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34 Earl Kinmonth: on Benedict and the tradition of Japanese studies (American misconceptions about Japan)




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This article is from the American misconceptions about Japan FAQ, by Tanaka Tomoyuki ez074520@dilbert.ucdavis.edu with numerous contributions by others.

34 Earl Kinmonth: on Benedict and the tradition of Japanese studies (American misconceptions about Japan)

Newsgroups: soc.culture.japan
Date: 29 Oct 94 08:12:56 GMT
From: jp1ek@sunc.sheffield.ac.uk (Earl H. Kinmonth)

TANAKA Tomoyuki (tanaka@nickel.ucs.indiana.edu) wrote:
:
: however, American media and academia like to depict Japanese as
: completely different (diametric opposite) and "inscrutable".
: this has been a consistent pattern in the Western depiction of
: Japan for centuries, culminating in Ruth Benedict's
: "Chrysanthemum and the Sword", which contrasted the Western
: culture of "sin" vs the Japanese culture of "shame".

Your enthusiasm for your subject is leading you to
exaggeration. Ruth Benedict wrote in the 1940s. I don't think
you'll find much if any American writing on Japan before 1840.
This gives you a century at best. There's also very little
European writing before 1840.

Second, emphasis on differences has not in fact been the
consistent pattern. At various times and for various (usually
political) reasons there has been an emphasis on similarity.
Generally, I think you will find that journalistic writers have
emphasized differences while academic writers have emphasized
similarities. If anything American academic writers have
probably been more guilty of trying to plug Japan into American
models and not paying enough attention to real differences.
Reischauer certainly falls into this bag although he was an
academic only by virtue of his position, not by the quality and
quantity (or lack thereof) of his research.

You should read Kosaku YOSHINO, Cultural Nationalism in
Contemporary Japan: A Sociological Enquiry (Routledge, 1992) and
get some perspective. As Yoshino shows, writing stressing the
(largely imagined) differences between Japanese and (abstracted)
"Westerners" is much more popular among Japanese than it is
among a non-Japanese audience. Indeed, he points out that the
bulk of American academic response has been to attack the whole
Nihonjin and Nihon bunka ron genre for its exaggerations.

As Yoshino points out, very few American academics write the
broad stroke "cultural comparisons" of the Nihonjin and Nihon
bunka ron variety. Japanese academics do. Indeed, you've cited
some of them.

You should also keep in mind that Ruth Benedict did not speak or
read Japanese. She picked up her ideas from Japanese informants
and confiscated Japanese films. Most journalistic writers about
Japan do not speak or read Japanese. If they have silly ideas
about Japan, these usually come from two sources: previous
writing in the same genre; Japanese informants who spout the
"party line" (Nihonkyo as Yamamoto Shichihei called it) derived
from Nihonjin and Nihon bunka ron writings.

Also, I think you need to do some more research. There is a
whole genre of US studies that dissect US images of Japan.
Many of these have been inspired by Akira Iriye at the
University of Chicago. It has been a fairly popular PhD
dissertation subject. I've taught courses on this theme and
found American students quite open to be told that what they
read about Japan in journalistic sources is usually unmitigated
bull shit.

=--------------------------------------------------------------------
-- (afterword (response to Mr Kinmonth's comments))

--- I still believe that emphasizing the differences has been a
pattern in Western depiction of Japan.

--- I also believe that influences of Benedict and Reischauer
are still significant today on American and Japanese writers
(including fake GAIJINs like Isaiah Ben-Dasan and Paul Bonet, on
which I've written a short essay stored in my WWW site).

Mr Kinmonth wrote to me, "Also, I think you need to do some
more research." I just checked out 3 books by Akira Iriye
(including "Mutual images: essays in American-Japanese
relations") as well as Mr Kinmonth's book, "The self-made man
in Meiji Japanese thought: from samurai to salary man".

sure, it'd be good for me to read and learn more. but it is
unlikely that I will ever reach the point of having read as much
as Mr Kinmonth has on these matters. it is possible that my
perspective will change significantly sometime, but I don't see
it happening anytime soon --- maybe 10 years from now, but I may
well be dead by that time, and I decided that distributing this
rough sketch may do some good.

 

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