September 28, 2017

"Shogun" revisited (3/4)

I was a Japanese major in college when Shogun debuted on American television. The subject of one's scholarship appearing in popular culture is always just cause to take up academic arms against superficial ways a complex subject is so often reduced to in the mass media.

Shogun provided plenty of material for the easily outraged.

The propensity to treat a foreign culture as an extended episode of Ripley's Believe It or Not! is known as "Orientalism." It's a valid criticism, though keeping in mind that that the biggest Orientalists in the world are Orientals. Ditto "Occidentalism."

The more blatant Orientalist sins are found in the middle arc of Shogun, which, frankly, slows to a drag. The political scheming and deal-making that would soon shatter the fragile regency and lead to the Battle of Sekigahara was going on elsewhere. So Blackthorne hasn't much to do.

Instead we get a tedious soap opera, poor language acquisition skills, and a crash coarse in Nihonjinron, a nativist philosophy that was all the rage in the 1970s and 1980s. Nihonjinron argues that everything about Japan is unique, special, and unlike anything else in the world.

And every Japanese, by dint of being Japanese, is born a zen master.

Not only James Clavell, but pretty much the entire media establishment bought into it hook, line, and sinker. As a result, any silly assertion could be justified on the grounds that it was "Japanese," including all that pop-psychology blather about "living in the moment" and whatnot.

In part, I believe that writers of Clavell's generation were trying to comprehend Japan's role in WWII. Thus the huge influence of Ruth Benedict's The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Written during the war, it helped spawn the modern Nihonjinron movement after the war.

I remember my Japanese professors of Japanese being the most annoyed about the absurd business with the pheasant and the depiction of seppuku (harakiri) and kiri-sute gomen (切捨御免) as being well-nigh ubiquitous.

Meaning "to cut down without regard," the latter refers to the "right" of the samurai "to strike with sword at anyone of a lower class who compromised their honor." As portrayed, it's about as historically accurate as gunfights at high noon were in the 19th century western United States.

Meaning, it happened. Now and then. Certainly not as often nor as casually as suggested in Shogun (and countless home-grown samurai actioners). Killing commoners was a bad idea in an agrarian society with limited arable land and a staple crop that requires a lot of care and nurturing.

Actual armed conflicts were more likely to erupt between high and low-ranked samurai, hence the term gekokujou (下剋上), meaning "juniors dominating seniors." The legendary "revenge of the 47 ronin" began with two high-ranked provincial lords getting into a tussle in Edo Castle.

The Meiji Restoration was in large part driven by lower-ranked samurai revolting against their masters, up to and including the Tokugawa shogunate.

But let's make love, not war. Orientalism doesn't get any sillier than the scene in which Blackthorne is offered a foursome. The only difference with practically the same material in You Only Live Twice is that James Bond is randier than Blackthorne. And takes himself less seriously.

Of course, the message of this Oriental "exoticism" is that everybody is having better sex than stuffy old us. Though given the current birth rate in Japan, that particular message seems to have gotten lost somewhere along the line.

We also get a de rigueur mixed-bathing scene. As far as that goes, you'll have to look long and hard to find a mixed public bath in Japan these days, though it was once commonplace.

U.S. Consul Townsend Harris was shocked by the practice back in the 1850s. He was reassured by one of his more anthropologically-minded friends that "the chastity of Japanese women" was due to "this very exposure that lessens the desire that owes much of its power to mystery and difficulty."

Which brings us to a running joke in the Shogun miniseries that happens to be pretty spot on. Again, it was Townsend Harris who observed that the Japanese "are a clean people. Everyone bathes every day."

Back in the 16th century, Europeans didn't. So the first time he's told to wash his smelly self off, Blackthorne reacts as if he's been told to jump into a volcano. Though it doesn't take him long to think better of the practice (especially when he gets to share the tub with Yoko Shimada).

Blackthorne never quite conquers the conjugation of "to be," but the o-furo is one cultural practice he has no problem accommodating himself to.

Related posts

Shogun revisited (4)
Dances with Samurai
Japan made in Hollywood

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