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Is Europe Western?

Tawada Yoko (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 desired.

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 the anthem 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 alone.

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 being poor.

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 processing.

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 national technology.

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 character.

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 detail.

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 outside it.

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 ability.


Tawada 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

Translation by David Duke; illustrations for Kyoto Journal by Tierry Le...

Copyright held by the author


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