It's All Geek To Me
by Brian Ruh,
It's fascinating to me how the stereotypes of a country change over time. A few decades ago there were two main “defining” elements of Japan in the eyes of the West – art and war. This is accurately summarized in the title of anthropologist Ruth Benedict's 1946 study of the Japanese people The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. For a time, nearly all the stereotypical things that one might associate with the country could be linked to these two cultural aspects: geisha and samurai, woodblock prints and swords, quiet tea gardens and formidable castles.
Of course, as time goes on changes occur to the parts of a particular culture that get stereotyped. For example, we can look at how Japan is represented in Pixar's Cars 2, which just opened this last weekend. In this film, we see Japan as a land of dense, neon signage; it's thoroughly modern and high-tech. Perhaps a bit too high-tech, as one character discovers when he tries to use an advanced Japanese toilet. (I don't know if “toilet” is really the right word, since we're talking about anthropomorphic cars here.) Bewildered by the many options not found on an American toilet, he is subjected to a variety of undercarriage indignities before he is able to escape from the machine's clutches. And, see, it's funny because there are advanced Japanese toilets in real life! Oh those crazy Japanese.
Of course, anime and manga have become part of this revamped image of stereotypical Japan as well. This is why I was interested in taking a look at the book A Geek in Japan: Discovering the Land of Manga, Anime, Zen, and the Tea Ceremony by Héctor García. (He runs a blog about living in Japan called kirainet.com, and the book was originally published in Spanish as Un Geek en Japón.) You can see the collision between the new and the old right there in the title. We get the “traditional” calming culture of Zen and the tea ceremony while still getting to keep the contemporary “cool” of anime and manga.
I hope it's clear from what I've been saying that I don't put much stock in these cultural or national stereotypes. Of course every country has these characteristics that serve as shorthand for the country itself – I mean, how could we have something like Hetalia without them? However, as we should all see, they don't really get at the truth behind a country or its people. Because of this, I found the title of A Geek in Japan off-putting from the get-go. However, every book needs something snappy to lure in the readers, so I was willing to give it a pass if the contents passed muster. Admittedly, the title led me to expect certain things from the book as well – I thought it would be a book targeted at people who are into “geeky” things from Japan (anime, manga, video games, basically all of the good stuff we cover here on ANN) to introduce them to other aspects of Japanese culture and vice-versa.
A Geek in Japan is a lot more general than I thought it would be, though. It basically tries to provide an overview of all of Japanese history, culture, arts, and business in its 160 heavily illustrated pages. Needless to say, it doesn't go into too much detail on any one particular subject. Once I realized the scope of this book, I was a bit disappointed but still somewhat optimistic. Books like this that give a bird's-eye-view of a culture still have their usefulness. I was hoping to be able to recommend this book to my fellow anime fans who may not have much background or current interest in Japanese culture. I hoped to be able to point to it and say, “If you want to understand more about what you see in anime and manga, you should read this.” (Keep in mind, I try to approach all books with this kind of mindset. I don't want to feel like I'm wasting my time, so I really do want everything I read to be good.)
Unfortunately, A Geek in Japan is one of the worst books on Japan I have read in a long time. I feel bad about putting it in those terms, but I figure I should just be blunt about it. My feeling is compounded by the fact that this wasn't something that the publisher, Tuttle, just sent to me on a whim. Rather, I specifically requested a review copy to be able to talk about it in my column. Judging from the current reviews on Amazon (eight of them, all 5 stars), I may be in the minority on this issue, though. I had briefly considered not saying anything about A Geek in Japan so that I bring as little attention as possible to it, but then I reasoned that people need to be warned away from this book.
I found myself shaking my head as I read the introduction, in which the author mentions that he has spent quite a bit of time in Japan and positions himself as something of an expert on its society and culture. We are supposed to appreciate this fact because, as he says, Japan is “completely different from the West. It's like living in an alien country…” The emphasis on the differences between Japan and other countries is a theme that runs throughout the book, and it demonstrates an attitude that I don't think does anybody any good. Yes, there are lots of differences between Japan and America (or Japan and Spain in the author's case) but there are also many commonalities. To make living in Japan sound like living on a foreign planet “completely different” from the one we know only accentuates these divisions. The author says that he hopes “the book will help you better understand Japan and its people's way of being,” but it doesn't seem like understanding is honestly what he is after.
