Books · Colonisation · Whiteness & racism

They’re not our sort of people

Kata: The Key to Understanding & Dealing with the Japanese!Kata: The Key to Understanding & Dealing with the Japanese! by Boyé Lafayette de Mente
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I find the instrumentalist premise of this book offensive, but could not resist reading it; my brother left it behind when he recently moved out of his flat. I was ashamed to be seen reading it, and found myself hiding the cover on the tube – how foolish! Still, it proved every bit as vile as its title hinted. De Mente constructs a concept of kata, translated as form, as the central principle of Japanese culture, from an entirely Western (USA) perspective. As anthropology, this is racist, orientalist carnage. Though De Mente clearly admires aspects of Japanese culture-as-he-sees-it (he’s especially keen on banquet parties) and often ‘defends’ it from other Western critics, he never questions his own assumptions and steam-rollers subtlety, blithely remarking ‘nothing beats the rational, fact-based and fair approach to business, diplomatic and personal relationships that is the bedrock of the American way, and a principle that the Japanese appreciate, and are gradually absorbing into their own culture.’

Perhaps I am being too harsh; De Mente has no pretentions to ethnography here; he is writing an instrumentalist book for Westerners who presumably share aspects of his Western perspective. This book describes many of the features of Japanese society and attempts to explain the shared values, customs and language-concepts that structure it. It contains some interesting historical information, such as the fact that hiragana, the phonetic alphabet used to write Japanese words, was developed by women to write notes, poems and novels, and was originally called onna-te (women’s hand). Because they were not allowed to learn kanji, the system of Chinese letters, sophisticated upper-class women crafted their own (more practical) system. Perhaps I’m taking a prejudicial view of De Mente’s book because I dislike his language (using demonyms as nouns, using the male pronoun for everyone, referring to women as ‘females’).

Here’s a typical example of something that got my back up:

‘At 6am in a New York hotel coffee shop I met the sales manager of a major Japanese company whom I knew was from Tokyo. I made the casual comment “You’re up early this morning!” – a common greeting.
The man very seriously replied “because I am a diligent Japanese!” His tone of voice and manner implied very emphatically that other people did not get up early because they were not diligent and did not measure up to Japanese standards. he simply did not recognised that I and many other Japanese were up and busy.’

My interpretation is that the sales manager was simply irritated by the implicit ‘but not as early as me!’. If ‘losing face’ is a serious matter for the Japanese as De Mente asserts, surely the thought that the other man was defending his ‘face’ and even national character (we all represent our countries abroad I suppose) would have occurred to him?

I’ll indulge in a digression here: this early-bird one-upmanship [sic] is a pet hate of mine. My grandmother and many other people I’ve known had a near-unbearable habit of prefacing a morning telephone call with ‘Did I wake you?’. I think it’s absurd to assume moral superiority in the practice of getting up before others. I am an extreme early riser, routinely leaping from my bed in advance of 0500, but I’m completely bushed by 2000 and find evening socialising extremely difficult. My flatmate (who happens to be Japanese) is the opposite, an extreme night owl, she can barely stand pleasantries over morning coffee, but feels ‘my day is just beginning’ when she leaves work in early afternoon. Both of us have had to adapt ourselves to the demands of our work, and adopted unusual practices. We’re just different in this way, and happily accept and accommodate each other’s habits.

Ultimately, the problem here is that De Mente talks about the advantages and disadvantages of kata and other concepts valued by Japanese culture in terms of economic success in a globalized economy. That is a very narrow metric, and arguably a very poor one; personally I think libertarian capitalism, founded on selfish individualism, slave labour and deeply conditioned hierarchies (eg gender roles – women performing unpaid domestic labour and childcare), is destroying the biosphere and has trapped many well-intentioned people around the world in a spreading disease of cognitive dissonance between the imperative to manage resources sustainably and maintain healthy ecosystems, and the desire to express status and to enjoy life through material goods. De Mente devotes a whole chapter to ‘Weaknesses of the Japanese System’ and while some of what he says in it, and elsewhere of the disadvantages of valuing form over content, rings true (much is drawn from the work of Japanese social anthropologists. The many quoted opinions of fellow gaijin business-people are less helpful to the reader, I feel.) I can’t trust someone whose concession to the other view is so meagre and ill-considered. De Mente uncritically repeats the words of a western critic: ‘What they are watching is not only meaningless, attending kabuki has become a kata within itself’, not seeing the absurdity and ignorance of this dismissal – of course attending kabuki is a ‘kata’; so is going to the opera, as surely any afficionado would agree.

I know precious little of Japanese culture. I have Japanese friends, and once trained in kara-te, and have had opportunities to appreciate the joy of kata, the pleasure in the way of doing things, such that each aspect can be isolated and improved, such that the whole expresses each time a unique harmony. Viewing life from a more ‘Japanese’ perspective, prioritising form and harmony, makes it possible to make every action and moment of life a potential source of individual or shared gratification and self-awareness, self-development. De Mente thinks ‘groupism’ stops people from excelling or innovating – I’ve read another western view on the same issue, that ‘collectivism’ removes the pressure western school children feel against excelling, because team members will do their utmost for the team. I can’t comment on Japanese people, except that they seem to have invented a lot and produced a lot of famous master arts/crafts people, but I do remember being the only kid raising a hand in hundreds of lessons (I’m not a supergenius, just a show-off, heedless of the social pressure against teacher’s pet-ism)

These are just a couple of examples where I think De Mente might meet opposition. The confidence his I-know-best tone might inspire is, I feel, unwarranted. (In fact, I don’t trust a word of this, and worry about the effect on my mind of the stereotypes I’ve possibly absorbed from it. I advise you to avoid it!) My final point is a pretty cheap shot, but I can’t resist: De Mente goes on and on about superior American [sic] rationality, morals and fairness, and he regards Japanese ‘hostility’ to foreigners as one of the culture’s worst aspects. But stepping back for a moment, I can’t help wondering whether a country that dropped two atom bombs on densely populated cities more or less to see what would happen, has set such a great example for cultural imitation…

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