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This is it! I leave for Japan on Monday, and the preparations are taking up most of my time and energy right now. It's all about the packing, buying appropriate gifts for my hosts, reviewing Japanese grammar...and also avoiding prep by watching The Tatami Galaxy, which is really getting good and deserves a solid entry here some time. ^^

It's also about mental preparation. How to prepare for cross-cultural research?



Well, lately I've been re-reading French theorist Roland Barthes' Empire of Signs, a collection of essays he wrote about a trip to Japan in the late 1950's. I really like Barthes' autobiographical blend of lyrical, emotional intimacy and philosophical speculation. I notice, though, that he approaches everything in Japan through one very specific concept. From the Imperial Palace to sukiyaki, it all points to "an emptiness of language" (4), the decentering of meaning, even "the end of language" (74) itself. And while he claims this is part of the Zen concept of "satori," it's also a very (post)structuralist, French-continental-philosophy way of seeing things.

It makes me wonder: how can we really encounter difference? Barthes went to Japan seeking the "possibility of a difference, of mutation, of a revolution in the propriety of symbolic systems" (3-4). He tried to avoid "lovingly gazing toward an Oriental essence" and did not claim to represent Japanese reality, "these being the major gestures of Western discourse" (3). But by saying "I'm not going to talk about reality, I'm going to talk about different symbolic systems," he still gave himself license to “leave aside vast regions of darkness (capitalist Japan, American acculturation, technological development” (4) and only focus on what already interested him. Gayatri Spivak points out in her Critique of Postcolonial Reason that Barthes justifies his writing by taking the position "I want to write about this...I can...I will." He "claims the other as ground for difference" (345). He assumes the right to talk about Japan in his way.

So how to avoid doing this? Because look at how I'm already approaching this trip: through my training in literary/postcolonial theory. I can't help it. I have these frameworks and interests that bound my thinking. It may be that we all have our biases and ways of understanding, and can meet others only partially and imperfectly, speaking through screens. But I don't want to say, "I'm Canadian and a grad student and a female anime fan, and therefore I will only meet people and do things as a Canadian grad student female anime fan should" -leaving aside everything else. And yet...I don't know how to do otherwise. How to imagine differently! That's the challenge!

No, wait. The challenge is actually getting off my computer right now and running the errands I need to do so that in two days, I'll be ready to get on a plane, fly across the Pacific, and live, materially, in another country. Thinking is easy. Living is hard. Into the breach, then!

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