Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Death of the Nation?

Haven't posted anything in a while. . . 6 months to be exact! Busy school year and all that. It is high time to post some content!

Last year I took quite an interesting course titled, Japanese Fiction and the Nation which was particularly awesome given that the lecturer we had, a certain Byron Tensor Posadas (he's searchable!), decided to centre the readings around Japanese science fiction and I'm a huge sci-fi fan. What ended up being probably my favourite books from that course was titled Death Sentences by Kawamata Chiaki - a delightful play on words as the story revolves around a poem that "kills" people after they read it.

Here's a short review I wrote about it in an old post. . .

"I really liked this one. The concept is that a poem written by a mysterious writer who was closely tied to the surrealist movement in France (1920s to '40s) is killing people after they've read it. This has led to a future in which a special police force is dedicated to hunting down "poem traffickers" and executing them in order to stop the spread of the killer poem. The plot spans from the time when the poem was created in postwar France to the present, which shows how the poem was spread, and concludes in a future in which the poem is heavily monitored and controlled. The truth behind the poem is totally not what you'd expect; I won't ruin the ending here. Just know that it's pretty intense."


  • excellent translation that doesn't miss a beat (very readable)
  • immediately engaging
  • character-driven plot that twists and turns in unexpected directions
  • great use of magic realism


  • pacing is somewhat inconsistent
  • certain plot points get way more pages than other, potentially more interesting ones
  • genre switching may cause some readers to detach themselves from the story
As usual in courses like these, we were required to put our critical thinking skills to task and try to wrest some critical commentary from the text, at least that's what I tried to do. I have decided to share my observations with you because I think it's pretty interesting and some of you reading this might have read the book or are taking some sort of similar course in which you also must critically analyze books n' stuff. It sort of reads like a critical review - without further ado. . .

Seminar Review: Death Sentences         
Within the first few pages of Kawamata Chiaki’s Death Sentences I knew that I was in for a treat, the translation was engaging in its straight-forward manner (though I imagine this was mirroring Chiaki’s writing style in Japanese)  and the opening situation contained just enough absurdity that I was instantly enthralled. For me speculative futures are always interesting, especially if they contain such dystopian characteristics as an overly-aggressive police-state – call it morbid fascination. It did not take long for me to realize that this was not going to be an immediately cohesive narrative as I was transported from future Japan, to World War II era France, to contemporary Japan, back to the police-state, to colonial mars and then finally to an alternate time-line altogether.
The nature of the characters changed just as drastically as the settings – a police agent, the real-life surrealist poet and writer Andre Breton, a newspaper editor, a student, a detective, a white colonial soldier on mars with the soul of a Japanese man. Each chapter would appear to exist independently of the others. Sure enough the chapters are connected by the Gold of Time poem but aside from that they could easily stand alone as short stories independent from one another. This is especially evident in how the story not just changes locations, characters and even time periods but also genres, hopping from chapter to chapter.
This in itself mirrors the fate of those who read the poem, The Gold of Time by the character Who May, as once they read the poem over and over again, it is my understanding that their souls essentially leave their bodies and become free from the shackles of time and space being able to travel freely between locations, time periods and even individual consciousnesses. Could this not be allegorical of the way in which the nation-state is becoming less and less prevalent? In times past and even not so long ago the idea that the nations which we call home were inherent and permanent entities, immovable, unchanging and exclusive from one another was not often disputed. In other words nations were (and largely still are) considered to have always been around is some capacity, and bread a certain people, a certain culture and a certain language rather than the other way around. To this day the borders of nations are still clearly defined and it seems difficult to imagine this ever not being the case. Nations, like our individual identities are considered to be non-interchangeable – China is not the United States, I am not you etc. However, Kawamata imagines a time and space where this is obviously not the case.
In the story, those who read the poem transcend physicality, time and space itself. Suddenly “I” becomes everyone, “here” becomes everywhere and “when” becomes whenever. Here we see the “death” of boundaries or rather the end of one set of boundaries and perhaps the introduction of another. The characters in the book who read the poems for all intents and purposes die, and in doing so they transcend their current existence and take on another.
The world is currently in such a state in which it is becoming increasingly possible to imagine the end of the nation-state as we know it and perhaps its replacement by some other similar identifier. Countries now have much more to do with each other through the expansion of business and trade, online interactions and the sharing of digital and physical content – a sort of transnational capitalism if you will. However, even this form of capitalism has constraints of its own and even where nation-states may become less and less influential and more abstract, this mode of capitalism may be thought to be as permanent as the nation-state once was. Indeed currently there is a popular axiom – it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Capitalism maybe thought of as the new identity – the currently immovable, timeless force that is here to stay forever, however in imagining a world wherein identity and consciousness itself is killed off and transcended by another new consciousness Kawamata maybe attempting to show us that just about everything can change and nothing is beyond transcendence.                


I wrote this a year ago already but I suppose my thoughts haven't changed too much. I have to say that the idea of a transnational world is something which is of great interest to me and so I tend to write quite a bit from that angle. While I certainly understand that the idea of the cessation of nation-states may certainly be a scary proposition to many I also feel that it could solve a lot of problems. I also figure that this won't happen in my lifetime or even my prospective children's for that matter -- assuming it happens at all. Still, it's neat to imagine.

It seems to me that a lot of people are worried that trans-nationalism will destroy or at least simplify the unique and beautiful cultures we humans have built over the last millenia or so. I disagree, while culture is often produced unique to space in which people live, that it is invariably tied to the nation seems to not be the case. One could argue that nations are historical entities, yet world history cannot help but be retro-active and much of what we consider traditional national culture is in fact the culture of some sort of forerunner that was co-opted and dissolved into our nation's larger narrative. Cultural is also ephemeral, and changes constantly, so there's that too. In any case it certainly seems to me that trans-nationalism is a plausible future for this world of ours, and I think that countries like mine (Canada) with "weak nationalism" are actually in a better situation to adapt to this possible phenomenon. That's what I believe anyway.

Till next time! Go read Death Sentences by Chiaki Kawamata.            

Friday, August 1, 2014

Minjok History as a Modern and Democratic Construct

Hey peeps! After thinking for a long time about what to continue posting on this blog I decided, since the blog is called "Alex's East Asian Studies" that it would be appropriate to actually post some of the stuff I've written about during my time as an EAS specialist at University of Toronto. Why not Eh? So if you actually visit this blog regularly (I'm not sure if anyone does), you can look forward to seeing some of my actual research! Yay! (I'm assuming if you're reading this blog your probably into this sort of thing).

Here's a Korean history book all about Sin Chaeho
The following is a summing up of an article I read while I was studying in South Korea at Yonsei University. For those of you who are not aware of what minjok is, it's a political ideology that is unique to Korean historical discourse that Koreans are descended from a common lineage and thus share the same blood, ethnicity and culture. It has often been translated as "Korean Ethnic Nationalism" and has both pros and cons in its implementation. On the upside the concepts behind minjok have given the Korean people a sense of solidarity in times of hardship, on the other hand the ideas it promotes have proven to stifle acceptance of multiculturalism on the peninsula -- "Korea is for Koreans!" and all that (though most people I've found, are pretty open minded).

