Westerners in Japan often find the things they see spectral, uncanny, plastic. This is because there's a constant sense that, despite similarities to (or simulacra of) western forms, the social organization of Japan is radically different from what we know in the west. On a superficial level, Japanese cities look like western cities, their parks like our parks, their trains like our trains, and so on. Nevertheless, this 'likeness' is an illusion. 'A train' is a western invention adopted by the Japanese in the 19th century. But when we look at, board, and ride a train in Japan it would be foolish to see it as anything like a western train. It's a set of Japanese etiquettes and assumptions travelling through space. It only looks like a train. Soon, explaining the deep otherness of the superficially familiar things he sees around him, the visitor finds himself saying things like this:I have no idea how wise the essay really is about Japanese culture; I only know that it's consistent with what I saw in just a few short days there. And it's a good read.
That x only looks like an x, something I know well. In fact it is a manifestation of y, something I don't.
22 July 2004
Antoun points me at the fascinating essay Superlegitimacy: passion and ecstasy of a Tokyo train driver, which talks about Japanese culture from an alienated Western perspective.