electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies
Discussion Paper 1 in 2006
Politically Correct Racism and the Geisha Novel
The Psychology of Sophisticated Racism Mirrors that of Ethnic Jokes
Attorney at Law
1. Politically Correct Racism
Sigmund Freud (1930) argued in Civilization and its Discontents that our laws, institutions and cultures developed to suppress and channel what to us would be a purest form of pleasure and joy: expression of aggression. Among our impulses, sex and violence have found widespread and ubiquitous forms of outlet in mainstream entertainment. These range from the casual and commonplace (TV shows, movies, and computer games), to the more restricted, but perfectly legal (prostitution in some states and X-rated movies). That these are largely considered acceptable and proper forms of entertainment should not surprise us. For after all, we would not be here except for sexual reproduction, and we are warlike peoples.
However, racism is an impulse that is considered so lacking in redeeming social values that it is found in popular entertainment to a much lesser degree. In this paper, I argue that politically correct racism (PC racism) is a sophisticated form of racism that is widely practiced and endorsed by liberal and respected media sources.
PC racism has three components.
The earliest use of the term 'politically correct racism' I have found were Internet postings in 1991 and 1992. These early uses were by conservatives to criticize affirmative action. I have been using the term in the above-defined sense for about 10 years.
Humans have shown aggression since prehistoric times and have justified their aggression as soon as they were able to explain their actions. Acts of aggression and persecution carried out under the name of religion have always been scrupulously justified to give a righteous appearance. When a substantial number of people see through the stated justifications for an act it becomes simply a case of hypocrisy. I like to limit the characterization of PC racism to those acts for which the righteous justification is successful enough to be accepted by virtually all people. Two possible examples of PC racism in the United States are anti-affirmative action and English only movements, in which some adherents of the movements attack blacks and Hispanics under the guise of righteously stated motives. However, perhaps a substantial number of people suspect the ulterior motives in these cases.
The most striking examples of PC racism involve those acts for which suspicions of racist motives have not been raised. One example is the geisha novel which will be examined below, and another example is the reporting on Japan by the New York Times, which showed a markedly heightened level of inaccuracy and prejudice starting in the 1980s. Even after a book-length criticism was published in 1998, the practice continues today. Here are some excerpts from the English-Japanese bilingual, parallel-text book Japan Made In USA (Zipangu, 1998).
The examples of PC racism that the above quotations describe are particularly recent and American, making it appropriate that a new name is given that includes the term 'politically correct', widely used in the USA since the 1980s. One aspect of PC racism that is particularly American is its one-sided discourse. For example, when opponents of affirmative action present their opinions, their manner of presentation resembles that of an American lawyer. This is a product of the present-day American 'Argument Culture' (Tannen, 1999) and partly results from the metaphorical thought-process that sees an argument as war (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980 and Lakoff, 1991).
Another aspect is that the New York Times's biased coverage of Japan can be seen as fallout from the wider culture wars in the United States that began in the 1980s. Liberals and conservatives have been fighting over various issues like affirmative action, English as an official language, prayer in schools, and college curricula, and both sides have agendas and positions, such that every careless argument is fiercely attacked by the opposing side. One of the only times that the New York Times can feel safe in carelessly criticizing and ridiculing without fear of adverse consequences is when it reports on Japan. Criticism of the treatment of women or the human rights situation in Japan, China, Iraq, and Afghanistan constitute a peace-offering: something that Americans of all beliefs can agree on.
2. Nonsense Jokes, Ethnic Jokes, and PC Racism
After presenting a simplified theory of nonsense and ethnic jokes, based on analyses by Freud (1905) and Minsky (1980), I show that the pleasure one derives from politically correct racism is similar to that from ethnic jokes.
The obsession to stay logically sane and socially proper
All humans have at least two compulsive obsessions: an obsession to stay logically sane and an obsession to stay socially proper. (And this includes those who are apparently 'completely normal', i.e., those who reasonably believe that they are completely free of neuroses or other emotional problems.)