Mr. Sin himself.
Minjok history is often credited as being the brain child of the Korean historian and freedom fighter, Sin Chaeho (pronounced "shin") following the peninsula's annexation by the Japanese empire in 1910. Sin has been criticized as a revisionist historian by some and praised as a hero by others. In any case he's a complicated fellow and so is his history. In the following short summary I provide a few of the criticisms that other historians have of Sin's history and I present my own opinion that minjok history might have been useful as a tool to consolidate a Korean identity in the wake of the cultural genocide that the Empire of Japan was forcing on the Korean people. (Koreans were not allowed to learn their native language in schools and had to change their names to Japanese etc.) Hopefully this will be interesting to you!

Summary of Minjok as a Modern and Democratic Construct: Sin Ch’aeho’s Historiography by Alex Watts-Barnett

      As far as East Asian historiography is concerned Sin Chaeho, holds a dubious position as a predominately teleological historian and as such his historiography concerning the history of the Korean people as one cultural entity has come under scrutiny especially in modern times. The most popular critical commentary seems to be that Sin Chaeho and his compatriots created a history for the purpose of consolidating a tangible culture for the Korean people which could be preserved under Japanese colonialism and thus almost “constructed” the Minjok history to that end.
        It is widely believed that Minjok history draws upon a number of historical mythologies that have been present in South Korea for millennia – such as those recorded in the pages of the Samguk Yusa, a collection of oral histories compiled by the Buddhist monk Ilyon. The stories that hold the most significance to the Minjok historians were of the god of creation Hwannung and his son Dangun hailed in ancient times as the creators of the Korean peninsula and its inhabitants.
In his history Sin Chaeho attempts to use these figures to bring to light the idea that Koreans had descended from a common ancestor and thus have been a unique and ethnically unified people from their earliest days and points out their point of origin as being likely somewhere in Manchuria. Some argue that because of this Sin Chaeho and his peers even sought to validate a movement to attempt at “reclaiming” these lands of Korean heritage in Manchuria which, incidentally is where many Koreans fled to escape Japanese colonialism.                 
It is widely believed by more objective Korean historians that Korea as it is known today, had its roots in the more modern Joseon period and that prior to it, most Koreans did not view themselves as a unified ethnic whole. Others feel that this historical creation was created more as a counter measure against the Japanese cultural imperialism that was suppressing Korean culture. Essentially the argument that historians such as Hennery Em make is that despite drawing on and in essence having its roots in Korean pre-history, the idea of Minjok and the history that validates it is both a modern construct and a modern idea in that it was created in the 20th century in an attempt to justify and unite Koreans ethnic and cultural struggle against their imperial aggressors. To this end I feel that the minjok history certainly was a valuable tool whether or not it could be considered credible historiography.   

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Brief Critical Commentary on Racism in South Korea


 I actually wrote this post several months ago in reaction to a blog post that I read on a Korea-centric blog back then so the things it refers to are likely old hat by now. Still I think it is important and has some interesting points. I delayed releasing it because I had wanted to see if my mind would change on the issues (as they often do) but since they haven't I now present you this piece, originally written back in February.  

And now. . . the post!

Alright! Heavy title no? This is something that has been on my mind for a while now and I finally decided to write something about it after reading this article on Roboseyo - a pretty awesome blog in its own right. The article is about the backlash SNL Korea is receiving for making fun of Korean adoptees who grow up abroad and return to Korea to find their biological parents. Overall I agree with the article, its shitty to make fun of people`s pain, especially a group of people who are likely already marginalized in the country they grew up in. My gripe is not with the article, my gripe is with what many folks are saying in the comments section, the likes of which I've seen cropping up elsewhere on the net.

SNL Korea has repeatedly been a target of criticism for racially insensitive sketches, though I do count myself among its fan-base.
In this post-Gangnam Style, post-Hallyu world, South Korea is understandably getting more and more attention from non-Koreans everyday. More people are learning Korean, more people are going to work and study in South Korea and more blogs and vlogs are popping up all over the internet dealing with Korean-centric material than ever before. On the international stage, South Korea`s coming up (or already has). As more and more North Americans embark on their 10-14 hour plane rides to the Land of the Morning Calm to start jobs, exchange programs or even just vacations, more and more of these same people are exposed to the complicated reality of the country known as South Korea. I've experienced it myself, for every "foreigner" I've met over there who loves Korea I've met another who can`t stand the place, and while I belong in the former camp, I can understand why as one of my fellow exchange students so eloquently put it -- "South Korea is not everyone's cup of tea."

Here's  a screenshot from the the sketch mentioned in the Roboseyo article. The man is supposed to be an adoptee who is portrayed as addressing his biological mother in awkward, horribly accented Korean. Yes, I do find fault with this sketch.  
Maybe it's just me but one sentiment that I've noticed appearing more and more in the last year or so on blogs and message boards dealing with Korea is that Korea and Koreans are "racist and intolerant" or even worse that South Korea is somehow "backwards" or "archaic" because of how issues relating to racism are dealt with over there. Before I continue, let me just make it clear that I will not defend racism. It's bad, it shouldn't happen and plain ignorance is a shitty excuse for such behavior. I'm also not going to deny that racism against non-Koreans does exist in South Korea as I've experienced it first-hand on a number of occasions.  

There are quite a few images of black-face in Korean media that one may google - this one has been floating around for a while now. You know what you can't google? Minstrel shows in South Korea,.Why? Because there were none. 
However, the thing I find irksome about all these folks ragging on South Korea and its populace for their apparent lack of racial sensitivity is that many appear to be North American and rage with the same disdain and vitriol as they would direct at racism within their own country. This doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. Why? Because South Korea is not the United States or Canada. My argument is that before you engage the problem of racism in South Korea, which does exist and is a real problem, there is a social and historical context that must be observed and understood. In other words, contemporary  racism in South Korea cannot be judged under the same light as contemporary racism in North America and the reason is history. Still confused? Let me break it down. I know Canada and the U.S. are two different countries but our histories are similar in many of the respects I shall highlight so for the purpose of this exercise I will group them.                                 

An illustration of Samuel De Champlain greeting the indigenous population of what would one day be called Canada. Everyone was happy and traded tea and furs, and then Canada started existing. . . well I may have skipped some of the details. . .
For North Americans, as uncomfortable as it may be to admit, our respective histories are full of racism. It starts with a bunch of Europeans colonizing lands which were already inhabited by indigenous populations that had been living there for millennia. They did this by way of exploiting, killing or institutionalizing said inhabitants which lead to myriad problems in these communities for generations. A few hundred years later the Europeans go off to Africa and come back with a whole bunch of black slaves. These slaves are put to work on farms and are not payed a whole lot if anything at all, they also commodify them by trading them and buying and selling them thereby breaking up families. Oh yes and they don't educate them either except in rare circumstances. And yes slavery happened in Canada too, although it was less prominent and abolished earlier (underground railroad and all that). While that was going on, in both Canada and the United states, a bunch of Chinese workers came over here with the promise of riches and prosperity, and built our railroads for a pittance, many dying in the process. 

