For my Japanese-language study, I'll sometimes purposely choose a non-fiction book that looks kind of kooky. The one I'm currently meandering my through now at my own erratic, not-quite-understanding-much-of-anything pace, has a title that roughly translates as: "Why Is That The Chinese And Koreans Have No Heart?" There's a glut in the market recently of books attempting to explain why China is so angry at Japan, and why Korea is furious with Japan, and why both of those countries know nothing about recent history, and why the whole 'comfort women' -- i.e. 'sex slaves' -- issue is truly a red herring, and this book that I'm reading is one of those type of strange deals. And, not unexpectedly, it's all kinds of odd.
I think the Japanese language itelf, and the way that it's assembled into readable, understandable, fundamentally narrative forms, allows for a lot more digressions and side-routes than English permits. You're supposed to be a little vague, and somewhat off-kilter, leaving the reader to infer what real point is being made. The result, however, usually in non-fiction books, is that you can find yourself early on in the text traveling down some pretty funky back-raods.
For some reason or other this particular author, a sprightly seventy-nine year old by the name of Hideak Kaze, has decided that one of his opening chapters should be utilized to point out the moral deficiencies of the Chinese by way of their food. Yes, that's right -- their fucking food. I'm neither an expert in cooking or the Japanese language, but his arguments seem to imply that the way the food is prepared is proof of their moral weakeness. 'As one would expect,' he writes, 'the difference between the Japanese and Chinese culture in food is also because of the difference in their spiritual cultures.' He goes on to point out that just as their food is heavy and gaudy in its preparation and taste, so, too, are the people rather loud-mouthed and obvious in their everyday conversations.
The entire enterprise of the book is so obviously racist and bizarre right from the get-go, so perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that a chapter on food turns into an investigation of morals, but I think the fact that I actually laughed out loud at a few of his ideas has to do with a larger issue, a deeper one, the notion that it's very easy in Asia, even expected, to group people completely together by dint of their homeland.
In Canada, or America, or England, we're used to multi-cultrualism, and while ethnic groups themselves are acknowledged to have their own special quirks, there's still an overarching nationalism that (in theory) tends to link us all up. In Asia, nationality is directly tied (for the most part) to ethnicity -- meaning, you can pull out your brush and paint in broad strokes about an entire country's people as representative not only of the state, but of their own intrinsic bloodline.
For it's blood that matters over here, the liquid origins of one's self. (I just about shit my pants the first time I went to get a video-card in Japan when, on the application form, they asked me for my blood type. When I told them I didn't know, this resulted in a few confused minutes of bewildered consultation between staff, before the manager agreed I could still become a member.) You can diss an entire culture's cooking, and, by doing so, you're slamming not only the state as a force, but all the people within who make up its ever bleeding heart. Blood rules in Asia.
I can't imagine a pseudo-academic book designed for popular consumption in the West entitled: "Why The French And Germans Have No Heart' -- especially if, like this writer, you studied at Yale and Columbia Universities, and worked for the Encylopedia Britanica Corporation! -- but perhaps there's an underlying assumption in Japan that everyone (meaning non-Japanese) is truly different, so a writer can get away with such xenophobic intentions. Or maybe this book issimply more on the far-right fringe of nuttiness than I'm willing to admit.
I don't know. I do know that I'm curious to see where this book goes from here. If Hideaki Kaze firmly believes in his wizened old age that a country's cooking is truly a source of its spiritual acumen, I can only imagine what other bizarre suppositions he's waiting to expose in the next two hundred pages when it comes to Korea. The notion of the 'other' will always take us to places extreme in ourselves.