Tuesday, August 26, 2008

'Cuz Everybody Hates a Tourist

So much is written about the foreigner's experience of Japan (guilty as charged) that it appears to be an inexhaustible entertainment cottage industry - if only it weren't for such a small, self-selecting, and narcissistic audience that creates both demand and supply. What makes so little of it actually worth reading is a pervasive & unapologetic Orientalism, be it fawning Japanophilia or precipice-racist censure, that very few people can - and even fewer do - call "bullshit" on (R.I.P. Westerner's Fear of Neon Sign).

It's one thing when a foreigner as integrated & respected as Alex Kerr produces a polemic as parti-pris-yet-insurgent as Dogs and Demons. It's a whole different rice-ball when a whistle-stop national audit is extrapolated into a crazed indictment of an entire country, its people, history, and culture, as in A.A. Gill's "Mad In Japan" (an essay from his 2002 travelogue, recently revisited by Fucked Gaijin).

Now, I'm not interested in crafting a densely-referenced rebuttal. I'll not even say Gill is 100% wrong: contemporary Japanese culture is nothing if not absurd, and his first impression of Kyoto ("an ugly sprawl of low-rise confusion") mirrored mine. What sickens me most about this bog-roll scrawl is that this is what travel-writing has been reduced to: a gonzo rendering of Bill Bryson's bemused kvetching, fattened by the splenetic supremacy that rancorous harpies like Michael Savage have made their calling card. The only alternative seems to be self-reflexive reductivism, the kind Christopher Hitchens acerbically noted in P.J. O'Rourke's dull tendency to be reminded, where ever he traveled, only of southern California. Either way, people seem hell-bent on convincing themselves they're better off at home. Hollywood (ever the dead skin flaking off of culture's scrotum) is a gleeful co-conspirator, shitting out a steady stream of "noble savage" adventure films (The Last Samurai, The Kingdom) and gornographic exploitation flicks set in exotic locales (Hostel, Turistas).

I'm not asking everyone who comments on foreign countries to heed Chomsky & Zinn's example of following every outward-aimed incrimination with encyclopaedic self-criticism. Not every Chinese commentator need express contrition for the 49 to 78 million people killed under Mao Zedong's regime, nor must every British cultural critic supplicate themselves for their past imperialism (or even their current societal shortcomings). Hell, it can be very well amusing to read something as glibly beserk as
Japan is a lunatic asylum built on a hideous history, vile philosophy and straitjacket culture.
But instead of prosaic slapstick, this is the standard for Gill's intercultural (dis)engagment. This isn't travel writing, this the red-faced bleating of some astigmatic git who'd likely take the Racial Pixie sketch at face value. Lunatics haven't their own nation (island or other) yet, but apparently they can get publishing deals no problem.

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