to superficially develop both an eye for the Western
art and a taste for gourmet foods. Diffusion of Western art was achieved through the consumer’s
early training, including the establishment of art programs in some secondary schools. It also
came about through commodification and marketization, such as offering subscriptions to a set
of encyclopedic art books. In turn, urban Japanese became “voracious” attendees of art
exhibitions at museum and at department stores for cultural capital accumulation (Clammer
1997). These promotions of Western art and ideas were precursors to the exhibitionistic display
of “knowledge as a play” in the subsequent bubble-economy era (Iida 2002).
This does not mean, however, that Western culture was revered absolutely nor that its art
pervaded every facet of cultural media and markets. Inasmuch as identity is constituted in socio-
historical discourses, Japanese art and its aesthetics remained in cultural media and was also used
to negotiate national identity, as is evident in the literature of the period (Iida 2002). Structural
aspects of Japanese art (e.g., its stringent simplification), its subtlety, aesthetics, and the visual
conventions were embedded or fused with the Western art. We coin the term ad hoc Japonisme
to signify such covert hybrid combinations that make the image characteristically Japanese with
a Western flavor. The word Japonisme, coined by French author and collector Phillipe Burty in
1872, originally designated a field of study of artistic, historic and ethnographic borrowings from
the arts of Japan (Lambourne 2006). Our term ad hoc Japonisme is meant to connote the
strategic use of Japanese art in the marketplace. The visual image of German beer gift in the ad
that uses the rhe-transfiguration rhetoric (Figure 1), for instance, evokes both the repast scenes of
Western still lifes and Japanese yōga, (Japanese Western-influenced art styles). This sort of
combination is opposed to nihonga (Japanese traditional art): they delineate the boundaries
between the Western other, the Western-influenced Japanese self, and the self as an art form. The
visual image of the ochūgen gifts ad that uses rhe-truculence rhetoric (Figure 2(a)) visually
fusing the Japanese national flag, suggests the use of both American Pop-Art and the influence of
Japanese flat cutout design. Similarly, the surrealistic image of gifts in the ad that uses rhe-
trepidation rhetoric (Figure 3) evokes Japanese manga rooted in the animistic tradition. In short,
while market was a site of historicized exchanges of art between cultures, the nationhood was
aestheticized with the domesticated “fine art” for non-elite urban consumers drew on a variety of
art forms and visual genealogies.
The Consumption Ritual and Tragi-narcissism in National Identity Rhetorics
Another unique aspect of national identity rhetorics from the period studied is the way these
rhetorics manifest in gift advertising: Japan’s bravado in guise of internationalization and its
struggle to overcome its complexity—its xenophobia, its trauma from the atomic bomb, and its
collective memory of the American occupation. These were constantly brought to mind by the
ongoing presence of the American bases in Okinawa, and for some by the ritual and consumption
of seasonal gifts. Minami’s (1997) study on seibo gift giving in the urban city Kobe shows that
older consumers, who survived the Second World War and experienced starvation and subsisted
by sharing provisions with relatives, attached special importance to continued exchanging of
seasonal gifts with these others even during times of lean economy. Meantime, victimized-self
rhetorics were strategically used in the media and market to silence Japan’s prior aggression in
Asia. This silence was an unspoken rule. In discussing Japan, previous studies have criticized
Japan’s proclivity toward cultural essentialism and the conceit of its uniqueness and purity (e.g.,
Kelsky 1994). Yoshimoto (1989) argues that Japan’s internationalization—a second opening of
country like the 19th century Meiji restoration—did not mean its willingness to admit and
embrace the differences of other cultures. Japan’s internationalization, on the contrary, involved
only accepting pre-packaged, commodified images of the West circulated in the media. In fact,
according to Yoshino (1989), Japan’s internationalization avoided the direct encounter with the
Other and transformed the real into the imaginary. He further postulates that internationalization
and nationalism were the two sides of the same coin: “nationalism presupposes the existence of
internationalism as much as the latter is dependent upon the former” (Yoshino 1989, 22).
