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June 28th, 2009 - click opera — LiveJournal
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June 28th, 2009
Sun, Jun. 28th, 2009 10:48 am

"Japan hand" is a term I dislike. There's something colonial or corporate about it, something (let's drop the false distinction between those historical phases) colonial-corporate. It's used in phrases like "longtime Japan hands" or "experienced Japan hands", and it basically means "foreigners living in Japan", with the sense that they've been posted there and left to accumulate some kind of marginal seniority based on arcane knowledge of "the natives" and "the tricky situation on the ground".

"Japan hands" also contains an ambiguous positionality; these "hands" are "lending a hand", like deckhands on the deck of a ship. But who's their captain? What language do their instructions come in? Are they under the command of the Japanese, or of corporate and governmental headquarters in far-off lands? Is Japan a ship? Is it moving, going somewhere? If so, who determines its direction, Japanese or foreigners? How many foreign hands are allowed on the ship's wheel, and how much of an effect can they have?



"Japan hands" tend to eke out their time in Japan as liminal observers, spies of a kind. Some "report back" to the West with foreign-language books explaining the Japanese to non-Japanese with apparent expertise. They sometimes seem to have a common purpose in the form of a vague -- yet slightly hopeless -- wish that Japan were different, which is to say less different, more like the West. They combine this wish for difference-that-is-less-different with a wish (equally hopeless) that they themselves could cease, in the eyes of the Japanese, to be different. They want both to change Japan, and to become Japanese without changing themselves. Generally they remain loyal to a home audience, framing Japan for head office and the foreign public for whom they pass as "Japan experts" rather than the Japanese audience for whom they are -- and will always be -- foreigners, people who don't quite understand.

The french verb assister catches the shadowland ambiguity of the Japan hand's position; it means both attending something as an audience member and helping change it as a participant. It's in the nebulous semantic territory between these two senses of assister that the "Japan Hand" dwells and -- inevitably -- ages, preparing either to die in Japan, or to leave one day.

I've noticed a small exodus of creative foreigners from Japan recently -- people I thought were there longterm, people who seemed to be heading for "Japan hand" status. The recession, while it makes Japan cheaper, may be making Tokyo a less exciting or practicable place to pursue a creative career in. Photographer Zoren Gold, who seemed like a fixture in his airy house atop a hill in Nakameguro, recently exchanged Japan for California, taking his muse-model Minori with him. Actually, they met in LA, so I suppose they had roots there. The artist Pol Malo, after eleven years in Japan, is now (according to his Art-It blog) "moving from kyoto to berlin. see you once i get there". Musician Digiki (Antonin Gaultier) is also considering a move from Tokyo to Berlin. Another Art-It blogger, Hanayo, has already been here for a decade. I wonder if the Japanese call her a "Germany hand"?

A small example of "Japan hand" frustration: Marxy recently twittered on the Neojaponisme feed: "The "Kitano Affair" reveals how lame the Japanese media is. A guy's career is ended and no one can reveal exactly why?" Background, via Japan-Zone: "Popular talento Kitano Makoto (50) gave a press conference at the Westin Hotel in Osaka to apologize for the verbal gaffes that may yet end his career. Long known as a straight talker, he has a history of upsetting people with the things he says on his radio show. He bowed repeatedly to reporters and said that he had allowed his image as a "dokusetsu" (poison tongue) talento to become his "curse." Neither Kitano nor his Shochiku Geino management have clarified exactly what he said that caused the latest uproar, but they denied Internet rumors that his target had been either a certain religious organization or show business management agency (the strongly politically affiliated Soka Gakkai organization is sometimes referred to as a cult, while the Burning agency is said to be a front for the yakuza). Kitano was in tears as he talked about his family and how he had asked them to be patient with him until he got his career back on track. He has been dropped from all his regular radio and TV shows, the last one having been broadcast on Monday. His forced sabbatical is open-ended but he insisted yesterday that he doesn't want to quit show business and will aim to get back on the air someday."

Now, I'm not sure what Marxy's definition of "the Japanese media" is, but in far-away Berlin the Japanese community somehow knows all about this story. They tell me that Kitano said something about the boss of Burning Agency being gay, and that as a result Kitano has had to apologise tearfully. He'll never work in Tokyo -- at least not in anything related to the entertainment industry -- again, I'm told. Japanese in Berlin know this from a combination of sources, all freely available on the web. Their view is not that Kitano (and other "poison tongues") should be allowed to speak up, point fingers, accuse, open Pandora's Box, "advance towards a more transparent media landscape", etc, but that his enforced retirement sends a good sign, spelling out loud and clear the message that people shouldn't slander each other in public. As on most issues raised, the Japan hands and the Japanese have completely different takes on this story.

There are zones of cultural convergence between the West and Japan which succeed better. Art-It's move from a paper to a web magazine has been excellently implemented -- the registration process is rather mendokusai, but the results (a big range of interesting content) well worthwhile. The image I've borrowed here is from Roger McDonald's Art-It blog. Tagged "pataphysic past fashions", it shows an "intentionally faked photograph" produced in 1974 by radical Japanese fashion label The Afro Ninja Destiny.

McDonald takes up the tale: "The label probably produced one collection in its existence, presented in a thin photocopied booklet titled ‘The Closet of Richard Aoki’ (Richard Aoki, 1938-2009, was one of the first members of The Black Panther Party, eventually promoted to the position of Field Marshall). The label is thought to have operated from a large lean-to shelter constructed by fashion students in Northern Nagano prefecture. This photograph shows a woman (perhaps a model) in a winter costume which was included in ‘The Closet of Richard Aoki’. Created in layers almost solely from silk and home-spun wool, the woman holds a classic andon lamp. On the wall behind her are two posters: The official 1973 release version poster for the film ‘Enter the Dragon’, starring Bruce Lee, and a single page from the Black Panther newspaper with an image by Emory Douglas. Note the unusually heavy looking left arm of the woman’s kimono which probably contained kindling and wood for fire-making."

No hands are visible in the image.

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