Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between “the Orient” and (most of the time) “the Occident.” Thus a very large mass of writers, among whom are poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, and imperial administrators, have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, “mind,” destiny, and so on. Edward Said, Orientalism, 1978
As a young doctoral student, and for that matter, before that, a young undergraduate studying philosophy in Britain, I used to be hugely worried about failing to heed Said’s warning. Being taught at school about the British Empire, and in fact, I can dimly remember primary school teachers of mine referring to ‘Empire Day’ instead of ‘Commonwealth Day’, usually held in the second week of March. Britain had in the past according to some, enacted a physical and cultural rape of certain countries, and those who held this view usually had India, Singapore, Afghanistan, and China in mind, to name but a few. It is was now our duty, as ‘good Westerners’, not just to have no interest in colonising, (that at least was understandable), but also to be very careful how we approached other cultures, even geeky adoration of a strange and far away culture could be mistaken for an act of violence against a belief system which should be respected at all costs. If only my History teacher could have seen Miley Cyrus ‘twerking’ in 2013 A.D., such an act of cultural violation would have no doubt put her in a catatonic state of shock.
Still, such views were very much in vogue at the time. Gone was the world of T.E.Lawrence and Rudyard Kipling, replaced with the new enlightened understanding of Edward Said and his students. This time we were going to get it right apparently, be interested in other cultures, study other cultures, but we would avoid any violent appropriation of another’s culture. I tried really hard to be a good disciple of Said, but I stopped soon after I came to Japan. Japan offers me many experiences, which convince me that Said is simply wrong when he says that it’s a ‘distinction made between “the Orient” and (most of the time) “the Occident” ’. Japan has taught me instead that everyone, of all nations, indulges in the practice or something similar.
Where are you from? A young woman, asked me in convenience store in Ome-shi, Tokyo, the first city I lived in when I moved here. Britain, I say clearly. Doko? (Where?), she responded, looking confused. Britain, I reiterate. I look at her face for a light bulb flash of recognition, there wasn’t one. I reached into my pocket for my smartphone and consulted Maps. I turned the screen round to her, the British Isles enlarged on the screen, hai dozo (there). Ah, she exclaimed with relief, England. Initially, I was simply confused, did I? Thankfully she explained it thusly:
If you are from Britain, or in fact from the entire United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Island, well then you are from England. The term, also upon occasion covers parts of Éire, unless you are talking to a Post Office worker, they understand ‘United Kingdom’. It often confuses me, half my family is Scottish, and much of ‘English side’ has Irish heritage only one generation old. The term English is often appropriated by far right wing political groups with which I do not want to be associated. I always see myself as British, and yet this young woman of Yamato, had confidently assured me that I certainly was from England, and no other country. My grandmother being born in Galway was born in England, my grandmother from Aberdeenshire, was born in northern England, as was my brother who was born in Aberdeen itself. All in England you see, it’s really very simple.
I give you exhibit B, ladies and gentlemen, once in a while, and usually, although not exclusively, I manage to illicit from female colleagues and friends this response: Wow, You understood that? I thought you were Western. I am not always quite sure what it is I am doing or not doing that impresses them. It appears to be connected to the surprise that I can use chopsticks, or know about any Japanese cultural artifacts, such as manga, anime or J-Pop, as if to be from the West, was to also be from a place that had no restaurants, books or devices to play music. After all, you are from the West, how can you possibly know about such things? People from the West should not be able to use chopsticks, drink nihon-shu or speak Japanese, as that is what we Japanese people do. If you experience this reaction of happy surprise though, you should be proud, it means that you are beginning to follow the Japanese Way of Doing Things, and your hosts will be impressed. It starts with the surprise, that you can use chopsticks, or have basic tourist level Japanese. Maybe then you graduate to level two, you demonstrate that you are aware of the convention of pouring drinks for friends in restaurants, or can also order your own food. Be advised though, once you start along the Japanese Way, any straying from the path, any failure to follow the establish way will be swiftly met by Yappari I Knew It, you are in fact a foreigner, as your gaijn-ness re-asserts itself through failure. You may have fooled us into thinking you were something else with your chopstick use, sake drinking and language, but we have seen you using a fork, so we know the truth. When you walk along the Japanese Way, let’s just say it is good to take a guide.
Which brings us nicely to exhibit C, the recent All Nippon Airways campaign, which some believe is racist; in fact ANA has apparently pulled the advert. I don’t believe the advert is racist, although part of the campaign, does make use of stereotypes that British media, at least could not get away with. One poster for example has a photograph of a Japanese person, dressed in the apparently traditional attire of one the many destinations ANA can take you. So the person from Frankfurt looks like she just stopped singing Edelweiss with Christopher Plummer, and the London representative , who wears what I have come to call ‘The Full Van Dyke’, shall certainly ‘av a loverly time with Mary.
So I lay this challenge to those still overly concerned with Said’s charge of Orientalism, what about Occidentalism? And with that question, the defence rests, and is off to drink chu-hi, eat natto and do all manner of un-western things.