Japan is not any more or less strange than the Czech Republic or Poland, says Joanna Bator. In her latest book, The Shark from Yoyogi Park, she returns to the country of her literary debut from 10 years ago, The Japanese Fan
Agata Szwedowicz (PAP): Japanese Fan appeared a decade ago. How has your perception of Japan changed during this time?
Joanna Bator: The Japanese Fan was the result of a first encounter with a strange culture, of a first surprise, first awe, and a time of falling head over heels in love with Japan. I spent a total of four years there. The Shark is proof of a mature love towards a place where I’ve only experienced good adventures, perhaps with the exception of the earthquake. I think that I still follow the same paths as I did in the beginning: those of uncanny things, marginal and somewhat perverse pleasures, small battles between the masculine and feminine. But now, I pursue them more deeply, and calmly, without fear of running out of time. The Shark is a condensed description of a place that will forever remain mine, and one of the most significant.
The Polish Language Dictionary defines the word "uncanny" as "inciting fear through being atypical", and also as "disturbing". You use this word very often - does Japan continue to surprise you?
When I stop feeling surprised, I will stop writing and living creatively. The category of the uncanny that I evoke is Freud’s Unheimliche. The suppression of drives which is necessary for the functioning of society takes on a different form in each culture. The suppressed rises to the surface in different ways. Each culture and each human mind is like the house of Joseph Fritzl: on the outside everything seems to look like God intended, but in the cellars, the world is turned upside-down, there is horror, and the uncanny.
Does a tourist have any chance at all of breaking through this Japanese accumulation of curiosities? Of reaching the essence of this culture? Perhaps it’s this very oddity that constitutes its essence?
There are different kinds of travellers. Some go after the "curiosities" and they will bring back a collection of them, all torn out of context, convinced that in the end, "They are somewhat weird, while we are normal". Others will look for geishas, samurai swords, "the traditional Japan", and disregard everything connected to pop culture as uninteresting and not important. Japan is no stranger than the Czech Republic, Paraguay, or Poland. I often make use of the anthropological practice of description, which takes a strange and uncanny object from a culture’s margins, and uses it as a key that to understanding the core. You can tell what’s going on better when looking from the borderlands. If I was a foreigner, for instance an anthropologist from Japan, I would find the amount of dog poo on the lawns uncanny, as well as the figure of the priest Father Oko and the Member of Parliament Kempa. I would also undoubtedly be interested in the tribal rituals under the cross on Krakowskie Przedmieście street. [Regular gatherings of people who commemorate victims of the Smolensk plane crash on the 10th of each month, and who defend a cross raised in public space in front of the Presidential Palace on Krakowskie Przedmieście street in Warsaw]. One day, I will write a reportage book about Poland, anyhow. I have been feeling the desire to do so for some time now.
At a first glance, Japan is the fulfilled nightmare of enemies of the gender ideology. You write that Japanese people think that "a costume is suited for every role, and the trick is knowing how to wear it in accordance with the rules". Is this freedom of role-performance accompanied by gender equality?
Japanese culture is based on a different tradition. The division of roles is Confucian in its character, and it is founded on a belief in the necessity of preserving hierarchies which are good for society. These are based on the submission of women to men, and a very harsh and restrictive partition of feminine and masculine roles. The woman belongs to the home, the man to the outside world. It is thus also a patriarchal system, which places man at its centre. But, unlike in Poland, Japanese defenders do not evoke the Christian God, and, they refer to chromosomes and genes much less frequently. Sexuality is not taboo, and it’s not as frightening as it is in Christianity, the body is not a source of sin, nor the devil’s abode. Dressing up, which is so popular in Japanese theatre, manifests, in a perverse way, the secret of this whole set-up of society. It turns out that a man, a kabuki actor, can play a woman better than the biological representative of this sex. The first geishas were in fact young boys. Japanese "genders" are different to Polish ones, femininity and masculinity is defined differently, but one can also find many similarities in the construction of a mother’s role in Japan and in Poland.
