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Sun, Jun. 28th, 2009 10:48 am
Japan hand

"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.

63CommentReply

imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Jun. 28th, 2009 09:41 am (UTC)

I'm not saying some of these Japan hands aren't damned good eggs. William Franklin begins his Careers in International/Asia Pacific Business: Perspectives of an Experienced Japan Hand with this thought:

"If we shrink the world's 5.7 billion population to a village of 100 people with all existing human ratios remaining the same, here is the resulting profile. Of these 100 people, 57 are Asian, 21 European, 14 from North and South America and eight from Africa. It would consist of 51 females, 49 males. Of these, 80 live in sub-standard housing, 70 cannot read, and half suffer from malnutrition. 75 have never made a phone call and less than one is on the Internet. Half the entire village's wealth would be in the hands of six people. Only one of the 100 has a college education."


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Jun. 28th, 2009 09:58 am (UTC)

http://www.snopes.com/science/stats/populate.asp


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Jun. 28th, 2009 09:59 am (UTC)

Actually, I don't think it was that Kitano said he was gay, but that he talked about Burning's procurement of publishing rights from the band Southern All Stars as a form of bribe for being allowed "in the music industry." This is Burning's bread-and-butter, and you can't talk about this in public. Since it is true, it is not slander. You just aren't allowed to expose the inner workings of a secret monopoly in public. Kitano is in an industry where you can talk openly about what you see around you. I am sure you would love to have the same constraints upon your own work and blog.

I am skeptical that the Berlin Japanese expat community has reached consensus that the Kitano affair "proves how well the Japanese media works" especially since the story spread on 2ch as outrage against Burning and the media for not following up on the story. And lots of eccentric people — porn directors and even "otaku idol" Shokotan — have come out in support of Kitano against Burning's overbearing response. So you can hate Japan hands, but you always ignore the main point: some of us literally just regurgitate points made by Japanese people. You are shooting the messenger as a way to ignore the fact the message upsets a view of a Japan that has one mind and one heart.

Marxy


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stanleylieber
stanleylieber
Stanley Lieber
Sun, Jun. 28th, 2009 10:11 am (UTC)

phallic japan


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Jun. 28th, 2009 01:57 pm (UTC)

if you want to know the magic 3 letter phrase that can change you from a gaijin with yellow fever to being a member of the secret asian circle raise your hand


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Jun. 30th, 2009 10:56 pm (UTC)

I know I know! It’s “Moon Prism Power, Make-UP!”


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Jun. 28th, 2009 01:58 pm (UTC)

Have you read anything of the life and writings of Robert van Gulik (1910-1967)? He was a polyglot Dutch “Asia hand” (ambassador, scholar, novelist) married to a Chinese woman; someone who reflected upon the boxes and boundaries of social and cultural expectations, and how to get beyond them.

He wrote: “Without scholarly work, I could not have continued my diplomatic career, where one deals exclusively with matters of temporary significance; scholarly research offers a welcome refuge, for there everything one does has permanent value, even one's mistakes, for these will enable other workers to do better. However, if one takes scholarly work seriously, one has to be a slave of the facts, and strictly control one's imagination. While writing fiction, on the other hand, one is the undisputed master of the facts, and one may give the reins to one's imagination.”

By the way, given your long interest in doubles, cities, and perception of imaginary differences, you might want to read The City & The City by China Miéville, just published.

Henry Wessells


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Jun. 28th, 2009 02:22 pm (UTC)

Thanks for the tips!


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Jun. 28th, 2009 05:23 pm (UTC)

Classic, Miss Kwak!


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Jun. 28th, 2009 04:29 pm (UTC)

"'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?"

You don't really need your ship comparison since some foreigners in japan were once specifically called "hired hands". You can find a list of お雇い外国人 in the Japanese Wikipedia entry for the term.

For me one problem with what you have written above is that it isn't clear how a "Japan hand" talking about Japan differs from how you talk about Japan.

For instance, your disagreement with Marxy seems to be the sort of thing I would expect "Japan hands" to do. Each convinced he has a better idea of what Japanese people know and understand than the other.

I suppose another way of posing the question would be, how are you not a Japan hand?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Jun. 28th, 2009 05:22 pm (UTC)

It's a bit of a red herring to suggest that "hands" has a Japanese origin. There may be a similar term in Japanese (not one very widely known or used in Japan, it has to be said), but the sense of "hand" used in "old Japan hand" is a Western, English-language one, either corporate or colonial. It's used, for instance, of foreign diplomatic staff in India:

"Nehru reacted with a vehemence that surprised all but the most experienced India hands in the foreign policy community."

