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Ian Littlewood, The Idea of Japan

11:00 PM, Dec 8, 1996 • By LEWIS LIBBY
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The curious island of Japan has long fascinated the West: in peace and war; in novels, paintings, plays, and movies. Ian Littlewood, in The Idea of Japan: Western Images, Western Myths, sets out to expose our time-honored myths about that country, not because they are untrue, but because they obscure "all the other things that are true." Japan, he contends, has grown too important to be ringed in cliches.

Littlewood does not pretend to tell us what Japan is really like; rather, he wants us to know how readily and consistently we engage in stereotypes about it. Nor are these stereotypes necessarily valueless, he says. They persist "because there is a basis of truth to them." So, he has put together an exhibition of perceptions of Japan, from the earliest Western visitors' accounts to James Bond and the ninja flicks. There is many a gem here.

For example, in recounting Japan's 200-year effort to exclude Western influence, Littlewood tells the story of the summary execution of a Portuguese trade delegation in 1640:

They were executed to a man, along with all but thirteen members of the crew. These thirteen, witnesses to the execution, were sent back with a message to the Macanese, "Let the people of Macao think no more of us; as if we were no longer in the world."

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a strong response.

In fact, the inclusion of a few more of these early encounters might have been desirable. Many of the familiar names are here, but we have too little of, for example, Isabella Bird's travels through northern Japan in 1878; we have only her arrival in port, which is rather like emphasizing the experience of Lewis and Clark east of the Blue Ridge.

The preponderant strength of the book lies in its references to popular Western literature. In Ian Fleming's Bond novels, James Clavell's Shogun, Michael Crichton's Rising Sun, Fred Hiatt's The Secret Sun, and other works, Littlewood finds evidence of Western fantasies about Japanese women, Japanese aestheticism, Japanese violence, and -- most disturbingly-Japanese otherness, the sense that the Japanese are alien, less than fully human. Because Littlewood argues that popular culture is more revealing of our attitudes than scholarly literature, it is a bit surprising that he left out Oliver Statler's influential Japanese Inn. Also, he might have commented on the impressions left on Westerners by Japanese works that are at least as well known in our culture as many of the Western works he cites: Filtered into the Western consciousness about Japan are the films of Akira Kurosawa and the writings of Yukio Mishima, Junichiro Tanizaki, and Yasunari Kawabata (who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1968). Littlewood's subtitle, " Western Images, Western Myths," might better be styled, "Images and Myths in Western-created Popular Media"; the two are not the same.

Littlewood makes no attempt to demonstrate that Western-created images of Japanese seductresses and martial artists differ significantly from those in Japanese media, as his thesis might seem to require. True, the Japanese do not refer to themselves as "monkeys," as Western propagandists did during World War II, but Tanizaki and Kawabata write of the pleasures of young Japanese women, Mishima is at least as interested in sensuality and suicide as any Western writer mentioned by Littlewood, and Japanese movies depict both sword-wielding heroes and villains.

As we consider all of the spy novels, murder mysteries, and the like, we have to wonder whether Littlewood is to some extent putting the rabbit in the hat. Do we, as he implicitly asserts, truly perceive characters in such settings as broadly reflective of real people? Popular culture is meaningful, but there is also common sense in the populace -- along with understanding and tolerance.

And Littlewood, though he suggests it, never quite proves that our perceptions of Japan are less accurate than our perceptions of other cultures. It is far from obvious that we are more distorted in our views of the Japanese than we are in our views of, say, the Arabs, or the Latin Americans, or even our own American Indians. A similar survey of pulp novels and movies involving these other groups might show equally egregious, or even more egregious, stereotypes.

At the end of the book, Littlewood invokes World War II and the atomic bombing of Japan to warn that if we do not challenge our historical stereotypes of the Japanese, "the same stereotypes will sooner or later produce the same reaction." He calls for more Western-to-Eastern contact, which most of us would probably accept, even if we would reject his historical diagnosis.