Monday, November 08, 2010

My review of "Butterfly's Sisters" for The Wall Street Journal

A Haunting Woman

I was recently interviewed by an American television reporter about a popular simulated-dating videogame in Japan called Love Plus +. The game offers players a selection of cute virtual girlfriends for dates and relationships. Once the player has chosen his partner, the game's software constantly challenges him to find ever more effective ways of romancing her and keeping her happy.

At one point, the American reporter wondered why the virtual females in the game looked so young, docile and submissive. Was it OK in Japan, she asked me, a Japanese-American living in Tokyo, for men to pursue underage women?

It's not, of course. Like the famous Hello Kitty character, the game's girlfriends are designed to exemplify the Japanese cultural aesthetic of kawaii—adorably, irresistibly cute and dependent figures in need of attentive care and affection. It is precisely the "mincing, simpering personification of female subservience to the male" that abounds in stereotypes of Japan, according to Yoko Kawaguchi, a Japanese woman raised in North America. This misperception irritates Ms. Kawaguchi so much that she wrote a book about it.

Butterfly's Sisters

By Yoko Kawaguchi
Yale, 342 pages, $45

While "Butterfly's Sisters" is a sweeping historical account of Western impressions of Japanese women, it focuses on an icon that long preceded Hello Kitty and virtual girlfriends—the kimono-clad geisha. Ms. Kawaguchi is most interested in the era when Japan officially opened to Western trade and diplomacy in the mid-19th century. This period, she notes, marks "the beginning of the long-continuing debate over the precise nature of the geisha's occupation." In other words: "Were they or weren't they," as the book's first chapter-title asks, high-class prostitutes? [more @ WSJ]


ArthurFrDent said...

Interesting review... Sometimes I get the impression that on both sides of the pacific we tend to look through the wrong end of the telescope, and get this distorted view. It isn't just one thing, not just geisha or hello kitty. I can imagine how it grates to have a very important cultural idea so misunderstood as geisha. But the misunderstanding is so deep, that it's 2 sided. Even though she was raised in North America, she has a cultural heritage to draw on. But what do the rest of us have?

Why would anyone know or care which side the Obi is tied on? I'm glad to know such a thing, but when most people see kimono there is so much to it that they don't think of the individual parts, or know their meaning. So if you saw a courtesan, and a geisha together, only someone who had grown in the culture would actually know the difference. The same way I'm sure a handshake can be mystifying for people who come to the US. In a business transaction the wrong handshake can subtly effect the outcome, but who will tell you that?

That's all tangent to your review, of course, but it's a reaction to the source, I guess.

Roland Kelts said...

And a worthy reaction. Actually, most Japanese and some other Asians viewed the handshake as unsanitary, as they did the cleaning of one's bowels with paper. Little wonder. Bows displace the former, water the latter.

I agree that chastising others for their ignorance in trans-cultural misreadings is a tad precious and finally futile. A willingness to learn, and be open, ought to be celebrated.

Just as a new language cannot be learned if the student is constantly ridiculed or chastised, the intricacies of culture require patience and empathy.