Whenever I’ve heard (or read) people say things like “the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know,” I always used to think it referred to a breadth and depth of detailed knowledge. The more you learn about Japan, the more you realize how little you know about England, the Netherlands, or Korea (not to mention Botswana or Guyana); at the same time, the more you learn about any given aspect of Japanese culture or history (for example), the more you realize just how many other castles, samurai lords, artists, events & incidents, works of literature, or whatever it may be, that you still don’t know about. Plus, even within any given topic, the more you know about Hokusai or Danjûrô or Saga Castle, for example, the more you realize just how much more about that same topic you still don’t know. That’s all certainly true.
But, I’ve come to realize there is a whole other dimension to this phenomenon, too. Specifically, as I’ve spent more time in academia, as I’ve learned more and more, and come to appreciate the diversity and complexity inherent in any and every topic, I’ve discovered an inability to speak confidently on almost any subject, or indeed to even think confidently that I properly or sufficiently understand any given topic.
From the “Sumidagawa Digital Picture Scroll” on display at Tokyo Sky Tree. Artist unknown.
When I came to Japan for the first time ten years ago, I had all kinds of ideas and impressions about what Japan, or Tokyo, was like, and what Japanese culture or attitudes were like, and I didn’t hesitate to share these in blogs, and in talking to friends and family. At that time, thinking my undergraduate courses & reading made me actually something of an expert, combined with my experience as a study abroad student in Tokyo, which I thought a rather rare and special experience, I saw myself as truly having some kind of expertise, and some ability to speak on a wide variety of subjects pertinent to Japanese culture or history. Of course, the fact that so many of my family and friends asked questions and seemed to think me something of an expert only encouraged this. What do Japanese think about the war? Why did they do it at the time? What do they think about the Emperor? What do they think about Hiroshima? about Pearl Harbor? about Christianity? about Judaism? about the US? Asked these questions, based on my experiences, books, professors’ lectures, and my own personal ideas or impressions which I mistook for possessing some authority, I commented with a considerable degree of confidence on everything from life in Tokyo, contemporary pop culture, and contemporary political attitudes, to attitudes during the war, to aspects of traditional culture or samurai history.
A view of the “real” Tokyo, from that same Tokyo Sky Tree.
Yet, today, if you asked me about half these topics, I’d almost definitely say I have no idea. Whether this is simply a function of getting older, or a function of the amount of “knowledge” and experience I’ve accumulated over my many years in graduate school, or whether it has to do with post-modern theory that’s been imposed upon me, I don’t know, but, I have absolutely come to feel a dramatic lack of confidence in my ability to “know” or say anything definitive about almost anything.
I used to think my professors and my history books provided definitive answers, and that based on these, and whatever else I’d been exposed to, that I “understood” or “knew,” and could reiterate (or regurgiatate, as if on an exam) a relatively definitive answer. I used to believe that books and professors were perfectly reliable, believable, sources of “facts” which, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, or bricks in a building, could be collected, arranged, assembled, to form an increasingly detailed – if never complete – knowledge of a given subject.
But today, I’d say that the issue, whatever issue it may be, from military bases in Okinawa to the current economic situation, is far too complex, and that I haven’t done the proper research. I haven’t interviewed or surveyed hundreds of people, and I haven’t scoured through hundreds of texts (or other evidence/sources), so, I don’t know. I can tell you what I think about the issue myself, and I can tell you what a few things I’ve read or heard say about it, but, I have no idea what most people think, or what they really think, or the precise reasoning or thought process behind why they think that… and so, in contrast to when I was younger, recognizing or acknowledging the limitations of my knowledge, I generally would hesitate to say anything much at all on the subject.
Leaving Yokohama/Tokyo a few days ago, coming out to Chiba, and seeing so much open space, fields, mountains, open up before me, I couldn’t help but have certain ideas, impressions, thoughts, about “this” Japan and “that” Japan, about what each one is like, and about which one I prefer, or which one better matches my expectations or desires. But, while there was certainly a time when I would have written down all these thoughts, and shared them on a blog, now, there was a voice in my head saying, “whatever you think, it’s too generalizing, it’s too conflating. Anything and everything is too complex, too diverse, to be grasped. Nothing you can say will be accurate or appropriate.”
