Sunday, November 20, 2005

Japan-Bashing's Mirror

“On his return from Panama, [Theodore] Roosevelt had to take hold of a more prickly situation. The San Francisco Board of Education, under pressure to stem the flow of Japanese immigrants to California, had passed in 1906 an order that segregated all oriental students in the city’s public schools. Labeling the segregation order a ‘wicked absurdity,’ the President tried to bring pressure to bear on the westerners, only to find himself stymied by the constraints of federalism. As Japanese indignation and Californian defiance mounted, TR turned on the charm instead. The mayor of San Francisco and seven school board members accepted his invitation to come to the White House, and in a series of meetings […] Roosevelt and the local officials reached an understanding. San Francisco repealed the segregation order, and the President undertook to persuade the Japanese to limit their migration to America.”
—From The Workshop of Democracy, by James MacGregor Burns (Knopf, 1985).

Periodically in our periodicals, but especially when Japan is riding high or threatening to roar back to economic power, the impulse to find something disquieting about Japanese culture takes over. This would probably be true of any nation that threatened American hegemony. Not many have other than Japan over the last couple of generation, although the frothy European-bashing of late suggests that the United States is beginning to feel the heat from the European Union.

But Japan: After a period of considerable economic slumber the Japanese economy is showing glimmers of life again, so it seemed timely for the New York Times today to front-page a story about Japan’s racist best-sellers: “A young Japanese woman in the comic book ‘Hating the Korean Wave’ exclaims, ‘It’s not an exaggeration to say that Japan built the South Korea of today!’ In another passage the book states that ‘there is nothing at all in Korean culture to be proud of.’ In another comic book, ‘Introduction to China,’ which portrays the Chinese as a depraved people obsessed with cannibalism, a woman of Japanese origin says: ‘Take the China of today, its principles, thought, literature, art, science, institutions. There’s nothing attractive.’” Normitsu Onishi, a good reporter, specifies: “The two comic books, portraying Chinese and Koreans as base peoples and advocating confrontation with them, have become runaway best sellers in Japan in the last four months. In their graphic and unflattering drawings of Japan's fellow Asians and in the unapologetic, often offensive contents of their speech bubbles, the books reveal some of the sentiments underlying Japan's worsening relations with the rest of Asia.”

The key words jump at you like those overcaffeinated characters in Japanese animation: “base,” “advocating confrontation,” “graphic and unflattering,” “unapologetic,” “offensive,” “Japan’s worsening relations,” and most pointedly of all: “runaway best sellers.” In other words Japan is one hell of a racist, superior, xenophobic, aggressive country. The reader is told this on the assumption that he is, of course—as we know all New York Times readers are—refined, elevated (but not superior), cosmopolitan and correct enough to be incensed. I don’t mean to defend the Japanese when they display their racist proclivities and revel in their homogeneity. But the comparative subtext of the Times article is inescapable: We are meant to take pride in the fact that we in America, at least, are better than that. Besides the fact that this pride-taking is itself a form of chauvinism no more and no less obvious than Japan’s (except more “refined,” because more subtle, and therefore in this context more sly, more dishonest), the pride simply doesn’t stack up against our own best-sellers over the years, beginning with tomorrow’s.

There’s the obviously triumphalist title: Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat, at No. 3, in which he argues again for globalism as the American-inspired faith to which the world had better convert, or else. Alternative ways need not bother Friedman’s perspective, because what wastes Freidman’s time wastes America’s. At No. 2 and No. 10, two more books on the founders (Doris Kearns Goodwin’s and David McCullough’s), who have become grist for our equivalent of the “Lives of the Saints.” Lacking leadership worth the name, we look backward, a natural enough impulse, but the attention is becoming obsessive, making gods of these men even as their biographers ride the fashion of making gods seem so fallibly human. The No. 1 bestseller make the point: Jimmy Carter’s “Our Endangered Values,” where he argues against that political bestseller of the last five years—the infusion of fundamentalism in public life, which is really the flip-side of the chauvinism by divine right that has us unapologetically running around the globe advocating confrontation and inspiring hatred in return. At No. 35 is George Packer’s Assassin’s Gate, summing up the consequence of the America-first approach through the prism of the Iraq war. And if we don’t have books that overtly spew rank racism and xenophobia on the best-seller list (we’re too “elevated” for that), we have talk radio and Fox News’ parodies of American principle.

[More on the subject of Japan-bashing and our elevated best-sellers tomorrow.]