Friday, April 20, 2012

Japan in the U.S.

When writing my review of a cultural activity in L.A. on the Japanese American Cultural Museum, I felt a little frustrated because I felt I wasn’t telling the important part of the story. What stuck with me and bothered me was the in between stuff.

Little Tokyo's Kinokuiya

First of all, I love bookstores, and since I was in Little Tokyo, Kinokuniya was an absolute must. After the Japanese American Cultural Museum closed, I headed over. Throughout, I was in analytical American-Studies mode, and in particular, I was acutely interested in examining which elements of a Japan-themed bookstore were authentically Japanese, and which were meant to appeal to a Western clientele. Was the merchandise equivalent to what you would find at a real Japanese store? How much of the merchandise was meant for customers with a genuine interest in Japanese culture, and how much of it panders to a new Orientalism? Were we like the visitors of the Padua Hills Theatre, participants in an imagined, fake history for Japan?

Certainly, in the section of books in English, I found many about courtesans and samurais from ages ago. I was especially suspicious of names that sound exceedingly white on the covers of historical fiction. It reminded me of Arthur Golden who wrote “Memoirs of a Geisha.” This whole genre of books from Japan’s exotic past strikes me as possibly misleading, perhaps exaggerated, and fixated on the differences between Japanese and American experience rather than its universality. A quick search on Wikipedia demonstrated something similar: the main interviewee Golden used to write his novel later sued him and wrote her own version of geisha life. On the other hand, Japanese interest, from what I gathered, at least in samurais, might be as great as American interest. Many of their classics are about feudal lords, and many Japanese-name histories of samurais were on the shelves. Still, I feel Japanese American interest arises from inquiry into their personal heritage, while Western interest simply seeks to gawk.

Many of the publishers of the more sophisticated literature, and definitely of the histories, were universities: Duke, Columbia, Yale…if I remember correctly. (The other publishers, with the exception of Puffin and Vintage International, I had never heard of before, so I assumed that they were independent.) This, to me, was significant in that not much literature is available from Japan. Colleges are currently in the processes of expanding the translated availability in the U.S. Also, since almost no big book sellers were represented, Japanese literature in general must not be considered very marketable. What was most interesting was that any book about early immigrants from Japan was invariably published by the University of Hawaii. As I found in the Japanese American museum, Hawaii was guilty of a plantation system somewhere between slavery in the South and the one described by Matt Garcia. Its investment in recording that past is commendable.

(University of Hawaii Press, books about Japan:

Finally, the two bookshelves on Japanese literature and culture merged abruptly into a section on Asian literature in general. This I found very indicative of the way all Asian cultures get clumped together, even in a Japanese bookstore. The marketing assumption is that readers are looking for something Oriental and it doesn’t matter what sort of specific Orientalism it is. In fact, I gravitated toward a novel about an immigrant from Korea, but I would’ve felt guilty placing that single book in front of the very Japanese bookstore clerks.

(I ran out of room and my post is too long again (L), but I took the Metrolink train on the way there and back, and I became painfully aware of the difference between my socioeconomic status and that of the crowd around me. I could’ve spent the whole post talking about what some strangers said to me, but I started out with the bookstore first and there you have it...)

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