Said, Orientalism, and Japan

Article excerpt

The first Japanese translation of Edward W. Said's Orientalism appeared in 1986. The theory of Orientalism, once brought into the East Asian context, becomes more complicated. There is no doubt that Japan is geographically situated in the Orient, but, in a political sense, it has tried to become a "Western" nation. Thus, the country has characteristics of both the Orient and the Occident. What does Japanese Orientalism ask in return? How does the discussion of Japanese Orientalism contribute to the general theory? This article offers an analysis of, and perspectives on, the impact of Said's work on Japanese intellectuals.

I. The Japanese Reception of Said

The name of "Edo-wa-a-dou Sa-yi-yi-dou" is very popular among Japanese intellectuals today. While strolling down the aisle of bookshelves labeled "contemporary thoughts" in major Japanese bookstores, you can easily find piles of translations of Said's works, although you may sometimes encounter a bookshelf mistakenly entitled "Se-ddo" or "Za-yi-yi-dou." The first Japanese translation of Edward W. Said's Orientalism (1978) appeared in Japan in 1986, published by Heibonsha Ltd., eight years after the publication of the original in English. Thereafter, various translations of Said's work successively emerged one after the other. (1)

Apart from these books, there are numerous translations published in a variety of Japanese magazines and proceedings and not referred to in this article. Moreover, special issues of journals have been devoted to Edward W. Said. Examples include the March 1995 and November 2003 issues of Gendai Shiso (Contemporary Thoughts) and the March 1995, November 2003, and January 2004 issues of Eigo Seinen (The Rising Generation). Since Said's publication in Japan, his postcolonial theory and writings on the Islamic world have attracted considerable attention among Japanese scholars, who mainly fall within three categories: students of Middle East studies, researchers within Japanese studies interested in the relationship between Japan and other Asian countries in the Modern period (although Said seldom mentioned East Asia in his writings, it seemed possible for them to apply Said's theory to the history of the Japanese Empire that possessed colonies for over fifty years), and scholars of European studies who were also interested in Said's postcolonialism as his theoretical works had already become a common language within that field. Members of the Department of English Literature were especially influenced by Said and other postcolonial theorists. In addition, Said's various articles on the problem of Palestine were widely welcomed as basic introductory information among the wide range of enthusiastic readers.

What then are the characteristics of the Japanese reception of Edward W. Said? What are the meanings of Said's theory of Orientalism in a Japanese context? First, it should be noted that Said's Orientalism has not evoked the same strong antipathy from Japanese conservatives that it did in the West. On the contrary, most Japanese intellectuals, whether Marxist or conservative, are sympathetic towards Said's unsparing criticism toward the West. Being an Eastern nation, Japan has been exposed to strong political and militaristic pressure from such Western powers as Britain, the United States, and Russia since the early stages of modernization. At the same time, Japanese intellectuals have always been aware of the prejudiced representation of the Orient by the Occident and that Western discourse on the East was deeply connected to the former's power structure. Said's Orientalism endorsed what the Japanese had instinctively felt from the time of their first encounter with the West. A significant example is what the Japanese aesthetician, Tenshin Okakura (1862-1913), writes about a century ago in The Awakening of Japan (1905):

   Has not the West as much to unlearn about the East as the
   East has to learn about the West? …