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Home » In France, Japonisme has turned into Japanmania

In France, Japonisme has turned into Japanmania

by Jose Miguel
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Once Paris’ hottest cultural obsession, Japan’s pop culture still looms large across the European country

For Tony Valente, taking the time to meet fans of his manga and interacting with the many visitors of book publisher Ankama’s booth matters most. The author of hit manga “Radiant,” arguably the biggest manga to come out of France to date, continually welcomes a sea of attendees at the Villepinte Convention Center, about a 45-minute drive from central Paris.

“The most important thing for me is hearing them tell me my manga represents them,” Valente says.

Every year, it’s crucial for artists like Valente to attend the Japan Expo. The annual convention held a few kilometers north of Paris has become a staple of French fan conventions, becoming the third most popular gathering of the country. Around 300,000 visitors make their way to the four-day summer pilgrimage for Japanese culture admirers.

Across the convention center, visitors’ curiosity draws them to “Manga District” — an area decorated with houses and imaginary creatures inspired by Japanese manga. Claire Pelier, a Frenchwoman who traveled roughly 700 kilometers from Toulouse, also welcomes bewildered attendees at her booth. As the director of the International School of Manga and Anime, Japan Expo serves as an opportunity for her to meet the up-and-coming artists who could enroll in her school.

“In France, we have the culture of comic books, while in Japan, there is this culture of manga,” Pelier says. “I thought it was important to bring the two together.”

To her, literary arts aren’t the sole tie that binds the two nations.

“Despite the fundamental differences between France and Japan, we have a common love for arts, culture, craftsmanship and well-being,” Pelier says of the two country’s centuries-long cultural exchange. “It’s paradoxical; there’s both exoticism and shared values. I think that’s what ties our countries together.”

After Japan’s return from international isolation in the late 19th century, French artists developed an interest-turned passion for Japanese culture. Through their own cultural lens and reinterpretations of Japanese works, they brought life to an artistic movement named Japonisme.

“At the time, French artists, coming from the Impressionist movement, were searching for a certain modernity,” explains Sophie Basch, professor at the Sorbonne University of Paris and author of the book “Japonisme, a French Art.” “They discovered Japanese prints. For them, it represented a form of liberation, with daring compositions and bold colors.”

From poet Charles Baudelaire to painter Claude Monet, notable figures of French arts have directly been inspired by ukiyo-e prints — in Monet’s case, he even composed his own ukiyo-e collection.

“This passion France has for Japan, and vice versa, partly began thanks to them,” Basch says. “Today, there is continuity. The most recent example (of Japonisme) I often cite is the Bourse du Commerce in Paris, which was designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando. I believe that, even unknowingly, there is a fascination for Japanese artists’ genius.”

A new vantage point

Though this passion remains intact, it has evolved over the decades, to the point various aspects of Japanese culture are discovered in French society nowadays. In particular, past admiration for ukiyo-e prints has transformed into love for a descendant medium: manga.

“France’s attraction to Japan can be observed daily,” says Julien Bouvard, a university lecturer in language and contemporary Japanese civilization. “Today, when you enter a school or a library, you can find manga everywhere. There has been a real change compared to previous years. France is the second-largest paper manga market in the world.”

Whether it’s in Paris or other regions of France, schools for illustrators and expositions dedicated to Japanese pop culture continue to emerge. Through architecture, fashion, culinary arts, and even sports, many aspects of Japanese culture are tantalizing to a large portion of France’s population.

“In the past, people had a binary perception of Japan,” says Emil Pacha Valencia, editor-in-chief of French magazine Tempura, which covers contemporary Japanese society. “On one side, there was the traditional imagery associated with the Edo Period (1603-1868), and on the other side, there was a popular culture lens, associated with manga, anime or J-pop. There wasn’t much in between; people didn’t really approach contemporary Japanese society.”

How things have changed.

Japanmania has reached the average French person, as evidenced by the growing number of students learning Japanese; in 1960, 41 students were in attendance for Japan-related classes in France according to the Inalco (National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations). Bouvard believes the number of students attending those classes reached 5,000 in 2020 and has been stable ever since.

“If you look at the attendance in my classes, you can see a real evolution,” Bouvard says. “Back then, the students in attendance were mostly men interested in martial arts. There has been a diversification of genders, with as many or even more women attending the classes nowadays. There is also more social diversity.”

At Jean-Moulin Lyon 3 University, where Julien Bouvard teaches, Japanese is the second most popular language for students choosing a language course after English. The number of French students learning Japanese even surpasses those studying other languages like German or Italian in the symbolic European capital — which plans to open a European Museum of Manga and Anime by 2025.

Until then, Japan Expo and similar conventions are more than enough for France’s growing number of Japanophiles.

“I have to admit that without anime, I probably wouldn’t care to discover the Japanese language and Japanese culture as much as I do now,” says Jerome, a Japan Expo attendee. “It begins to feel like a familiar country.”

Source: The Japan Times

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