Staying logically sane requires that we always remember a countless number of properties, during every second of our waking hours. Some of these properties are mathematical (X plus Y is the same as Y plus X), logical (if A equals B, and B equals C, then A equals C), and physical (A metal coin doesn't melt in a washer. After a person dies, that person stays dead.). That these properties are not inherently true can be seen in the fact that in our dreams, when these properties are violated, it doesn't cause any suspicion or alarm.
Staying socially proper requires that we always remember another, more complex set of a countless number of recommendations about how we should dress, say, and act in different situations. These become obsessions because they do not appear naturally, and the goals are ultimately unattainable.
Nonsense humor (logico-linguistic jokes and paradoxes) exploit our obsession to stay logically sane. Here is a typical nonsense joke given by Freud, by way of Minsky (1980):
These logico-linguistic jokes are also called nonsense jokes. The following examples are from Douglas Hofstadter (1979: 495 and 1985: 15).
Nonsense humor is enjoyed because of the vertigo we feel as we glimpse into the abyss of illogic from a safe place, just like a roller-coaster ride. Moreover, what is forbidden gains allure from simply being forbidden.
Sexual jokes and ethnic jokes
Most jokes are about socially-improper subjects of aggression (sex and race). They are enjoyable for the same reasons that nonsense humor is enjoyable, but more so because aggression (sexual and racial) appeals to our innate biology. In enjoyment of sexual and ethnic jokes, as well as of PC racism, satisfaction of our impulses is made possible because the censors are overcome by the techniques and frameworks employed, as elaborated in a later section.
Minsky (1980) gives an answer to the problem that perplexed Freud regarding the function (or purpose) of nonsense jokes, and shows how different forms of humor can be seen as much more similar. I agree with Minsky and offer some personal perspectives. For a long time, I had an uneasy feeling about the term 'nonsense joke.' All good jokes are funny, and all jokes are weird in some way. So I felt that all jokes are similarly 'nonsense' in that they challenge our assumptions about the world. The idea to categorize jokes into two kinds, the usual kind and the nonsense kind, did not sit well with me.
Perhaps Freud's puzzlement over the function of nonsense jokes can be explained as follows. Even though the appeal of aggression (sex and race) is virtually human-universal, our inclination for mathematical and logical abstraction varies greatly from person to person. For example, the liar's paradox is only interesting if you assume that all statements are either true or false and never both. But this is a naive assumption of the mathematically-inclined that is false in most statements that we make: 'He is tall', 'I like apples', etc. The large majority of people who are not mathematically-inclined tend to view nonsense humor as a special, or strange, kind of humor.
The abyss of illogic makes us fearful, but also curious. Likewise, repressed sexual, hostile, and racist wishes make us fear and desire what is forbidden. Jokes give us pleasure because they titillate us by giving us a tiny taste of what we desire and fear. Jokes enable us temporarily to fool our censors and inhibitions, deceive ourselves, and indulge in our desires and wishes that we would not admit that we have. If these objects of desire were not entangled in complications, we would simply have them and that would be the end of the story — like eating a favorite fruit. We also would have no hesitation expressing our desires. Complications arise when fundamentally we cannot have what we want, and we make ourselves believe that we do not want them. When one 'doth protest too much,' we become suspicious of what is behind those protests. Similarly, when one must justify too much about indulging in simple pleasures (of, say, reading a novel), we should suspect that there is something lurking beneath the surface.
3. The Popularity of the Geisha Novel as Explained by PC Racism
The novel Memoirs of a Geisha (Golden, 1997) is a story of how a little
girl from a poor fishing village becomes a legendary
dancer-entertainer-companion-hostess. To study the surprising popularity of the
novel, Anne Allison interviewed more than 80 Memoirs readers for her paper
'Memoirs of the Orient' (2001). The novel was successful, I suppose, because —
after Sayonara in the 1950s and Shogun in the 1970s — by the 1990s
America was ready for another novel (and then film) that features the mysterious
Japanese female. And it did help that no Japanese person, save Mineko Iwasaki, bothered to point out the inaccuracies and the prejudices of the novel.
