Charlie Brooker, the British screenwriter, zombie reality TV expert and culture commentator for the Guardian, is doing a series of articles on Japan. I wouldn’t usually care but I quite like Charlie Brooker’s style of criticism, usually directed at television culture, which is ascerbic and filthy but also well educated and very fond of the medium (TV) that he mostly writes on. His cultural commentary can be a lot of fun and occasionally insightful, and certainly his first article on first impressions of Japan contains a few, such as his description of a lot of Japanese TV:
Imagine watching an endless episode of The One Show with the colour and brightness turned up to 11, where all the guests have been given amphetamines, the screen is peppered with random subtitles, and every 10 seconds it cuts to a close-up shot of a bowl of noodles for no apparent reason. That’s 90% of Japanese TV right there.
However, I’m concerned that he’s going to fall back on the same tired tropes that always get trotted out to describe Japan by westerners, especially those just visiting or who don’t have at least a passing familiarity with the language, and especially especially British and American commentators, whose level of introspection about their own cultures is, in general, profoundly lacking. The common tropes tend to be a combination of weirdness, exoticism, and a sense that you’ve stepped back in time to an earlier cultural period in the west, which almost certainly never actually existed. He certainly doesn’t start or end well, with both the opening and closing sentences describing Japan as “another planet.” He goes on in the first paragraph to say
while the world around you is largely recognisable, it somehow makes little sense
This is the classic expression of the cosseted western view. When did western cultural commentators decide that their own country is the arbiter of what “makes sense”? Once you’ve lived in Japan for a little while you start to see a lot of things about western life that definitely make no sense: when I watched TV in the UK and saw adverts for furniture, for example, inevitably some idiot actor would flop onto a couch and put their fully-shod feet up on it. Since I’ve lived in Japan I’ve come to realize that this is a truly disgusting habit, and it makes no sense that we in the west ever conceived of wearing our shoes into the house as a good idea. Perhaps, then, instead of phrasing things in terms of a culture that is full of “sense” (the one Brooker came from) and one that isn’t, Brooker could talk merely in terms of difference? And while he’s at it, learn to take his shoes off inside.
So already Brooker has established Britain’s cultural mores as the background from which all else deviates, and has portrayed the Japanese as alien and strange (incomprehensible, even). His green kit-kat comment follows the same pattern: kit-kats as representative of British cultural norms, are rendered green in Japan for no apparent reason. It’s left to the people in comments to mention that the chocolate is green because it is tea flavoured, a common practice in Japan, but from the body of the text we’re left to assume that the Japanese just like to make western chocolate green for no reason. Here we see the essence of the depiction of the other as strange: present something they do as an idiosyncratic or incomprehensible phenomenon and avoid a description of the extremely simple reason for the action.His description of TV also contains an element of this: those subtitles aren’t random, Charlie, because by definition sub-titles are not random. They are the words that the person speaking is saying. As the Suicidals once famously said: “Just beause you don’t understand it don’t mean it don’t make no sense.” In this case, the thing you don’t understand is this thing called “language” and you should ask yourself how you would feel if an Asian were commenting on the “randomness” of elements of your own culture’s TV without knowing a single word of English.
This perhaps also is what underlies his segue to a full two paragraphs of quite gross description of Japanese toilets. Why are the British focused on toilets? And whatever gave Brooker the impression that, as a member of a nation whose public toilets (not to mention its chocolate!) are universally poor-to-terrible, he is the best person to judge Japan’s extremely high standards of hygiene? Of course, toilet habits are a fundamental example of the way in which cultures differ, and a culturally introspective look at Japanese toilet habits could be an ideal opportunity for a Londoner like Brooker to discover that actually, his own culture has a lot to learn on this front. But instead it’s again a way of depicting the Japanese as weird and different, and these two paragraphs manage to incorporate a nod to the classical/modern binary of Japanese life, a good bit of British toilet humour, and bemusement at Japanese weirdness, all in one. To his credit Brooker finishes it with a sentence about machines overthrowing humans that serves to reunite Japanese and British as having cultural commonality; this is nice. But there is no chance to compare this with a British pub toilet – I bet Brooker doesn’t dare take a crap in your average British pub toilet, as just the stink alone would hurt his brain.
The remainder of the article, however, is good stuff, giving impressions of TV from the perspective of someone who apparently doesn’t speak any Japanese. Once he’s on his favourite ground (TV commentary) Brooker ditches the cultural-analysis stereotypes and manages to give a fairly nice description of how Japanese TV looks if you don’t understand Japanese. He also is much more introspective here, making jokes about crazy Japanese game shows without missing the point that reality TV is just as degrading and terrible a phenomenon. The use of the word “yelping” is a bit unfortunate in the context of a man in a country where he doesn’t understand the language, but overall it’s good. I think he’s wrong about the content of Japanese TV ads though: they aren’t mostly about food, they’re mostly about hair products.
Anyway, I’ll be watching this series of articles by Brooker with interest to see if he can rise above his colonialist heritage to give a genuinely interesting analysis of Japanese cultural life. I think he can do it, though I’m doubtful about whether he’ll be at all aware of how much he privileges his own cultural viewpoint. Japan is an almost completely blank slate to the British – the “far East” is something they know almost nothing about, in my experience. If he can give them a slightly deeper insight into Japan than “they’re weird and nothing makes sense” then he’ll have achieved something. Here’s hoping …