"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Too much chatter means too little thought, Oe says

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

While Japanese cultural exports in the form of pop music, manga and anime may be gaining ground abroad, novelist and Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe says Japan's cultural power is waning as true critical thought drowns in a sea of polite conversation.

Oe argued in a March 5 speech in English at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Yurakucho, Tokyo, that the relentless growth in the publication of interviews, panel discussions and collections of speeches threatens to supplant written intellectual discourse and is leading to the cultural impoverishment of Japan.

A prolific novelist and noted activist, Oe won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994 and is widely considered to be one of the leading intellectual figures in the nation.

In his speech, Oe referred to the work of U.S. scholars Edward Said and Masao Miyoshi in the early 1990s, when the two theorized that while bubble-era Japan was a dominant economic power, the nation's contemporary verbal culture was "austere, even impoverished, dominated by talk shows, comic books and relentless conferences and panel discussions."

Oe commented that while Japan's economic fortunes had since ebbed, Said and Miyoshi's comments on the state of the nation's culture were an accurate reflection on the present situation. He added that the current recession is casting a further shadow as companies cut back spending on cultural activities.

Japan, more than other nations, faces a crisis of written culture due to the relentless publication of ideas presented in a conversational mode. This conversational style of communication, which seeks compromise, conformity and consensus, is replacing real intellectual critical discourse, Oe said. He pointed out that there are no longer any national magazines catering to an intellectual audience, and that the remaining outlet for criticism--the newspaper book review--has become shorter and seems to include less and less analysis of theme, methodology and style.

"Japanese writing style has been undergoing a radical change lately, and whether the change is a cause or an effect, conversationalism is the dominant mode," Oe said. Where once writers felt the need to back up their assertions with facts and logical argument, he said, conversational writing assumes certain level of persuasive consensus. When confronted with disagreement in a conversation, one can apologize or ignore it, said Oe.

The superficiality and celebrity culture engendered by this conversationalism in publishing is beginning to infect other areas of culture and even politics, Oe contended, citing the "frantic support" enjoyed by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi when he first took office on the basis of structural reform slogans that offered little substance.

The result of the "washing away" of Japan's intellectuals by this flood of conversation is that Japanese no longer give serious thought to how the world should be or to the creation of ideas. The kind of serious discourse that dominated Japanese intellectual life in the immediate postwar period has disappeared, Oe said, and it may never return.

Japan today is dependent on the West for cultural input, soaking up Western culture, but exerting little influence in return, he said. Japanese pop culture may be a leading export commodity, but Pokemon and Hikaru Utada are unlikely to change the way people around the world think, in the way Oe said critics such as Said and Noam Chomsky have.

Oe said the nation must nurture an intellectual leadership and an audience that will not circumvent the logicality of written discourse, if the current situation is to be rectified.

Copyright 2004 The Yomiuri Shimbun

No comments: