Having lived in Japan, I have on occasion been called a “Japanophile” or an “Orientalist” because there are some things about Japanese life I think are good and should be adopted in the West. I am interested in the possibility that these accusations actually represent a racist rejection of critiques of the West based on comparison of cultures, and that the phrase “Orientalism” has come to mean something very different to the original intention of its author (Edward Said). I am particularly reminded of an exchange on my blog about Japanese life, in which a critic of my position accused me of being “just” a “Japanophile”. This person’s concern for my apparently racist and patronising blanket acceptance of Japanese ways was somewhat belied by their use of the term “Jap” to refer to the Japanese.

In order to investigate the possibility that Orientalism‘s critique of Orientalism has been rebranded by racists as a rejection of Oriental critiques of the West, I thought I should read the original text. This is, of course, slow going, since it’s full of wanky academic writing. Here are some opinions so far:

  • It’s full of wank. There are some classic passages of wank, but one particular sort of wank which stands out so far is the casual scattering of untranslated French and German through the text. That, my friends, is uber-wank. I suspect that Dr. Said won’t be scattering untranslated Arabic through the text, but I am pretty sure he can read and speak Arabic. Is it Orientalism to treat French as immediately understandable, but Arabic as requiring translation? (Note it hasn’t happened yet)
  • He has not convinced me that Orientalism is different to racism, and until he does I see no reason for writing a book about it
  • He speaks in the introduction of his experience, as a Palestinian citizen, of being “rendered invisible” by Western (and particularly American) accounts of the destruction of Palestine. Unfortunately, when he does this Dr. Said uses the gendered words “he”, “him” and “his”, and very clearly throughout the book uses language intended to render invisible all women, but particularly Oriental women. I am struck by the hypocrisy of writing a book about the backgrounding of the real experience of a class of people (Orientals) in language which backgrounds a whole class of people (women). The book was first published in 1978, after the issue of gendered language had been well covered by other authors (e.g. Friedan and Greer) so he has no excuse for this
  • I’m pretty confident he has got the history of Japan wrong. In part 3 of chapter 1 he makes the claim that throughout history no part of the Orient outside of the Islamic world has resisted incursion by the West, and he even gives an example of a 2 year period in Japanese history (in the 17th century) when the Japanese did resist incursion, so we know he is speaking of a pretty broad time span. But in fact Japan resisted all foreign incursion up until 1945, and there was a 150 year period when they allowed no westerners into Japan. The 2 year period of resistance which Said mentions was by Japanese Christians, who kicked out the Portuguese (in his account); but Japanese Christians are a tiny minority in Japan precisely because the Japanese have so thoroughly resisted foreign incursion. Even today Japan is undiscovered country for Westerners, academic and non-academic alike, while it has very effectively infiltrated western society. If he can’t get his history right, I am very suspicious of his overall thesis. 
So far it’s an interesting but not a challenging read, and I am unconvinced that it has anything much to add to the general discourse on racism then or since.