Dear non-Japanese Asians talking about books on Japan

Today, I noticed an AsianAm author* whom I admire gushing on Twitter about a non-Japanese, non-Asian author** writing Japanese-inspired fantasy novels. I went to the author’s blog/website to see what she had to say about writing Japan – and noticed some disturbing trends.

First and foremost, this author has an academic background (graduate level) in Japanese history. While this in and of itself doesn’t particularly matter to me, as I read through her blog posts on writing about Japan, I noticed she continually referenced her academic background as both the basis of and source of research for her Japanese-inspired novels. From the photographs included, it looks as if she has visited Japan at least once and has some level of Japanese literacy. However.

Nowhere in the posts I skimmed (I did not read the entirety of her blog) did I see any mention of her ethnic/cultural relationship(s) to Japan. In other words, nowhere does she state whether or not she is Japanese and (as I believe from contextual clues) if she is not, nowhere does she acknowledge how her outsider perspective influences her representations of Japanese culture. Nowhere does she discuss any research she conducted outside of an academic context. Nowhere does she acknowledge the limitations of approaching Japanese culture purely through a western, academic lens.

This worries me. While her academic background perhaps qualifies her to conduct (western) academic research on Japan, I see no indication she has attempted to step outside the academic box in writing her Japanese-inspired novels. I don’t even see any indication she is aware of the box. As I’ve discussed at length in previous posts, I don’t believe the western academic lens is the only – much less the most appropriate – approach to Japanese culture. Nor do I believe anyone approaching Japanese culture solely through a western academic lens can hope to end up with anything other than a western academic product. Yet, I don’t see this author or any other non-Japanese, western authors writing about Japan marketing their novels as “western academic products.” What I do see is these novels being marketed as “diverse reads” by big names in writing/publishing – both white and nonwhite. I see more novels produced by outsiders writing about Japan ON “diverse” reading lists and blogs than novels by Japanese people writing about Japan. I see more works produced by outsiders writing on Japan IN anthologies and venues dedicated to “Asian” literature than works by Japanese people writing on Japan – even in cases where most of the other contributors are #ownvoices. Some of these (English-language) spaces are created by Asians and/or non-Asian, nonwhite folks – but I’ve yet to see any created by Japanese people. The message is clear: those in power put more market value on Japanese stories told by non-Japanese (especially white) people than on #ownvoices telling Japanese stories.

At this time, I have no plans to read the work of the author mentioned above. I do not believe someone truly conscious (and conscientious) of the complexities and nuances inherent to writing outside their culture would fail to acknowledge their outsider perspective when describing their work. By the same token, I have no plans to endorse or participate in spaces where I feel non-Japanese voices are privileged over #ownvoices in the telling of Japanese stories. I’ve had enough. My time and resources are limited and I will utilize them to experience and boost #ownvoices.***

But I’m not done yet.

There is also a second issue at stake here, one which I feel in some ways is more concerning than what I described above, namely because it seems to perpetuate the trend of outsiders writing Japan (and believing they are doing so competently). In this author’s case and that of many other non-Japanese (and usually white) authors writing about Japan, I have seen, time and again, endorsements from non-Japanese Asians, including some very prominent voices in online writing communities. Here is the problem: you can’t have it both ways. Many of these same prominent, non-Japanese Asian authors/agents/editors, etc. have eloquently and vehemently advocated for equity in (mostly US) publishing. They have slammed publishers and agents alike for paying lip service to “diversity” while continuing to represent/commend mostly white authors. They have created and participated in organizations, blogs, conferences, and other vehicles of activism to promote and support marginalized voices. This is great work, and not to be dismissed or taken lightly. But.

When these same advocates endorse outside writers for writing cultures that neither the writer nor the endorser belongs to – this is a problem.

