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.

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