The cover story in the new issue of Newsweek Japan (which I am pretty sure is an independent company from Newsweek in the U.S.) focuses on 「日本を誤訳するアメリカ」— “The America that Mistranslates Japan.” The editors ask over a picture of 「SAYURI」（aka Memoirs of a Geisha) — why does America think Japan is all geisha, samurai, and Mt. Fuji? According to what I gleaned off the subway ad, they are outraged that the movie casts a Chinese woman to speak English lines for a story based in Japan. Hollywood is to blame, they say, for the never-ending prejudice against the Japanese nation.
While I’ve yet to read the full article, I find this topic very interesting for a couple of reasons. First of all, of course Hollywood does not provide accurate depictions of social, historical, and cultural phenomena but instead bends all ideas through a prism of entertainment and familiarity. Newsweek Japan may be certainly right to question the effects of American films in transmitting the core messages ultimately responsible for cultural understanding, but they’ll have to go to the back of a very long line to cast their grievances.
I am also surprised about the timing of this article, seeing that right now, the world shares more understanding of contemporary Japanese society than ever before. As terribly inane as Lost in Translation may be, millions of Western viewers saw a film featuring karaoke boxes, the editor for Dune, Hiromix, Fujiwara Hiroshi, and a Happy End song. Puffy Amiyumi are on American TV daily. Nigo sits behind Jay-Z at the MTV Music Awards. Thousands of kids make fan art to Katamari Damashii. In the last five to ten years, Japan for the first time has become something other than geisha and “Fuji-yama” for legions of young people.
Americans may find comfort in Japanese Orientalism — hot baths, sushi, katana — but guess what? So do the Japanese. Consider for a moment the possibility that Japanese society’s constant messages of self-Orientalization may have left the internal media zone and traveled outwards to the rest of the world. A pleasant voice calls out: Come to Kyoto, salaryman! Hang out in the Gion with real maiko! A thousand Hollywood writers at a thousand typewriters could never come up with anything more Oriental than Japanese advertising for domestic travel. I suspect both Western and Eastern audiences enjoy these Oriental images of Mt. Fuji woodblock prints, onsen hot springs, and kaiseki cuisine — the big difference being that the modern Japanese users of these symbols get them “right” while Americans are often sloppy, uninformed, and implicitly racist. The images themselves, however, are not fundamentally discriminatory, but are used on a frequent basis precisely because they convey beauty to a large number of people all around the world.
I suspect that Memoirs of a Geisha most likely deserves the wrath of the Japanese press, but is right now really the low point of cultural understanding between Hollywood and Japan? Remember when Japanese businessmen were murdering women and using high-tech devices to cover up the video evidence only to be foiled by Wesley Snipes? (“Always bet on black”) Americans in 2005 may think Japan is samurai and kimono, but c’mon, do you really think they don’t remember that the guy who can eat the most hot dogs in twelve minutes is Japanese?