Voices | FOREIGN AGENDA

Fans of Japan and East Asia are reinventing Orientalism with a friendlier face

by Andreas Neuenkirchen

Contributing Writer

Apparently there is a trailer out there for an upcoming superhero movie that features scenes in an Asian city that is supposed to be Tokyo, my spiritual home for almost 20 years, my actual hometown for about three.

Before I even got a chance to see the clip, I came across criticism (on social media, of course) of how this Tokyo doesn’t look anything like the real Tokyo. In fact, as one amateur critic pointed out, it looks like Tokyo imagined by somebody who has never been there.

I still haven’t seen the trailer in question — actually, I’ve already forgotten which film it is for — but I have a pretty good idea what this Tokyo looks like: thousands of colorful neon lights reflected on black asphalt wet with rain, steaming makeshift fast-food joints, random oriental ornamentation.

Sounds good to me. This kind of kitsch was what got me interested in Asia.

The first time I entered a Chinese restaurant as a kid in semi-rural Germany in the 1970s, I felt like I’d been transported into another world. A world of golden dragons, red lanterns, exotic gowns, dreamy paintings of fantastic landscapes, all set to magical flute music. The food wasn’t bad either.

I did not know it then, and I did not become aware of it for quite some time, but this event most likely sparked my interest in (almost) everything Asian. I started seeking out kung-fu comic books and Bruce Lee movies, oblivious to the fact that these were as simplified or exaggerated representations of Asian locales and culture as that restaurant, which looked like no Chinese restaurant in China ever looks (unless it’s a tourist trap).

When the original “Blade Runner” came out, its characters and plot left me cold. But, man, it certainly looked swell. The setting was supposed to be Los Angeles, yet it was not much of a secret that the look was based on several cities in Japan. I did not want to be Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard — not like I aspired to become Han Solo — but I wanted to live where he lives.

As superficial as the aesthetics of “Blade Runner” are, its modest second-run success paved the way for relatively wide Western releases of actual Japanese movies like “Akira” and the original “Ghost in the Shell.” Those have in turn influenced many Western films.

An ‘ism’ in need of an upgrade

It seems that the last couple of decades have given rise to a new kind of Orientalism. It is not the Orientalism of our grandparents’ grandparents. It is not the product and instrument of imperialism and colonialism that Edward Said identified in his landmark study of the subject.

I am not going to dispute Said. Neither do I have the academic chops, nor do I fundamentally disagree with him. However, his book speaks almost exclusively of the Middle East, and his observations end somewhere in the 1960s (with Orientalism being published in the early 1970s, we won’t hold that against him). The new, friendly Orientalism I am talking about mainly concerns what is considered the Far East, and it is rather looking up to its subject than looking down on it. In itself it is as naive and superficial as the evil, old Orientalism, yet it can be an entry point for deeper engagement.

It may be a long road, though. My exposure to Asian-inspired food and Asian-inspired entertainment in my childhood did not really teach me much about Asia. When I finally got the chance to visit Hong Kong with my parents, I bought a Japanese phrase book. That’s how little I knew about Asia, its countries and their languages.

But guess what? I got better. Not by watching more Bruce Lee movies (although I certainly did), but by visiting and experiencing the places I had fantasized about, and by reading up on them after the fact.

Don’t fear the cliche

I learned that not all of Asia is neon lights and dragon ornaments. I also learned that yes, there are indeed some neon lights and dragon ornaments. Old Asia hands scoff at what they feel is a cliched representation of their countries of expertise. However, trying to avoid cliches can be much more awkward than respectfully acknowledging their truth.

When I started writing my first crime novel set in Tokyo, I made three vows: no sakura (cherry blossoms), no yakuza, no sumo. In the end I thought, “Well, one out of three isn’t so bad.”

There really wasn’t any room for sumo wrestling in my plot. Cherry blossoms, on the other hand, couldn’t be avoided. The story takes places in spring, and there is simply no way around cherry blossoms in spring. So they did pop up. In the very first sentence.

It took a bit longer to get to the yakuza, but they proved to be as unavoidable as sakura — because they do exist and they are directly or indirectly connected to many an act of crime. A Tokyo police procedural where nobody ever bumps into a crime syndicate member seems extremely far-fetched.

The most common criticism of classic Orientalism is the colonial nature of its view. This view might romanticize certain aspects of what Europeans and Americans call “The Orient,” but at the end of the day it regards Western culture as superior.

That is not the case for the New Orientalism. The young people who marvel at the cityscapes of “Ghost in the Shell,” go crazy about ramen and stack their bookshelves with manga genuinely think that anything Japanese is much cooler than anything from their own culture. That, of course, is an attitude that will need a reality check at some point. Still, it is a preferable position to be in than smugly looking down on a foreign culture.

Idealized simplification between East and West goes both ways. The Germany that I come from certainly does not have much resemblance to the castle-lined “Romantic Road” that Japanese tourist buses routinely travel on. In fact, I’d never heard the term “Romantic Road” in connection to Germany before I came to Japan. And still: Castles exist in Germany, just like neon lights and cherry blossoms do in Japan.

Speaking of Germany, when I told a young acquaintance from the Japanophile community there about my plans to permanently relocate to Tokyo with my family, she gushed over how it would be so much better for my daughter to grow up there, since everyone here is so nice and well-behaved and the schools are free of bullies. When I gently set her straight about bullying actually being a major problem at Japanese schools, she looked at me as if I were a liar and a traitor. But she will learn.

She will learn because she is interested. The seed has been sown. She will learn that not everything about Japan is super-cute or otherwise super, and she will learn that this doesn’t mean she has to abandon her love for Japan in general.

Andreas Neuenkirchen is a German novelist and essayist based in Tokyo. Foreign Agenda is a forum for opinion on issues related to life in Japan.

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