The Ambiguous Other: Zizek on Japan

In a conversation entitled “Japan through a Slovenian Looking Glass: Reflections of Media and Politic in Cinema,” Slavoj Zizek is asked about Japan. In this brief essay I will flesh out and hopefully expand a few key ideas he presents, namely: Japanese negation, Japanese ambiguity and the importance of the surface in communication. Moreover, being one who has lived here in Japan for over three years, I hope to blend Zizek’s ideas with my private experience as perpetually being seen as the Other.

Japanese Negation

Zizek, in the abovementioned conversation writes, “You say no to your wife in one way, no to a child in another way. There is not one negation.” One of the first things the foreigner in Japan should know is the importance of recognizing this idea of “there is not one negation.” The English word “no” can be translated into Japanese as “iie,” but one must always keep in mind that how one negates a situation will depend more on who one is talking to and the heirachical structure inherent in that relationship. There is a way of communicating that is often used in Japanese and recognized by the Japanese and that is what is called “aimai,” or the art of indirect communication. “Aimai” is the grey space between yourself and the Other, it is the seemingly innocent remark that holds an unwritten request or demand. It is the offhand comment, which carries a heavy criticism. Japanese negation is caught up in this web of “aimai” and I have seen many foreigners perish for lack of knowing how to properly negate in this way.

In the realm of Japanese communication one can understand the Lacanian idea of “the big Other” as the reference point of what is communicated. In almost every situation there is a strict implicit code of talking. Following the symbolic code of talking is in some ways more important than what one actually says.

Japanese Ambiguity

In the short conversation, Zizek uses the idea of ambiguity, in accord with Lacan, in a few ways: the ambiguity of the Japanese language, Japan as the ambiguous Other and the ambiguous politeness of the Japanese. First, he writes, “They elaborate the borrowing of other languages, all these ambiguities. Didn’t Lacan say that Japanese do not have an unconscious?” In my experience, I have found the following languages to have been incorporated into what is known as ‘Japanese’: English, Dutch, French, Italian, Portuguese and German. Words from different languages seem to float into the country and are reappropriated by the Japanese, transformed and made unique. Even some of the Japanese that I met did not know that their beloved food “tempura” originally came from Portuguese. The word “maniac” has been adopted as one who collects or is interested in a certain product, meanwhile the katakana (words imported into Japanese from outside) dictionaries grow thicker and thicker each year.

Zizek also notes, “For the West, Japan is the ambiguous Other: at the same time it fascinates you and repels you.” This idea has been worked out in my explication on Bernard Rudofsky’s piece “The Advertisement” where Rudofsky analyzes the misplaced view of Japan to Western eyes. Zizek seems to hold this same idea. The image of Japan is slippery and hazy. In Sophia Coppolla’s film “Lost in Translation,” she presents a number of Japanese characters, but in turn breaks the face of the Japanese by making sure her characters are extreme: the over-the-top TV host, the drug using party goers, the demanding and upsetting photographer and the ambiguous photographer. Her presentation of the Japanese, while amusing to foreigners, can be upsetting to the Japanese simply by the consistency of their Otherness can be seen. The grey space is annihilated.

“Let’s not forget the psychological cliche of Japan: you smile, but you never know if it is sincere or if you are mocking us – the idea of Japan as the impenetrable Other. This ambiguous politeness.” This impenetrability can be seen when a foreigner commits some kind of error in etiquette. Again, “aimai” is at play. The smile holds many meanings for the Japanese and it is not good for the foreigner to see it as just a smile. However, it is not always like this. I should clarify that in daily conversation or at the workplace, this ambiguity is clearly present, but not between close friends. Two other ideas that even the Japanese I know admit to are the use of “honne” and “tatemae,” the you that you are in public and the you that you are in private. The bold foreigner boasting of a job well done may meet the smile of his or her Japanese coworkers, the deceptive smile as one should know, it is not in proper form to boast about oneself.

Following this, Zizek says, “In Japan, and I hope that this is not only a myth, even if something is merely an appearance, politeness is not simply insincere.” Also he says, “Masks are never simply masks.” The idea that the boastful foreigner receives a deceptive smile needs to be clarified. That is to say, the smile of the Japanese acts as a symbol of his or her politeness, it is deceptive in that the foreigner expects an “honest” reaction to a situation, wants things clarified, spelled out. The Japanese maintain this semblance of politeness for themselves, for politeness is part and parcel of the Japanese language. The Japanese person in front of you respects him or herself in respect to the symbolic order and clarifying would mean breaking this politeness, it would be obscene. That is to say, I think that Zizek is correct in his hope. For the Japanese, the etiquette of being polite shows respect to oneself as one who is caught up in the other. One has to keep in mind that there is no “I” in the Japanese language.

I apologize for the brevity of this essay as this is only a rough sketch of something I plan on developing further at another time. Thank you for reading.

This conversation with Zizek can be read here: http://www.ntticc.or.jp/pub/ic_mag/ic014/zizek/zizek_e.html

All quotations have come from this article.

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4 thoughts on “The Ambiguous Other: Zizek on Japan

  1. Paul Boshears

    I am currently reading an interesting book edited by Roger Ames and Wimal Dissanayake, Self & Deception, A Cross-Cultural Philosophical Inquiry, SUNY Press, 1996. I’m glad to have found your page, thank you!

  2. Kishore Budha

    The idea of the big other in Japanese culture needs to be elaborated on here. I find some similarities with Indian culture, which can assimilate other languages into its own.

  3. jgrefe Post author

    Thank you. I will work on fleshing out the idea of the big Other in terms of Japanese culture this week.

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