Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Queering Shame and the Wound of Ethnicity

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Queering Shame and the Wound of Ethnicity

Article excerpt

This essay attends to a question raised by a Japanese philosopher about the connection of an American anthropologist's analysis of Japan as "shame culture" to her queerness. The question opens a poetical and conceptual wound and responding to it takes us to the interstitial areas of postcolonial critique.

"True shame cultures rely on external sanctions for good behavior, not as true guilt cultures do, on an internalized conviction of sin" (Benedict 223). Ruth Benedict's The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, the foundational text on Japanese cultural anthropology, a text produced in the politically charged environment of the Japan-US military conflict and the subsequent engagement of the US with the postwar rebuilding of Japan, reveals a powerful dichotomy embedded in its core. This dichotomy, which consequentially embedded itself in the formulation of "Japan's national culture" (Ryang), revolves around powerfully entangled visions of splitting and authenticity. Benedict's division between shame culture and guilt culture is reinforced by a split within the "true" shame culture of Japan. The contradictions aggressive/non-aggressive, militaristic/aesthetic, insolent/polite, rigid/adaptable, submissive/resentful, loyal/treacherous, brave/timid, and conservative/hospitable to new ways are presented as the "warp and woof" of all existing research on Japan. These inner splits that signal a camouflage are also woven into the perception of authenticity. "They are true" (Benedict 2).

"When [a serious observer] writes a book on a nation with a popular cult of aestheticism which gives high honor to actors and to artists and lavishes art upon the cultivation of chrysanthemums, that book does not ordinarily have to be supplemented by another which is devoted to the cult of the sword and the top prestige of the warrior," writes Benedict, negatively embedding her own The Chrysanthemum and the Sword into a structural incongruence (2). The wartime realities motivating this study of the US enemy are here abstracted in the "cult of the sword" and refracted in the cult of aesthetics. The mention of actors delicately introduces a thread of theatricality and the association of art with the "art upon cultivation of chrysanthemums" carries with it a faint vision of decoration and artificiality. The division tacitly retraces a class demarcation between the commoners or the artisans and merchants among whom the ornate popular forms of theatre and street displays of flower art flourished, on the one hand, and the upper warrior class with their privilege to carry a sword, on the other.

The division is overtly but naively gendered as well with a symbolization of masculinity in the phallic image of the sword and the aesthetic realm of makeup, artistry, and crafting. The latter is concretely embodied in the masquerade of femininity through Benedict's reading of two samples written by Japanese women relating their experiences abroad. Besides interviews with a second-generation Japanese man who had experienced war-time internment in the US due to his ethnic origins, the autobiographical works by Japanese women reflecting on their difficulties to adapt to the American lifestyle serve as important sources for Benedict. In The Chrysanthemum and the Sword she refers to the by now rather obscure books My Narrow Isle (1941) by Mishima Sumie Seo and A Daughter of the Samurai (1925) by Sugimoto Etsuko. In these two women's narratives of cultural transplantation, Benedict appears most impressed, almost poetically so, by the horticultural images of enclosing, forcing, and restraining nature. Benedict concludes based on reading from My Narrow Isle that

   Once the Japanese have accepted, to however small a degree, the
   less codified rules that govern behavior in the United States they
   find it difficult to imagine their being able to manage the
   restrictions of their old life in Japan. Sometimes they refer to it
   as a lost paradise, sometimes as a "harness," sometimes as a
   "prison," sometimes as a "little pot" that holds a dwarfed tree. … 
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