For example, do I, as a Japanese person, tell non-Chinese writers I think their representations of Chinese culture(s) are “well-researched” or “respectful?” Yeah no. Because why in the world should my non-Chinese voice take precedence over Chinese voices in vetting representations of Chinese culture(s)?**** Why would I, a non-Chinese person, presume to know MORE about what constitutes a “well-researched” or “respectful” representation of Chinese culture(s) than a Chinese person? I’m not saying every self-identified Chinese person is responsible for knowing everything ever about their culture. No one person of ANY culture is responsible for knowing everything ever about their culture. I’m saying, it’s not my job, or any other non-Chinese person’s job, to jump in with our non-Chinese opinions to silence, deny, or erase Chinese voices vetting representations of their OWN culture(s).

Just because someone self-identifies as Asian does not qualify them to vet representations of all Asian cultures. It does not even necessarily qualify them to vet all representations of their own culture. I do not evaluate the “accuracy” or “authenticity” of representations of cultures outside my own because I believe it is disrespectful to the members of the culture in question. By the same token, I cannot and do not state someone did “thorough research” on a culture when, as an outsider, I don’t know what “thorough research” means in the context of that culture. To position myself as any kind of “authoritative” voice on the representations of someone else’s culture makes me no better than the people who write outside their cultures without ever interrogating their own identities in relation to their subject.

I don’t believe I’m making a complicated point here. I don’t believe it’s a point that is beyond the grasp of the prominent, non-Japanese Asians in writing/publishing. I’ve read their work – it’s insightful, nuanced, eloquent, and smart as hell. So, then, why does this happen? Why do they continue to give the green light to outsiders writing about Japan without apparently realizing they are erasing Japanese perspectives on that same work? Why do they slam people for stereotyping Asians as “all the same” yet perpetuate some of that “sameness” by offering their not-Japanese-but-still-Asian opinions on representations of Japanese culture rather than finding actual Japanese people and asking for their opinions?*****

I believe in solidarity. I believe there is value in Japanese, Asian, and other nonwhite writers creating spaces for themselves and with each other to overcome institutionalized white supremacy in publishing. But I believe we can achieve this WITHOUT speaking over each other. I believe we can do this in ways that don’t leave me feeling as if my opinion and other Japanese opinions aren’t heard simply because those who create harmful, uninformed representations of us fail to look beyond the non-Japanese Asian folks endorsing their work. I believe all of us Asians can do better when it comes to representations of each other’s cultures. We KNOW we’re not all the same. Most of us probably know how painful it is to see outsiders misrepresent our cultures in one way or another. So, let’s not silence, deny, or erase each other in the same way. If it’s not our culture in question, let’s not offer an opinion on how “well” it was represented. Instead, let’s find a fellow member of our community who DOES belong to that culture and ask them for their opinion.

Thanks for reading! Next time, I’ll discuss why I think Asians endorse outsider representations of other Asian cultures. (And I’ll be speaking for myself only, not Every Asian Ever or Every Japanese Person Ever.)

*She is not Japanese.

**There is no mention on this author’s blog/website or in interviews with this author of her ethnic/cultural background. On her blog and in interviews, she describes herself as a student of Japanese history. I will assume she is white until/unless otherwise shown. I have yet to come across a nonwhite author whose ethnic/cultural background is never referenced on either their personal website or in interviews.

***Don’t worry, you privileged outsiders you. The stats already show there is a market for your work. Your sales won’t vanish just because you aren’t worth my time. If you don’t believe me, can you name more than three Japanese people writing on Japan – who are not based in Japan? Now name more than three non-Japanese people writing on Japan – who were published in the last year. Was one of those easier to do than the other?

****Apologies for the semantics here. I realize there are many cultures and ethnic groups in what westerners refer to as “China.” If any self-identified Chinese people can point me to alternative terminology that is more preferable from a #ownvoices perspective, please let me know!

*****So, I have what is probably going to be a fairly unpopular opinion on why this happens, but since this post is getting long, I’ll write about it next time.

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