Popular fictions

Misinformation and stereotypes
less harmful than "correctness"

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared as "Between the Lines: Fictional portrayals of Japanese society offer a mix of errors and insights" in
By the Way, Vol. 3, No. 1, January/February 1993, pages 42-45.

Japanese version


The Japan peril
Regretful stereotypes
Imaginary gaps
Which Japan?
Disinformation doctors
Freedom of expression

About once a week in the United States, there appears a new novel that is partly set in Japan, or which features Japanese characters in other parts of the world. At least as many newly published Japanese novels to some extent involve America and Americans. In genre, these novels range from serious contemporary literature to mystery, romance, western, war, adventure, historical, and science fiction. Few become best sellers, and those that do have their share of factual errors.

While factual errors greatly alarm "international understanding" watchdogs, most popular novels concerning Japan and the United States are no more harmful than most non-fiction works. And not a few novels, despite their informational flaws, are far more honest than propaganda that consciously attempts to present an ideologically "correct" view.

The Japan peril

A spate of American novels have portrayed Japanese potentates who, as heads of conglomerates or secret societies, conspire to ruin or take over the United States if not the world. These bad guys are typically driven by a desire to avenge Japan's defeat in World War II, a sense of racial superiority, and a paranoid obsession that only Japan can save the world from the ethical inferiority and moral degradation of Euro-American thought and behavior, by controlling and Japanizing it.

The villains in Michael Crichton's current best seller, Rising Sun (Alfred Knopf, 1992), however, are mainly American politicians and company executives who are selfishly moved to help predatory Japanese corporations in the United States buy more American technology and acquire greater market share. The freshness of this realistic and pragmatic "revisionist" message is spoiled, though, by the kind of "Japan is" and "the Japanese are" formulas that mar most writing about Japan-journalistic and academic-in English and in Japanese.

The main character of Rising Sun is a Japan expert who Crichton has called "the voice the reader is asked to believe." This character twice claims that "the Japanese are the most racist people on earth." But this is impossible for two reasons: contrary to the view expressed throughout Rising Sun, "the Japanese" are not a race and not even an ethnic group; and even if they were, the discriminatory acts described in the novel are committed by individuals, not a group.

Regretful stereotypes

At the same time, more Japanese popular novels are indulging the fantasies of readers who want to vicariously experience the pleasures, thrills, and dangers of travel and life overseas. More novels are also featuring all kinds of foreigners as neighbors, colleagues, and lovers, and as perpetrators and victims of crime in jungles like Tokyo.

Narayama Fujio's Rosu Ritoru Tokyo satsujin jiken [A murder in Little Tokyo, LA] (Shodensha, 1992), for example, follows the practice, common in English and in Japanese, of stereotyping people in the idiom of racialist "blood" metaphors. The "great proportions" of an American woman in the story "were produced by mixing, half the blood of her Irish father, and half the blood of her Nikkeijin mother. But, if she had a defect, it seemed that her father's blood was thicker than her mother's, in that self-control and patience were not among her strong points."

A more regretful defect is shared by a Japanese woman who comes to the United States to become an actress but ends up a prostitute, and the married Japanese man who kills her. "I should never have come to Los Angeles!" the man sobs to the Japanese American officer who arrests him.

Narayama suggests that the tragedies his Japanese characters meet are largely of their own making. Yet the story is akin to a prime-time TV show that warns "innocent" Japanese to avoid a "dangerous" America.

Imaginary gaps

Though tips of related icebergs, these two novels suggest how entertainment fiction can be flawed by misrepresentations, imbalance, and stereotypes. Such informational defects are commonly regarded as sources of "misunderstanding" and "friction" between "countries" or "cultures" like "Japan" and "America". Yet many of the critics and intellectuals who monitor "misunderstandings" about Japan are themselves in the habit of perpetuating "national character" myths that seriously distort perceptions of reality.

The main symptoms of "national character" fallacies are phrases that begin with "Japan is" and "the Japanese are". Such expressions nurture the romantic illusion that "Japan" and "the Japanese" exist as an animated singularity which is capable of thought and perception.

