Like treading on the tiger’s tail, such is the condition of the ‘foreign’ researcher studying anything related to the Japanese culture. Sure, our non-Japanese opinions are kept in high regard, as the gaze of the ‘other’ is fundamental in the constitution of identity in every society, and all the more so in the Japanese society. The foreign opinion is considered, sure, but considered as the ‘foreign opinion’, not as an opinion with a value in itself. It exists in virtue of its cultural otherness. Listened to, then packed into a box, and put somewhere safe, where it will not disturb or divert the ‘natural flow’ of the Japanese ‘way’. This typically Japanese attitude has been criticised for decades now, sometimes even ridiculed because of its inadequacy to the post-modern society many thought we were living in. However. In a world reverting from utopian dreams of interculturalism to new nationalisms and post-traditionalisms, will Japan end up being right about its conservative attitude?
As I approach a new project in which I will discuss aspects of Japanese conservatism in relation to history and tradition, I am once more faced with my incompetence, in the literal meaning of ‘something that does not compete with me’, outside my jurisdiction, a concept close to that of the literal meaning of gaijin. This form of incompetence, which is evidently not technical, is intrinsic to my condition of foreigner. While this thought might appear obvious in an every-day life context – anybody living in or dealing with Japan know what I am talking about, and many got over it (while others never will) – it is not so obvious when it comes to academic research and scholarship, which is the matter I am engaged with. Until when will ‘foreign’ scholarship continue to be ignored as something that adds luster to the ‘things Japanese’, but that eventually does not belong there?
PS: The title of the post is inspired by an early Akira Kurosawa film, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail, recounting the famous episode, also depicted in the Noh Ataka and in the Kabuki Kanjincho, describing Minamoto Yoshitsune and his bodyguard Musashibo Benkei crossing the barrier of Ataka disguised as yamabushi priests.