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Sunday, May 8, 2005


Serial stereotyping only serves others' brazen hubris

Special to The Japan Times

Ever since the reopening of Japan to the outside world in the mid-19th century, people from the West have categorized Japanese life in terms of one or another social model. Whatever the category chosen, though, the inference has always been that Japan is "different." How else would you account for something like the 1904 British bestseller, "More Queer Things About Japan"?

But is it possible that Japan, though so commonly categorized as bizarre and exotic, is actually a pretty normal place? Certainly, if you judge some American and European "ways" against the civic harmony, relatively equitable income spread and low level of violence in Japan, it is the West that comes out looking somewhat outlandish.

And yet the model-building goes on.

The current picture of this country in the West might be called "Funky Japan." Of course there is plenty that is funky about Japan, and the nerd craze is highly visible today, with many television commercials featuring geeky guys with big glasses and atrocious haircuts leering at cars or electronic devices.

But funk is only a fad with a deliberately anti-stylish appeal. It is no more the mainstream theme of Japanese life than "South Park" is of American. Today's nerd is merely a dorky version of the sarariiman of old. Last year's hit film "Lost in Translation" paints a Japanese backdrop for the two "lost" Americans of a clownish, freak-out society. The Western media has clearly selected a few colorful aspects of Japan and blown them out of all proportion to project yet another image of inscrutability.

It was not very long ago that the West viewed Japan primarily as a single corporation under the title "Japan Inc." Japanese workers were seen as modern samurai trudging to places of work to which they supposedly gave their undying loyalty. The implication was that Japanese people are devoid of individuality because they subdue their personal aspirations and opinions in the interests of a higher collective good.

Needless to say, this view only reinforces a self-righteous perception on the part of Westerners that they, in contrast, are all rugged individuals, free to be themselves in a hang-loose society.

The working metaphor of the time of Japan Inc. -- basically the 1970s and '80s -- was the rabbit hutch, and Japanese people were labeled "economic animals."

In fact, Japanese living space has always been small, and the Japanese developed a way to live at close quarters in an extended family without stepping on each other's toes. But they were characterized as rabbits living in hutches. Again, compare this with people in the West and, behold, the latter come out as more comfortable and content (except for very many living in dire poverty).

Actually, this image of Japan from the '70s and '80s was only a revision of one that existed before World War II, when "Regimented Japan" seemed to explain away, in a single catchphrase, a nation of 100 million.

Japanese people were seen then as robots on the march. Very few in the West took into account the genuine pluralism of the period of Taisho democracy in the 1910s and early '20s. Germany and Italy, too, were on the march. But those countries ostensibly allowed for dissent and individual choice. The West, however, chose to see the Japanese as regimented warriors with blinders on their eyes and swords in their hands.

Curiously enough, the Japanese used this Western-generated image to their advantage, throwing it back into the Western face to instill fear in the enemy's mind when hostility turned to belligerency in December, 1941.

Looking at an even earlier model, you can find "Quaint Japan," a Japan of humble craftsmen, arch-demure women and a raft of odd customs.

The Western advice implicit in this -- Westerners have been coming to Asia and giving not-so-gentle advice for centuries -- is to "stay as sweet (read weak) as you are." Don't spoil your beautiful country and delicate prudishness. Japan should be a country of smiles and blushes, not steam and steel.

Again, each era in Japan's modern history has contained elements that do correspond to the Western model of it. But these elements have not been exclusively representative of a nation. They are only a part of the social fabric that makes up a people like the Japanese, so full of variety, color and polemics throughout history.

Serially monolithic model-making has served the West in its brazen claim to be the social standard for everything. The quarter-truths of the Western models have told us less about Japan than about those who fashion and propagate them. The fact remains that over the past 150 years, Japan has taken huge strides in turning an isolated, feudalistic and superstitious country into one of the world's most modern democracies with some enviable institutions and customs.

Perhaps to admit that would require a reevaluation of what is normal, standard and beneficial about life in the West.

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