A lot of editorial fuss is made about the alleged "information gap" and "perception gap" between the United States and Japan. Popular novels are often taken as examples of such gaps. Some people believe that if more Japanese novels were translated into English and read in the United States, US-Japan relations would improve. But human history shows that knowledge of neighboring languages and literatures, and other "cultural" exchanges, do not themselves prevent conflict.

The very concept of "perception gap" between Japan and the United States is fallacious because such geographic and demographic entities are incapable of perception. In the same vein, formulas like "Japan thinks" and "the Japanese believe" are mixed metaphors. The likelihood of a group of people sharing a "perception" decreases in proportion to its size. The orthodox view, that "Japan" and "the Japanese" constitute an integrated living organism that possesses a central nervous system and a brain, assumes a degree of "national" and "state" solidarity that simply does not (and, fortunately, cannot) exist-except in myth.

Which Japan?

"When in Rome, do as the Roman's do" is good advice only if one is prepared to ask, "Which Romans? The good or the bad?" Recognition that Japan is a complex country is the first step toward freeing oneself from the relativist obligation to "accept" the official view of Japan as one state, one race, one language, one culture, one historical experience.

Japan is a geographically extensive territory, and its human fauna are diverse. Even Japan's putative state-which defines and defends the political boundaries of the ecosphere called "Japan"-is rarely able to speak with a single and uniform official voice.

Propaganda published in English by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or its semi-governmental affiliates fail to mention ethnic minorities in Japan like Ainu Japanese and Okinawan Japanese, and people of Korean and Chinese ancestry, to mention only the larger groups. They also usually make no mention of social minorities like burakumin, Japanese who regard themselves as the descendants of outcastes emancipated by law in 1871, and who may continue to experience various forms of discrimination.

Contrary to the assertions of most publications that consciously try to put a "positive face" on Japan: Japanese is not the only language of the country, Shinto is not the only native religion, society is not held together by consensus and harmony, few Japanese love nature, and isolation and peace are no more traits of Japanese history than they are of the histories of other politically and socially complex territories. So it seems there are many Japanese cultures-not just the official one.

Disinformation doctors

An interesting problem arises when books written in Japanese or English are translated from one language to the other: censorship. In the case of popular novels, most translation-hence censorship-is from English to Japanese. Thus readers of the Japanese edition of Rising Sun are getting a very different view of social problems in Japan than are readers of the English edition. For example, the English edition mentions burakumin, but they have been cut from the Japanese edition.

Censorship is not limited to gatekeepers acting under direct pressure from a person or group that wants to protect an image and interests, or acting out of fear of negative publicity, intimidation, even terrorism. Censorship also results when translators and editors presume that it is their duty to protect readers from views-right or wrong-that might cause "misunderstanding" in Japanese society.

No wonder, then, that foreign students coming to Japan are likely to know the names of minority groups, or to have read about wartime atrocities, the very mention of which are apt to embarrass, shock, and confuse their Japanese hosts. No wonder that many Japanese of all ages are unprepared to debate whether the present Japanese government should take moral responsibility for acts committed in the name of its imperial predecessor during the decades of colonization and war-or whether the government ought to be doing more to recognize Japan's ethnic and social minorities and protect their human rights.

Freedom of expression

While popular novels involving the United States and Japan may be full of erroneous information and misleading images, they are often more reliable guides to the real world than works of orthodox Japanology. Writers of popular novels may be more willing than scholars to recognize that personality can be a more powerful than culture-especially in the world of raw political power, in which culture is apt to be at the mercy of educators and other propagandists who use "values" as instruments of social manipulation.

Popular novels can also be more realistic in how they portray the disorganization of human life. Where propaganda beautifies order and exaggerates goodness, writers of fiction remind us that all societies host their share of parasites-some very evil-that are bent on personal gain at the expense of others. Popular novels that deal with industrial espionage and political intrigue are especially adept at showing how people in all walks of life can be corrupted by ideology and power.

Most writers of popular novels are story tellers, not propagandists. Sometimes they write in ignorance about the people and places they portray, and at times their fantasies reflect personal prejudice. But in a free society, their fictional views of the human condition are an important balance to those of the propagandists who would censor them.