The other day I was doing some winter clothes shopping at the local Uniqlo store when something peculiar happened. For the past couple of weeks I have been living in Dazaifu (Fukuoka prefecture), a small, yet historically relevant village where the ‘Asian-other’ population (Korean and Chinese) is rather large, while ‘Western-looking people’ are almost unknown. I am now getting used to people staring at me when I go to the local supermarket – something that never happened to me in places such as Kyoto or Osaka. Anyway, what happened at Uniqlo was much more interesting than the usual grannie freezing at my sight in the middle of the miso aisle. A group of 4 kids (5 to 7 years old I would say) and their mum where also checking out clothes when they bumped into me. The mother was holding a 5th baby in her arms and I could tell from her built and facial features that she was half-Japanese, half-caucasian, probably American. I am not good at numbers and genealogy, but I would say that if she were half, her kids should be at least 1/4th something (either Japanese or Western, depending on the father). Fact is that the 4 kids where literally shocked at my sight. They forgot about their mum and started following me. They would not speak to each other but just stare with huge, glaring eyes. What were they looking at? What did they see? I should say that this is not the first bunch of kids I meet in Dazaifu, but their reaction was completely different: Japanese kids might be curious to check out how a foreigner looks like, but they are usually not so insistent. This group of kids, instead, was literally x-raying me, speechless, with eyes so big that I could see my face reflected in them… or was this what they actually saw in mine?
I might be wrong here, assuming much about their background that I don’t know, but I had the clear impression that these guys, growing up in the countryside, with almost zero exposure to foreigners, saw in my face, completely different from what they are used to in their everyday life, something that belonged to them. It could be the face of their father, or uncle, or grandpa. It certainly isn’t that of their school teacher, even of her mother: it is alien to the models they apprehend in their everyday-life. The encounter with something that somehow belongs to them, though they still cannot recognise it as such, shocked these kids as much as it shocked me. I don’t know whether their mum realised what was going on or not (she was very busy with her baby) and I was left to wonder whether this encounter became a topic for conversation or not. It surely was a very, very interesting experience for me…
As a post-scriptum to my previous post, commenting on the difficulty encountered by the condition of ‘otherness’ of the foreign scholar operating within the Japanese field, I wanted to share something that popped up on my laptop screen right after I closed the WordPress window.
It’s an anti-virus advertisement showing up when visiting websites hosted outside Japan. The heading reads: ‘Hey you, browsing foreign websties! Have you taken the appropriate security measures?’ while the worried girl, depicted in the typical bikkuri pose (a mixture of surprise and innocence) is thinking ‘Really? Are foreign websites that dangerous?’
The ad campaign is founded on the Japanese stereotype of the ‘world beyond the seas’ (kaigai) as receptacle of impurities. The risk of visiting the alien territory is obviously that of contracting some unknown disease. I know for sure that Japan pullulates with indigenous internet crap (spam, viruses, malware of all sorts) and it was explained to me that one of the reasons why Japanese people of all ages have such ridiculously long mobile email addresses (ie sl33py-OxOfirstname.lastname@example.org) is to prevent spam attacks. Nonetheless, advertising the risk of not being ready to face the unknown dangers of the outside world is certainly a great way to convince users to purchase an anti-virus and feel safe, who will nod at each other on the dangers of something they ignore, and, I am afraid, will continue to ignore for a long time. Sure, Japan is not the only ‘xenophobe’ (excuse my language) country in the world, but they way it does it is so, so peculiar.
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.