I'm not trying to denigrate the author's time spent living and working in Japan, and I'm sure he has learned a lot about Japanese culture in that time. However, what shows through in A Geek in Japan is the briefest kernel of distorted knowledge. The first few chapters, which aim to provide a general introduction to Japanese culture, are probably the worst offenders in this regard. After an admittedly “extremely brief” history of Japan, covering prehistoric times up through 1868 in a mere nine paragraphs, the author begins to discuss unique aspects of Japan, such as the language, samurai warriors, geisha, and religion. In the section on the Japanese language, he discusses its origins and its use of up to four alphabets. (He includes romaji, phonetic Japanese in Roman letters, as its own separate category.) Since the Japanese read a lot of kanji, which are derived from Chinese characters that sometimes represent pictures, according to the author the Japanese “think in a different way from us….their minds work on the basis of images.” In other words, not only is Japanese culture very different from Western culture, but the way the brains of the Japanese work are separate from ours as well. It's truly a wonder that we ever attempt communicating at all. However, it's a good thing that we have romaji as part of our arsenal, since because it “isn't normal for the Japanese, an advertisement in our alphabet arouses their curiosity." Whew! I'm glad to know that if I ever had to keep a group of Japanese people occupied, all I would need to do is show them something in English. I joke, of course, but I'm only trying to highlight the silliness of trying to make generalizations about something as diverse as “the Japanese” (or people of any nationality for that matter).
Although it may not seem like such a big deal when it comes to discussing the Japanese language, a bit later on the author makes a number of unfair generalizations about the Japanese, noting at one point that "those who have met a Japanese person will agree that almost all are calm and patient people." That doesn't sound so bad, does it? I mean, sure, we're generalizing about the personality traits of an entire country of people, but since all Japanese are the same, it's totally fine, right? Of course, these kinds of stereotypes have their meaner flipside, such as when the author writes that the Japanese are "little 'non-thinking' ants who simply copy and improve what they see" and that, in the author's experience, "I can assure you that the Japanese are generally quite pigheaded and not at all open-minded." Such statements come dangerously close to dehumanizing the people that this book says that it wants to help us understand.
Other “facts” about Japanese culture presented in this book as just plain wrong. After discussing the differences between geisha, hostesses, and prostitutes, the author writes that "Many geisha and hostesses do go on to prostitute themselves when they realize how easily they can earn huge amounts of money." The author also seems to have only the most basic grasp of Japanese spiritual life when he writes that "The Japanese are reluctant to purchase things that have belonged to someone else, maybe because the previous owner's spirit still lingers inside them. One of the advantages of this belief is that thefts in Japan are almost nonexistent: stealing something from someone would be like stealing part of their spirit." To be fair, in Japanese religion there is the concept of the tsukumogami, which are old, well-used objects with spirits inside them, and there are ceremonies held for things like sewing needles. However, this statement makes it seem as if the author is unaware of the hundreds of used book and record stores that proliferate throughout Japan. This is just a couple of the many things in this book with which I disagree – I'd need a lot more space if I were going to catalog them all.
For a book that has both anime and manga in the subtitle, there really isn't all that much here for overseas fans that can't be found elsewhere. There's a single chapter titled “The World of Manga & Anime,” although it focuses mostly on manga and only discusses anime in a few paragraphs at the very end. Most of the content in this chapter isn't particularly new or revelatory. This highlights another one of the reasons why I didn't like this book – the author didn't seem to do much in the way of research and instead relied solely on personal knowledge. This works in the section relating to Japanese business which, if anything, goes into a bit too much detail for the average Japan newbie. When writing about manga, the author seems content to paraphrase Frederik Schodt's classic books on the history of Japanese comics. And although the author claims to be a geek, it's not clear what exactly his geekish interests are. In addition to the cursory treatment of anime and manga, there are only passing references to video games. It makes me wonder if the whole “geek” thing isn't a marketing idea designed to try to differentiate this title on bookstore shelves.
Like many book that are purportedly about Japan as a whole, A Geek in Japan is really just about Tokyo. Most of the examples referenced in the chapters are from Tokyo, and there is a whole chapter on sightseeing in Tokyo. The last chapter, titled “Traveling Around Japan,” does broach the topic of other possible places to see on your visit, but they are given short shrift compared to the prominent role Tokyo plays throughout the book. I can't help but think that if the author got around to more places in Japan that aren't necessarily so “Japanese” (such as the northern island of Hokkaido and the southern islands of Okinawa), he may begin to revise his opinion about how monolithic Japanese culture truly is.
It's possible that some of the problem I have with this book lies in the translation. As mentioned above, A Geek in Japan was originally written and published in Spanish. I haven't seen a copy of the original, but it could be that the translators misinterpreted what the author had to say. However, in my review all I have to go on are the English words on the pages in front of me, and they paint a very different picture than that of the Japan I know and love. I am very surprised that Tuttle, a respected publisher of books on Asia for over sixty years, has released a book like this. Between a title that misleads the reader into thinking the book contains more popular culture information than it really does, a condescending and offensive attitude toward the Japanese people, and multiple factual errors, I really can't recommend A Geek in Japan to anyone.
Brian Ruh is the author of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. You can find him on Twitter at @animeresearch.
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