Annual Newsletter of the Slavic Research Center, Hokkaido University
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English News  No.4 , December 1996
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Essays by Foreign Fellows
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Essays by Foreign Fellows

Reflections of a Russian scholar on Japan and the Japanese

by Nodari Simonia (Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow, Foreign Visiting Fellow, SRC, 1996-97)

The traditional image of Japan among Russians is associated with Oriental exotica: "tea ceremonies," Shinto shrines, Buddhist pagodas, Geisha, Puccini's "Madam Butterfly," Samurai and Ninja. In the minds of the Soviet people, Japan was a country of militarism and expansion, the country that tried to deprive Russia of its "legitimate territories." In contemporary Russia a perception dominates that Japan is a very rich, technically advanced country, which floods the world with cars, televisions, taperecorders, and the like. Aside from a small number of people, mostly specialists, few Russians know about real political, economical, social and cultural changes in Japan after the Second World War.

I'm a scholar. Moreover I specialized for decades in Oriental Studies. And for the last 7 or 8 years I have been striving to use my knowledge of Oriental societies for detailed analyses of Russian society and Russian problems. For a long time similarities in Japanese and Russian historical fortunes have attracted my attention. Indeed, almost simultaneously in the second half of the 19 century both countries began their modernization, Japan with the Meiji revolution, Russia with the Great Reforms. Both countries did so under the pressure of external circumstances and Western challenge. Both countries were solving (or in many cases are still solving) the problem of combining their traditional values and western modernism. I have been in Japan many times since 1983, and each time I try to detect signs of change in the Japanese life styles. In this short essay I can not write in detail even about my own impressions, but I want to relate one observation, important for me. Somewhere before the beginning of the 1990s I thought that the Japanese had perfectly fused their own traditions with western technologies, avoiding primitive "westernization." I even thought of Japan as a good example for Russia. But during my present visit to Sapporo I was surprised by the huge contrast with my impression during my 3 month's stay in Tokyo in 1991-1992. There is now a tremendous influence of American "pop-culture" which I have witnessed every day on Japanese television programs and sometimes (during the week-ends) in the center of town. We have the same phenomena in our "democratic" Russia. One can see on Russian television more nudity, dubious movies and third-rate musical bands in a month than on all western television programs for a year. It would be a pity if the invaluable Japanese culture disappeared in this swamp of "cultural globalism." This reflection came to my mind when I watched a group of young schoolgirls last month in Susukino. They threw their bags on the ground and frantically danced and joined in singing with their rock-music idol. I understand that globalization is an inevitable process, and that this process requires some sacrifices. But I am against such progress that is achieved at the expense of humanity. I rather sympathize with the feelings of the poetess Iwatani Tokiko who wrought in the "Japan Times" that technological innovations suppressed mutual understanding between her and the composer, who wrote music for her poetry.

As a Russian citizen I'm first of all worrying about the unsatisfactory conditions of Russian-Japanese relations. I'm sure it is in the first place a fault of politicians and statesmen. However, communities of the both countries can also do a lot. I think that my duty is to dispel stupid myths and stereotypes in Russia about Japan. To dispel for example the myth about militarism in modern Japan. It is useful for Russian politicians to know that the samurai phenomenon was not only warlike in character but also about honor and self-respect. Second, the myth that the Japanese do not like foreigners. I am surprised that sometimes I hear it even from Japanese. I think that some simplification and misunderstanding take place. Of course there are foreigners who tend to think so highly of themselves and their own countries that they try to instruct the Japanese how to live and what to do. Such people can not expect to be on good terms with the Japanese. And this is right thing. In Russia we have a proverb: "Don't go to somebody else's monastery with your own charter" ("Do in Rome as the Roman do").

My reiterative contacts and observations in offices, in transportation, in shops, on the street everywhere completely disprove the myth about the Japanese being on bad terms with foreigners. I have always encountered a politeness and a willingness to help, sometimes even to the detriment of people's own time and business. I saw much kindness and cordiality. Sometimes a small episode can say more than long discourse. Once my wife and I were returning to Sapporo by train. On a station our coach stopped in front of another train coach. Two elderly women looked at us from the opposite window. We looked at them. They smiled to us very friendly and nodded. We returned the gesture. All our way home we retained good feelings about this episode. Just another example. In Maruyama park elderly Japanese in sport clothing can often be met. Each time they respectfully salute us. I often thought that these were people with a deep sense of self respect. Only a person who treats himself with respect can respect others.

