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Pet Sins September 2004

A Westerner's irrational bias in favor of medieval East Asia

I had a conversation with an Irish American male coworker about some translated medieval Japanese literature he had been reading. He talked about how fascinating the work was, and how excited he was to have a glimpse into a world unknown to him. He then said he had no interest in literature from Great Britain, even some of the modern works, because the authors assumed the "rightness" of an "oppressive" social structure with clearly delineated roles of servant and master, and their implied support for the system of serfdom and vassalage. He said "The Lord of the Rings" was an example of English literature reflecting the mentality of "old English classist society". He went on to say that this was the reason why he liked to read literature from "other countries", such as his current reading choice of medieval Japanese works.

I have read The Lord of the Rings trilogy, as well as Tolkien's other works. While I do agree in some degree with the European American male's assessment that Tolkien portrays a universe where most of the significant deeds are done by princes and nobles, and the best honor a servant hero like Samwise Gamgee can receive is to become a higher ranking-servant, I do not believe that the "oppressive classist social structure" reflected in English literature is the real reason for said Euro-American man's preference for Japanese medieval works.

Prior to that conversation, I had already read all the Japanese texts he so adored. Those works describe a social structure which is at least just as "oppressive and classist" as any in Europe. The world described in those Japanese works was a world in which individuals had remarkably little say in their own lives - relationships were undertaken out of social obligation or out of deference to someone else's overlordship. There was little room for consensual 'love', or even controlling one's own daily schedule. And one was also obligated to end one's own life, or the life of another, for reasons considered trivial in modern Japan. By comparison, being an underdog in Tolkien's "classist" Middle Earth seems pretty mild.

I'm not claiming the harsh environment described in old literature was an authentic representation of the way things were in medieval Japan. This was just the impression I got from the books. The authors of said Japanese works, just like some English writers, did not presume to challenge the status quo, but rather, had an attitude of accepting society the way it was. So really, the Japanese works the said white man touted as 'superior' were every bit as "classist" and "oppressive" as the English works he said he turned away from due to those very same qualities. How could he have been so blind as to not see that? Perhaps he was blinded by a fascination for the exotic, and a need to believe that the world he does not know is better than the world he knows.

Serfdom and vassalage are not unique to Europe. I pointed all this out to him, and asked him if perhaps his real motivation for his interest in medieval Japanese literature was "to look East for more yellow booty". Of course he denied that, but he could offer no explanation for the inherent contradiction in his "reasoning".

As far as I could tell, his interest in "other countries" extended only to Eastern Europe and East Asia, incidentally, lands where his bedmates hailed from. He expressed zero interest in other parts of the world like Africa, Central and South America, Southeast Asia and Oceania.