Here's a picture of a group of Chinese workers who worked on the Great Nothern Railway in 1909 - while the Korean peninsula was busy getting annexed by the Japanese Empire.  
After the completion of our railroads, we try to deport them. When this doesn't work we implement a tax that only ethnically East Asian people have to pay to live in North America. This is to stop ethnically Asian peoples from moving to our countries. Some decades later, World War II is on and entire communities of Japanese-Canadians and Americans are forced to live in internment camps because. . . well. . . they're Japanese. The government seizes these peoples assets and in many cases they are not returned even after the war's conclusion. Some of the predominantly white citizenry create "anti-Asian leagues" which attack shops and people in various East Asian communities. Some decades later in the states, there's a civil rights movement because Black-Americans are tired of being treated as second-class citizens in their own country and the leader of said movement is eventually assassinated. I'll stop the history lesson here because if I touched on every major race-related event in North American history this post would be several books long.

Let us not forget the unforgettable March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 led by Martin Luther King himself. A momentous event in the larger civil rights movement which took place all throughout the United States. At this time both Koreas were recovering from a devastating war and South Korea was practically bankrupt. . . remember the Korean War? Yeah. . .

This history is extremely condensed and much has been left out, but what I'm trying to illustrate here is that we North Americans are no strangers to the idea of racism - it permeates our history and leaks into our national psyche. Regardless of our ethnicity, many, if not most of us are pretty sensitive towards it, especially those of us who grew up or are growing up in cities like my hometown of Toronto, New York City, Vancouver or L.A. where myriad ethnic and cultural groups co-exist. We live in countries where it is now by and large more offensive to call someone a racial slur than it is to give them the finger. Now let's look at South Korea's history.

Here is an illustration of Hwannung, the father of the mythological founder of Korea. He marries the bear on the left, after she turns into a human woman of course, and their son decides to head down from the heavens and start populating the Korean peninsula. 
What we know as Korean history is believed to have started more than 4000 years ago. . . on the peninsula that we now know as the Korean peninsula - meaning that the people we now refer to as early Koreans were the indigenous people.There are many theories as to where early Koreans originally migrated from but many people think Mongolia and its surrounding areas are likely candidates. Alternatively you could just believe the creation myth that Koreans are the collective children of the son of the king of heaven and a bear who was transformed into a human woman - your choice. I'll give you the short version based on what I've studied. . . which is a lot. There was a tribe, than bunch of other tribes sprang from that, then a bunch of separate kingdoms emerged, fought each other, one of them took over everything and unified everyone and created a dynasty. After that there was a military revolution, followed by another dynasty, which got taken over by the Mongols (Genghis Khan and all that) it was followed by another dynasty and that was to my knowledge the longest lasting dynasty in East Asia (500+ years) called Joseon. 

Joseon got attacked by France in 1866 because the Joseon government wanted to kick out catholic missionaries. The French forces stole a bunch of artifacts which are still being exchanged today. 
Joseon got attacked and almost invaded a number of times by outsiders like Ming China, Manchuria (the Jurchens), the Tartars and most notably Japan - at one point they were a Chinese tributary state. After staving off two invasion attempts by Hideyoshi Toyotomi's armies (samurai and stuff), one which very nearly succeeded, Joseon lived in relative peace and seclusion (probably cause they were tired of foreigners messing with them) for a long while. . . until the Empire of Japan violently annexed the country in 1910. Korea existed as a Japanese colony for some 30 odd years during which time Korea and Koreans had their culture and language suppressed and were regularly exploited for human and agricultural resources. This went on until Japan was horrifically bombed by the U.S. at the end of World War II and the Japanese were forced to leave. Korea gained independence and a bunch of non-Koreans held a bunch of conferences to decide what to do about Korea, very few of which actually had Korean people present.

A post card from the post WWII Yalta conference in 1945 at which many issues were discussed, one of which was the "Korea problem". The problem was Japan had lost and the allies were wondering what to do with the peninsula. Look at all those Korean people in the picture! Oops, their are none. 
Eventually through very complicated incidents involving many foreign countries, Korea was split ideologically and then they had a civil war in which a bunch of countries, most notably the U.S. (Canada was there too!) took the side of South Korea and fought Russian-armed North Korea and China to a stale-mate and an armistice was signed. South Korea subsequently went through 4 consecutive dictatorships, a financial crisis and finally started to resemble the economically and politically stable country we know today by 1999. 

Did you know South Korea was actually bankrupt in 1997? Why is this relevant? It's kind of hard to worry about race relations when A. there aren't many foreigners around because B. there are significantly less job and investment opportunities because C. you're country is being run by the IMF.
So why throw all this complicated and depressing history at you? Because by contrasting the two histories we can see that there is something missing from Korea's that North America's has in abundance, internal racially-charged social upheaval. Historically Korea's notable feuds were almost exclusively with foreign countries, almost all of which were East Asian, and when non-Asian foreigners did eventually show up in a larger capacity they were mostly male soldiers, and lets face it, historically our male soldiers aren't exactly paragons of good behavior abroad. To give you some further perspective - in 1992, while the infamous and racially-charged L.A. riots were taking place in the states, non-east-asian foreigners who were not either soldiers or industrialists were still kind of an oddity, even in Seoul. I had a teaching assistant in high-school who taught English in Seoul in 1995 and she had told me that kids on the subways used to touch her hair because they were apparently curious as to what "foreigner's" hair felt like. Even when I first went to Seoul in 2008 I felt like I got a lot more attention than when I went back in 2012. Do you see what I'm getting at here?

A photograph from the L.A. Riots in 1991, also referred to as The Los Angeles Race Riots. A racially fueled and violent example of social upheaval from America's not-too-distant past. 
Up until recently, Koreans haven't really had to think too much about foreigners as anything other than temporary visitors, and for the most part that is what they are to this day. Most non-ethnically East Asian, non-military foreigners in Korea right now are working as teachers with temporary contracts or are international students for terms which usually last no more than two years or so. Even those who are working there longer often don't carry citizenship because up until very recently there were a number of rather demanding hoops one had to jump through if they wished to become fully-fledged Korean citizens.

Four of the most famous non-Koreans in Korea right now. Right to left, Robert Holley - USA, Sam Hammington - Australia, Sam Otswiri - Ghana, Fabian (no last name?) - France.  
Nowadays though things are starting to change as more foreigners than ever before, myself included, are starting to look to Korea as a possible destination for future employment and a number of foreign nationals have already become permanent fixtures in Korean media. In the last year some foreigners have even been awarded dual citizenships for various reasons, though this is a very recent development. For a long time the idea of non-Koreans living in Korea as citizens was likely hard to imagine for many Koreans and now that its beginning to become a reality it's going to take some getting used to. Even now outside of Korea's major cities foreigners are still a fairly rare sight, period.