Three levels of deception are used in the novel to make it seem authentic and accurate.
Readers with little knowledge of Japanese language and culture may feel mystified by the Japanese words that appear on virtually every page of Memoirs, but the two most frequent words in the novel, geisha and okiya, are misused by Golden.
What Golden refers to as 'geisha,' the women who are the subject of this story are usually called geiko in Japan, and these women don't refer to themselves as 'geisha,' a more informal and slightly derogatory term (See Agence France Presse, 2005). In the Japanese translation, two words geisha and geiko (the formal reading is geigi) are used in the main text, while the book title was changed to Sayuri and the word geisha does not appear even as a subtitle.
Golden makes frequent references to okiya. In Kyoto, where the story is set, these houses are usually called yakata. Again, the Japanese translation uses both okiya and yakata. Golden's uninformed vocabulary (geisha and okiya) is not used in the dialogues of the Japanese version.
While reading the original English language novel, I wondered what the Japanese name for Golden's 'Dr. Crab' might be. Natural choices might be kani sensei, kani hakase, or kani inchō, but they all sounded impossible in Japanese. In Japanese, crustacean nicknames are never used — people's faces may sometimes resemble mammals but never crabs and lobsters. Rather, kani sensei or kani hakase would imply a marine biologist, and kani inchō would imply a clinic president with a fishing hobby. In short, 'Dr. Crab' is a name that has no appropriate counterpart in the Japanese language. The Japanese translation avoids this difficulty by using simply 'inchō' (clinic president or hospital owner) for most occurrences of the name 'Dr. Crab.' Golden's insistence on the name 'Dr. Crab' in the English novel must have been for the connotations of physical deformity, unnatural gait, and other hideous imagery, as I discuss in the next section.
'Nobu' and the Japanese names in Kanji
One of the novel's main characters is a man with the family name Nobu. When a Japanese male is called 'Nobu' or 'Nobu-san,' on nearly all occasions it refers to a given name, such as Nobuyuki, Nobuhisa, or Nobumasa, which is what most Japanese people who have seen the movie but have not read the book seem to assume erroneously about the character played by Koji Yakusho. The character's name probably comes from the famous restaurant in New York City, named after the chef-owner, Nobuyuki Matsuhisa — this being as sloppy as giving characters in a story the given names Toyota, Honda, Morita, etc. The translator reveals that he had to come up with all the kanji characters for the people in the book such as Nobu Toshikazu, Imamura Ken, Matsunaga Tsuneyoshi, Tottori Junnosuke, and Sato Noritaka (family names listed first as in the novel), because Golden had not. This sloppiness is comparable to the following hypothetical situation:
While sloppiness described as above did not result in an actual blunder (thanks to the able translator) it hints at how poor Golden's Japanese may be, and explains why the characters in the original English novel seem so superficial.
When English-language text is translated into Japanese, the text volume usually expands by 20 to 30 percent. Likewise this occurred in the translation of Golden's novel. But much more besides has also happened. The examples cited above merely scratch the surface, since the translation corrects and refines Golden's crude vocabulary and sensitivity at all levels of description. Comparing Golden's version and the Japanese version of the novel is like comparing an abridged version (poorly-written in a foreign language) and the original version of a Dickens novel. The Japanese translation is truly a tour-de-force: it corrects inaccuracies and softens the prejudices of the original novel without embarrassing Golden.
We can see why the novel is so popular. It is an elaborate Harlequin romance-like melodrama that women can read without feeling guilty because it has won the Politically Correct seal of approval from the New York Times and is hailed by American critics as authentic, accurate, and educational. Rather than think about the real problems facing women in America — domestic violence, or 10,000 enforced prostitutes brought into the country each year (Landesman, 2004) — readers can feel superior and self-righteously indignant at the backward 'Japanese' practices. This is at the heart of the joy of PC racism, whose pleasure can last for many hours instead of seconds or minutes as against an ethnic joke.
