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In a recent issue of Journalism Communication Monographs was an article about Japan, or rather about how Japan is viewed by American magazines. It was entitled “Seeing themselves through the lens of the other: an analysis of the cross-cultural production and negotiation of National Geographic’s “The Samurai Way” story”.

Thinking that I might perhaps learn something about cross-cultural communication, or about how American and Japanese cultures see each other, I started reading it. Boy, was that a mistake. It is written in “communication-speak”, a special code known only to post-modern communication students. If you’re not familiar with this kind of language, fasten your seat belt, because you’re about to hit some linguistic turbulence:

Describing the “profound unnevenness” (p.33) of global post-modernity, Hall warns that hybridity is engendered in part by capitalism’s response to the “extremely contradictory space” of deterritorialized postmodern global culture. As he explains, “In order to maintain its global position, capital has had to negotiate and by negotiate it had to incorporate and partly reflect the differences it was trying to overcome” (p. 32).

I’m glad he “explained”, aren’t you? I mean, really! Was anything actually communicated here? I picked that part pretty much at random. The rest of the article is written in the same style, all 36 pages of it. The only sentences that were sensible and easily decipherable were ones that narrated events, e.g.:

The “Samurai Way” ran in National Geographic in December 2003, appearing on the cover of the Japanese- and several other foreign-language editions.”

There, that didn’t hurt, did it? Obviously the authors are capable of writing straightforward English. I was left with the impression that, while they can write like this, most of the time they don’t want to.

Look again at the gobbledy-gook excerpt. In the first sentence, “post-modernity” is hyphenated whereas “postmodern” is not. But let’s not be too picky, there are bigger fish to fry. In the second sentence, the authors write “capital has had to negotiate”. Ahem. Capital cannot negotiate. Only people can. But the anthropomorphism does not stop there. Capital “had to incorporate” (an infelicitous choice of word, given the context) “and partly reflect the differences it was trying to overcome.”

Does capitalism try to incorporate and overcome differences? Where did the authors get the idea that this is what capitalism does?  Capitalism requires first the development of capital (through saving), then the “production, distribution and exchange of wealth” [Random House] It does not involve such socialization efforts as “incorporating and overcoming differences”. Such activity belongs to the human realm, in particular to the realm of people who place value on incorporating and overcoming differences.

If I set up a shoe business, is my purpose to “incorporate and overcome differences”? Negotiation will certainly be involved, but that is different from what the authors seem to be alluding to. Exactly what ARE they alluding to? I’m still scratching my head.

The inability of the authors to demonstrate a clear understanding of capitalism (an indirect target of their criticism in the article) is cause for concern at best; at worst it may suggest to the suspicious mind a deliberate attempt to obscure.

The Marxist agenda and philosophy of the authors is hinted at, among other ways, by the use of certain code words, e.g. “alienation” (my emphasis):

Some interesting patterns … emerged in the informants’ negotiation of the National Geographic text. First of all, the amount of satisfaction generated by Westerners’ interest in Japan suggests that the West “still mattered” in these young Japanese’s cultural imaginary… They also, however, resented what they perceived as an overemphasis, in Western texts in general, on the more traditional aspects of Japanese identity and the lack of attention given to their culture. In other words, the young Japanese we interviewed felt alienated from the National Geographic’s representations.

You can almost hear the sigh of relief: for the past 15 pages or so, the authors have been trying to shoe-horn the young Japanese interviewees’ responses into the framework that the authors have constructed, but without much success. That framework is that the National Geographic, an American magazine, shows an American, stereotypical portrayal or interpretation of an aspect of Japanese culture, an interpretation which is not shared by the Japanese readers themselves, and which results in negative effects, i.e. “alienation”.

The article is not entirely without merit. Here’s an interesting insight:

the informants found it difficult to define their own cultural position outside of the East/West dichotomy established by their country’s historical relationship to the West… For instance… the students interviewed defined their own cultural identity as “Westernized” rather than, for instance, “contemporary,” “modern” or “urban”. This dichotomy between “tradition” and “the West” made it difficult for them to find a place of their own on the global popular cultural scene.

Of course, this, too, could be seen as yet another example of Westerners trying to fit Japanese into a Western discourse or conceptual framework, but nevertheless, it is revealing that some Japanese divide their world into “the West” and “tradition”, i.e. the past. Japanese have certainly embraced the superficialities of Western culture – democratic government, manufacturing industries and lots of consumer products. However, few of them understand the bases of this culture – the philosophy of liberalism, for example, or the definition and importance of property rights. Neither are they in touch with their own history – many of the Japanese interviewed for the article said that “samurai” are a part of Japanese history, not of (contemporary) Japanese culture, and that they themselves know little about the subject.

As L.P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

The flaky, phony scientific language the article was written in put me off. I mean, what the heck is “a young Japanese’s cultural imaginary”??!!

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