(from KJ #61)
"Traditional" and "modern": the favorite
words of the presenter who lives in the box known as the “television.”
I have several boxes in my flat. One is known as fridge. It hums day
and night but says nothing. Another box is called washing machine and
often goes round the bend. Nevertheless, the language coming out of
the television is much crazier.
The name of one of the biggest Japanese producers of appliances is “National.”
An odd name for a company, isn’t it? Yet it is perhaps very fitting
because it so perfectly embodied the growing national mood in the 1920s
when the company was founded. Later it came to express the pride in
industrial production that replaced the shattered pride in the nation
after the Second World War.
The end of the War didn’t lead to the dissolution of the national
identity. In the name of the nation everyone was pressed to rebuild
the country and to generate wealth. Later, nation came to mean something
else; it became the community that was responsible for history. As the
crime, i.e. the War, had been conducted in the name of the nation, the
nation after the War being responsible for that War, had to continue
to exist, even if liberty from the concept of the nation was universally
I bought my television in Germany. The company that made it is called
“Grundig,” not “abgrundig” (a German
pun: Grundig suggesting thoroughness, and abgrundig meaning deep as
an abyss....). In Germany there isn’t a company called “National.”
The name wouldn’t make a good impression on the customers.
Just like the word “nation,” the word “German”
is used with caution, or even avoided. Nevertheless, there are two subjects
where pride in the nation is allowed and both are areas of life in which
men are passionately involved: cars and football.
Even a self-critical German intellectual who constantly criticized his
own country would be insulted if you said to him that German cars were
very poor quality.
It is easier to insult the Japanese. not only are they proud of Japanese
cars, they are proud of the Walkman or even the Japanese washing machine
sometimes. Even I, who have no desire at all to be nationalistic, and
have no idea about housework, am insulted if someone criticizes Japanese
washing machines. I prefer the washing machines made by the German company
Bosch because they have a trust fund that among other things, subsidizes
contemporary literature. Even so there is no washing machine that can
remove the greasy stain left triggered by the idea of nation.
In Germany people are proud of German cars although a majority of Germans
cannot afford either a BMW or a Mercedes. A little national flag is
affordable to everyone, however. One can even buy one in a five and
dime store. There are unemployed youths for whom the old form of nationalism
can be better symbolized by more obvious symbols than the pride that
the upper classes find in luxurious German brands which are too expensive
for everyone to buy. These youths realize that they are excluded from
the wealth that is organized and can only be reached on a national level.
Several years ago a new law was passed in Japan decreeing that the Japanese
flag was to be raised at every ceremony taking place at schools and
universities in the country. It determined the exact size of the flag.
Otherwise, some people could decide to raise a flag that was smaller
than a postage stamp. The law insisted that the flag was to be raised
in the middle of the stage where it could be seen by everyone. At each
of the ceremonies the national anthem in its original form was to be
sung. Indeed there had been one incident where a music teacher had interpreted
as a jazz number and had sung it in that style. This law triggered an
“Ikkyu-san” competition. (Ikkyu-san is a Japanese Till Eulenspiegel).
The Academy of Foreign Languages in Tokyo, for example, raised the national
flag as instructed by the law, with one small difference: it also raised
a further hundred and ten flags from other countries. That could only
work once. A new “improved” law stipulated that no additional
flags may be raised.
Old-style nationalism, like the national flag, has probably made a comeback
in the last few years because the alternative form of nationalism based
on industrial products no longer functions. People are no longer proud
of companies that like to merge with foreign firms and lay off their
employees. Moreover, most companies no longer belong to one country
In the last while, the word “European” has become more and
more prevalent. If I turn on the radio, I hear it every ten minutes
or so. There is a European law to protect monuments, a European pop
music competition, and there are European novels.
When compared to the word “German,” the two adjectives “European”
and “Western” are always considered to be positive. The
word “German” is no longer needed. Even right-wing radicals
don’t need it. They refer to the “whites,” an inappropriate
term, because they often attack ethnic German Russian immigrants although
they never talk badly of Afro-American pop stars. They would love to
be racists, but in reality they violently attack those they accuse of
The Japanese do not like to talk about one “Asia.” It sounds
like Japanese imperialism. Asia is not one, and it is good that it isn’t.
There is neither a common religion nor is there a common political system,
not even one common kind of rice. Thais would be very sad if they had
to eat Japanese rice, and vice versa. The term “Asian” is
a child of colonialism; born in Europe and adopted and abused by the
Japanese, who abandoned it after the Second World War.
In Europe people like to talk of Asian cuisine, Asian medicine, or of
Asian philosophy, because they would like there to be some sort of unified
Asian culture. If they didn’t, the existence of a European culture
would be in doubt .In Asia, however, for a variety of reasons one is
happy that there is no Asian culture.
