god not this
Despite all this, I don't look to Japan with a particularly favorable eye. Nor do I feel particularly defensive about Japan. As a country it has its ups and downs, same as any other. To say otherwise is naivety. Now, the true extent and magnitude of those societal issues are at the apex of my adolescent worldview. The issue is, my knowledge of Japanese culture doesn't extrapolate far beyond immediate proximity. I've always felt like an outsider peeking in, despite my language fluency and a reasonable pool of family and friends to draw from. I don't know where to access academic journals, or asess the general opinions of the Japanese public. Japanese media in particular is well-known for heavy censorship, and recent TV shows are even playing on the notorious artificiality of programs. I would like to think my knowledge is not surface-deep, but I certainly don't absorb the nuances of Japanese society like a native. This sensation has persisted while I'm living and studying in Japan.
I’m currently on another planet, namely Japan, which for the average Westerner is an experience tantamount to recovering from a serious head injury, in that while the world around you is largely recognisable, it somehow makes little sense.- Charlie Brooker I Can Make You Hate
I have some emotional investment regarding Japan but I've begun to question the nature of my nostalgia, not unlike looking back on the oblivious innocence of childhood. I'd like to think the numerous loose ends and fixations on troubling Japanese topics are non-issues but I'm in no state to decisively make that call.
What really pisses me off, separate from my own neurotic concoctions, are American perceptions about Japan. Japan is subjected under Orientalism probably more than any other Asian country. China is a close second, with us Westerners utterly bewildered about contemporary Chinese perceptions on Mao's CCP and the Great Leap Forward. Regardless, if Dr. Phil is the P.T. Barnum of the 21st century, surely the internet is the new yellow press. To label it misinformation is too reductionist, which will be a recurring theme here.
Here's some bullet-proof trivia about Japan that I've read over the years.
- Petty crime does not exist
- The country is spotless, no litter to be found
- Sleeping on the job is a revered sign of hard work
- Karoshi happens due to the cultural "honor" of working
- Japan imports most of their water
- Mother-son incest is a common occurence
- The age of consent is 13
- Adderall use is encouraged at work
- Japan is an ethnostate
These weren't collected at MGTOW or a downtrodden seduction site, these awful takes were on large subreddits, which I consider to be reasonably saturated with a diversity of views. Everyone becomes a sociologist when it comes to Japan, assembling their worldview from QUIRKY JAPANESE COMMERCIAL COMPILATIONS, eye-catching news articles, and their unrighteous consumption of hentai. The obnoxious expat redditors who always start their comments with "I LIVE IN JAPAN AND..." seem to steer clear of any complicated discourse. But this page isn't me making an argument, I'm simply trying to express the cacophany of biting, persistent thoughts I've had over the years. Let this /r/askhistorians comment help:
Audiences like hearing about how strange foreigners are. In popular media, in the news, in jokes--people latch on to stereotype about a given culture, often times regardless of whether or not that stereotype is actually representative. Take all the media coverage of bizarre "new trends" in China or Japan (e.g. bagel heads) that turn out to have only happened once, or not to have really happened at all. Thus, to a large extent, the Japanese media that one sees outside of Japan suffers from selection bias towards things that shock and titilate. The internet takes niche practices, or even satirical jokes, and uncritically turns them into the international representatives of "Japan," despite the fact that they are strange to most Japanese people as well. On the internet, "Japan" is known for extreme pornography, but the most Japanese people don't even know about that pornography, and certainly wouldn't think it was representative.
As a short aside, Hokusai's Tako to Ama, commonly mistranslated as "The Dream of the Fisherman's wife" (really it just means "The Shell-diver and the Octopus), is often held up as a shunga example that "Japan has always liked tentacle porn." That's not really true. It is just one image that depicts sex with an octopus, although there are a few other examples. Such images were far from common, and the one in question was likely meant to depict a fairy tale. In that regard it is comparable to the many famous European depictions of Zeus in the form of a swan copulating with a human woman in "Leda and the Swan."
While I will readily claim that I don't know the intricacies of Japanese deep culture, the internet seems to be a bountiful resource for unsourced second-hand bullshit. A combination of poor English proficiency, unverified trivia, and selection bias is to blame for these persistent reductionist quirps on Japan. It reminds me of the American fixation on teriyaki and ninjas as the emblematic Japanese "thing," whereas their prevalence in the source country isn't as predominant. Bordering on otherism and reliant on whatever's most inflammatory and eye-catching, it presents a false image of a rather banal existence in Japan. The result? Well, take any Japanese language course and put your judgemental glasses on.