Roger Ebert (2005) states that the story is about the 'romanticism of female subjection.' Ebert also points out that the virginity auction in the film Pretty Baby, set in New Orleans, is more unnerving to Americans than the virginity auction set in Japan. Indulging in the romanticism of female subjection (akin to masochism?) is easier to do if it's about a far-off, exotic land, and especially while feeling self-righteously indignant in the context of PC racism.
Golden's story involves the 'almost pathological ugliness of almost all men in the book' (Allison, 1999). After Mineko Iwasaki sued Golden for defamation and breach of contract, and her own book came out in 2002, it became apparent how Golden distorted her life story. In reality, she was treated much better by her colleagues and senior geiko, had more freedom about her life and future plans, and her mizuage involved no sex at all. Hating the backward 'Japanese' practices and hating Japanese men is a pleasure made acceptable in the reading of the novel because of its righteous appearance.
Our desires toward aggression (whether sexual or racial) are doubly repressed by external societal forces and our internalized censors. This repression causes us to desire even more what is forbidden and also to fear it — in this way, all of us are more than a little neurotic.
We allow ourselves the pleasure of indulging in these repressed wishes only when can find a justification. Greater coarseness of the underlying target material and more refined social circumstances require a more thorough justification. A tale of ritualized sexual slavery, with lecherous, ugly men (Nobu and Dr. Crab are physically disfigured), and hatred of the Japanese is certainly coarse material. Selling this material to the reader as a feel-good story required multiple, almost-obsessive justifications: the New York Times's PC seal of approval, three levels of deception, endlessly repeated assurances of 'accurate,' 'authentic,' and 'educational' from reviewers and, finally, the internal mechanism that transforms hatred into a morbid pleasure in the psychological alchemy of PC racism.
4. The Geisha Film: Much Less Racist than the Book
The film Memoirs of a Geisha finally opened in December 2005. It is co-produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Rob Marshall (director of Chicago).
As a Japanese-born male who has spent a greater part of my adult life in the United States, I have had a keen interest in portrayals of Japan and Asians in the American media. I believe that negative portrayals found in movies like Breakfast at Tiffany's in the 1960s through the more recent Rising Sun and The Joy Luck Club help maintain prejudice against Asians and especially Asian and Asian-American men, and have contributed to racism I have experienced personally — both the blatant kind (receiving 'Jap, go home' telephone calls all night long for weeks) and the more subtle kind (a law professor insisting on calling me 'Tanaka-san' while she called all the other students by their first names).
In 2004, when I learned of the charges of racism against the film Lost in Translation, written and directed by Sofia Coppola, I felt compelled to defend the film in a magazine article (Tanaka, 2004). I argued that to focus overly much on Coppola's film is unwise because it tends to divert attention from films that require it, like the new geisha film. The film is based on the above described novel in which every plot component was designed to demonize the Japanese. Allison (1999) wrote that the book 'inspired [readers] to see Japanese men as sexual perverts.'
I felt anxious about the film. Prior to viewing it I had wondered if the film version was to be as insidious as the original novel written by a white American man. When I finally saw the film, my anxiety quickly turned to a sense of relief. For one thing, the filmmakers didn't even pretend to produce a realistic film. Three Chinese actresses play the lead roles (this in itself is highly controversial in China and Japan), and when they speak English on the screen they don't seem at all Japanese despite their inspired performances. The distracting music in the earlier part of the film was overused and overdone, reminiscent of the TV series Kung Fu, and was accompanied by a cheap, aphorism-laden narration. The Japanese Newsweek (2005) that preceded the film's opening in Japan carried the cover story billed as 'Misinformation and prejudice of the GEISHA movie' (geisha eiga no kyozō to henken) on the magazine cover.