Clammer (1997) agrees that Japan’s internationalization was provoked by nationalist sentiments;
it brought Japan cosmopolitan consumption that allowed Japan to consume the world, instead of
being colonized by the Other, while demarcating Japaneseness from the foreign.
The variety of national identity rhetorics in our study of post-postwar Japanese
advertising suggests a more nuanced account on the Japan’s internationalization scheme as
manifested in consumption and markets. Repeating the cycles of traditional consumption rituals,
and consuming gifts under the pretext of internationalization was done in order to reinforce the
knowledge and Japan’s memory of its history, to devise illusions of its uniqueness, and to
consume the imagined other in order to recuperate from the traumatic experience. This was done
by masticating, internalizing and eradicating the Other that is being objectified and commodified
as gifts. Gifts, the material objects, alone have unlimited potential for producing rhetorics of
national identity. Gifts with their “social ontology”—the intermixture of material and human
thought, sprung from social and material relations. Together they “encapsulate memory, create
identity, and penetrate the future, and enter into the human colonization of both time and space”
(Clammer 1997, 16). On the other hand, under the internationalization scheme, Japanese food
gifts remained as “delicious food(s) in a beautiful country,” the biopolitical device, which
“contributes to realizing a ‘better reproduction’ of the bodies of Japanese people” (Takeda 2008,
24). Nevertheless, the ubiquitous existence of the West—the English language, for instance—in
the Japanese advertising copy and visuals, and elements of product design, suggest that Japan’s
self-claimed economic triumph in the international arena displays a bravado hiding its
vulnerability and insecurity.
We investigated the rhetoric of national identity in post-postwar Japanese advertising. We
focused on visual rhetoric used in traditional, seasonal gift advertisements. We studied how
different rhetorics of national identity were formed between the gifts advertised and the
audience, and how visual genealogy was used in rhetorical figures. In order to interrogate aspects
of Japan’s self-image and views of the West and their manifestation in visual rhetoric, we
examined both brand and retail advertisements published in the focal newspaper. In order to
decode the changing meanings of self-image under the internationalization scheme and the
consumption ritual, our examination focused on the advertisements published in select years
from the 1960s and 1970s. To enhance our interpretation of visual rhetoric in ads, we used
critical visual analysis as proposed by Schroeder (2006); we used both Western and Japanese art
canons to interpret the variations in visual rhetoric of national identity.
A close reading of still life images in three ads showed that the visual image of foreign
(Figure 1) or domestic (Figure 2(a)) products, or the combination of the two (Figure 3) without
human models in the ad can stimulate strong feelings of national identity that themselves were
persuasive. Analogous to the rhetorical power of human characters (Mulvey and Medina 2003),
the images of gifts in these ads can be imparted with emotional profiles as they “speak” in the
audience’s language, identifying the same ways of feeling and thinking by the audience
regarding the self and Western others. The three types of rhetoric identified ex post are: “rhe-
transfiguration,” the use of revelatory appeals to emulate the West; “rhe-truculence,” the use of
pugnacious appeals to stimulate fighting spirit against the West, and; “rhe-trepidation,” the use
of anxiety-laden appeals to address the questionable bilateral relationship with the West. Table 1
illustrates the definition, cultural code, artistic articulation, gift imagery, and sociocultural
context for each rhetoric of national identity.