As described earlier, Americans and foreign visitors generally formed contemptuous assessments of Japan and the Japanese, but it appears that such assessments reflected their ignorance about the country and its people. Westerners had a tendency to misunderstand and form misconceptions about Japan and its people. Actually, they more often than not projected their preconceived ideas upon Japan and its people only to reconfirm their stereotypical image. Thus their impressionistic observations of Japan often turned out to be either a distorted view of Japan or an illusion.
Now I'm not getting defensive here. Japan has a lot of good and a lot of bad. Trouble is, the genuine societal issues facing Japan are obscured domestically and wholly eclipsed overseas. Discourse on overworking, social stratification, and political apathy that might have parallels with my own country? Nah, how about we talk about their WaCkY pOrN that I just can't seem to get enough of. And to have that baggage constantly loom over your head, intertwined with your outward appearance and wholly out of your circle of agency, it gets old.
We were all Americans in a progressive state that prided themselves over cultural pluralism. Yet growing up in Irvine, California I saw a very distinct cultural divide between first-generation kids. Some kids adhered to their houshold's culture and they balanced both aspects of their identity as if it was the natural order of things. Because children are obliviously vicious to one another, they might receive flak because of it, but what can they do? It's something they regard as inherent to their family-centric self-image. Others seemed eager to embody America wholly, whether it was a natural progression or a calculated decision molded by social pressures. Any parental influence was met with indifference or conscious resistance. The Korean-American kids in particular exhibited this divide with shocking polarity. Parents were either a source of perpetual embarassment or just their parents. Lunch contents signalled homogeny or exclusion.
Me? I went through some mixed experiences. I remember begging my mom not to make riceballs because it outed me as an "other," an anomaly at lunchtime. I hated the parent-teacher conferences because I had to be their intermediary. I remember the mixed emotions I felt as the teacher would complement me on my English. All these inheritances I had no control over seemed to divorce me from my own American identity.
But my identity is inseperable, imbedded into my outward appearance. While I don't believe your ethnicity entitles you to anything, initial perceptions about you are everlasting. For those who subscribe to a white, Christian-normative view of America, I will always look like an "other."
And honestly, I just didn't want to think about whether or not I was included in those worldviews. I'm an American with some knowledge of another culture. Is that so incompatible with a country that prides itself on cultural pluralism?
Yep, that's me. Looking back I was tremendously priviledged to experience the stereotypical Japanese childhood. I caught bugs in rural Kyoto, ran errands by myself in Saitama. All the festivals and museums in Tokyo didn't lend itself an air of tourism, I was home. Grandma's decrepit old house was another place of belonging for me.
And yet, there has always been a creeping discomfort with Japanese culture. The social indifference, the distant intrapersonal relationships, the creepy social heirarchies. Factors fundamentally incompatible with American values really clashed with my polarized good/bad view of each culture. And from there, this dissonance grew. Again I suppressed it by framing myself as just an American with some extra knowledge.
Photo by Hashimoto Testuya
I read Redefining Japaneseness by Sociologist Jane Yamashiro while in college, and it drove home a variety of amorphous feelings I've accumulated with depressing conviction. It outlined various Japanese-Americans who had gone to Japan, and recorded their thoughts about their experiences struggling or slipping through the language barrier. From being thought of as hearing impaired to autistic, the book proved to me that the hermaphroditic identity of Japanese-Americans is incompatible with the nationhood binaries of Japan. Fittingly, the term "diaspora" was always escorted in quotes. And their experiences of incongruency in the US too, mirrored mine. Ethnicity doesn't entitle you to anything, but it always manages to bring along baggage. And that's all it's about, trying to reconcile the connotations that something as inseparable as your appearance emmanates, conflicting with your own sense of autonomy. An inheritance that looms over no matter who you think you are. Getting told "my parents fucking hate you guys" by a Fillipino-American classmate is part of the experience. Like cool dude, I have a hispanic-sounding first name and was born an hour from LA. Your family is from the most gentrified area of SF.
Identity is far beyond just your appearance, citizenship, or language fluency. Yet my own experiences as a bilingual ambiguity didn't hand me a convenient answer. I tried to reap the benefits of both identities but found neither country knew what to do with me.
Novels by Maxine Hong Kingston and Ami Tan were the catalyst for this realization. My preconceived notions labelled anything pertaining to identity as trite and external to me, they were for people who haven't made up their mind yet. But their deeply personal stories about dissonance, inheritance, and assimilation resonated with me. I was right, I haven't made up my mind yet.