This is a sign that was posted in front of a HO Bar (popular pub chain) in Gangnam some time ago which I found on this tumblr page here. While I was studying in Korea I got turned away from a few places as well (though it was very rare). Most of the time it was because some foreigners had behaved badly recently and they weren't admitting any more until further notice. It's shitty and wouldn't fly in North America, but then again, Korea never had a huge civil rights movement in which a large and disgruntled population protested this sort of thing. So as crappy as it is it's kind of understandable. How can we stop this from happening? For now, we can stop acting like assholes in bars :)      
So yes, South Korea has modernized and "visible" foreigners are becoming more common, however I feel that it is unreasonable to expect a country that was practically homogeneous a few decades ago (and still mostly is) and has suffered greatly at the hands of foreign powers for millenia to suddenly update their mentalities to match the changing times. On that note you may be wondering "So what? We just let South Koreans get away with racism cause they are victims who don't know any better?" No, that's not what I'm saying at all, to think so would be condescending and extremely problematic, I'm just saying that it's going to take time. If the internet is any indication we North-Americans seem to expect other countries, nay! Other continents to be magically in sync with our popular culture, politics and mentalities, however this is a very short-sighted view. After-all are we, two of the most multi-cultural nations in the world, not still coming to terms with our own racism and race-politics here in North America? What's our excuse?

Seoul by night.
There are many people who are engaging racism (as well as cultural discrimination) in South Korea constructively, like those adoptee representatives who wrote letters to SNL Korea in the article I mention at the top of this post, and that's good. The more people bring up legitimate criticism towards this sort of behavior, the more Korean media producers will realize that these sorts of things are unacceptable and cannot continue if Korea hopes to attract more foreigners to it's country and culture (assuming that is what they are trying to do -- it seems like they are). However, what isn't useful is people using words like "backwards" or claiming that Korean people are collectively "racist", "intolerant" or "exclusionary" (which ironically is pretty racist). Every country has its rough spots and this sort of behavior just bolsters ignorance, incites internet flame wars and pushes the discourse in a more trivial direction - it doesn't help anyone. If we, and by "we" I mean everyone, Koreans and Non-Koreans alike wish to make South Korea a more open and welcoming place in general, we must first understand where the issues sprout from before we can engage them in an informed and educated manner. As the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza famously said "If you want the present to be different from the past, study the past." 

Just some food for thought.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Europhilia in Junichiro Tanizaki's Naomi

Howdy friends! Jeez louis! I haven't posted anything in months! How unforgivable. Well the truth is, as usual I was busy with many things and the usual excuses yada yada yada. . . Anyway, to further prove my laziness, instead of writing a whole new post I've decided to post a session response that I wrote for the Japanese literature course I just finished last month because I thought it was a decent piece of writing, if I do say so myself. It touches on a lot of things that frustrate me concerning how many people in my country view North East Asia at large, our relation to them and their relation to us (which is why I started this blog in the first place). Hence, I decided it would make for an appropriate post! 

The following is a response I wrote to a class discussion about the novel Naomi, written by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki. The story takes place in 1920's Tokyo and revolves around a weird, somewhat anti-social guy who finds an attractive young (and I do mean young) girl, Naomi, in a cafe whom he decides he wants to live with. Long story short, he adopts her, raises her into an adult, marries her and then she cheats on him and they end up living in this really weird relationship in which they live together but she plays around with all manner of gentlemen despite his being super jealous. The main character is a europhile and treasures Naomi at first mostly because she is "western-looking" as far as Japanese women of the 20's go. He projects a whole bunch of his europhilic fantasies on her which of course ends up being very problematic (many asiaphiles do the exact same thing to Asian women [and men incidentally] - it goes both ways). But I explain most of that below. Anyway check out the book if it sounds like your thing, its short and very accessible!      

Alexander Watts-Barnett, EAS 444 Session Review 1 – May 27th

I am often surprised by how many North Americans I still come across who believe that the whole of contemporary Japan (and probably the whole of East Asia) still has a full-blown western fetish. “Look!” they say “blond wigs, dyed hair and fake eyelashes abound! Look at all those young Japanese who wish they were us, look how they appropriate!” While this Western-centric (and perhaps specifically Caucasian-centric) view seems to have been popular for the last several decades the reality appears to be much more complicated and brings up questions of localization, cultural ownership, and identity. If in contemporary Japan, a Japanese women dons a blond wig, cakes on skin whitening makeup and wears frilly quasi-Victorian dresses or colourfully exaggerated “urban wear” in the “gyaru” style, does this represent a desire to emulate “western” appearance? Or is it indicative of something altogether more nuanced and localized – something that could only really exist in a Japanese context? I think the latter.
This week’s novel was Junichiro Tanizaki’s Naomi – a story in which a man named Joji falls in love with a young girl, or more specifically the idea of a certain young girl whom he ushers into adult-hood through careful mentoring (although I feel as though “cultivation” may be a better word in this case). In discussing this novel in class, the allegorical nature of the text in regards to Japan’s seemingly collective interest in things western at the time of its writing came up often in the class discussion. The girl in question, Naomi is said by the narrator (Joji himself) to resemble a “Eurasian”, in other words she has a number of features which are not considered characteristically “Japanese”. In the text, much emphasis is placed on Naomi’s light complexion, her curvy and “full” frame, her nearly “western” facial structure however, the narrator never fails to remind us some way that Naomi is in fact Japanese, and this discursive dynamic is what I find to be the true allegory of Japan’s fascination with things “western”, one that is even relevant to present-day Japan and perhaps virtually every other cultural space as well.
In light of the “age of globalization” a name which I use half-seriously to refer to our current time, there are many who may still seek to denounce “globalization” as a kind of “westernization”, something that has diluted the rich cultures and values of the proverbial “non-west”. While this argument may be old-hat at this point, I’ve always believed it to be very western-centric and one that ignores the “localization” phase that seems to inevitably follow the introduction of foreign cultural elements bought on by the “dreaded” globalization. For example, a food product from one cultural space is introduced into another wherein this product had not existed until now. It seems to me that the distributors of that product will, in most cases modify the product for mass consumption in the new space. The salt content may be increased or decreased, certain flavour agents maybe added etc. Similar patterns can be seen with cross-culture media marketing as well - dubbing films, changing scores, re-editing trailers etc. Thus the product transforms from an “alien” thing to something much more recognizable and, for lack of a better word, “safe”. The product becomes something which can be thought of as foreign and exotic while remaining recognizable to the local consumer. I feel that the narrative of Naomi allegorically fleshes out this process in excellent detail.
                 As we mentioned in class, Joji appears to have a real affinity for things western, however as can be seen by his interactions with the actual western characters in the story, he finds them somewhat disconcerting. Perhaps as a result of having no real “western” experience he seems lost when forced to interact with one. Thus he plays it safe mentally imbuing Naomi with what he feels to be the most salient of western characteristics thus creating a western fantasy that is close enough to home that she may remain familiar and even understandable. The “fairy-tale house” in the story serves a similar purpose, a fantasy setting for his perfect fantasy character which while at first seeming entirely foreign still exists within the space of Japan, inhabited by Japanese speaking characters with Japanese mannerisms – a sort of Japanified “western wonderland” dreamt up by one whose entire concept of “the west” was quite literally pasted together from random bits of pop-culture. I’m almost ashamed to say that Joji’s naiveté and obsessions reminded me very much of how I viewed East Asia before I visited it and began studying it in great detail.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Deconstructing Orientalism with Number9dream: A Review