Unique aspects of our study can turn into limitations. Focusing on seasonal gifts confined
the product categories, mostly foods and beverages, to be investigated. Although the analysis of
still life images is significant, images of actors can produce more concrete and powerful visual
rhetoric about national identity through facial expressions, gaze in particular, and gestures with
the limbs. Data from the single medium, the newspaper, controlled the readership while it limited
the quality of the image to be black and white and the period of investigation: since the number
of ads for seasonal gifts declined in post bubble-economy era, and since the media preference
gradually shifted to digital, newspapers no longer seem the ideal source of data for interrogating
changes in national identity going forward. Our interpretation of the visual images are the
product of our own cultural upbringing. Although 1960s and 1970s seem recent yesteryears, we
were interpreting the ad images retrospectively, instead of during the midst of the drastic changes
in international relationships that Japan went through. While verbal text, the ad copy, helps
explain the meaning, visual images “imply, under their signifiers, a ‘floating chain’ of
signifieds,” (Barthes 1977, 39) and thus our interpretations always suffer from polysemy.
A nation, as a Foucauldian premise maintains, is a discursive formation, and a formative
political structure. It is neither an allegory nor an imaginative vision (Iida 2002). The aesthetics
of the nation, on the other hand, are not only political, but also embedded in the ontologically
preexisting socio-cultural structures in which consumers are enculturated. Today the large influx
of migrants and economic globalization continue to question the legitimacy of nationhood and
national identity delineated by the territorial borders (Edensor 2002). Meanwhile, visual rhetoric
of national identity as discussed in this paper will continue to transform its appeals in ads,
reflecting the sociopolitical discourse and cultural codes while remaining polymorphic in its
aesthetic aspects, with layers of iconicity. The juncture of consumption, markets and culture is a
site of rhetoric. “Deep subjectivity” resulting from the embodied aesthetic experiences is
unmovable. Advertising, while emotionalizing gift giving and brands, ultimately, cannot help but
intervene in “the visual and discursive articulation of national cultural identity” (Mazzarella
2003, 28). Thus, while the political environment stays unrestful, rhetoric of national identity in
advertising will be polemicized ambivalently. And, this polemic is not Japan alone, but the rest
of the world also.
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Table 1. Rhetoric of national identity and semiotics in Japanese gift advertisements
the nation is
better life and
The use of revelatory
appeals targeted to urban
who aspire to be
comparable with the
West by consuming
imports that are modest
luxury within reach
17th Dutch and German
known for the country-
as markers of modest
luxury, which mirrors
Prime Minister Ikeda promises
to double the GNP in 10 years
(1960); Change in Liquor Tax
Law upgrades domestic liquors,
making imports more symbolic
(1962). Liberalization of foreign
travels and foreign exchange
(1963); Consumption of beer
doubles (1963); Preparations for
Tokyo Olympics (1964)
The nation is
and eager to be
use of persuasive appeals
targeted to increase
spirits) of the audience to
stimulate tensions and
excitements. This ad
form uses perceptual
visual rhetoric, where
“inclusion” is the
of the ad
1960s American Pop-
Art; Flat cutout designs
in Japanese art
competitive to foreign
brands. The use of
Japanicity or cultural
icons are used in visual
Izanagi boom (1965-1970); 3Cs
(car, air conditioner, and color
TV) become the three status
symbols (1966); Centennial of
Meiji Restoration (1968);
Japan’s GNP ranks second after
the US (1968); Trade conflict on
auto parts with the US (1968);
The restoration of Ogasawara
Islands (1968); Demonstration
against the renewal of the US-
Japan Security Treaty (1968);
Preparations for Osaka Expo
The nation is
use of persuasive appeals
targeted to an anxious
audience which is
exposed to a message
that addresses a
relationship with the
West and is ambivalent
about this “friendship”
in Japanese art
Domestic and foreign
brands are represented
in a friendly manner,
both admitting each
other's uniqueness, but
in search of assurance
The Lockheed Payoff Scandal
(1976); Gulplace’s The Age of
Uncertainties (1978); Second
Oil Shock (1979); The Tokyo
Summit (1979); Appreciation of
Japanese Yen (1979); End of US
Cold War with China (1979);
Internationalization as national
agenda (1979); Kikkoman
establishes sales operations in
Germany planning to penetrate
the Scandinavian market (1979)