Paul J. Scalise
Jack McClelland said it best: "You have to be a little crazy to
be a writer. Think about it. It's not normal to sit in a room
for hours thinking, writing and typing. That's just not normal
behavior." Worse, you have to contend with all the other "crazies"
out there who suffer from the same imbalance as you—sometimes
more effectively. Their books actually sell; yours don't.
Most Japan scholars calmly accept this reality. Book titles like
Japan: The System that Soured (1998) or Arthritic Japan:
The Slow Pace of Economic Reform (2001) only confirm what
we already knew: Time has taken the bloom off the rose and returned
Asian Studies to a wilting specialist's game. The masses are galvanized
by threats to their way of life, by the weird, sadomasochistic
and "other"—not by the dry, balanced and logical. So what's
the take-home message for the struggling writer: Blame an impotent
economy and gladly resign yourself to a life of cheap haircuts,
remaindered book sales and unreturned phone calls from your press
agent? Not necessarily.
Take a lesson from the master of good publicity: Ms. Amélie
Nothomb, daughter of a former Belgian Ambassador to Japan, and
winner of the Grand Prix de l'Académie Française
and Prix Internet du Livre for her eighth novel Stupeur
et Tremblement, or Fear and Trembling. The book was
recently translated into 14 languages, including English, with
an extraordinary amount of praise from the Anglo-American literati.
The question is why.
The French-speaking world clearly wants to contribute to our understanding
of Japan, and they've had their fair share of reputable scholars
like Jean-Pierre Lehmann, and the less diplomatic like Former
French Prime Minister Edith Cresson. ("The Japanese are like ants,"
she informs us, "They stay up all night working hard, trying to
figure out how to screw you in the morning.") But Ms. Nothomb's
notoriety is unusual in that hers seems to be the product of a
subversive wit; you never quite know if what is in front of you
is a satire, a semi-autobiography or, strangely enough, some form
of didactic literature.
The book title evokes a submissive and disillusioned tone that
runs throughout. According to ancient Japanese protocol, or so
we're told, foreigners wishing to pay court to the emperor must
adopt an attitude of "Fear and Trembling." Our foreign heroine,
is the tool through which the author can convey this idea on a
grander, modern-day scale. She may want to be part of the group,
assume Japanese culture, language and style, but will always risk
being excluded: once for being a Westerner, twice for being a
The setting is at the headquarters of a Japanese international
conglomerate (Yumimoto) in Tokyo. Young Amelie, who mirrors much
of the author's background, is the product of an internationalist
lifestyle that lands her a seemingly prestigious job, but where
she is ultimately "senior to no one."
What follows is a reinvention of Chinese water torture, Japanese-style:
a series of slow, public humiliations intended to break Western
boss repeatedly tears up an assignment without explaining the
error. She is chastised for taking the initiative on a research
request that wasn't directly handed down from her superiors. Then,
she's pitted against Ms. Fubuki Mori, Amélie's
immediate superior and de facto guide, through the mysterious
world of "Japanese psychology," glass ceilings and corporate backstabbing.
Fubuki explains: "Did you think that you were going to get [my]
job within a matter of weeks?"
We get the picture.
Ten years ago, such popular fiction would have seemed strangely
out-of-place. The leitmotif of a Western world in decline at the
hands of crafty "agents of Japanese influence" was filtered through
images of head-to-head competition and U.S. stagnation. Now, among
Westerners, the genre has been turned on its head. "We" don't
want to keep "them" out. "They" want to keep "us" from getting
in. And the public is intrigued.
There is a lot of good writing here. The sense one gets after
reading the first half of the novel is that painting one-dimensional
caricatures of Japanese management is the point. Satire works
best with extremes and the perception of Japanese business insularity,
provincialism and group think is an extreme like no other. Consider
the following passage between a Japanese and Amélie:
How could our business partners have any feeling
of trust in the presence of white girl who understood their language?
From now on you will no longer speak Japanese.
Had the novel stopped with our heroine quitting in
disgust, Fear and Trembling would have taught us that there
is a limit to what rational people will do in the face of absurdity.
But it doesn't, and Ms. Nothomb's novel lapses into bouts of confusion.
I was dumbfounded.
I beg your pardon?
You no longer know how to speak Japanese. Is this clear?
But—it was because of my knowledge of your language that
I was hired by Yumimoto!
That doesn't matter. I am ordering you not to understand Japanese
That's impossible. No one could obey an order like that.
There is always a means of obeying. That's what Western brains
need to understand.
An example: Amélie
is ordered to double-check all the office expenses for international
business trips using on-the-day exchange rates. Normal people would
find this easy. But not our heroine. She is driven to madness, ripping
off her clothes to run amuck and pass out from sheer stress bathed
in "a layer of crumpled paper, empty soda cans and cigarette stubs
soaked in Coke." But this doesn't ring true because, well, no boss
would ever allow an employee to continue after such a spectacle.
For satire to work, it has to contain a kernel of truth.
How, then, do we reconcile satire with streams of didactic guff
about cruel "Japanese" business practices, the oppression of "Japanese"
women and the lengthy discourse on glass ceilings? Well that's just
it. Maybe we don't.
Maybe the author is deeply sincere. Maybe everything we thought
was satire is actually a transcribed docudrama of sorts. She believes
in her fiction because we believe in her fiction; it makes Westerners
feel good about not being part of it. Or maybe she believes in her
fiction because feminists believe in her fiction; feminists can
always hark back to waging battles for equal opportunity in "oppressive
regimes." Or maybe, just maybe, this is the product of just another
"crazy" writer on Japan with a fertile imagination: She's just been
sitting in front of her typewriter for too long.
In any case, the public loves it. So who needs to be dry and logical?
Just sit back and learn about Japan a different way. Until a scholar
tells you otherwise, and that's when you ask: But how does that
square with Fear and Trembling?
Paul J. Scalise. “Japan Blues, Ad Nauseum: Just a Few Predictable
Stereotypes Too Far.” The Asian Wall Street Journal. February
15, 2002. Pg. W7.
Nothomb's notoriety is unusual in that hers seems to be the product
of a subversive wit; you never quite know if what is in front of
you is a satire, a semi-autobiography or, strangely enough, some
form of didactic literature.”
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