Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

How to Write about Japan

This is the title of a very good essay written by Patrick Sherriff, a writer/journalist who lives in Akibo, Japan.

How to Write about Japan takes on some of the story lines and stereotypes used and reused by people who write about Japan:  the "inscrutability" of the Japanese, the poor suicidal "salaryman", the recycling of old stories about weird "trends" that may or not really exist outside the observer's mind, the strange food, and the pictures that always show the Japanese doing something odd and so on and so forth.

Sherriff pulls no punches about the travel writers who use these themes in their articles.  "If the Japanese are so darned inscrutably different from regular folk," he writes,  "how in the hell can you, whose only expertise is you got through two-thirds of Shogun in college, get at the Real Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun Japan, The Cat and the Concrete Japan?"

The Real Japan?  Ah, this I recognize.  It's a close cousin to a place called The Real France (aka la France profonde).  In this imaginary world the French are just as mysterious - a strange but adorable tribe with quaint and exotic customs that are an endless source of amusement and wonder.

It is generally true that wherever an expat finds him or herself is unique and completely unlike any other place on the planet.  The vocation of the travel writer and long-term residents who write expat biographies is to assert insider status and reveal differences to an audience out there in the world who will hopefully find it interesting enough to pay to read about it.

Note that this uniqueness is always defined by the culture of origin of the writer, and probably reveals more about the writer himself and his relationship to his home country and culture than it does about the country he or she writes about.    

Sherriff's  "rules" show what is sacrificed in that effort to be interesting and saleable.  Articles that emphasize the exotic and perpetuate negative and positive stereotypes have the effect of practically writing the population concerned out of membership in the human race.  Complex human beings who are themselves unique individuals living on a planet composed of other unique individuals become static cardboard cutouts defined by their deviation from norms that are the mental and cultural baggage of the writer, and read as gospel truth by readers continents away. How dangerous is this?

Very.  That the Japanese are "inscrutable" and impossibly different sounds very much like something my grandfather might have said - the one who went to war against them.

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I invite you to read the article that inspired this one:  How to Write about Africa.

And I would love to hear from you, Flophouse reader, about the rules for writing and selling articles about the country where you live.


4 comments:

Donna said...

Great post, Victoria, and entertaining and instructive articles! After having lived in Ireland for only 10 months, I don't have quite the depths to draw upon as those demonstrated by you and the other authors, but I'll give it a go:

1) Essential buzzwords: Guiness; leprechauns, or "little people"; Emerald Isle; banshee; potatoes; Catholic.

2) Essential concepts: quaint locals with lilting accents, twinkling eyes and ruddy cheeks, wearing grubby clothes and wellies; the incredible array of greens in the indescribably beautiful landscape; traditional problem with drink; the land that invented Halloween; the warm and friendly people; the Great Famine; immigration to the New World; backward and undeveloped, struggling to move forward; great first world place to spend your money and feel good, because they need it and everyone speaks English; close ancestral ties between Ireland and the US.

3) Special note re: the "little people"--if you're wishing to establish your bona fides as someone who sips tea with the Irish at their own farmhouse tables, call them the "good people". Only if you're writing for an academic publication do you call them the Sidhe.

4) Concepts to ignore:
a) that Ireland is a modern, first-world country, developing its infrastructure and its self-confidence and capacity to think for itself after centuries of domination by imperial forces and religious organizations, and no longer ticks all the aforementioned boxes;
b) even though there are so many empty houses, you'll be spending loads of money, and they should be grateful you want to come over to stay (see item 2 above), you can't just decide to come over to live and work: you will not necessarily be welcomed with open arms.

Wow. Quite an exercise in itself. Thank you.

Iris Kapil said...

I can't give you rules for writing and selling such articles but can tell my own experience in writing about countries where I've lived. I was born in 1930 as an American WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), married a Hindu Indian, have two children and raised a Muslim Indian boy from Somalia, taught and did research in anthropology, lived and worked in several countries as an expatriate wife. I wrote Tales of Mogadiscio about the people I knew there, plus a chapter on Somali culture and the consequences for personality. On my blog I write about Somali friends, Turkish culture and my Turkish friends, India and Indian family and friends, and will be writing about Indonesia and my Indonesian friends. I lived in Paris but circumstances prevented my developing a real friendship there. (I wrote about that on my blog.) In the U.S., generally my friends are from ethnic identities other than my own. Thus far the feedback to my writing about other cultures has been positive. What worked was seeking out in each place I lived those individuals I liked and who liked talking with me, individuals with whom I shared certain personality traits, such as curiosity. From these friendships and the perspective of caring about a number of individuals I could better analyze the cultural differences. I haven't written to sell a book, so can't tell you what sells.

Leslie in Oregon said...

After being born and raised in the U.S., I travelled the world from 1968 through 1978, when I was in my 20's. On the rare occasions when I have shared any anecdotes or observations from those travels with anyone, I have almost always been advised to "write a book" about those experiences and observations. I am very glad I did not take that advice. It always seemed to me that it would be fatuous at best on my part to presume to know or understand anything about what I had observed or experienced in any place other than where I lived. I don't how long I would have to live in a place before I felt qualified to write about living there. The longest I lived in one place "abroad" was two separate years, in French Switzerland, and when I left after the second year there, I still had no real clue as to how to interpret what I observed and experienced there.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Busy morning! I went from birth certificates to travel writing and finally wrote today's post.

But what I found about travel writing was very exciting (for me anyway). There were a number of books written in the 1990's that are criticsms of travel writing. One that is available in pdf is The Global Politics of Contemporary Travel Writing (just google it and you'll find it). The author critiques two types of travel writing represented by two authors: Paul Theroux and Bill Bryson.

Donna, what you describe is the "Bill Bryson" style which is very prevalent today. It's cosmopolitan, funny, positive, engaging. How could anyone possibly complain? After all, only nice positive things are said, right? The author of this book does not agree: "It is the travel writers who enact a cosmopolitan vision who are most alarming, for they smuggle in equally judgemental accounts of otherness under the guise of equality, tolerance and respect for difference." She also notes the use of nostalgia by many writers: "travel writers produce a powerful discourse of nostalgia in order to cultivate a longing for the
past. At least during colonialism people knew their place ‘they’ were
elsewhere, and ‘they’ were behind ‘us’, dutifully marching along the
road to civility, progress and emancipation. The difficulty, of course,
is that these ‘backward’ places now reveal signs of modernity and
Westernisation they are just as globalised, cosmopolitan and sophisticated
as home."

I think there is truth here. There is enormous resistance in the US and other anglosphere countries to seeing countries like France, Ireland or Japan as modern. That's not where they are "supposed" to be. :-)

@Iris, I love your writing. I went looking for more recent writing about Somalia and didn't find much. What I glean from the news reports is a stark picture of starving struggling and dangerous people. Pirates seems to be the face of Somalia these days.

@Leslie, I'm with you. If I wrote anything it would be straight fiction. :-)