Monday, June 15, 2009


Clifford Geertz, for those not in the know, is an anthropologist famous for writing about "interpretation". One of his best known examples is the difference between a wink and a blink. According to him (actually, according to someone else he borrowed this example from... Gilbert Ryle I think), these two things have completely different meanings but the same behaviour. A blink is a just a physiological response, whether voluntary or not. A wink indiciates something, say irony or seduction. Or it can be an ironic wink based on the meaning of an ordinary wink... and so on. From this, he argues that anthropologists job is to do the "thick description" which allows us to interpret the meaning behind the wink or the blink. Simple observations won't due. You need to understand the "web of symbols". Thats my cliff note version from what I recall by memory.

Anyway, so a couple months ago I came across this article in the New York Times. Basically it is talking about New York/Wall Street types who have lost their jobs with the economic recession but still, everyday, get up in their best work clothes and go out, sort of "pretending" that they are still working. The article then jumps off into psychology and how this can be a good thing, "an effective social strategy [for coping]".
“I have a new client, a laid-off lawyer, who’s commuting in every day — to his Starbucks,” said Robert C. Chope, a professor of counseling at San Francisco State University and president of the employment division of the American Counseling Association. “He gets dressed up, meets with colleagues, networks; he calls it his Western White House. I have encouraged him to keep his routine.”
It then goes on to discuss lots of psychological research on "pride." At the time, what really struck me is how radically different I thought this would be interpreted if you had the same behavior/"data" in Japan, while also being something I could easily envision happening here. I figured if you had a story about Japanese white collar workers, who had lost their job, waking up everyday and putting on their suit, but not to do anything in particular, it would be not cast at all in terms of universalist psychology of pride but of the specific and unique culture of Japan, with particular attention to a "culture of work". On the other hand, it was somewhat amusing because its a good example of how similar the US and Japan really are in some ways, as I kind of also thought this seems like the sort of phenomena that would happen much more there than, I don't know, Canada or Italy. The discrepancy I can't help but feel is partly about how these are interpreted through certain kinds of (orientalist) prisms. To clarify the part about orientalist, that means it is based on the fact that the West (especially the US) is powerful and sort of dictates what is "universal" and thereby relegating everyone else to "particular"--like Japan. This universal/particular dichotomy is sort of ubiquitous, and Japanese help it along by themselves. So much, so, I figured, that identical behaviours would be split along these lines and interpreted radically differently. Its not so simple as "webs of meaning" when those meanings also come from somewhere (like colonialism in a broad sense, though Japan was never officially colonized, as well as nationalist projects of state-building spread through the education system and mass media).

Anyway this is just an inkling I had. Then today I was reading this article in New York Review of Books (gated unfortunately) by Ian Buruma. Partly it is a review of a new movie Tokyo Sonata. According to him, the movie is about a middle-ranking Japanese salaryman who gets laid off work, who "like so many of his real-life counterparts...prefers to spend his days on a park bench rather than tell his family about his lost job". This is not an uncommon occurrence, Buruma says:
[A] common sight these days in public parks, as well as libraries, are men in dark business suits quietly reading the papers, for hours on end. These are the middle-ranking corporate men who cannot face the humiliation of letting family and neighbors know that their companies have no more use for them. So they pretend to go to work, even after being laid off. Economic misery and rising unemployment are hitting older people especially hard.
Buruma's bone to pick is really the "Japanese system" as such, with all the main tropes that this includes: so-called lifetime employment, powerful bureaucrats, a stagnant democracy, US patronage. He traces this to post-war recovery but specifically the Yoshida deal:
The middle class was offered a deal: material wealth in exchange for political acquiescence, a virtual one-party state with no more protests, and the dutiful army of salarymen would be taken care of. Labor unions had been pretty much tamed, sometimes with the strong-arm help of gangsters. And Japanese pacifism was guaranteed by a constitution, written by Americans in 1946, which banned the use of armed force...
This system, put in place in 1955, when the LDP [Japan's main political party and in almost constant control for the last 50 years] was formed, and cemented in 1960, suited the Japanese political and business elite who could now concentrate on industrial expansion. It suited most Japanese, who wanted nothing more to do with war...And it suited the US, which wanted Japan to be a reliable bastion against communism. So CIA money stocked coffers of the LDP for several decades, to make sure all signs of leftisim were kept at bay.
Buruma basically links these macropolitics together with the laid off salaryman and his park reading together quite tightly:
There is in this behavior a link, I believe, with the unemployed salarymen reading their papers all day on park benches. It is a deliberate rejection of reality, a flight into make-believe. And this, in turn, is echoed by the behavior of the Japanese government itself. One of the most commonly cited reasosn for the depth and length of the economic slump that started in the 1990s was the refusal of the government to acknowledge the diastrous state of Japanese banks, as though problems would go away if everyone pretended things were all right.
So there it is. The Japanese salaryman, a stagnant relic of the bubble years, is just like the Japanese government. Of course, China is also in here somewhere, as the rising superpower in Asia who will soon (perhaps inevitably) eclipse Japan. Rather puzzlingly, Buruma then seems to focus a lot on Japan's pacifist constitution, almost hinting that a re-militarized right would be just the thing for Japan. This is somehow mixed in with the call for a more vibrant, dynamic democracy. The latter sounds nice like apple pie, but its hard to see how that relates much at all to economics when you compare Japan to China and the US.

