26 August 2009

You know what I mean...

24 August 2009

Big Daddy America and His Taste for Those Oishii Japanese Hamburgers

I haven't really paid attention to Adbusters since I left Canada-- well, specifically before that, when I went from being a poor student to really poor student who couldn't afford to buy a copy, but McDonald's Japan's ongoing... uh... somewhat racially insensitive advertising campaign (involving much stereotypical gaijin boobery) and the flood of offended middle-class white people on Debito.org's forums talking about writing ineffectual letters to McDonalds asking the company to voluntarily cease what I assume is a multi-billion yen campaign got me thinking: it would be so much easier just to culture jam the hell out of it. If Japan's legal system is as "weak" with "really no protection for this type of thing" as some people claim, then maybe they should take another route. For example, if Mr. James cardboard cutouts in front of McDonalds stores across the country are so offensive, how about covertly decapitating his cardboard cutout next time you're there for your America Burger? You could even slash his corrugated belly as to make it appear to be seppuku if you want to get really theatrical (you then should make a cardboard tanto and leave at the scene of the crime). I'm pretty sure the actor that plays Mr. James might be considering seppuku that already anyway. At any rate, there are some excellent comments on the forums though, so I do recommend taking a look. [And, no, I'm not going to explain here what the big deal or what my own opinions are.]

Strangely though, this all led me to revisit Adbusters, which has an article on their front page called "The Soul of Japan". This article surmises that Japan's current socio-economic crisis is a psychological reaction to the country's subservience to America since the end of WW2. This article, written by a Japanese-American university professor runs the gauntlets of articles about Japan appearing in English media-- ie. mentions bullet trains and anime and kawaiiness. He also very curiously mentions Mishima Yukiyo, who back in the 70's famously tried to inspire a group of Japanese soldiers to overthrow the democratically elected government and reinstate the emperor by giving a rousing ultra-nationalist speech from a window high above. But the window he chose was so high up that the soldiers could hardly hear a word he was saying, and those that could started laughing at him. Realizing what a total ass he'd made of himself, he committed seppuku and had his teenage male lover cut off his head. Another dead hero dying for the motherland.

(Kelts, the author, does have some pure gold quotes from Murakami Haruki though, who says in horror of the mid-20th century influx of Americana: "It was everywhere. And we’re not French, you know. We liked it." But I digress.)

The author repeatedly sympathizes with nut-cases like Mishima and fascists like the colourfully racist Tokyo governor Ishihara Shintaro (pictured together to the right -- the far right), and claims that the emasculation of Japanese men is the result of the younger brother relationship the Japan apparently has with the US -- along with being kawaii. He quotes visual artist Murakami Takashi, claiming,
"Evolution teaches us that cuteness is a symptom of dependence, urging adults to care for infants, puppies and kittens who are, after all, entirely helpless. A Japan shaped by its reliance upon big brother/big daddy America would naturally perfect this form of expression. Murakami’s theory goes: Be cute, and Daddy might be good to you, however much you hate 
it – and him."
I heard this sort of thing before before in Western media, but have never heard any Japanese people talk about it outside of that medium. It strikes me as bullshit and fits snugly on Western stereotypes of Japan, that somehow Japan and her citizens are over-saturated sickly sweet bunny-soft sakura-pink cuteness. Ugh. Was the grown who I saw hork into the sink in the staff room this morning just expressing his inner-kawaii? What about the pock-marked teenagers that laugh at me at the grocery store? It's very hard to maintain these cartoonish stereotypes while actually living in Japan.

Parallel to Japan, Canada has a similar ambivalent sentiment about the US. Back in the mid 20th century, like everywhere, there was sudden a massive flood of American pop culture and media. Most Canadians consume this media loyally and sometimes forgetting it's from a foreign country, but we also have politicians who do things like stomp on George W. Bush dolls on camera and say little quips like, "I hate those bastards!" [read: fired] (and we also publish magazines like Adbusters for that matter). And then we have Canadians who totally buy into anything Hollywood and talk about American foreign policy using the disturbingly and shockingly ignorant self-inclusive phrase "we". Canadians too have spent the last 50 or 60 years wrestling with this relationship, and how our own country's identity and culture fit in, and no one would say that we, for instance, like hockey because it appeases the Americans with the innocent ever-winter lumberjack image. Or produce maple syrup because it is associated with warm childhood memories of eating pancakes. Catch my drift?