I'm not a Japan hand because I'm not a foreigner in Japan.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Jun. 28th, 2009 06:13 pm (UTC)

This is more about 'Japan face', I think, 'saving' it, 'masking' it, or even, not revealing one's 'hand'. Interesting stuff. I really like that picture. Reminds me a little of 渡辺光裕 (Mitsuhiro Watanabe) - http://www.kyusan-u.ac.jp/hikoma/2007_sakuhin/photo/03/28-2.jpg


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anglerfish96
anglerfish96
anglerfish96
Sun, Jun. 28th, 2009 10:05 pm (UTC)



I'm imagining "Japan Hands" to be an offshoot of "Jazz Hands" or the "Cat Scat".

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rkRIbUT6u7Q


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anglerfish96
anglerfish96
anglerfish96
Sun, Jun. 28th, 2009 10:30 pm (UTC)

Damn it didn't embed properly.

Well, you can imagine something just as appropriate, I assume.


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Jun. 29th, 2009 02:13 am (UTC)

1) He didn't do this and thus opened himself up to slander accusations.

Listen, no one made accusations of slander. None of the Kitano affair was a matter of public record nor public accusations. Kitano had a radio show one day, and the next day, he didn't. When someone asked why he was fired, the best public explanation was "He said something inappropriate." And when people asked, what exactly did he say, no one gave a formal answer to that question. There were no lawsuits. A clip came up on YouTube but no one involved has made any formal statement about whether it is related.

Later it came out that Burning had lodged a "formal complaint" against the radio show and kicked his management company out of its industry organization, again, without saying exactly what Kitano said that was so questionable.

And again, what he said on that show that didn't need "proof" because no part of it could be considered slander. It was stating facts about Southern All-Stars and then framing that in an opinion that it was very much yakuza-esque ethics. This would be protected under a court of law in any country. He did not say that Burning was yakuza, and everything he said about Southern All-Stars conforms to the general understanding of what happened.

2) Well Burning would argue that they expect the publishing rights as part of the deal simply because they expect that sort of payment for their services and that if Southern All Stars don't like it they can take their stuff elsewhere.

But this is not slanderous, because it's the industry understanding of what happened. And there was no "slander" because there is nothing criminal here. Burning took the first publishing rights of Southern All-Stars. Why would mentioning this be slander?

3) Marxy throws about all sorts of accusations, but where is his proof?

Take some time to read through these sites:

http://www.j-cast.com/2009/04/20039778.html
http://muranishi-ch.com/new/news/blog.cgi?mode=main&no=62
http://www.geocities.jp/burningjap/index.html

I tend to find my interpretation of the case credible in that there seems to be a single view coming out from the more legitimate non-mass media sources, plus I dedicated two years of my life to do empirical research on the power of Burning and the other big jimusho to control the music market, which I am happy to share with you. One of the more famous cases of the 1990s was the blacklisting of Ami Suzuki, which in this exact same pattern, came out of her upsetting Burning (who owns all her publishing despite not being in the same management company) by trying to legally get out of her contract when her jimusho boss was arrested for tax evasion. She committed no crime, and yet, lost all of her contracts with big companies and was blocked out of the industry for years.

The point is, there is a system of knowledge that points to an industrial organization and power structure where blacklisting exists and Burning calls the shots.

The ridiculous thing about this case is that you guys keep yelling "slander" as if slander happened. Slander is slander when it is false. What Kitano said is not only true but completely accepted as fact within his industry. His crime was just stating the obvious in front of a public audience, who are not "allowed" to know about these things.

I find it extremely hard to believe that you are more sympathetic to monopolistic bullies than find sympathy with the taboo-breakers. You are aware that big powers — like Wendy Carlos, etc. — often use slander and libel accusations as a way to bankrupt and intimidate smaller parties who share information they don't want publicized, right? How in the world did this turn into a moral shaming of Kitano?

Marxy


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Jun. 28th, 2009 11:33 pm (UTC)
Re: the carpetbombing of Glastonbury

Further to the shock news that hundreds of thousands of poshrock, dadrock and museumrock fans, unpaid and millionaire BBC staff, and journalists whose specialist knowledge is "Er Nothing Watching Telly I Guess Biscuits I Quite Like Biscuits Can I Write A Column About Biscuits And Telly" were wiped out by a freak carpetbombing incident at Glastonbury - care to comment?


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Jun. 29th, 2009 03:44 am (UTC)
Boye DeMente and others...

Momus, I've read this blog for years for stuff like this post. First of all, kiss-up time, thank you for posting what you do, your discourse and blog have always been a satisfying read. The DeMente covers have acted as my "Prompt from the Universe" to risk a post, as I own one of his titles. As of late, the issues you bring up of "Japan Hands" and the politics of such an understanding, are questions that haunt so much.

