It's a rarity that a day passes without encountering some form of misguided, misunderstood, or simply inaccurate portrayal of Japan. Often, the inaccuracy is well-intentioned. Regardless of intent, the image that emerges is of Japan, and extending to the Japanese people, as enigmatic and unfathomable. Having resided in Japan for over two decades, I can attest that it is an intricate and layered society. However, it is not distinct in a manner dissimilar from other societies. All places share common threads of humanity, alongside unique ways of perception and action. Reducing any society to the sum of its distinctive parts frequently serves as the initial step towards misunderstanding and misalignment.
Edward Said's notions on orientalism offer invaluable insights into the tendency of individuals within the martial arts community to frequently indulge in "orientalising" and "mystifying" Japan. This inclination can be ascribed to a complex interplay of historical, cultural, and societal factors, which culminate in a skewed perception of Japan as an exotic and inscrutable entity.
Orientalism, as elucidated by Edward Said, pertains to the manner in which Western societies tend to perceive and depict Eastern cultures, such as Japan, through a lens of exoticism, otherness, and distortion. This concept emanates from the annals of colonial history and power dynamics, wherein European powers aspired to assert dominion over non-Western regions. Within the domain of martial arts, practitioners often romanticise Japan as the cradle of diverse martial traditions, propagating the notion that it holds ancient sagacity and enigmatic secrets. This romanticisation oversimplifies Japan's cultural intricacies and overlooks its contemporary realities.
The mystification of Japan within the martial arts community results from the selective concentration on particular cultural facets. Many martial artists accentuate traditional aspects of Japanese culture, like samurai history or Zen philosophy, while disregarding the contemporary dimensions. This selective emphasis perpetuates stereotypes and fails to acknowledge the dynamic essence of Japanese society. By reducing Japan to a collection of exotic symbols, martial artists contribute to an incomplete and distorted representation of the nation.
The historical legacy of colonialism significantly influences the Western outlook on Japan. During the era of colonialism, Western powers frequently deemed non-Western cultures as inferior and enigmatic. This legacy persists in the martial arts community's proclivity to perceive Japan as a perplexing enigma awaiting decryption. The power dynamics of colonialism established a hierarchical rapport between Western and non-Western cultures, influencing the perception and consumption of Japan beyond its borders.
Moreover, the media plays a pivotal role in perpetuating orientalism and mystification. Films, literature, and popular culture often depict Japan as a realm of samurai and geisha, reinforcing the concept of an exotic and unfathomable land. Such portrayals oversimplify Japanese culture, neglecting its diversity and complexity. This media-driven narrative fuels the martial arts community's enchantment with an idealised Japan, further distorting the reality.
In conclusion, the inclination of the martial arts community to "orientalise" and "mystify" Japan can be understood through Edward Said's notion of orientalism. The historical legacy of colonialism, coupled with media representations, has led to the simplification and distortion of Japan's cultural identity. To counteract these tendencies, it is imperative to adopt a more informed comprehension of Japan that acknowledges its multifaceted nature and contemporary realities. This necessitates transcending the romanticised past and embracing the intricate present of Japan, rather than perpetuating a distorted and mythical image.
Okinawan and Japanese Budo
James M. Hatch
International Educator who happens to be passionate about Chito Ryu Karate. Born in Ireland, educated in Canada, matured in Japan