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Countering ‘Theoretical Imperialism’: Some Possibilities from Japan1



When scholars of any nation become so proud of their mastery of alien concepts that they forget or suppress their own cultural identity, they willingly succumb to ‘theoretical imperialism’. The flip side is the arrogant and wholesale imposition by Western scholars of theories created in the crucible of one culture on other cultures, subcultures or historical eras with divergent philosophical foundations. This article introduces several key Japanese critical theories that modify or fuse Japanese and Western psychoanalytic and aesthetic concepts, arguing that they can be fruitfully applied by theatre and performance scholars to works originating either in Japan or elsewhere. The article proposes a ‘both/and’ perspective that respects cultural differences without exoticizing the Other.



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2 Jumana Farouky, ‘Africa's Wizard of Words’, Time (European ed.), 11 September 2006, pp. 54–5.

3 Mark J. Hudson, Ruins of Identity: Ethnogenesis in the Japanese Islands (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999), p. 234; original emphasis.

4 Arthur Waley, trans., The Nô Plays of Japan (New York: Grove Press, 1957; first published 1921), pp. 248–57)

5 Waley, Nô Plays, p. 248.

6 For a detailed reading using this analysis see Carl Sesar, ‘China vs. Japan: The Noh Play Haku Rakuten’, in J. I. Crumb and William P. Malm, eds., Chinese and Japanese Music Drama (Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 1975), pp. 143–88.

7 D. P. Martinez, ‘Gender, Shifting Boundaries, and Global Cultures’, in idem, ed., The Worlds of Japanese Popular Culture: Gender, Shifting Boundaries, and Global Cultures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 1–2; Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London and New York: Verso, first ed. 1983; second ed. revised and expanded 1991).

8 Anne Allison, Permitted and Prohibited Desires: Mothers, Comics, and Censorship in Japan (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000), p. 169.

9 For detailed discussions see Takeo Doi, MD, The Anatomy of Dependence: The Key Analysis of Japanese Behavior, trans. John Bester (rev. pbk, Tokyo and New York: Kodansha, 1971; first published as Amae to kôzô, Tokyo: Kôbundô, 1971); and Takeo Doi, MD, The Anatomy of Self: The Individual Versus Society, trans. Mark Harbison (Tokyo, New York, and London: Kodansha International, 1986; first published as Omote to ura, Tokyo: Kôbundô, 1985).

10 Nancy R. Rosenberger, ed., Japanese Sense of Self (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 7.

11 Donald Keene, trans., Chûshingura: The Treasury of Loyal Retainers (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971).

12 Video recording of live production, NHK television broadcast, 19 April 1994 (personal collection of Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei).

13 Kosawa's theories have been explicated and elaborated by Keigo Okonogi, ‘The Ajase Complex of the Japanese (1)’, Japan Echo, 5, 4 (1978), pp. 88–105; and idem, ‘The Ajase Complex of the Japanese (2)’, Japan Echo, 6, 1 (1979), pp. 104–18.

14 See, for example Sorgenfrei, Unspeakable Acts; and Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei, ‘Deadly Love: Mothers, Whores and Other Demonic Females in Japanese Theatre’, Contemporary Theatre Review, 1, 2 (1994), pp. 77–84.

15 Terakoya is Act IV, sc. iii of Sugawara denju tenarai kagami. Stanleigh H. Jones, Jr, trans. and ed., Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), pp. 221–54.

16 Sorgenfrei, Unspeakable Acts.

17 Okonogi, ‘The Ajase Complex of the Japanese (1), 88–93 and passim.

18 Ian Buruma, A Japanese Mirror: Heroes and Villains in Japanese Culture (London: Jonathon Cape, 1984), p. 8; also published as Behind the Mask: On Sexual Demons, Sacred Mothers, Transvestites, Gangsters, Drifters and Other Japanese Cultural Heroes (New York: Pantheon, 1984).

19 Megumi Sakabe, ‘Mask and Shadow in Japanese Culture: Implicit Ontology in Japanese Thought’, in Michele Marra, ed. and trans., Modern Japanese Aesthetics: A Reader (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999), pp. 242–51; and idem, ‘Modoki: The Mimetic Tradition in Japan’, in ibid., pp. 251–62.

20 Michele Marra, ‘The Play of Mirrors: Sakabe Megumi’, in Marra, Modern Japanese Aesthetics, pp. 231–242, here p. 233.

21 Sakabe, ‘Mask and Shadow’, p. 248.

22 Ibid., pp. 249–50.

23 Sakabe, ‘Modoki’, p. 252.

24 Ibid., p. 254.

25 Ibid., p. 260.

26 Ibid., p, 260.

27 Mikail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, trans. Michael Holquist and Caryl Emerson (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 7.

28 Sakabe, ‘Modoki’, pp. 261–2.

29 For a detailed analysis see Sorgenfrei, Unspeakable Acts, pp. 120–4, 126.

30 Allison, Permitted and Prohibited Desires, p. 17.

1 Shorter versions of this paper were presented at Asia by Means of Performance: An Interdisciplinary Seminar on Asian Performance, as part of the University of California's system-wide Multi-Campus Research Group on ‘International Performance and Culture,’ Berkeley, CA, 22 September 2006, and at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education National Conference, New Orleans, 27 July 2007. Portions of this paper also appear in somewhat different form in Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei, Unspeakable Acts: The Avant-Garde Theatre of Terayama Shûji and Postwar Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005).

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