In the creepiest and most powerful scene of the novel, Dr. Crab (the Japanese Fu Manchu invented by Golden) deflowers the heroine Sayuri in all pornographic detail, and then enshrines her blood in a wooden case containing 'forty or fifty' vials (Golden, 1997: 282, Chapter 24). The film completely skips the creepy details. In the novel, this scene occurs when Sayuri is 15 years old; in the film, Ziyi Zhang playing Sayuri was 25 years old1.
Compared to the film version, the novel shows Chiyo (Sayuri as a girl) beaten more severely, and Nobu's face is more badly disfigured and 'tragic-looking' (Golden, 1997, p.195, Chapter 16)2. The film version of Dr. Crab looks completely normal; not a character of hideous appearance of the novel:
In the film version, instead of the imaginary, invisible face Golden draws and presents readers as the face of the archetypal Japanese man, filmgoers see the face of a real, handsome man: that of warm, affectionate Ken Watanabe.
The basic story of Sayuri is shared by all three versions. Beyond that, the three versions can be differentiated as follows. The English novel adds inaccuracy, prejudice, and plot details designed to present the Japanese as ugly and evil (Dr. Crab's hunched shoulders, crab-like gait, shrine of blood-vials, …). The film version adds beautiful visuals and some visual inaccuracy, but tones down the racism of the English novel. It does not offer the PC-racist pleasures of the original novel (which is what many film reviewers are really complaining about when they compare the film and novel versions). The Japanese version corrects inaccuracy and softens the prejudices of the English novel, and renders details of language and culture that were completely out of Golden's ken.
For now, I am just relieved that the film opened to deservedly tepid reviews and that it will not have the power to perpetuate prejudice the way the book did. My hope is that the film offers a chance for the readers of the novel to ponder this question: 'If the book was really so authentic and accurate, why did Spielberg give up on the idea of making an authentic and accurate film as originally planned (by using Japanese actors, Japanese dialogues, filming in Japan, etc.)?' I hope the readers will realize that the Japan that they loved to hate so much was not a real country but (to borrow from a book title) an imaginary 'Japan made in USA'.
When an all-Japanese cast was still planned, Allison (1999) suggested, what would it be like to have Madonna play the lead role of Sayuri in the movie? The actual casting of three Chinese actresses in the leading roles was, in a way, equally deconstructive. It signifies that the story has less to do with Japan and more to do with a white American man's fantasy of Japan. The film gets everything wrong — the clothes are wrong, hair-styles are wrong, the leading actresses' look and mannerisms are wrong, and inaccurate vocabulary such as geisha and okiya are inherited from the novel. This is not to say that the film is awful; it is a fairly entertaining movie. But authentic and accurate it is not.
And it is the same with the novel. There is no question that the novel, having been translated into 32 languages, was enjoyed all over the world. The popular American reception of the novel is analyzed by Allison (1999, 2001) and Thrupkaew (2001). I am open to the possibility that there is an aspect in the novel's enjoyment that is not racist and offensive. But authentic and accurate it is not. Aside from the trivial details (for example, an okiya has a Mother) nothing in the novel is authentic or accurate. As has been already pointed out, the simple, Hollywood-Disney, rags-to-riches Cinderella storyline is completely un-Japanese, as are the sentiments, personalities, and sensibilities presented in the novel. The reader of the novel will not (aside from the trivial details) learn anything about Japan. But this is hardly surprising: how can a white American man who studies about Japan in school for just a few years become a Japan expert? I doubt if Golden can read and write Japanese at the level of a 9-year-old Japanese child.
For me at least, a much more interesting setting for the novel would have been the world of geisha as observed by a visiting American man. Golden could not handle this, probably, because that would bring the novel closer to non-fiction and call for 'real realism,' rather than Memoirs's 'imaginary realism' (which is not realism at all). It seems that Golden does not have the knowledge or experience to pull that off. Apparently, he has not published a personal essay recounting his experiences in Japan either. Furthermore, the technique of reproducing 'Japan through western eyes' might already have been exhausted in the many previous incarnations of this technique (…, Madame Butterfly, Sayonara, Shogun, Rising Sun, …), and a real western man and an imagined Dr. Crab existing in the same plane would have caused a contrast too stark for the novel's world to sustain itself.