This article is not really so much cultural troping as I imagined such a thing would be. In fact its quite right in a number of ways about Japanese history and politics, at least it seems to me. On the other hand, still I think it does do a number of things. First off, as it relates to America, and despite this article acknowledging the recent failure of the "America model," it seems to miss a few things. Like a militarized right? How did that work out in the US the last 8 years? Or perhaps the last 30? And while Japan has some trouble with banking, perhaps, this doesn't seem to be so serious as banks in one other country in particular. The current Japanese slump he correctly points out is based a lot on Japan's heavy reliance on exports. But that just means Japan is slumping because the US is slumping. Further, since he is then comparing Japan to China, China is also an exporter and is also slumping (recent factory closures and resultant protest action in Guangdong). Not being an economist, and with China such a closed place, I can't say for sure, but I really can't think China can still be the same darling-child now that everyone has been pegging it as for the last few years. In fact, its comical that he could blame the "Yoshida deal"---trading middle class political activity for economic prosperity---when if there is one single place on earth where, as a tacit agreement between the state and the citizenry, political freedom is exchanged for a rapidly expanding economy, it seems that place would be China.

That's the economics and politics. But also, even though it is quite light, it does seem like some cultural imagery is slipped in there. None of it is explicit in the vulgar way such things often are: "the nail that sticks out gets hammered down", so-called collectivism, "saving face". But these are all referenced implicitly---salaryman and politicians don't try to be exceptional or challenged things, laid off workers can't tell their family and friends because of humiliation. But overall the main troping is that Japanese live in a fantasy world, one of manga and anime, of melodrama, of ignoring economic problems. It reminds me of when sometimes people say that Japanese are immature/child-like because they like cute things or whatever. This seems to completely miss the point that a Japanese might think a Westerner is child-like because they can't properly control their emotional outbursts, or any number of other things. And the infantilizing also I think has a lot to do with exoticism mixed with fear.

So it does reinforce stereotypes of Japanese. Meanwhile, the New Yorkers each have their therapist telling them that pride is a good, healthy thing.

One last thing:these interpretations have a hint of truth. In fact, work is quite important in Japan, in the sense of work as making you a certain kind of valuable person. That is that working itself is a value, relatively speaking to an American, rather than the results as such (in a grossly generalized way). The motive for hanging out in the park may be more about other people's opinions of you as a person for a Tokyoite while more about personal feelings of failure and fufillment for the New Yorker. Or another way of putting it---maybe the Tokyoite is worried about not having a job as such, the New Yorker is worried about not having an income as such. Slightly different things. So how do you mix Clifford Geertz with Edward Said (and other post-colonial theorists)?

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