Cultural appreciation or cultural appropriation?
Today started out with a Committee on Teaching Asia-sponsored panel, "Asia: Cultural Appreciation or Appropriation" that began with a music video (Coldplay/Beyonce) and a set of questions from the moderator, Karen Kane. Where is the line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation? If that line has something to do with unequal power relations, how do we know when one group takes something that does not belong to them? And how do we determine what "belongs" to whom? Is authorship possible for, say, folk traditions? What are the modes or ways that appropriation might occur? How do we reconcile these issues with concepts like a "multicultural society" (Canada) or a "melting pot" (America)? How much does change over time complicate our understanding of culture? And does it matter when money is at stake?
Elisheva Perelman developed these questions further by pointing to Katy Perry's performance as Japanese geisha clad in a Chinese qipao with a miscellany "unauthentic" props for a 2013 live performance her single "Unconditional Love" because, in her words, "I was thinking about unconditional love, and I was thinking: Geishas are basically, like, the masters of loving unconditionally"? Is that the same kind of problem as the Oberlin students who called out the bad Asian food in the dining hall as appropriation?
Melanie King and Farley Richmond seemed to offer two alternative takes on these questions. Professor King viewed the issue as essentially political, arguing that people of dominant cultures not only perform the cultures of oppressed peoples, but restrict or forbid oppressed peoples from performing their own cultures. Gwen Stefani can sport a bindi, King pointed out, but Indian-Americans need to "fit in" to survive financially. Professor Richmond answered that in theater and in film, the primary concern was creativity, requiring the freedom to draws upon – and mix together – inspirations across time and space. Money cannot be seen as merely "dirty," since it is what makes the arts sustainable. All fascinating insights, though it struck me that King and Richmond did not actually address one another, just as Asian-American protesters against the "kimono" exhibit at the MFA in Boston never really came to terms with the Japanese-born counter-protesters when a similar debate unfolded in July 2015.
Nixon in China, Trump in Pyongyang?
John Delury offered an unexpected take on North Korea as part of the panel, "U.S.-Asian Relations under Trump." Above all, he said, North Korea is an "isolated, impoverished state in the heart of Northeast Asia." What would happen if we stopped pretending that the regime is on the verge of failure and instead started accepting the facts as they are and guiding Kim Jung-un toward a future as the North's "developmental dictator," not unlike Deng Xiaoping? Completing the nuclear program, he said, is the "tail end of daddy's program"; Kim Jung-un's task is to "Make North Korea Great Again." While acknowledging it is unlikely that the president is a regular reader of Foreign Affairs magazine where Delury laid out his case, he suggests that no one is better positioned than Trump to pull off a Nixon-meets-Mao moment.
How do we make sense of Japan's Empire?
In a terrific late-afternoon panel, three Japan scholars sought to tackle the view that Japan's modernization-cum-imperialism from the 1870s to 1945 was contradictory, "schizophrenic," or even "absurd." Historians have long noted that after "mimicking" patterns of Western imperialism, Japanese leaders swung between seeking a place in the international order as a great power and attacking the legitimacy of that order as a self-styled guardian of Asia.
All three of the panelists pushed back against this picture of contradiction. Robert Eskildsen offered an admittedly "complicated" alternative explanation of "recursion," by which he meant to shift our focus from the structure of relationships to the logic behind how those relationships were formed. Japan, he argues, was not a passive recipient of Westernization, but rather was engaged in a constant process of adaptation that Westerners ultimately found helpful and adopted for their own ends. Thus, the particular state of relations between Japan and, say, the United States might be different at any given moment, but the longer-term pattern remained the same as Japan sought to absorb and adapt the lessons of the West to avoid colonization.
Robert Tierney and Ethan Mark each sought instead to complicate the structure in which Japanese imperialism operated. They offered what I saw as ultimately complementary arguments on the "triangular" relations (Tierney) between Japan, the West, and Japan's colonies and what we might term "rectangular" relations (Mark) between Japan, the West, Japan's colonies, and some other factor – usually the Chinese. To make sense of Japan's actions at any given point, one simply needs to recognize the role third (or fourth) party actors played in the calculations at a given moment.
Bonus! What did "alternative facts" look like circa 1942?
Trying to navigate these complex web of relationships (see previous section) was tough, as Mark pointed out with several rich textual examples. I have copied out one below from a "China pacification unit" in July 1942:
They argued that Japan and China have the same script and are of the same race (dôbun dôshu), they are brothers, and they should proceed with hands joined. Someone in the audience replied: All right, but China is the older brother. It is said that members of the pacification unit had no words to answer this for some time. How wonderful if they had been able to reply immediately. It is a problem of history – when you are properly aware of Japan's history, the answer is extremely simple. Japan has always been leader of the Asia-Pacific sphere from ancient times – if you know this history, that is enough. Japan has always been constructing China – if you know this is history, that is enough. We are now seeking this truth with our own eyes in the Greater East Asia War. We must be aware that this truth before our eyes had been continuously repeated in China since ancient times. What is true in China is, again, true in the southern regions. Japanese people, take great pride!