As a graphic designer I have found many of the aesthetic principles from Japan seem to create simple yet natural feeling products instead of glaringly loud and bossy, the difference of walking through MaxValu verses Costco. However, neither "The Japanese" nor "Japan Hands" seem to be able to tell me much about the underlying principles active there that I could use to further my understanding. "The Japanese", whether through language barrier or cultural, don't seem to be getting across to me, and the "Japan Hands" seem to say much with little accurate substance. While I understand bias, it becomes a nightmare to wade through it. Is it simple misunderstandings? "Inscrutable Japan" rearing it's shaggy, greying head again (encouraged by both sides for different purposes of obfuscation)? Or simply a mirage made of my own view, my own misguided view of what I think is so "inscrutable"?
I have one of Mr DeMente's books, "Elements of Japanese Design", being the only one of its kind at Sanseido Books that was printed in English. However, after looking at Mr DeMente's past track record, he seems to fall into that latter category of "Japan Hand", as I've shown his books to traditional craftsfolk and artists from Japan who say he's not quite right. However, talking to these same artists prompts the disheartening "I don't know" when it comes to analytical questions of style to find out where he fails. I have had explained to me that much of the arts in Japan taught is a form and repeat process, where through sheer copying aesthetics are absorbed. However, if the "Japan Hands" can't get it right for whatever reason, and "The Japanese" have problem communicating, how can I with any confidence weigh the opinions and information being provided to me? To use a metaphor and bungle a popular typography book title, I don't WANT to "Steal Japanese Sheep", I want to learn how to raise some and cultivate some nice quality wool for my own knitting.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Jun. 29th, 2009 05:53 am (UTC)
Re: Boye DeMente and others...

What I hear most from Japanese people is that being Japanese -- or doing Japanese things in a Japanese way -- is above all "a feeling", something from the heart. You can have the technique down pat, or have an intellectual, historical framing of it, but if you don't have this "feeling" your contribution will fall flat as a country pancake.

Then again, I think that interesting cultural hybrids happen when people misunderstand (or misfeel -- why isn't there a proper word in English for that?) things, especially when they do that with the best intentions, and with talent. So I wouldn't place too much stress on "getting the Japanese feeling right" -- something you can probably only do if you were born and raised in Japan. It's okay to get it wrong, too, and produce something new.


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Jun. 29th, 2009 10:51 am (UTC)

belated congratulations on getting another naked japanese female into a blog entry.


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Jun. 29th, 2009 11:26 pm (UTC)

It's also another expression of elitism for elitists' sake. We are not all lucky enough to be born into certain positions of prestige, power, or even physicality to experience the life that others can taste. So what? Fight?


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Jun. 29th, 2009 08:18 pm (UTC)

In other words, essence precedes existence. Contra-Sartre.


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Jul. 6th, 2009 12:43 pm (UTC)

I am not sure exactly what point you are trying to make about "Japan Hands",
if anything. the very nature of this kind of reportage is already becoming obsolete:
a foreign land held at arm's length with authorities and specialists translating back to the motherland, this will die within our lifetime. (or maybe mine, you are already into your fifties and an unabashed orientalist, so perhaps the distinction is lost)
Idealistically, the distinctions between east and west will be further eroded with more instantaneous communication, as well as foreigners living within Japan, speaking the language, adapting to the culture.

Are you not, Momus, by some definition one of these Japan hands?
If not one with the most tenuous of grasps?
You are paid to report on Japan and Japanese things and yet your source material is third or fourth hand by the very nature of your distance from said country, as well as your ignorance of the language. And if you can't speak a language, then how can you understand a culture?
Of course you have no definition of the "Japanese media", because you are incapable of understanding it. (at least in any depth.)(Don't bring up Roland Barthes, both he and Pound wrote freely about things they didn't understand because there was an academic monopoly on foreign things, and they reported to westerners when they themselves were out of their depths.)

Lastly, in one of the above comments you talk about Japanese things have a distinctive "Japanese feel" Etc.
Does this mean you have a belief in an essentialized "Japaneseness"?
I think you do.
This is unhealthy.

In brief:
1. you will die soon
2. "Essence" in cultural relativism/exoticism is a vestigial part of our heritage which should be severed
3. I love you


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Jul. 6th, 2009 01:39 pm (UTC)

Wow, this is riddled with factual inaccuracies, but here goes (rolls up sleeves)!

First, I'm not in my 50s but my 40s, and may well live as long as you, assuming you're an adult.

Second, I'm not "paid to report on Japanese culture". I write about it for nothing on my blog.

Third, do you think Japanese people essentialise Japaneseness? Of course they do, and that process is one of the ways cultures, races and communities come into being, and maintain their identity. Even if it were based on nothing real, it would have to be taken very seriously if people believed in it, because it would -- it does -- have a defining effect on cultures and nations.

Fourth, most analysts think that, far from declining in importance, cultural blocs like nations are as strong as ever. People interpreting a rising Asia to a declining West will not lose their jobs in our lifetimes. And Japanese people are now, if anything, more conscious of their Japanese particularity than they were in the 80s and 90s.

Fifth, who in their right mind would call a guy living in Berlin who doesn't even speak Japanese a "Japan hand"? Get real!

Sixth, thanks for the love.


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