The article ends with a sense that Japan is picking up the pieces, working out the baggage from World War 2 and overcoming the present pseudo-Western materialism, and finally starting to build self-confidence for a future where the article literally says Japan may even culturally eclipse America. (This is where my BS-alarm goes off again.) I do think Japan has a major self-confidence problem, but I don't think that comes from having post-war diplomatic or cultural links to the US. I think it comes from not having enough links to the outside world if anything. I think a lot of Japanese people are very insecure about their country's place in the world as an active member of the global society.

With all that being said, I do think that the article is correct that Japanese youth are now more than ever very strongly invested in the world around them and are not just interested in American pop culture, but their immediate mainland Asian neighbours and beyond. Kelts is also right, of course, that the not-so-liberal and only vaguely democratic Liberal Democratic Party's goose is cooked and Japan's future is wide open. That goes without saying.

However, this article and that recent Time Magazine article both seem to take a very ethnocentric view of Japan, with the former largely interviewing Japanese writers and artists who have extensive international experience but paying no attention to the millions of Japanese people that have never even left the country, or even their own respective islands. I love all those Murakamis, but what would a person who thinks Japan is it's own continent distinct from Asia say about globalization? But this overwhelming notion that Japan's future somehow rests in the hands of America, or "the West", is something that Westerners think about a lot, but isn't a big domestic issue here. I think the assumption of Japanese subservience to the West is by and large a Western one.

Where does this all links up to Mr. James gaijin circus campaign, itself sponsored by McDonald's (an Adbusters-targeted multinational that is a global champion of equal opportunity employment)? I apologize: it really doesn't directly, but I think both the stereotypes as Westerners as super-cool clowns and Japanese as extremely prone to cute pop culture and ritual suicide are damaging to international relations and very unbecoming for multinational corporations and the magazines that criticize them.

23 August 2009

Smile!

The BBC published an interesting article about how facial expressions -- the most basic and meaningful form of communication -- are not universal and can change quite dramatically from culture to culture. The study, carried out by Glasgow University, dealt specifically with Westerners and East Asians. This is great for me since I'm a Westerner living in East Asia.

According to the article, "East Asian participants tended to focus on the eyes of the other person, while Western subjects took in the whole face, including the eyes and the mouth." The study concluded that because of the relative importance of the eyes in conveying emotion, it can make things a bit ambiguous (and, really, a bit socially disastrous) cross-culture.

For example:


One of these faces expresses fear, and the other, surprise.

The article didn't mention smiles at all, which is interesting, because I think that's the biggest difference between Eastern and Western facial expressions. Here's a page from Canadian comic book artist Guy Delisle's book "Shenzhen":


Of course, this is not to say Westerners don't do this. To quote my old Japanese Studies professor, "is a matter of degree". I think we all do this -- dry laughs and sad smiles to smooth over anger or sadness or anxiety. I do this pretty much every day at work. I even know people who heartily chuckle when they're scared. The difference, I suppose, is people in East Asian people tend to do this at a higher frequency and maybe in different situations than Westerners.

In Will Ferguson's book, "Hitching Rides with Buddha" in Canada, or "Hokkaido Highway Blues" elsewhere, he talks about being given a ride by a Tokyo University professor and his less-than-enthused wife, who was "nodding with that painfully polite smile that many uninitiated Westerners mistake for being a sign of friendship. It is actually a sign of extreme disease." Later in the book, he describes someone smiling to express inexpressible sadness.

In other species such as chimps, I should add, baring ones teeth in what looks very much like a human "smile" is actually a sign of hatred.

Aside from the obvious anthropological reasons, the reason why this is all so important is -- like I said at the beginning -- facial expressions and body language are the cornerstone of human communication. In inter-cultural communication, being able to read things like expressions can be essential for assessing a situation. And so I'll end this with an open question-- has anyone ever had serious social faux pas with people from different cultures stemming in nonverbal communication?