Once one learns about Said’s concept of Orientalism, one starts to see it in all sorts of writings about Japan. Orientalism is the idea that the East (and it is “the East” to Orientalists, not “Japan” or “Egypt” or even “Asian nations”) is an unknowable, ineffable place, completely mysterious to all outsiders (which, of course, tend to be white men). That definition – though largely correct – makes Orientalism seem like a simple, unimportant thing. For example, if a person were to learn Japanese and a bit about the history and culture, then one might argue that that person believed that “the East” was knowable. The devil is in the details.
Recently I have been reading Alan Booth’s Looking for the Lost. I like travellers’ tales, and since it is from Kodansha (which tends to produce very well-written works) I picked it up one day at an Asian furniture/fabrics/et cetera store. The book was published after Booth’s death, so presumably there are things that he would change if he had a chance. Consequently I dislike judging him entirely based on this book. Yet something has bothered me about it from the start, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. For some reason I kept thinking back to a class that I took on Buddhist poetry last fall; one day we watched an old video about the Inland Sea area of Japan which, for an educational video, talked an awful lot about sex. The line that sparked the discussion basically said that all tourists’ most interesting thing to do was have sex with the natives. The class got side-tracked about Donald Keene (the narrator of the video), whose works apparently often discuss sex with Japanese women. (Our poor professor, who had never noticed the sex bits before, seemed rather bemused.)
I eventually realised that both the Inland Sea movie and Looking for the Lost remind me of the Orientalist stereotype of the subservient Asian woman who stands ready to meet the Western man’s every desire, sexual or otherwise. It is much less blatant in Looking for the Lost, but a sentence at the beginning of the fifth chapter finally clued me in:
All along the road I heard the scuffling of animals, but it was always the hooded women of the villages foraging for bamboo shoots and bracken.
The women here aren’t even human, and they could have been. Booth could as easily have said that he thought he heard the scuffling of animals, but it was always women instead. Now, you could easily say that he’s just trying some fancy writing there, but throughout the book he mixes animals, inanimate objects and women together. He writes of waves on a beach resembling women’s breasts, for example. Those would have to be very odd waves. Additionally, he continually inserts references to sex, such as when he mentions hostesses at bars tugging men’s penises under the tables. Asides like that don’t add to his writing, they merely serve to titillate. And they sound like a joke – at least, one assumes that the hostesses do not actually yank their customers’ private bits; that sounds more like extortion than pleasure to me. To some extent, he is just an earthy writer. After all, he also discusses relieving himself outside after drinking too much beer. But a larger part of it is him regarding the idea of the Japanese woman sexually. When he meets actual Japanese women they are always old, and he always makes fun of them in some way. There is the innkeeper with an otherwise empty inn whom he mocks for only being willing to host him if he speaks Japanese, or the passel of women at an inn who run around like busy little bees getting him settled in – until the sumo match featuring their hometown hero comes on, at which point they disappear. In the latter story, there are also men watching the wrestler, but Booth’s mockery is mostly reserved for the women. I can’t help wondering if it is because they are not the sexy, subservient, Orientalist women he wants but real, hardworking, older women who are willing to ignore their smelly, sexist, foreign customers in favor of their own interests.