Why are the Japanese, as research seems to suggest, so reluctant to engage in real relationships? Is it the same kind of escapism as can be seen in the hikimori phenomenon?
The age at which people get married is on the rise in Japan, and it is in fact the highest in the world. There are some, like the hikimori, who refuse to take part in life altogether and who close themselves up in their rooms, sometimes for years on end. There is also a group of people who do not desire any real relationships at all, and who are content with the virtual world and their own company, like the otaku, collectors of little figures, manga and anime. They choose the kind of world that Susan Sontag prophesied when she wrote about the era of sex with no real bodies. They are in love with virtual figures. In Japan, much like in countries of our own cultural milieu, there is also the development of the asexual movement – people who think that sex is generally overrated and who reject it altogether. In Japan, there is also a much more open stance towards solitary sex, it’s not made into something demonic.
How could one describe the otaku culture in a few words? Is their concentration on the imaginary world a dead end in the evolution of culture, or are they the prophesy of a global change?
This subculture is slowly disappearing, and dispersing. Such is the fate of every subculture. The city district connected to otaku, Akihabara, has become a tourist attraction. Otaku, who are men so in love with Japanese pop culture that they have no other interests than manga, games and anime, and certainly no interest in creating a traditional family and working from dusk till dawn, are a certain form of the avant-garde now. A fascinating kind of neo-pop art has emerged from this movement, with artists like Murakami and the others from his "stall" – Takano, Aoshima, and Nara. The images from Akiba have proliferated, and are now all over Japan, otaku are the subject of academic debate, and they are protagonists of films, novels, and an element of the masses’ imagination. In a condensed and hypertrophic form, the boys from Akihabara have shown us a global tendency – each of us is little bit like the otaku, living both in the virtual and the real world. Let the one who has no secrets on the Net throw the first stone.
Japanese popular culture is dripping with sweetness: moe, Hello Kitty, all the anime girls – a concentration of frost and pinkness that is almost unbearable, and at the same time, I sense in it something sinister and dark. Do you also see it in this way? Are the Polish priests, warning us of the demonic character of Hello Kitty intuitively right about its true nature?
Polish priests have good reason to be afraid, and this whole pathetic fuss around the concept of gender ideology is the result of the growing helplessness and fear of the Church in face of its loss power, which is sooner or later bound to happen. An institution which is so archaic in its structures, and so badly managed, filled with people of such low moral and intellectual competencies, has to collapse one day. Perhaps Hello Kitty was unconsciously associated by a priest with a child, who, just like Hello Kitty, has no mouth, and thus also no voice, and then he imagined what is actually already happening: children hurt by the clergy start to speak out, they have regained their voice. A good psychoanalyst would have a lot of fun treating a person who is afraid of Hello Kitty. It’s too bad that Polish popular culture has no power to produce strong imagery - with symptoms like Godzilla, Hello Kitty, or the whole of Akiba with its lolitas and monsters. These figures mean something else in the Japanese context, and they are both landmarks and riddles which allow one to better understand contemporary Japan.
Why do you call the Shark a farewell to Japan? What’s next?
Another island. I am now heading to Sri Lanka, and I know that it’s the beginning of a new story. I will return to Japan, I think. One returns to true loves, one cannot dump them for good, or forget them.
The Shark of Yoyogi Park has been released by the W.A.B publishing company. The interview was conducted by Agata Szwedowicz for the PAP Polish Press Agency.
Joanna Bator is a writer, columnist, traveller, the author of essays, and a specialist in cultural anthropology and gender studies, as well as an academic teacher. She was born in Wałbrzych in the south of Poland in 1968. She has worked at universities in London (1998-1999), New York (1999-2000) and Tokyo (2001-2002). She currently teaches at the Department of Culture of the Polish-Japanese Institute of Information Technology in Warsaw. She is also known for articles published in "National Geographic" and "Voyage". She is a recipient of the prestigious Nike Literary Award in 2013, for her novel entitled Dark, Almost Night.
Source: PAP, April 2014
Translated with edits by Paulina Schlosser