Living in Boston, London, or New York, my exposure to Japanese culture, and my engagement with it, was largely within the context of something “high culture,” something cosmopolitan and worldly, something that we non-Japanese (or white people, especially) engaged in due to an interest in a foreign culture. It was about art exhibitions at major museums, about the newest, hippest Japanese restaurants in town, about visiting scholars from Japan, and local scholars giving talks about historical or traditional Japan. When people came in to Japan Society thinking it was in any way a community center, they found a very different environment. And when I went to a meeting of the local Okinawan-American Association of New York expecting some kind of refined, high culture Okinawan institution akin to Japan Society, I was, to be blunt and frank, disappointed and turned off.
When I first arrived in Hawaii, I was likewise turned off by how “local” and community-oriented the Japanese and Okinawan culture is here. Sure, there’s the Honolulu Academy of Arts, and various other venues and institutions hosting all kinds of great events like Japan Society and universities and major museums back on the East Coast do, but for the most part, it’s about people performing Japanese- or Okinawan-American identity of a particularly Hawaiian flavor. I was looking for Japan, and I got Japanese-American. I was looking for engagement with quote-unquote the “real Japan,” through talking to people who came from Japan or visited there regularly, going to restaurants that served authentic Japanese food, and attending events featuring special guests from Japan. Instead, I found a large community of people who don’t speak Japanese, who have never been to Japan, who are not really in touch with the latest news or trends in Japan, and whose only understanding of Japanese culture is from what they’ve experienced and learned here in Hawaii.
And most to the point, I found events, exhibitions, books, and courses centered not on the “real” Japan, but on the local community here. I took a course on Okinawan language & culture, and found a whole unit devoted to Toyama Kyuzo, the “father” of Okinawan emigration, i.e. the Okinawan diaspora. I noticed a book on the shelf entitled “Uchinanchu” (the word for “Okinawan people” in the native Okinawan language), but found that it was not a book about Okinawans in Okinawa, but rather about Okinawans in Hawaii. I go to get sushi and find that there is no tuna (tekka maki), only spicy tuna, because that’s just how it is in Hawaii. That’s how “we” do it.
So much of what goes on here has the flavor of focusing on the diaspora. In New York, Boston, London, or the like, it’s about trying to bring a slice, a glimpse, of the authentic Japan to you. But in Hawaii, it’s about the local community doing their own thing, in their own local Hawaiian Japanese-American way. Japan Society in New York might bring in a big-name troupe from Japan to perform on their stage, and sell tickets, and advertise it as a wonderful rare opportunity to experience such-and-such particular aspect of traditional Japanese culture; it would be a social event in the sense of a formal reception or cocktail party, mingling and talking to others in the culturally elite circles of the New York art world / Japanese culture world. And I would feel more or less right at home, a fellow enthusiast for Japanese culture, and an aspiring member of the cultural elite myself.
Meanwhile, here in Hawaii, the troupe performing would be the attendees’ children, siblings, cousins, classmates, or friends. And the event would not be “a rare and special opportunity,” but rather an annual event, a fun coming together of aunties and grandmas, a social event more along the lines of a church outing or family picnic. A local community event. And as entertaining or exciting as it may be, it would be the local Hawaiian way of doing things, and not really a glimpse into “true” “authentic” Japanese tradition. And, while the majority of the attendees get out of it what they’re here for – community, seeing friends and family, getting to see their kids perform, feeling engaged in their own culture (albeit as different from “authentic” Japanese/Okinawan culture as my own local New York Jewish activities, cultural identity, and customs differ from those of “authentic” Hasidim or Israelis) – I felt like a total outsider. This was rough, it was “low culture,” it was inauthentic…
But, finally getting to the point, I was amazed, that is to say, I surprised myself to realize recently that my view on all of this has really kind of reversed. What turned me off so strongly when I first came to Hawaii, I have really begun to appreciate. And, as I think about leaving in a few months and returning to the mainland, the idea of returning to that distanced, sterile, “cultural elite” version of engaging with Japanese culture leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Strangely enough, ironically, suddenly, I feel like it’s what we do in New York that feels inauthentic. Sure, there are tons of things people do here in Hawaii that are not really quite the way they would be done in Japan, but they’re done as festivals, as rituals, as community events, and not merely as showpieces, as performances. When the local Japanese & Okinawan communities here celebrate Obon or Lunar New Year, they celebrate it for real, as an actual event belonging to their actual cultural tradition, in just the same way that they also celebrate the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving; in much the same way, if not really precisely the same way that people back in Japan have their annual festivals (matsuri). A visiting scholar here, Dr. Chi-fang Chao from Taipei National University of the Arts, gave a presentation yesterday about traditional ritual dances on Taketomi Island; she really emphasized the community aspect, and the ritual aspect, that this is not a performance put on to entertain, and certainly not for the benefit of outsiders to come and serve as spectators. It is performed as ritual, as festival, tradition, or custom. It is performed and attended as part of “performing collective identity,” and those who take part, whether on stage or by merely watching, take part not purely as spectators, as audience, but as engaged members of the community. This performance, this tradition, is their own. It is part of their identity, their culture, and more than that it is being performed by their own family and friends.
This is quite unlike my attending any of these things as a spectator, as a dabbler, as someone trying at, or pretending at, being “cosmopolitan” or something, playing at tasting different world cultures. I have never seen in New York an Obon dance performed as a truly community event, and not as a performance demonstration for outsiders.
And of course I will always remain an outsider. But, now that I’ve started playing sanshin (quite poorly), and not only attending, but even performing at local community events, such as one of the many many Okinawan Lunar New Year parties last week, I’m really starting to appreciate the sort of earthy, genuine, community-based culture here in Hawaii. Sure, it may not be 100% authentic to how things are done in Japan, but (a) it probably actually is, given that even in Japan they do use school gymnasiums and folding tables and like this, and attend in T-shirts… the days of truly fully traditional dress and environment are over, and (b) it may not involve “genuine” artists or experts coming from Japan, but in that it is tied up with the local community, it bears an authenticity that the staged events behind a metaphorical glass case in New York lack.
It’s also about the difference between watching, and participating. If I were to stay here, I could hypothetically be involved, engaged, in so many ways. Continuing to practice sanshin. Taking up Okinawan dance. Continuing to further get to know the local community, and volunteering or otherwise taking part in running events, performing at Lunar New Year’s and on KZOO radio as I have in the last few weeks. Maybe getting involved in a taiko troupe. But back in New York, where will I go to practice sanshin? Or Okinawan dance? Sure, there will be plenty of opportunities to go to talks with erai scholars and experts, and to see very professional performances, and I’m very excited to once again be in a city where I will have access to all of that. But, being only a spectator at events held by museums and the like is a very different thing from participating in community events.
I’m sure there’s more to this, and that a lot of the phrasing could afford to be cleaned up. I’ll maybe come back and clean it up later. But, for now, just a few thoughts.
What’s your experience? What are your thoughts? How do you engage with Japanese (or any other particular) culture in your city?