Today is my first month anniversary . . . of not posting anything on this blog. I guess I got wrapped up in some stuff. I recently obtained a volunteer position writing for the Korean Embassy's Canada-Korea blog, which celebrates 50 years of bilateral relations; I started doing kendo again; I've started working on a series of videos introducing Koreans to Toronto; and my ongoing study of the Korean language continues to be as challenging as ever. In light of all these recent goings-on I haven't had time to do an awful lot of reading, which is somewhat tragic as I received a number of interesting books for Christmas that are now currently stacked on my bedside table. However, I did recently finish reading a book I originally started for my Japanese Fiction and the Nation class, which was really good and quite interesting. That book is Number9Dream by David Mitchell. The following, I feel, can only be described as a stream of consciousness that resembles a book review.

Some of you may know David Mitchell as the writer of Cloud Atlas, the genre mash-up that led to the motion picture a few years ago that had more than a small bunch of people riled up over its alleged racial insensitivity (I had a lot to say on the matter -- mostly in defence of the film). Number9Dream was written quite a bit earlier and, like Cloud Atlas, it is a pretty interesting piece of work in both its narrative and its social implications. Number9Dream tells the story of Eiji Miyake, a small-town Japanese guy who moves to Tokyo in search of his estranged father. The story is told in first person and follows Miyake through all sorts of unexpected twists and turns during his search. Some have him mixed up with yakuza, some have him pursuing (quite literally) the woman of his dreams . . . to say any more would ruin the story. There are quite a few surreal/magic realist moments in the story and sometimes you're not really sure if what is happening is in fact what is actually happening or if Miyake is just a really active dreamer. This is what makes the narrative so interesting, in my opinion.

However, the elephant in the room at this point is the fact that Eiji Miyake is quite obviously a Japanese person while David Mitchell is not, yet this David Mitchell is writing a story through the eyes of a fictional Japanese character . . . interesting. David Mitchell is originally from Ireland but lived in Japan for a number of years, where he met his wife (who is Japanese). Although he had not actually lived in Tokyo and was not (obviously) Japanese, he chose the city as the setting for this novel and a Japanese protagonist as the main character. In our class discussion about the book (which was before I had actually finished reading it), we were asked if Mitchell was guilty of cultural appropriation and/or gross inaccuracy in writing through the eyes of a character outside his culture and ethnicity, about a place he had never actually lived in (though I imagine he must have visited there from time to time).

The obviously not Japanese David Mitchell.
Mitchell presents Tokyo as a fast-paced, sprawling, overcrowded metropolis with tonnes to see and do, which in my experience is pretty accurate, though I've only spent a total of three days there. The most interesting part for me is how Mitchell dives deeply into the mind of Miyake and reveals his innermost thoughts about what he sees in the everyday -- a fashion style he thinks is silly-looking; a way someone talks that makes him uneasy; his musing about asking a coffee shop waitress for her number. The question I initially felt I had to ask myself was "Is this how a Japanese person would really react to such-and-such a situation? Is there something at all racially presumptuous about this?" Then I realized that was kind of a racist question in itself.

One could make the argument that a story set in Japan, featuring an all-Japanese cast, and written by an Irishman is in its very nature problematic. How can someone who is not Japanese accurately portray the Japanese experience through the eyes of a native? Wouldn't the story naturally be full of suppositions and essentially a eurocentric projection of what Japanese life is like for Japanese people, leading to some kind of neo-orientalism? I would disagree. In fact, I would argue that assuming an Irishman cannot accurately portray Japanese life is far more orientalist than assuming he can.

Eiji Miyake's character inspired one artist/animator to make a stop-motion project. Check out his work here.
The assumption that Mitchell's Tokyo is somehow inaccurate (on account of Mitchell's not being a Tokyo native or even Japanese) implies that Japan itself is unable to be fully understood by anyone living outside of it. I know from experience that there are a lot of people, Japanese and otherwise, who feel this to be true. They see Japan as being this unfathomable cultural entity that can never truly be penetrated (okay, get your mind out of the gutter) by an outsider. Is this idea not one of the most salient features of orientalism? The idea that the lands of the "mysterious East" are somehow too alien, archaic, or nuanced for us "civilized" Westerners to hope to understand? Well, based on what I've studied, yes, that's pretty orientalist!

Isn't it much more progressive to imagine for a second that the average twenty-something's life in Japan is probably not all that much different from the average twenty-something's life in Ireland, once we look past the somewhat arbitrary cultural nuances? After all, Japanese people go to school, they have homework, they date people, they try to get jobs, they go to the movies, they listen to music, they get sad, they get happy -- is that really so unfathomable? Eiji Miyake feels like a Japanese dude I might have met at one time or another, at a party or maybe while I was studying in South Korea -- he feels real. Mitchell lived in Japan and he probably has lots of Japanese friends and has probably had intimate conversations with them about their daily lives, hopes, and trials and tribulations, in much detail. Eiji Miyake could have been born from those experiences. Why not?

Here's a picture I took in Shinjuku's infamous Kabuki-cho in Tokyo, an area that is mentioned quite a few times in the novel and often associated with yakuza. 
The fact that Mitchell channels writers such as Haruki Murakami and Yasutaka Tsutsui in his narrative style is also pretty neat (if you've ever read any translations of these authors' works you will see it). It actually feels at certain points like you're reading translated Japanese literature -- I wish I could explain this better but it would take an entire post. The last and most interesting question we were asked about this book in our class was whether or not it could be considered Japanese fiction, on account of the subject matter being Japanese but the author being an Irishman. Honestly, I don't have an answer to this question; I'm still trying to figure it out myself. However, I feel that this sort of question will crop up a lot more in the near future as national and ethnic borders continue to become more and more blurred.

In any case, if you are looking for a challenging and engaging piece of literature that is as gripping as it is thought-provoking, then I very much recommend giving Number9Dream your time. I'm surprised they haven't made a film of this!                          


Monday, February 3, 2014

Japan 2013 Travel Log Part 4: Tokyo Day 1 - Part 1: Shinjuku

I've fallen behind on my blogging yet again -- my apologies! So yes, this title is kind of ridiculous but was the result of attempting to make this one whole post and realizing it was ridiculously long and deciding to make it a two-parter. I'll post the video here and again in part 2. And now, more stories from Japan!

