Monday, 13 October 2014

Gaijin Myths About Japan: An Introduction

A long time ago, scholars and students in “the West” studied East Asia and the Orient. Large quantities of important knowledge were produced by dedicated researchers well before the existence of the internet. The greatest blow to this body of knowledge - ironic since it was steeped in liberal tradition - was its democratization. This occurred in two steps.

First, rising levels of wealth in the west resulted in greater numbers of people began to travel, for pleasure, for new experiences, for commerce and further research. Newly made travelers began to write new narratives freed from the constraints of academia and more in tune with the self discovery spirit of the age. Autobiographical accounts trickled into mainstream media and began to shape the West’s image of “the East” with a speed and reach far exceeding that of traditional academe.

Next came two phases of what we call the internet. The first phase - still relatively obscure, its content limited to those with the money, infrastructure and skills to produce and publish content – developed into a fusion of scholarly knowledge and autobiography as an increasing volume of information became available. These early internet pioneers had a profound impact on the not only the quality of real and useful information but also in developing pseudo-legitimate mythologies.

Without peers, without a community to immediately be challenged by and answer to, such early virtual locales were invested with a weight of authenticity at times somewhat disproportionate to their veracity.

This phase (the Geocities Daze) gave way a common experience of the internet built on social networking technologies and eventually liberated from the desktop by smartphones. This new phase distributed information at a rate and breadth completely outstripping its now rather archaic ancestor. In the first phase, the creation of knowledges, however (im)perfect required a significant investment of time. So too did their acquisition and utilization. However, in the second phase (the Smartphone Daze) as a result of converging technologies (improved search engines, twitter, facebook, aggregate readers etc) new information can be widely disseminated in moments.

Given the capacity for instant feedback/critique it is possible to assume that quality of information may be guaranteed through crowd control. Not unlike Wikipedia. However, as is repeatedly seen, in multiple locations on a daily basis, the sheer volume and variety of information, coupled with an increased tendency toward laziness has resulted in a form of critical blindness. In other words, because of information overload, because of homogenized social communities built on superficial connections, confirmation bias is an all too common feature of contemporary public knowledge production processes.

So what does this have to do with Asia? And what does it have to do with Japan?

I recently read an article in the trash known as Japan Today. A news re-publisher with an extremely toxic and immature comment feature. The article in question can be found here: JT Trash About Teaching English.

A location in which commentators with little to no local language ability or formal/trained educational education experience reheated dated arguments about why “they can’t learn English”.

So why do I care?

I have been living in Japan for over ten years. I have said, read, heard and seen the same trash stereotypes over and over. And the thing is, with so many foreigners orking and living in Japan, you might think that these out of date, at times verging on unbelievable knowledges would have been thoroughly disproved. But as I wrote above, confirmation bias, lack of depth and failure to engage with local communities has seen not only the continuation of these knowledges but their amplification through contemporary internet technologies.

This little feature series is an attempt to address some of them from a long term resident’s perspective. Brace yourself because it is not going to be nice, feelings might be hurt and fantasies popped. Part One: The Salaryman coming soon.
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