I’m afraid I’m going to be dashing off this last blog post about Japan rather quickly and carelessly because I’m leaving for Kenya in just a few days, and I have at least a million things to do between now and then. But I wanted to get this last post out before I left, and hopefully I will be able to blog from Kenya a “Nairobi Diary.”
Sorry for that apologetic preface, but here goes what may prove to be my most convoluted, rambling blog post ever…
I want to talk a little bit about the experience my students and I had at the United Nations University, when we attended the Africa Day Symposium (thanks to the gracious efforts of our host university), but since we experienced this event in the context of a study-abroad in Japan, I want to relate the United Nations University experience to two other things: Japanese culture more broadly understood and — you may be surprised about this one — the work I do with the Oromo, whom I’ve blogged about several times previously [here], [here], and [here]. Yes, yes, of course it all connects, yes, yes, of course it does — why else would I be blogging about it? — and of course the connections are also full of disconnects, as I aim to make clear once I finally stop with the prefatory remarks and get on with the story.
So, that’s the topic, but instead of just saying what I’m saying, I’m going to make my usual sideways, theory-dork kind of move – in other words, a bit more of my obnoxious prefacing. So, preface number two: those who know me know that nothing irritates me more than statements such as “Muslims all think in such and such a way,” or “In order to understand why Japan was successful in the 1980s, you have to understand the Japanese mind.” Two things bother me about these kinds of claims. First, they are culturally deterministic in really simplistic ways, as if one’s very mind were a product of “culture” the same way a piece of pottery, poem, or pop song were a product of culture. Second, they posit a bizarre unity to a culture, as if all people belonging to a nation, ethnic group, or family think and act the same. When I consider how different I am from everyone I grew up with in Orange County, California (including my own family members), such statements intuitively make no sense to me.
So, just to point out something curious about Japan. The same country that has the Hiroshima Museum and Monument to World Peace (which I blogged about a week ago here) and hosts the United Nations University also has the Yasukuni Shrine, a shrine which insists on controversially defending and celebrating war criminals [see here]. Next to the shrine is a War Museum, which includes things like vintage machine guns and the famous Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane. Ironically, the name “yasukuni” literally means “peaceful country.”
I took my students to the Yasukuni shrine because I felt they would get a skewed image of Japan if we only visited the monument to peace and the UN University. And my point here is rather obvious: it’s stupid to make claims about a national culture when cultures have so much diversity and contradicitory sensibilities within them. For example, as I mentioned before in my blog about Hiroshima, my students and I read the poetry of Sadako Kurihara, who was writing poetry against the war as early as 1943 and was protesting Japanese imperialism well before that. Certainly she was a minority view in Japan in the 1930s and 40s, but her view eventually became closer to the majority view by the 1970s.
And of course, I’ve already been blogging repeatedly about the “old” and “new” forms of culture in Japan. I personally find it amusing to take a group of American students who know hardly anything about American history to a history museum in Japan with a group of Japanese students who know hardly anything about Japanese history. One might expect bringing the Japanese students along would be useful because they could help my American students understand what they are looking at, but no, not really. As one of my colleagues recently pointed out to me (and as my students noticed while they were there), Japanese television tends to be dominated by happy, cheerful programs about delicious food at quaintly designed restaurants. And of course, likewise, I doubt my American students would be able to offer much help to any Japense tourists visiting an American history musum. In other words, culture means what?