The bus from Kyoto to Tokyo cost us about $60 and the trip was around 7 hours overnight, making our arrival time somewhere around 8 a.m. We were exhausted from our biking around Kyoto and after our eating and drinking at the izakaya before we left, so we figured we'd have a pretty good sleep. Unfortunately this was not the case.

Here's some soulful singers with an onlooking crowd in Shinjuku.
The bus was a standard tour bus and quite comfortable and the men and women were separated, which was kind of interesting. I've never really been able to sleep sitting up unless I'm insanely tired, so I think I managed to get about two hours of sleep in total. If we had wanted to pay a bit more we could have got the overnight bus with reclining seats, but being poor students we decided not to. The famous bullet train was out of the question as well, as it was quite expensive. At one point we stopped at a rest stop and I bought some sandwiches for Kyle and me, which served to keep us from getting too hungry.

There's Kyle in the Tokyo metro. 
We arrived in Tokyo at around 8 a.m., tired and groggy. Prior to our arrival, we had made plans with a local friend of mine I had met in Toronto, Mizuki, who had recently started renting an apartment that was just big enough for three people to stay in comfortably. The only problem was that we had to wait for her to get off work and designate a meeting place. I tried to find some free wi-fi at the Tokyo bus terminal so I could contact her through Facebook, which was how we had been keeping in touch. However, despite Tokyo's reputation of being a futuristic techno city, there is a surprising lack of public wi-fi. This is in sharp contrast to South Korea, the place I had just come from, where there is some form of public wi-fi practically everywhere -- even on subway trains. After no such luck I eventually bit the bullet and used my phone's roaming, which incurred steep charges.

A side street in Shinjuku.
We were going to meet Mizuki around 6 p.m. at a subway station near her apartment. We decided to go to the station and stash our bags in the subway storage lockers so we could travel around town more freely, as we had a whole day to kill. Meanwhile I had to find a new charger for my phone because Japanese outlets are different from Korean ones, which I had forgotten about. After finally securing a charger, Kyle and I decided to camp out at a McDonald's so we could recharge both my phone and ourselves. After eating and napping in McDonald's for an hour or so, we decided to head downtown and do some exploring.

Here's the sushi restaurant where we had lunch.
We didn't really have any specific destinations in mind but we eventually decided to go to Shinjuku. I had heard there were a lot of yakuza there and I thought it might be interesting to try to spot some from afar. So off to Shinjuku we went.

There's the chirashi we had for lunch -- yum yum!
When we got to Shinjuku, the sun had come up and the weather was like spring, which was apparently highly irregular for the end of January (there had been a snowstorm two weeks earlier). We weren't even wearing coats! We got out of the station and wandered around the area and eventually realized how hungry we were, so we decided to grab some lunch. There was a small sushi restaurant on one of the side streets that had prices listed in kanji. Fortunately I had studied Chinese numerical characters and was able to discern that the restaurant was pretty cheap. Kyle and I ordered chirashi sushi, which is basically a bunch of raw fish piled on a bed of sushi rice. It cost about $8 and was delicious!

Here's the band in the video warming up.
After the meal we walked around Shinjuku a bit more and bought some crêpes for dessert. Near the crêpe place there was a band playing, and that's who are in the opening footage of the video. The streets of Shinjuku are narrow and we were surrounded by tall buildings and crowds of people on all sides. We didn't actually see any yakuza types, but we did see a lot of buskers. Eventually we came to a group of handsomely dressed ballad singers on a street with a crowd around them, and not far from the singers was a huge lineup extending outside a mall and down the street. Figuring that it was probably something interesting to see, we went to check it out.

The strawberry girls handing out their free strawberries, and possibly other stuff too -- I can't read the characters.
We walked into the mall and saw that the front of the line stopped at a table where three cutely outfitted young women were handing out free strawberries for some sort of promotion. There might have been more to it than just the strawberries, but I found it kind of novel that there was such an insanely long lineup for strawberries, of all things! (Don't get me wrong, I'm not knocking strawberries. And I do know that fruit is generally more expensive in Japan than in Canada because a lot of their fruit is imported from Southeast Asia. Still, I thought it was pretty interesting.) After that we wandered through the mall a bit, through department store after department store, and realized that department stores are pretty similar around the world. I stopped off at one of the washrooms to wash my face and brush my teeth, as we hadn't washed since the morning before. After a bit more wandering we decided that we'd like to go to a place that had a bit more unique flare -- Shinjuku reminded us of many places in Seoul that we had visited previously. So we decided to go to one of the most unique places I could think of. Akihabara!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Tale of Reading The Tale of Genji

I like to think I'm a fairly well-read person, so I don't typically consider the finishing of a book to be cause for celebration. However, a few days ago I finally finished a book that I had been reading for the past three years and that has much to do with my studies. That book is the unabridged monumental Tale of Genji (源氏物語 Genji Monogatari) written by Murasaki Shikibu (that's a pen-name; some people think her real name was Fujiwara Takako and that she was a lady-in-waiting at the palace in Kyoto, though this is often debated). Written in the 11th century, Tale of Genji is widely considered to be the first piece of prose fiction (which technically makes it the first novel) ever written. The authoritative English translation by Royall Tyler -- a very interesting person in his own right -- released by Penguin Books a few years back, is a whopping 1,120 pages, and that's not including the forewords, introductions, indexes, maps, timeline guides, etc. The story itself depicts the lives of aristocrats living in Kyoto, then the capital of Japan and home to the emperor, in the Heian period (794-1185 C.E.). So why did I decide to read the 11th-century Japanese equivalent of War and Peace, minus the war? And why did it take me so long!? I shall tell you a tale . . .

This is the version I read, but if you want to get a sense of the story without reading this giant tome there are a number of abridged versions and adaptations. 
The way I originally came to own Tale of Genji is actually kind of an amusing tale in itself. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am a pretty big fan of the Usagi Yojimbo series of comics by Stan Sakai -- if you haven't read any and like samurai and Sengoku-period stuff, you should consider checking it out. Some years ago I read a particular volume of Usagi Yojimbo that recounted the famous naval battle between the Genji and Heike clans during the Genpai War (1180-85 C.E). I was totally into samurai and East Asian military history in those days (I suppose I still am) and heard that that particular battle was recorded in detail in a famous piece of Japanese historical literature, and I decided I really wanted to read it. I can't remember exactly what happened after that, but I think I was poking around in a bookstore and I saw Tale of Genji on a shelf or something. I just assumed that it was the story I wanted to read, as I'd heard that it was a famous work and associated the Genji in the title with the Genji clan described in the Usagi Yojimbo comic (this was before I was an East Asian Studies major, mind you). So when Christmas rolled around, I put Tale of Genji on my list and my mother, impressed that I had asked for a renowned classical piece of literature, bought it for me. 