After the novel Heart of Darkness was published in 1899, it took over 70 years before an African person (Achebe, a Nigerian-born author) commented on the novel's racism. I am glad that after Memoirs of a Geisha was published in 1997, within 10 years two Japanese persons (Mineko Iwasaki and myself) have commented on the novel's racism. I end with these words from Achebe's commentary:
1. Ziyi Zhang was born in February 1979, and the filming occurred between September 2004 and January 2005, according to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb, 2006).
2. There are 2 paperback editions with different page numbers.
Achebe, Chinua. 1977. An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The Massachusetts Review, 18: 782-94.
Agence France Presse. 2005. Memoirs of a 'geiko': Japan's real geishas resent the mystique. December 9.
Allison, Anne. 1999. Neo-Orientalism: Writing a Geisha's Memoirs as a White, Western Man. Abstracts of the 1999 Association for Asian Studies Annual Meeting. March 11-14, 1999, Boston, MA.
Allison, Anne. 2001. Memoirs of the Orient. Journal of Japanese Studies, Summer 2001, 27 (2): 381.
Ebert, Roger. 2005. Film review of Memoirs of a Geisha. December 16. Accessed: January 2, 2006.
Freud, Sigmund. 1905. Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious. (Standard Edition) New York: Norton.
Freud, Sigmund. 1930. Civilization and its Discontents. (Standard Edition) New York: Norton.
Golden, Arthur. 1997. Memoirs of a Geisha. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Golden, Arthur. Translated by Takayoshi Ogawa. 1999. Sayuri. Tokyo: Bungei Shunju.
Hofstadter, Douglas. 1979. Godel, Escher, Bach. New York: Basic Books.
Hofstadter, Douglas. 1985. Metamagical Themas. New York: Basic Books.
IMDb (2006) Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), Internet Movie Database, Accessed January 3, 2006.
Lakoff, George. 1991. Metaphor and War: The Metaphor System Used to Justify War in the Gulf. Accessed: January 2, 2006.
Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Landesman, Peter. 2004. The Girls Next Door. New York Times Magazine. January 25. Accessed: January 2, 2006.
Minsky, Marvin. 1980. Jokes and the Logic of the Cognitive Unconscious. (MIT AI memo 603). (Also published in Chemtech, May 1984, Pages 270-278 and in Cognitive Constraints on Communication, Vaina and Hintikka (eds.) Reidel, 1981), Accessed: January 2, 2006.
Rocha, Sean. 2004. What's With All the "National Best Sellers"? How so many books get to the top of the charts. Slate. Oct. 15. Accessed: January 2, 2006.
Newsweek (Japanese version). 2005. Cover Story: Japan as Mistranslated by America (Cover Story: Nippon wo goyaku suru amerika). December 14: 16-25.
New York Times. 2006. Paperback Fiction. New York Times Bestseller Lists. January 8 2006. Accessed: January 2, 2006.
Tanaka, Tomoyuki. 2004.
Politically Correct Racism. AsianWeek,
Accessed: January 2, 2006.
Tannen, Deborah. 1999. The Argument Culture: Stopping America's War of Words. New York: Ballantine Books.
Thrupkaew, Noy. 2001. Going Geisha. ZNet Commentary. Accessed: January 2, 2006.
Zipangu, Ed. 1998. Japan Made In USA. New York: Zipangu.
The author would like to thank Dr. Peter Matanle for the many editorial suggestions.
Tomoyuki Tanaka is an attorney specializing in patent law, currently living near San Francisco. He has lived in Japan and the USA, and has numerous publications in computer science and social issues, including a commentary on the blue LED patent case in the May 2005 issue of Themis, a Japanese monthly magazine.
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