Wednesday, December 29, 2010

"My biggest crime is that I'm Japanese"

As part of my research for my thesis I watched a Japanese trilogy called The Human Condition (人間の条件), which was a Japanese movie set against the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. Although the movie was melodramatic, one line stayed with me which was (roughly remembered):

It seems my biggest sin in something I can't be blamed for, being Japanese

The hero Kaji (梶) tries and fails to implement a more humane form of colonialism. It's failure is that the very structure of colonialism and its presumptions are inhumane. In Brian Friel's The Home Place the "anthropological" projects that were going on represent the guise of something that looks innocent enough but is actually equally part of the colonial machine. That Christopher allows these projects to be carried out angered me, but when Con interrupts Richard's experiment by threatening the harmless and benevolent Christopher, some of the anger was replaced with pity, This made me think of the usual response to the descendents of Planters in Northern Ireland and its usual association with the Israeli occupation of Palestine (in Northern Ireland this can be observed by the Israeli and Palestinian flags flying alongside the tricolour and the Union Jack on telegraph poles and wall murals throughout the North.)

But to go back to the point I raised from The Human Condition we come to the question of responsibility, blame and inheritance. All the planters who made a conciouss choice to take part (for whatever reason) in the colonial project in Northern Ireland are now long dead. The rest were born into a status quo. There is, in essence, a difference between maintaining the colonial system you were born into and making a choice to partake in a colonial project - and so there is a difference between the descendents of Protestant (English/Scottish) planters in Northern Ireland and the first generation colonialists who are pushing into the Gaza Strip for more territory. Can one then blame someone for being born? One can say that this person once born can choose to fight the colonial machinery, but this is fighting to annhilate himself. The problem with blame in postcolonialism is the ephermeral nature of human life.

The Irish characters in the play are sympathetic to this situation, they take exception only to Richard Gore's measuring of the head sizes of "natives" but respect that Christopher was a good landlord and a generous man - even if born into a colonial household. This does not stop him feeling a traitor to "his kind".

The conclusion Friel draws is unclear. The threat of violence in the play seems almost a superegoic voice of history, enunciating the crimes of the Gores's forefathers. But how long can one hold on to past wrongdoings, when does a colonized settlement or territory become just a "home"?


  1. "The Human Condition" sounds interesting. I wonder if it's on Netflix.

  2. You can be born into a certain ethnicity or culture but you don't have to automatically take on all of it's associated traits and frailties. That's a cop-out.

    At some point, you have to take responsibilities for your personal actions and not just explain it away as it being part of Japanese culture or what have you; that's part of growing up and becoming a mature adult.

  3. Sounds like an interesting series. I'll have to check it out. Anyway, you make a good point Kyle. That's something I have always believed in. However, I think many people will use their background/experience as an excuse and say things like, "That's just the way we do it", but progress and maturity is trying to look beyond that.

  4. Just to clarify I was reviewing Brian Friel's The Home Place, not the triology.

    As to Kyle, you can say that, but unless you cut yourself off from your country you are effectively condoning certain actions passively, i.e. by paying taxes that ultimately fund colonial projects, etc.

    Kaji started out believing in the colonial project and believing he could make it more humane, but then realized that there is no such thing as humane colonialism. It's not about culture so much as taking part or not objecting to certain institutions in your country, or believing in certain ideologies that your country ingrains in you.

    I don't really agree with what either of you said about cultural relevatism though (although I don't think that this is really relevant to the movie, I was talking about collective guilt for colonialism as opposed to cultural differences between nations). I think that when we look at other cultures we mistakenly (but inevitably) take our own values to be truth, and other people's values that clash with our own culture's ideological structures to be wrong, and this can lead to viewing those cultures with an accusing eye, which leads to them being put into the position where they have to defend their culture to an outsider, whereby they would say something like "That's just the way we do it", as Jimmy said. I think that often when looking at other cultures we tend to use the word "progress" as a synonym for "the way I think things should be done" and I think this is quite narrow-minded. I think that you have to realize that without understanding the way a culture functions from the inside, it is useless to make critiques of it from the outside, because you are essentially adopting an ethnocentric view of the world.