I can’t speak about an “Eastern world” either. The
concept “Eastern” is very west-European. This word is used
to refer to the Near East, China and Japan, sometimes Russia, and quite
often even middle European countries or the former GDR. This idea of
the “East” has always been necessary to make the image of
the “West” appear concrete. Research into Orientalism revealed
this a long time ago. Anyone who assumes the Orient is a fiction must
be aware of the fictional character of Europe.
Recently in a radio program about Islam in Germany the presenter said
the politics of Islamic fundamentalism did not deserve to be recognized
as another culture because the fundamentalists had imported their ideology
and strategy from Europe. In fact, from Stalin and Hitler. Later, the
presenter spoke about a “Western” political tradition of
democracy as if totalitarianism was not part of that tradition. In between,
she did say that the West had not always behaved Western, although she
failed to define the term “Western,” and insisted on using
it. On the contrary, the word “Western” seemed to provide
a secure base for her argumentation. She didn’t use any other
terms, for example, “European-American,” probably because
she wanted to exclude South America. Furthermore, the term “Western”
can be used to exclude the countries of Eastern Europe, especially Russia.
I often wonder why I can’t easily get my tongue around the words
“Western” and “Eastern.” I have nothing against
the word “European,” even if I seldom use it because at
times it does not say very much. Is there any such thing as European
food? Spaghetti? Have the Europeans, for example, the Norwegians, contributed
more to the tradition of Italian pasta than the Chinese? I do say “European”
literature, if I am too lazy to list off the individual countries. The
word “German” also doesn’t correspond to reality.
Is it possible today to talk about German literature? And what about
German cuisine? Didn’t the potato come from South America? Nevertheless,
I like the words “German” and “European” better
than “Western” because they force me to think more concretely.
The term “Western” on the other hand contains an insidious
concept. It tries to wrap up an ideology in a geographic packaging:
whoever is in favor of democracy, freedom and individualism is considered
Western in their orientation. And, if that person originates from the
geographic west then they belong to their own tradition. If not, they
have left their own tradition. They may well be modern but they are
not completely themselves.
Traditional “Western” culture is often presented as a single
line of development. That line, however, is a carefully cultivated fiction.
For example ancient Greek culture is viewed as being an important part
of that cultural lineage while the influence of Arab mathematics and
natural sciences is excluded. In Hamburg, however, I have not found
any trace of ancient Greek culture. In contrast, in a temple in the
Japanese city of Nara, at the end of the Silk Road, one can see an ornament
of grapes which originated in Greece. This stone fruit still hasn’t
rotted although it is over a thousand years old and was around for a
thousand years before that. The cultures of this earth have always formed
a network and not several parallel lines.
I can’t use expressions like “our culture” anymore
because I don’t know who is supposed to belong to this “our
culture” and who not. I would never dream of describing No or
Butoh theater traditions as belonging to “our” culture.
When I use such names I don’t mean the Japanese but the people
who participate in such theaters.
The television presenter goes through the same scenario today as every
day before, it doesn’t matter which “foreign” culture
he is showing us. If a girl in a country that the presenter regards
as foreign has no boyfriend and lives with a family in which the mother
is loving, it is said that she lives according to tradition. If she
falls in love with a boyfriend, falls out with her family and leaves
home, it is said that she has been influenced by Western modernity and
has left home to lead her own life.
When the Americans came to Japan at the end of the 19th century new
laws were passed in Japan designed to modernize the country. For example,
uni-sex public baths, public nudity and homosexuality were all banned
for the first time in Japanese history. This
modernization had nothing to do with freedom or individualism but had
more to do with attempts at Puritan industrialization and militarization
of the country. Thereafter, when the Japanese chose Prussia as their
model for continued modernization, that typical Japanese mentality emerged
that was so typically Japanese it had to be imported from Prussia. In
other words, certain characteristics already existed in Japanese culture,
such as the ethic of the samurai, the rice farmers’ collective
way of working, the belief in authority or hierarchical thinking, were
chosen as suitable elements for the modern world and given a Prussian
The presenter screamed out of the box that Latin America was a contradiction,
East Asia was a contradiction, Saudi Arabia was a contradiction, because
the modern and the traditional exist side by side there. Yet, it is
normal that a country should industrialize without completely destroying
its pre-industrial culture. Even in England, where the process of industrialization
began very early, some ghosts, horror stories and magic still exist.
Yet, since the modern age is Western, the presenter never says that
England is a country of contradictions.
Perhaps Europe suffered the most under industrialism or the enlightenment.
In order to relieve the pain Western and modern are seen as synonymous.
