The Ambivalent Self of the Contemporary Japanese

Peer Reviewed

Essay Excerpt

In recent anthropological and historical discourse we have become increasingly aware that, unlike a society which is a bounded political unit, a culture has never been a sealed box but has always been in interaction with other cultures, as Leach (1965 [1954]:282, 1982:41-43) has repeatedly reminded us. This realization derives in part from a deconstruction of the colonial mentality that represented, or misrepresented, other societies, especially the so-called small-scale societies, as having been isolated and, furthermore, ahistorical.

In this article, I offer an interpretation of Japanese culture as it has interacted with other cultures and continues to interact with them with increased intensity. More specifically, I focus on the collective self of the contemporary Japanese as it has been defined and redefined by the other, namely, other peoples. My ethnography is a recent Japanese film, Tampopo (Dandelions), directed by Juzo Itami and released in 1986, since the film offers a vivid illustration of the current effort by the Japanese to redefine themselves in relation to the West,' as necessitated by Japan's new international position.

My second goal is to engage in an exercise in interpretation-reading of the film as a text. I want to show how we might interpret symbols and symbolic behaviors-noodles, a peach, and a raw egg, or spaghetti eating-as they occur in the film. It is a "thick description," if you will, but not an argumenton theories in symbolic anthropology per se, which I offer elsewhere (Ohnuki-Tierey 1990a, 1990b). (Ohnuki-Tierney, 196-197)

About the Author

Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, William F. Vilas Professor at the University of Wisconsin, is a native of Japan. Her anthropological work began with an anthropological history of the Detroit Chinese community since their arrival in the city. She then turned to the Sakhalin Ainu resettled in Hokkaido, resulting in three books. Realizing the limitation of studying a "memory culture," she shifted her focus on the Japanese, with Illness and Culture in Contemporary Japan as her first book on the Japanese. This work made her realize how one fails to understand the people and their way of life by studying only at a particular point in time. All her subsequent works have considered long periods of Japanese history to understand "culture through time." Her foci have been on various symbols of identities of the Japanese, such as rice and the monkey, within broader socio-political contexts and in comparative perspective. In her most recent work, which began as a study of symbolism of cherry blossoms and their viewing in relation to Japanese identities, made her realize how the Japanese state, since the end of the nineteenth century through World War II, manipulated this cherished symbol of the people, especially its folk aesthetic, in order to co-opt people for their own purposes, such as waging wars and imperial expansions, without people realizing it. The work culminated in her two most recent books, Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms: The Militarization of Aesthetics in Japanese History and Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections on Japanese Student Soldiers. She continues to explore the general theories about the role of symbolism and folk aesthetic in historical and cross-cultural perspective.

She is the author of fourteen single authored books in English and five in Japanese, in addition to numerous articles. She is a member of The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, its mid-west council member, and a recipient of John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship and other awards.

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