Sunday, March 4, 2012

Orientalist vs.Scholar of East Asia (or "Confessions of a Former Japanophile")

I've been reviewing a lot of movies and media lately so I figured its time for something a bit different. Here's something that has been on my mind lately...

Something I have always had to deal with in regards to my insatiable interest in East Asian culture is trying my utmost to avoid the label of orientalist. It's interesting for me to note that I wasn't even aware of this term until last semester when I took a very interesting course called "approaches to East Asia" which I have mentioned in a previous post. In one of the tutorials for this course we, the students (many of which were EAS majors), were forced to ask ourselves if we were, in fact, orientalists.

Edward Said's famous book exploring the problematic nature of orientalism and related topics.
  So what is an orientalist you ask? Well according to my understanding of my professor's words, an orientalist is someone who is interested in Asia, (or "the orient" a term that is nearly obsolete, and for good reason) insofar as it is different from their own culture. An orientalist is like an "Asia aficionado", a collector of things "strange" and "unique" from far-off lands, someone who obsesses over the "foreignness" of Asia and views it as something exotic and culturally impenetrable. The best everyday example I can think of that I've experienced are "Japanophiles", people who seem to obsess over all things Japanese whether it's food, media, fashion or what have you. Simply put Japanophiles love Japan for its "Japaneseness" and tend to view their often rose-coloured perception of Japanese culture as being desirable and at odds with "western culture" which they may view as boring and/or undesirable. How do I know so much about Japanophiles? Because I used to be one.

Here's a sweater you can order online, the characters or Kanji more-or-less translate to "Japanophile". So yeah it's actually a thing, and, it would appear, celebrated by some.
 As a Japanophile I would go out of my way to collect all things Japanese that were readily available to me, instant noodles, anime, manga, Japanese snack products, Japanese films, books about Japan and martial arts to name only a few. I once remember paying 10 dollars for an issue of "Shonen Jump", a weekly manga magazine, that was entirely in Japanese. Did I care that I couldn't read it? no! It was in Japanese, and everything Japanese was awesome and therefore just having a book in Japanese that I could show off to my friends was money well spent. If the subject of Japan came up in conversation, I would quickly rush in to take part and defend against any criticism that might soil Japan's reputation of being a neon paradise. It was an obsession, and obsessions are never healthy. My Japanophilia continued through my first two years of high-school nearly uninterrupted until, that is, when I ACTUALLY started learning about Japan and realized just how little I actually knew about the "country of my dreams".

This is apparently an actual magazine, the currency is in Yen which means it's likely Japanese. Yikes.
 This important reality that I learned can be summed up as such: "Japan is a country in the world, and like other countries has its own set of cultural, social, economic, and political attributes that, when viewed from certain angles, reveal numerous pros and cons." In other words, "Japan, like the rest of the world, is not perfect" (duh, right?). After making this realization I was finally able to study Japan from a much more objective standpoint and thus became aware of the historical and contemporary reality of the country. For me, this realization marked a transition I had made from being a "Japanophile" to a "scholar of Japan". Was the transition undesirable? Did I suffer? Not in the least. In fact, as a scholar I feel much closer to the country and culture then I ever did during my years as a young Japanophile. It also led to my interest beyond Japan and into the rest of Asia and beyond. The point I am trying to make is, that my "Japanophilia" was a kind of "orientalism" which actually inhibited my understanding of Japanese culture and thus kept me separated from it.  Funny that...

A famous illustration of Marco Polo dressed as a Tartar, perhaps the picture itself is an earlier example of Orientalism.
 It is really orientalism and similar schools of thought that create cultural barriers. This idea that Asia (and I mean ALL of Asia, not just the Eastern part) is somehow profoundly different from North America or Europe is harmful and simply untrue. One could easily draw similarities between the recent North American recession and the recession that has been plaguing Japan since the late 90's for example. Thinking of Asian culture as being exotic and impenetrable (i.e. impossible to understand if you haven't grown up in it) is ignorant and apathetic. It's an excuse to play dumb, to avoid intellectual challenge and it stifles understanding and true cultural learning. Though orientalism may seem at first like an appreciation of the "Eastern" continent, it is actually a means of keeping it far away and unreachable. Though it is likely that many people who study East Asia as scholars, may have at one point been orientalists, the true difference is that orientalists merely skim the surface, valuing Asia for its "unusual" and "quaint" qualities. In other words, they simply admire the box without browsing its contents. Scholars of Asia, on the other hand, acknowledge the box but then pry it open in order to better understand its contents. For this reason I consider myself lucky to finally be able to call myself, a scholar of East Asia.      

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