This is the book I actually wanted, apparently, though to this day I still don't own a copy.  
I was happy to receive it, though I didn't read it right away, as it was huge and intimidating and I was still trying to get through a heavily annotated version of Dante's Divine Comedy at the time (which also took me a few years). Genji stayed in my bookshelf for a few years until I began my foray into East Asian studies. It didn't take long for us to get to Genji in Introduction to East Asian History; I quickly found out that Tale of Genji was not the tale I had initially thought it was. I initially toyed with the idea of offloading the book to one of my friends, as it sounded thoroughly uninteresting to me at the time. "There's nothing worse than a bunch of whiny aristocrats sitting around talking about art and how sad they are that some prospective mate isn't returning their letters!" was more or less what I thought. 

This illustration is from the Tale of Genji emaki, or scroll, a famous work that depicts a number of scenes from the story. This one appears to be of a nobleman and noblewoman having some intimate moments while her gentlewomen wait behind a screen. This happens a lot in the story, with various characters.  
It wasn't until second year that I learned a bit more about the tale and its importance to the study of East Asian history, when we began studying the Heian period, and I realized that it was something I might want to read after all. Tale of Genji represented a major turning point in Japanese literature, following the emergence of a native Japanese writing system known as kana (in this case, hiragana specifically). Before kana the Japanese used kanji (Chinese characters) exclusively, and according to my sources, women were discouraged from learning it for a number of archaic and misguided reasons (though some did, evidently). However, when hiragana came along, it was supposedly easier to learn and was thus considered ideal for women. Many women in the court started learning and writing in hiragana, which led to a small literary renaissance of sorts. The Tale of Genji is one of the results of this, as well as The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, another famous work from the same period, which I'll likely read and review later this year.        

In second year we were given excerpts from the tale that we had to analyze, and it seemed to me that Genji, the main character of the story, could be thought of as the Japanese equivalent of Casanova or Don Juan or some such famous lover in literature. I'm generally not a huge fan of lovers in classical literature, so I received my first B+ mark writing an essay about how I thought Genji was a spoiled and naive idiot who did most of his thinking through his member and had no regard for any of the women whose lives he had ruined through his wanton ways. Still, we were told that, while fiction, the tale paints an extremely detailed portrait of the time in which the author lived and also had many interesting philosophical elements in its subtext. Of these, the concept of mono-no-aware is one of the most prominent; it denotes an appreciation of temporary things precisely because of their temporary nature (that's my understanding of it, anyway) -- in other words, appreciating things because they won't be around forever. So at the end of second year I decided to hunker down and give Tale of Genji the attention it apparently deserved. That was three years ago, and now I can cross the tale off my "monumental classics of literature" list.

Here's another scene from the scroll, with a female aristocrat apparently sleeping and her women (servants) hanging out outside the curtains engaging in various pastimes.  

My experience reading the tale can be described as intermittently wondrous, fascinating, frustrating, and even at times tedious. Don't get me wrong -- all in all I can say that I enjoyed reading it, and this translation is very well done, considering the subject matter. However, there are reasons why I consider Genji the hardest book I've ever forced myself to finish. I feel it's best to introduce subheadings here, so . . .

Alex's Personal List of Wondrous and Problematic Elements in the Penguin Classics Royall Tyler Translation of Tale of Genji (Unabridged)   

The following is a list of things that I personally found both awesome and frustrating while reading Tale of Genji. It also may be viewed as a list of what to expect and potential obstacles for those who are seriously thinking about reading it.   

Better believe there is a manga adaptation! (I'm sure there must be a translation out there, at least in scan form if not published.)
1. The Setting

According to the book, Heian Japan sounds like a really beautiful place to be if you're an aristocrat. Flowing streams; lush gardens; cherry blossoms; beautiful handmade robes featuring intricate patterns and soft, subtle colours; perfumes; healthy food; handsome villas; everyone playing music all the time and dancing and writing poetry. If you're a fan of the arts like me, then Heian aristocratic society may sound very attractive at first glance. However, it was also an extremely restrictive society in which everyone had to observe ridiculously stringent protocol and women had almost no say in . . . well, anything really. Here's some case studies based on a number of situations in the story.

A. Having trouble with an idiot courtier whom you must deal with on a regular basis? Well, even if you outrank him, you can't just give him a piece of your mind -- that would be too brazen! You must take the roundabout approach and get his servants or someone close to him to subtly persuade him to stop being an idiot, which can take days, weeks, or months or just never get done. Fortunately the average lifespan of the Heian noble seems to be about 54 years, so you won't have to suffer forever!

B. You're a woman, and a decently ranking male aristocrat whom you don't particularly like has expressed interest in you and asks if he can gain an audience with you. What do you do? Well, you can't say no, and ignoring him -- simply out of the question! Either of those responses would be just too rude and crass; what would everyone say about you!? You don't want people talking negatively about you behind your back, so thus you must acquiesce. What if he decides that, instead of simply talking with you, he'd rather just walk into your bedroom and have his way with you? Well, tough, your servants can't kick him out because he outranks them all, and you can't just hit him with something, because that's rude! You'll just have to learn to get used to having this new guy around. This actually happens several times in the story and is often perpetrated by the main character, Genji himself. There are a number of scenes in which a female character essentially gets raped by her would-be suitor and then the man chews her out for being 'distressed.' What the hell, Shikibu!?

Now listen, I'm not an idiot. I know the story was written by a woman and there is a historical context to be understood here. I imagine that in many societies in the world, the 1000s would not be considered progressive by today's standards by any stretch of the imagination. So when I read chapters in which these sorts of things happened, I tried my best to put myself in the mentality of the time -- I suppose stuff like that just happened and was fairly common and not a huge deal, depending on whom it happened to and why. Still, for a 21st-century feminist (yeah, that's right, I'm a feminist and a heterosexual male), it was at times hard to swallow. Near the end of the tale a female character straight up refuses to acknowledge a male suitor's advances for a number of reasons, and I found it to be one of the most satisfying moments in the whole tale.

So yes, in brief, I like the way Heian looks and plays, but if I had a time machine, while I might visit for a week or so, I wouldn't want to move there.

2. The Character Names and Titles

Here's a genealogical chart of the various main characters and how they are all related to each other. I don't think the version I have included this.  
Tale of  Genji has a lot of characters -- around 30 to 40 who show up every so often and a whack-tonne of minor characters who show up maybe once or twice. This may not sound like a lot; after all, many epics boast impressive rosters. However, in Tale of Genji their names change several times throughout the course of the story! I shall explain how this works. For whatever reason, Shikibu named all the characters after ranks in the Heian aristocratic hierarchy. It would seem that, based on the book, multiple advancement is possible within this hierarchy; therefore every time someone gets a promotion their name changes! Good gravy!

So, for example, the main character is referred to as Genji in the early part of the story (a genji seems to be like a squire or something similar). However, as he advances the text starts referring to him as "his grace," and then in another chapter, "his excellency," etc. etc. By the end of the book I think they're calling him "his honorary highness" or something like that.

Let me just say that I am awful at memorizing names to begin with, and when they are constantly changing, it's just a nightmare. Fortunately Tyler (the translator) puts these nice cast lists at the beginning of each chapter with each character's initial title and the one they are currently going by. Still, this requires you to flip back a few pages every time you forget who they are talking about, which in my case was pretty darn frequently. Still, it is a fact of the writing, so I guess you just have to deal with it. Think of this as less of a complaint and more of a warning for those who wish to give Genji their time -- it's kind of complicated.

