Turning Japanese – I really think so – dada da-da da da


Kaori Sugishita has a commentary on Japanese anthropology in the New Encyclopaedia Project (NEP) about to come out from TCS/Sage (my part is here, NEP has had a run in Tokyo – here - and in Singapore – here - among other places). In the meantime I started looking though an old file of photocopies I’ve been keeping on anthropology of Japan. Also provoked to do so by the recent visit of Rupert Cox to Goldsmiths, and the impending arrival of Michael Richardson, scholar of surrealism on monday. All in all it amounts to me feeling far too lazy and guilty about having neglected my language texts – watashi wa nihongo ga wakarimasen. [I think that's correct – there are better versions to learn – thanks Jen – but that would be cheating, and I better hit the books myself]. Anyway, anth in Japan had its own ‘turn’ to politics and deserves a feature in the jungle book I’m writing.

So I start to look over the texts… In the disciplines that study difference there is a memory of empire preserved in a way that should cause concern. It is not without significance that Tomiyama, in an excellent discussion of Japanese anthropology for example, has noted that the a critique of the uses of ‘scientific research’ by Japanese imperialism sets up a distinction between academia and its applications that reduces the domain of the political, and alibis academics vis a vis colonialism. He writes: ‘What needs to be questioned is the academic discourse that analyses cultural differences included within the empire’ (Tomiyama 1995:369). The lesson may have to do with wartime Japan, but a reverse export to the case of European imperialism is equally useful.

‘… medical discourse was also an anthropological discourse that constructed the
“islanders” from a variety of signs. From the signs of an “abnormal” sexuality or an “unclean” diet, the islanders were constituted as diseased … The romantic “native woman” … no longer appears … All that is left is a thoroughly scrutinised sexual practice seen as “perversity”, viewed by a pathological gaze … [which] … could also be found in discourses related to labour proficiency, discussed in the terms of colonial administration studies and labour sciences. In these sciences, the native view of work was observed and theorised as the source of the low labour capacity of the people of the South Sea Islands. The peoples’ activities, put under observation, were constituted as an “indolent” native culture … At that point, the epistemological narrative of “What are they?” and the practical narrative of “What do we do to them?” adhered together, much as they do in the doctor who both observes the source of infection and also considers ways to heal the patient’ (Tomiyama 1995:380-1)

Tomiyama proposes we call the islanders ‘patient-islanders’ from this point on. But the consequence of the above moves, of course, meant forced labour – and in this the critique of Japanese colonialism should not be missed for its significant parallel lessons for the European cases.It is interesting then that Tomiyama notes that religious movements against forced labour, and against the logic that saw the Islanders as “indolent”, were also observed by the Japanese. In the Palau Islands one such movement was called Modekngei, reported as a major uprising (Tomiyama 1995:382) and insofar as this did not fit with the model of indolence, was understood as clearly a ‘deviation’ from the ‘islanders’ original native culture, attributable, in the argument of Sugiura Ken’ichi, to the influence of outside religions and political manipulations (in Tomiyama 1995:382).

The theme of the Lazy wakes us up to politics once again. And why do TV people keep ringing me up wanting to do exoticist documentaries on the former, not the latter? I am/am not looking for the languid.

Ref: Tomiyama Ichirð 1995 ‘Colonialism and the Sciences of the Tropical Zone: the Academic Analysis of Difference in ‘the Island Peoples’ Positions 3(2):367-391.
See also his “On Becoming ‘a Japanese'” here.
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