I would like to use this opportunity to say how much I enjoy the atmosphere in the Slavic Research Center of the Hokkaido University. My first impression was that I had returned to the creative atmosphere of my first scientific institution the Oriental Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. I worked there for 30 years. Though the staff of the Slavic Research Center is 70 times smaller, personnel here is varied, with a wide sphere of interests. It is not a mere chance that scholars from many western and Oriental countries are very glad to work in this Center. Here we can conduct our research in a calm and, I can say, philosophical atmosphere. I think that this Center is one of the unfortunately few organizations in Japan that do a lot for profound mutual understanding between the Japanese and Slavic peoples.

A Year in Hokkaido

by Stephen Kotkin (Princeton University, Foreign Visiting Fellow, SRC, 1996-97)

I didn't come to Hokkaido for the lunatic automobile drivers who accelerate upon seeing a yellow or recently turned red light. I didn't come for the neighborhood "bookstores" that contain almost nothing but comics, a majority of which are pornographic. Nor was it for the still more voluminous video stores with still more pornography. Certainly not for the cavernous pachinko parlors packed with people devoid of lives or social skills. Not for the gaggle of girls dressed in the miniskirts and cosmetics of cheap harlots or the army of boys who look like they just fell off the stage of a bad rap concert. And it wasn't for the idiotic television game-shows that specialize in humiliating contestants, or the talk-shows on assorted banalities with celebrities of the "world of art and talent" (sic), hawking themselves and other commodities. If I had wanted all that, there would have been no reason to leave America.

I didn't come to Hokkaido for the icy Arctic winds, or the deep and merciless snow. Nor for the wide-open spaces, greenery, mountains, and crystal-clear lakes. It wasn't for the ubiquitous alcohol, or the red stars atop the beer factories. Not even for the luxurious baths and saunas. And certainly not for the forlorn urban agglomerations, whose sprawling inhuman concrete furnishes a self-indicting contrast to the wonders of the natural environment. If I had wanted all that, I could've gone to Russia.

I didn't come for the Japanese obsession with purity, illustrated this year by the wild panic over the bacteria 0-157, whose outbreak in one region caused something like a 50 percent drop in the consumption of fresh vegetables nation-wide. Nor was it to experience the Japanese sense of their victimization, realized through the one-sided spotlight given to the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the deafening public silence on Manchukuo, Nanking, Korea, Phillippines, Indonesia, and other open wounds. And certainly not for the infamous fear of gaijin, shown in so many subtle ways, as when a group of information-providing store attendants suddenly shoots its gaze to the floor and retreats slowly backwards away from the counter at the prospect of a question. If I had wanted all that, I could've skipped the trip and instead picked up the latest foreigner's "treatise" on Japan.

So why did I come to Hokkaido?

I came for the opportunity to work and think and write uninterruptedly in a friendly, rewarding, cocoon-like setting. Not only are we free of all teaching and administrative responsibilities, but foreigners at the Slavic Research Center are largely untouched by the demanding rhythms of Japanese life. We know little, if anything, of the annual treks through maddening congestion to the sites of ancestors' graves, the folds upon folds of inflexible bureaucracy, the grueling school examination marathons, anxiety-ridden graduation job fairs, two-hour commutes, and vacationless careers. For us yen are shamefully plentiful, there is essentially no such thing as rent, let alone "key money," and one of the allegedly two unavoidable human experiences, taxes, we avoid effortlessly. In the meantime, a collective of thoroughly internationalized Japanese offer their expertise and hospitality, all the time concerned about how we're doing and whether everything is OK.

Sure the Japanese fetishize seniority and status. Sure they seem to spend an inordinate amount of time in meetings whose necessity eludes the outsider. But here is a group of people who have dedicated their lives to the study of a country, Russia, not high on the Japanese scale of values, and a region, eastern Europe, about as remote from the Japanese consciousness as one can get. To communicate their research efforts and exchange ideas, the professors of the Slavic Research Center organize symposium after symposium, using a language neither their own nor their subject of study's (English), and facing the glaring indifference of Japanese society circumstances not always understood by the international participants, often native scholars, emigres, and children of emigres, for whom Russia and eastern Europe are either home or a matter of considerable public interest.

This has been, by most accounts, a quiet year in Sapporo. No highly touted scholars undergoing sex changes, no Russian academics-cum-businessmen declining their nearly $8,000 monthly salary for the right to stay and continue wheeling and dealing, no world famous tightwad prima donnas treating Institute personnel as badly trained domestic servants. Yet perhaps this year as much as any other we've taken more than we've given in return. To the few visitors who have the good fortune to spend a year here, the achievements and occasional frustrations of our Japanese colleagues provide much food for thought about the dynamics and limitations of our own scholarly world and society. For that, as well as much else, I'm grateful, and apologetic. O-sewa-ni.

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