Still, seeing as how this was the first novel ever, I think I can cut Ms. Shikibu some slack.

There are a number of anime adaptations as well, I believe this shot is from the most recent, titled Genji Monogatari Senneki. 

3. The Pacing

I'm just gonna say this straight up. Sometimes Tale of Genji is what is popularly referred to as boring. If you're reading this book and you didn't do your research and you're waiting for the part where all the samurai come out and start fighting each other, you will be utterly disappointed. Guess what? In Heian times, samurai (as many of us know them) didn't exist yet! The Heian times were actually very peaceful, so Tale of Genji is entirely about aristocrats sitting around doing aristocratic things like writing letters and poems to each other, contemplating the weather, practising calligraphy, going to temples, playing music, and doing artsy-fartsy capital-C culture stuff.

Now I actually like this kind of stuff -- maybe because I do a fair bit of capital-C cultural stuff myself (like reading this book) -- and seeing the details of how people lived is one of the most fascinating things about studying the history of any country, in my opinion. Like the characters, I'm also prone to Zen-like contemplation of my immediate surroundings (I read a lot of Zen stuff as a kid and teenager and it sort of stuck with me), so there is a lot in Tale of Genji that speaks to me personally. Despite this, even though I was generally engaged with the subject matter, there were times when I would zone out or get impatient when, for example, several pages were devoted to illustrating how broken up characters were because a person they were courting couldn't see them for a day or two. Okay, they're sad -- I get it! May we should move to the next plot point now?

There was still a lot I personally enjoyed in the narrative -- if I hadn't enjoyed reading this book to some degree I wouldn't have completed it. However, it was admittedly a bit of a grind at times, and if you like your narrative, fast, furious, and most of all concise, then you will probably find the pacing of this book somewhat unappealing. At times I'd zone out when the narrative casually switched to other, previously unmentioned characters; I'd get really confused and have to reread huge chunks of the chapter, which was another reason why it took so long to finish.

Again, it is technically the first novel ever and was not originally intended for present-day audiences, so fine, I can forgive it.

Don't forget movies! The Tale of Genji, 1951.
4. The Poetry

I like poetry generally and I like the poetry in Tale of Genji, as much of it is derived from classical Chinese and Japanese pieces and it's as beautiful as it is simple. Tyler did a wonderful job of translating the poetry in this book, and that couldn't have been an easy feat. The text is quite frequently interspersed with poems that the characters write in order to express feelings of longing or disdain, one-up each other, or just comment on an event or condition. The poems are often just two lines long, usually touch on natural motifs, and are often annotated in order for you to make more sense of them. I personally think it helps liven things up a bit, but some folks don't like this sort of thing. Just something to keep in mind.

Here's a picture I took of one of the maps featured in the back of the book. This one is of a ranking nobleman's house.

5. The Illustrations and Visual Aids

The version I have contains a collection of illustrations drawn in a style similar to the Tale of Genji emaki that I posted above. These are scattered throughout the book and provide some excellent visual cues to give you a better idea of how everything might have looked in Heian Japan. Also this version has maps and diagrams in the back of the book to show you how the city of Kyoto was arranged in those days, as well as what a noble's house and living quarters probably would have looked like. I found these immensely useful and they really added to my enjoyment of the story itself. One of the pages even has a summary of the entire timeline, which I used a number of times to make absolutely sure I knew what was going on and also to refresh my memory after having put down the book for an extended period.
The tale has inspired many artists to attempt to capture its scenes. I feel that this one does an especially good job.
 6. The Story

One would likely expect this to be at the top of this list, but I thought it would be a nice note to end on. As I previously mentioned, to the modern reader it may seem that on the surface Tale of Genji is about a bunch of effete (just learned this word) aristocrats who sit around all day, make too much of a big deal about everything, and become enamoured with one another much too easily. Still, if this was all the tale had to offer, I doubt it would be as famous and often-studied as it is. What I got out of reading the tale was that it is really about the passage of time and the complexity and temporary nature of human relationships, and how those too are affected by time (remember mono-no-aware!).

The story is very long, which allows for a much larger span of time to pass from beginning to end than most other novels. Because of this, the reader plays witness to the changing of the seasons (many times over), the births and deaths of integral characters, and the way characters may come together or grow apart. Considering how much time is spent on the minute details of the goings-on, one really gets a sense of the consequences, importance, and even significance of all these events and relationships in the grater scheme of things. In my case I found it gave me a sobering bit of perspective in relation to my own life and the various relationships I have had with family, friends, girlfriends, etc.

Now I'm going to get a bit personal here. Perhaps one of the reasons these elements of Tale of Genji resonated so well with me was that when I started reading it, I had just started dating a woman whom I came to love deeply. After dating for almost a year and a half we broke up, for a number of reasons, and the rest is history. During all of this I was reading this tale in which characters are going through and lamenting the very same things and emotions that I was experiencing at the time. It actually brought me some comfort during and after the breakup, because I knew that what I was feeling was nothing new. It was one of those "the more things change, the more they stay the same" moments.

Also I feel that there may even be some subversiveness in the narrative. After all, the tale is very long and was written by a woman living in a largely misogynistic society, long before the first printing presses were widely available. One has to wonder why someone would spend so many years of her (likely) short life writing by hand something of this length and complexity. And the story often highlights female characters going through negative emotional trials and tribulations brought on by aggressive and wanton male suitors. Even the final chapter culminates in a woman flat out rejecting two male characters' advances to instead become a Buddhist nun. Could it be that Tale of the Genji is some sort of early feminist commentary, pondering the lack of agency women generally had during the Heian period? Though we will likely never know the answer to this question, I think it's worth thinking about and I'm fairly certain there is an entire area of study centred around this idea. Seriously, google "Tale of Genji + feminism + gender studies" if you're interested; I'd imagine there would be a lot of results.

And so the list ends here. And in conclusion . . .

It may seem that I'm trying to dissuade people from reading The Tale of Genji by saying it's boring or hard, but I simply wish to express the things I felt as I was reading it and to give you an idea of what you might be in for should you choose to read it yourself. When all is said and done, the Tale of Genji is an investment. It will likely take you a long time to read, even if you're the type to blaze through this kind of stuff, but you may come out of it with a new outlook on life and the world around you. Perhaps you will find a greater appreciation for the small things; maybe you'll have a better understanding of Japanese history and traditional culture; maybe you'll have heightened appreciation for poetry. At the very least, you can impress people by telling them you read a long and important piece of classical literature. As for me? I feel as if I've gotten all these things and more from reading the tale. Maybe I'll read it again in another decade or so, and see what more I can get out of it. It's one of those things you're meant to come back to, I think. Regardless, I would say that I recommend the Tale of the Genji if you have the time and patience -- it's a classic for a reason.