Lafcadio Hearn via yet another Anonymous[,] on Japan Probe.

When I was reading the latest “CJ” installment there, I also came across an anonymous piece that James let be put up on the site.

I had hoped for some refreshing insight, but the piece was flat and two-dimensional.   It sounded like a well-worn argument that has been coming out of one corner of the Japan-side expat blogosphere, which usually sums up as:  any foreigner having any difficulty with anything in Japan is, by default, in the wrong.   Wrong, for not “seeing” Japan in this special way that only the one corner’s inhabitants can.   (They are the Special Gaijin.  The elect.   The elite.)   “Be ye not like [fill in the name of whoever is being denounced by the clique.]!!!!   Be ye not like Debito!!!”

So the person who is held up as the paragon of Japanized westerner virtue is:   Lafcadio Hearn (Koizumi Yakumo).   Or rather, a myth of Hearn, one who speaks fluent Japanese and went with the flow.   (Hey, you didn’t hear Hearn complaining about not being enrolled in the proper health and pension programs while he was in Japan!   Oh, wait.   They didn’t have those in the late 19th century.)

I’ll give the writer a pass, that somehow they had to be anonymous while posting the piece, which was entertaining once you excised the portions that were really meant as a rebuttal to what Johnson had posted on his online site.  (That was the piece I mentioned yesterday.)    According to Anonymous, Hearn was a writer who sought to preserve and transmit the authentic culture of Japan.   This came as a surprise to me, because most people who really know about Lafcadio Hearn know that he spent 10 years in New Orleans.   While there, he created, through storytelling or capturing others’ storytelling, an exotic New Orleans that seemed a world unto itself.   Then, he went to Japan.

Hearn also could do objective reporting, of course, and had also chronicled problems with the New Orleans government and civic culture.   But he was a writer.    So, you know, writers can convey facts.   Writers can tell stories.

Some observers today agree that Hearn was passing on folk tales of the Japanese of those days.   They also feel that he was making Japan into a more exotic place than it might have been—-the same way he did this for New Orleans.   There is something to be said for people, who, when they find themselves in a backwater or dumpy place, make the best of it, and find the good in the bad.   But I don’t think Hearn was doing that for that reason.   He did it because he was a writer.    Who is going to pay you to read about what a backwater Meiji-era Shimane is?   The foreigner living there might be saying, “Man, how are these people even surviving?”  (In the 19th century, I don’t know if they’d say “man”, but you get the idea.)    Of course, that recounting, if it becomes a story, is going to focus on every interesting, bizarre, and yes, exotic detail of a place that is one rice crop failure or fishing disaster away from being wiped out.

You don’t sell writings in the late 19th century unless you can create a story that the printer thinks is going to sell.    Hearn was writing to make a living.

Anonymous proposes that foreigners in Japan who are on his/her good foreigner list, are the “Yakumos”, after Lafcadio Hearn’s adopted Japanese name.    They are the good people, the good gaijins, who just take anything that is going on in early 21st century Japan for what it is, and they don’t tell about anything negative that might be going on—even though Japan has extensive trade and military relationships with a lot of the countries those foreigners come from.   It’s like it being suggested that if you go to Kentucky, you better not level with the people back in Pennsylvania about the good and the bad of Kentucky.   If Pennsylvania asks you for a tax return, say, hey, I’m in Kentucky!  I am so far removed from Pennsylvania and owe it and its people no obligations!    I am soaking in the culture, and cutting my deals, with the good people of Kentucky.   Go away!

It’s a very impractical attitude to have in 2012, and it isn’t very clear to me, at least, that Lafcadio Hearn would be adopting the style of the self-styled “Yakumo” of Japan Probe.    It’s more like they are the “Yaki imos” —- the ubiquitous sweet potatoes sold from the dozens of vending trucks driving around Japan in the late fall and early spring.   They are basically an interchangeable commodity, that’s been wrapped up in something shiny, and kept nice and warm.   When people want them, they are worth something, and think they are the best.   But when yaki imo season is over, they get dumped out the back of the vendor’s truck, just like any other week-old garbage or stale leftovers.

One thing I do agree about Hearn and the state of contemporary foreign critiques of Japan:   I don’t think Hearn would be very patient with two dimensionalism.   The flat, droning, repetitive, chronic protesting about other people who criticize things about Japan.   Or just the flat, droning, repetitive, chronic shots at the same other people.    Japan Probe looked like it was getting good for a while, but now it seems to have invited that element, that corner, in.    That spud is a dud.

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4 comments

  1. Sublight · April 5, 2012

    Why do you insist on trotting out the claim the people who disagree with Debito (or CJ) believe that “any foreigner having any difficulty with anything in Japan is, by default, in the wrong”? Despite its frequent appearance at Debito.org and from the occasional trolls who show up at Tepido, JapanProbe and FG, It’s a claim that’s silly, childish, and demonstrably false.

    The people who’ve been in Japan for years and have figured out how to live and work in Japanese society, who’ve made friends and raised families together with Japanese people, are fully aware of the wide range of problems that exist here, and will talk about them at length at the drop of a hat. Where they part ways with Debito is that, because their daily lives involve actually participating in society (i.e. alongside Japanese people, many of whom they’ve gotten to know well), they’re more concerned with finding solutions that actually work and will further enrich their lives in Japan than they are with reducing people (J and NJ alike) to caricatures, making spectacles of themselves and provoking pointless confrontations that resolve nothing.

    By navigating those problems, they also gain the experience to recognize when someone is trying to BS them with exaggerated (and usually self-aggrandizing) histrionics. That the recent crop of would-be horror stories about Japan (the Gaijin Gulag, flyjin persecution, drug testing of ALTs, etc.) have all failed the sniff test is not the fault of the skeptics.

    • jane grey · April 5, 2012

      ‘are fully aware of the wide range of problems that exist here, and will talk about them at length at the drop of a hat…. concerned with finding solutions that actually work and will further enrich their lives in Japan’

      Really? Where is that discussion taking place? In Hearn’s imaginary Japan?

  2. jane grey · April 5, 2012

    ‘“seeing” Japan in this special way that only the one corner’s inhabitants can.’

    Hoofin, I often ponder this strange delusion that some foreigners acquire on living in Japan. The only metaphor to this concept that I can think of in the real world is that of the teenager.

    Every generation of teenagers thinks that they have discovered sex for the first time in human history, and that ‘old’ people ‘can’t understand(!)’. The same for rock ‘n roll. Inevitably, teenagers are forced to grow up due to the pressures of social norms, but often in Japan, foreigners are (sometimes inadvertently) encouraged by the Japanese to remain in this ‘Peter-Pan’ state; ‘Ah, gaijin san, you understand Japan very well! You are like Japanese!’

    Of course, this is just flattery and fills the awkward silences, but when repeated over and over again (‘You can use chop-sticks!’ or in response to even the worst spoken Japanese, ‘Nihongo pera-pera!’) it becomes an incredibly powerful source of positive affirmation of the subjects ‘elite’ and ‘accepted’ status apart from ‘the bad foreigners’.

    The internet behavior that you have blogged about also suggests a teenage gang mentality, expressing itself with a form of bullying perhaps.

  3. Pingback: No, Lafcadio Hearn was not fluent in Japanese. | Hoofin to You!

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