It may be good that Germans use the word “Western.” As a
result, they don't have to get unnecessarily annoyed about the USA’s
influence. Otherwise the presenter would have to report about his own
culture in the same way that he reported recently about a country in
the so-called third world: “How sad it is that for financial reasons
Germany’s wonderful traditional university system has had to adopt
the modern American system. It is indeed sad but the freedom of the
individual on the open market is much more important than one’s
own tradition. The same can be said of the laws governing shop opening
hours. It is better if everyone can buy whenever they want. Until recently
this freedom didn’t exist in Germany as the religious establishment
forbade it. According to the Bible, God didn’t work on the seventh
day so humans should not work then either. Nevertheless they are gradually
freeing themselves from the traditional idea of Sunday and are enjoying
the freedom to consume without a bad conscience. Some citizens will
continue, however, to suffer from the gap between traditional and modern.”
That is the only scenario used by the presenter when he is reporting
about non-Western countries.
There are different forms of modern. There are different kinds of television
apparatus. It is possible to talk about Japanese technology, which is
different to Chinese or US American technology. For example, there is
an apparent principle in Japanese technology that says the smaller something
is, the more beautiful it is. Consequently, the transistor radio, Walkman,
and other small appliances were invented and produced in Japan. Yet,
Japanese technology is as easy to adapt as European technology. Nowadays
the smallest cars in the world are not Japanese but European. Moreover
the largest computer in the world is Japanese and Japanese technologists
are not ashamed of it. There seems, therefore, no point in talking of
It is also possible to speak of a Japanese form of democracy or freedom
if they are not seen as building plans but rather as real houses made
of wood, straw or stone to be built at a specific place. To speak about
differences is not the same as insisting on the existence of national
The same is true of the theater. Modern Japanese theater is not only
Japanese. It is not true that only theater companies coming from Japan
are Japanese. Non-Japanese actors have the same opportunities to work
with Japanese tradition. National borders are only the edge of the lenses
on the microscope that is used to study particular phenonema in more
To free oneself of the concept of national culture one could focus on
regions. “We don’t want German literature anymore, we only
want Bavarian literature.” Most people would not find this statement
creative or interesting. Why then do the same people find it attractive
to hear that a “traditional” theater company from one of
the so-called minorities in the so-called third world is performing?
One allows oneself to speak of the “genuine” tradition of
a culture if one excludes this culture from the modern world.
In today's world, however, each culture has its own modern. No culture
is completely isolated. Every culture reacts — directly or indirectly,
consciously or sub-consciously — to the phenomena taking place
Oddly, I encountered more regionalism than globalism in the USA. With
that I don’t mean minorities like the Amish people who have remained
“genuinely” European, but rather normal students at provincial
universities. They are living outside globalization at the very same
time as we are blaming Americans for the destruction of the diversity
of culture. In Missoula, a student of the University of Montana proudly
answered “No!” when I asked him if there was a Starbuck’s
café in the town. Apparently not all of the United States has
been Americanized. In Tokyo there are 141 Starbuck’s cafés,
in California 1414, in Berlin 8, and in Missoula none. That student
was born in Montana, studies there and would like to work there when
he finishes studying. He had already been to a small town in Japan,
but he had never been to New York. He doesn’t live in the USA;
he lives in Montana. He is preoccupied by the clash between the culture
of the city and that of the province. Urbanites despise provinces like
Montana, but he would like to stay true to his traditions.
I had to smile when he spoke about tradition in Montana but actually
what he said was not funny. Tradition is a fiction. It is always produced
in hindsight. If it isn’t manufactured, it is not there. The Japanese
tradition is no less fictive than that of Montana. When the Japanese
government at the end of the 19th century opened the country to the
outside world, it quickly re-activated ancient Shinto traditions that
had not been practiced in over three hundred years. The cultural tradition
was needed in order to form a national identity. It had not been necessary
so long as the country had not had direct contact with the outside world.
Since tradition is fictive, there is no reason to feel genetically allied
to a tradition. Everyone can freely choose the fictive tradition they
wish to work with. Every artist may work with any of the elements found
on the planet. Whether an artist can produce something new and exciting
from that depends on not the origin of the artist but the artist’s
Yoko, born in Tokyo in 1960, has resided in Hamburg, Germany since 1982,
where she received her Ph.D. in German literature. Tawada made her debut
with Missing Heels, which was awarded the Gunzo Prize for New
Literature in 1991. In 1993 she received the prestigious Akutagawa Prize
– equivalent to a Booker or a Pulitzer – for The Bridegroom
was a Dog (published in English by Kodansha International in 1998).
Ms Tawada writes in both German and Japanese, and in 1996 she won the
Adalbert von Chamisso Prize, a German award recognizing foreign writers
for their contributions to German culture.www.tawada.com
by David Duke; illustrations for Kyoto Journal by Tierry Le...
held by the author
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