Saturday, February 20, 2010

Eric Paul Shaffer Reverses the Question

So, Eric, you lived in Okinawa the same years I lived in Shizuoka City, the setting for American Fuji. What did you find in American Fuji that corresponded with your life on the island?

The difficulties that Gaby and Alex, as gaijin, have in acquiring solid information were familiar to me. Many times I wondered why I was unable to get answers to what seemed to be basic and simple questions, such as how I should acquire a parking space at my apartment complex. I am very glad I didn’t have to research the sorts of questions Gaby and Alex were faced with. My faculty meetings, like Gaby's, lasted countless hours, and it was difficult to get an answer to what I was voting for even though I was told which way to vote. I also found the same juxtapositions jarring that Alex does. For example, I found a nation that values individual reputation as highly as Japan does somewhat in contradiction with the high incidence of drinking and driving I actually witnessed there.

A few readers get upset when I point out aspects of Japan such as the 10,000 yen fine for vomiting in a taxi or my description of drunk businessmen puking on the sidewalk. I witnessed these signs of rampant alcoholism and it is real, but I have been accused of being mean-spirited to include it (and other details people regard as "negative") in my novel. Do you experience the same backlash? The notion that it's our duty, as fiction writers, to make sure readers have a good impression of the culture?

When I am faced with a question based on a notion like this, I find it exceedingly instructive to reverse the question. How likely is it that Japanese will promote this attitude: "we, as Japanese, should only write about positive features of America and make sure readers have a good impression of the culture." My experience indicates that this is not the case. Many are the justified and accurate and incisive critiques of America that I have heard from Japanese people who were resident aliens of the USA. As a result, I portray the Japan and Okinawa I "knew" in my writing, always from the "inside-outsider" perspective, which acknowledges its inherent limitations, and employ what I saw to tell stories about what appeared to be happening. What other choice do we have?

Could you explain the baffling juxtapositions of this photo?

The name of the business is “Misuta Sain” (Mister Sign) and he is advertising his Christmas sale. It struck me as odd that it was okay with our security forces and military bases that a perimeter fence be adorned with advertising. It also struck me as odd that the American and Japanese flags are flying side by side on Okinawan soil WITHOUT AN OKINAWAN FLAG.

Next up: Shaffer on climbing Mt. Fuji

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