Anthropology and Bias

Wednesday, September 02 2009 @ 07:39 PM JST

Contributed by: Y.Yamamoto

Left: Yanomami Indians
Right: The essence of Japanese culture

Some of my intelligent friends on both sides of the Pacific think I am too "harsh" about my home country and its people. I am Japanese, at least technically. So this question has always haunted me since I launched this blog: "Am I biased against my fellow countrymen as if I were non-Japanese?"

Recently, though, it has started dawning on me that it's not me but them who are biased. More often than not they are biased in favor of these supposedly polite, amicable, hospitable, inventive, industrious, sheepish and dovish people. But bias is bias.

If you take a train ride in Tokyo, or any other Japanese city, at any time of the day, you will notice that one-third of the passengers are deep asleep with their mouths wide open. It's astounding to know they have skills to "stand-sleep" when they can't find an unoccupied seat. Another third are absorbed in manga (comic books) while the rest of the passengers busily working on silly text messages of haiku-length or checking out burogu on their handsets. But still something deep inside prohibits you from readily admitting that their lives are as empty as zombies'.

There's no other way to call the attitude of these Japanophile people than bias. They always reminds me of anthropologist Ruth Benedict, and then John F. Kennedy.

My American Heritage Dictionary defines anthropology like this: the scientific study of the origin and of the physical, social, and cultural development of behavior of man.

According to a Wikipedia entry, the English word was first used in 1593 to signify the study of human beings, everywhere and throughout time.

In the past most anthropologists, especially those in America, arbitrarily confined their subjects to uncivilized tribes. It is true that the author of The Chrysanthemum and the Sword did not call the Japanese barbarians. But she thought their exotic behavioral patterns made them a good research subject in the last days of WWII. If she had thought the Japanese people were civilized, she would never have effectively suggested the A-Bombs be dropped on the relatively unimportant local cities so as to keep the Emperor alive at the cost of the lives of 200,000 ordinary citizens incinerated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The last tribe she would have put under scrutiny was her own compatriots because in doing so, she would have found it unavoidable to scrutinize her own self. Through a serious soul-searching, she might have realized that she was too biased to be called a scientist.

Then came Kennedy's affirmative action which was in effect intended to promote reverse discrimination. Benedict would no longer have taken up any government-sponsored project even if a U.S. president after Kennedy had told her to do so. By the same token, it is totally inconceivable that George W. Bush might have commissioned someone to work on a report about the Iraqis from an anthropological perspective, instead of the WMD angle, because that would have been considered to constitute an act of racial profiling.

As a consequence, all conscionable anthropologists are out of work today. That's the end of the scientific discipline named anthropology - and that marks the beginning of an era of unscientific pundits who keep scratching the surface of things.

If you haven't heard of the tribe called the Yanomami Indians, take a look at the picture at the top of this post. They reside in the Amazon rainforests. They practice shamanism, and eat almost everything as if they believe in the British notion that "you are what you eat," although they don't cannibalize as some other tribes do in such regions as the Solomon Islands and New Guinea. Certainly they are "uncivilized." by our standards. But does that make them apes? Not at all.

They are human beings. They have values to uphold even at the cost of their own lives. They love each other and hate each other. In short they have their own reason to live. You can, therefore, relate to these folks, either positively or negatively, without stereotypically exoticizing their behavior perhaps with the help of a good anthropologist. Only by doing so, you can learn many things from their culture.

Obviously they don't have representative democracy in place along the Amazon. Aside from politics, they must have many other problems across their community. For one thing the body shape of these children is an unmistakable sign of malnutrition. But that is their business, not yours. You already have enough headache at home. You should not busybody them, preach them, or try to enlighten them, let alone destroy them.

You accept them just as they are, unless they stand in your way.

In fact, though, nobody wants to understand without distortion these different tribes including his own because of racism in the past, and because of affirmative action today. People have always been intellectually too lazy to do so.

I sometimes wonder what if we still had a scientific (i.e. unbiased either way) anthropologist around. He or she would certainly describe the Japanese, especially males, as timid samurai who have been coerced to buy the U.S.-made state-of-the-art weaponry such as AEGIS-equipped destroyers and yet have no ideas about what values to defend, and against whom, with these pricey hardware.

This certainly puts the Japanese in the proximity of apes. Just imagine how a chimp will react if you buy him a high-end personal computer. He may quickly learn how to operate it. But, then, what? For your reference, the Yanomami Indians use bows and arrows when they fight.

On the other hand women in this male-dominated nation look much more like human beings. There's an obvious reason. Throughout man's history, the oppressed have always outshone the oppressors. Yet there's no denying that some Japanese women remain geishas, though dressed in Western style, because they have become assimilated, over time, into the most sexist society outside of the Islamic world.

I have defined TokyoFreePress as a taboo-free political journal, but now I am inclined to redefine it as an unbiased anthropological blog. It's funny, though, that the more I shed scientific light on the Japanese, the more my predominantly American audience thinks I am biased against my fellow countrymen, and the more I look biased against them, the more my audience feels insulted as if I am biased against Americans.

I can figure out why.

Tags: 人類学, ヤノマミ, アマゾン, ベネディクト, 偏見, 人種差別, ケネディー、日本人, 猿, サムライ, 芸者, 広島, 長崎

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