Now back to the United Nations University experience. What was immediately cool about this is that we got to sit at these desks and put on those earpieces and get the simulcast translation. We all felt a little cooler than we actually are at that moment, as my student pointed out in his blog [here]. Some of the people speaking were some major, major dudes such as a former Prime Minister of Japan, Yoshiro Mori. However, there was a creepy consistency to the all of the speeches. First, the non-creepy consistancy was that all of them pointed out that the current economic crisis has already begun to affect Africa and will cause more problems there than it is causing elsewhere in the world. This was the theme of the conference. Second, Japan is one of the only countries to actually increase its aid in response to the problem and actually delivers the aid that it promises. (A side note, in contrast, the United States under George Bush notoriously promised a lot of aid to Africa but delivered little — a fact all of the speakers were too polite to mention, but which I am not too polite to mention.) A lot of my students were bothered by the amount of self praise the Japanese were doing, as well as the seemingly obsequious praise the African speakers were heaping on Japan, but I wonder if my students would be similarly bothered if they heard Americans bragging about American aid to Africa on American television. But the third thing — and one of the most troubling things — was how consistently all of the panelists believed that market intergration was a solution to Africa’s problems. My students were struck by the lack of diversity of viewpoints represented, and were also struck that nobody mentioned how the world market is affected by disparities in power except for the representative of UNICEF’s children’s fund (whose presentation was by far the best for all sorts of reasons.) Let me repeat, only the person representing children mentioned the rather obvious and important fact that the economy is political.
Now, don’t mistake me. I’m not some protectionist against market integration. Market integration certainly gave Africa’s economy a boost this past decade, but the past twenty years of integration is partly resonsible for how easily the contagions of America’s housing flu could contaminate the economies of Africa. In other words, being for or against market integration is like being for or against trade in general, which is like being for or against breathing. It makes no sense. Rather, the real issue is how one goes about doing it — what regulations, rules, social safety nets, and protections need to be in place to ensure that market integration doesn’t lead to mass starvation and violent cultural upheaval. In order to ensure that the wide variety of rights are protected — rights that are economic, human, cultural, and environmental.
So, what’s the point of all this? You can probably tell that I’m struggling to tie together all the threads of this blog, but let’s return to the question, how do we understand this Africa Day Symposium in terms of the broader experience of Japanese culture? Is it even possible? Clearly, as I’ve just discussed, the symposium was dominated by the neoliberal logic of market integration and free trade. There’s certainly nothing Japanese about that; rather, this fact simply underscores the ways in which culture needs to be understood in the context of a very, very political economy. Japan and America’s interest in defining Africa’s troubles in terms of market-based solutions may have something to do with Japan and America’s powerful position in the world market rather than with Japan and America’s cultural traditions.
Now, at the beginning of this blog I promised to talk about my work with the Oromo. While in Japan, I visited an NGO, whose name I won’t mention here, as a representative of Sandscribe Communications, in hopes to raise money for a media school in Ethiopia. There was a genuine interest on the part of the people I talked with in the work Sandscribe wants to do. Also while in Japan, I gave a lecture at our host university on how American literature has, historically, represented Ethiopia since the 17th century to the present. I want to present a rather self-congratulatory contrast here. While the UN University emphasized the overview perspective of large governments, international institutions, and multinational corporations, my work represents the grassroots efforts, the view from below – and please notice that both overview and underview include cross-cultural communication as well as the transnational transfers of knowledge and capital.
So, back to my question… culture means what?
And instead of answering that oh-so-difficult-to-answer question, let’s go back to the Yasukuni shrine, which has more to do with the United Nations than you might think. After the war, various Japanese generals and higher-ups were convicted of war crimes by the international community. Now, at the Yasukuni Shrine is a statue of the International Military Tribunal’s dissenting judge (from India, incidentally), who protested that convicting these people of war crimes was unfair, considering the nature of war. And he has a point. Nobody was prosecuting Europeans or Americans for the horrible things they did to Native American, African, South Asian, and South-East Asian populations for centuries. Nobody was prosecuting the United States for dropping an atomic bomb. What counts as a war crime here? Who is right here, and whose rights are we talking about when we talk about the protection of rights, liberties, and… well… life?… All of which is the whole point of the United Nations, the point of my work with the Oromo (many of whom are not all peace-and-love types, but see violence as an acceptable tool in their struggle for political liberation), and… ultimately… and I’m afraid I’m going to get a bit sappy here… the point of study-abroad programs in the first place.