A Hikari Shinkansen locomotive, at Hiroshima Station. Taken in August 2003.
Just because I’ve grown used to something, just because the novelty has worn off, does that mean I’m now seeing it more truthfully? Does that mean I’ve “realized” the “truth” about it? Does it make my new experiences any more genuine than my old ones? My first time in Japan, I was amazed by the Suica card system, by the Shinkansen (so fast, so clean, such a smooth ride, and so convenient, if a bit expensive), by how clean and completely non-sketchy the convenience stores were, by how perfectly on-time the trains were and how organized and polite most people were in most situations. I had a cellphone for the first time, and, of course I was amazed too by the technological capabilities of the toilet seats. Japan seemed at that time so sparkly shiny wonderful, so futuristic, and so wonderfully civilized. More so than [my experiences of] the US, in so many ways.
But, now that I’m used to these things, and they’ve lost their novelty, now that I see supercrowded trains not as a sign of how vibrant and active and urban Tokyo is, but instead as an obnoxious product of overcrowding and of the negative sides of urbanization – now that I see a train ride in Tokyo as an ordeal rather than an adventure – does that mean my new view is any more correct? Or that Tokyo or Japan has in any way genuinely declined, stagnated, or gotten further twisted up in inefficient and stupid bureaucracy in the intervening ten years? I don’t know.
Nishi-Nippori Station, in northeastern central Tokyo. Is this the “real” Tokyo, and the flashiness of Shibuya merely a front? Or is Shibuya the “real” Japan, and this a sort of left-over from an earlier decade, that simply hasn’t quite caught up yet to the “real” Japan of today?
If I’ve seen more delayed trains in the last two days than ever before in my quite limited experience in Japan, if I’ve seen more train stations served by far too few trains (coming far too infrequently) and surrounded not by an exciting, intriguing, or “quaint” or attractive town, but instead by nothing but asphalt, concrete, pachinko parlors and rundown hotels, is that an indication of the “real” Japan? Or of a decline? Or is it just an accident of where I’ve been, and when I’ve been there? Which is the exception, and which is the normal?
It is in these ways, and for these reasons, that I increasingly feel totally incapable of saying anything with any kind of authority about Japan, whether it’s a scholarly comment or even just something to write down in my journal. While I certainly understand why making such gross generalizations would be inappropriate – I’ve read and talked about Edward Said’s Orientalism more than enough – at the same time, it’s kind of sad, and leaves me feeling kind of empty. Looking out over the landscape, or reflecting upon my experience, I want to be able to think something about it; I want to be able to consider it and analyze it and feel I’ve come away having learned something or gained something or realized something. But, instead, I just stare blankly, unable to think anything at all without simultaneously thinking that that thought is too generalizing, too biased, too based on insufficient information or insufficient consideration. What is the purpose, after all, of reflecting upon my experiences or impressions, when these are so completely subjective, results not only of my individual personality and perspective, but also of my mood that day, and of all kinds of accidental factors, e.g. that I went to this shop rather than that shop, or this town rather than that town, or that I got there an hour earlier or an hour later, or a day earlier or a day later?
For certain types of things, I still believe in the value of “facts,” of building up one’s knowledge of what’s already “known” (or, rather, what’s already said) about a given subject, and of adding to that collective “knowledge” through one’s own investigations (research, e.g. reading texts). But for other things, it’s sometimes very much a feeling that we don’t know, we can’t know, we cannot, will not, every know. Which leads to the next question: if none of us can truly call ourselves experts, if none of us can ever truly obtain anything approaching or resembling expert knowledge, if “knowing” X or Y is impossible, then, as scholars, what the hell are we doing?
I kind of hate that I think this way now, but I’m not sure there’s any going back…