As we pause for a moment between recent debates about prayer and performative acts, stimulated by Phillip Swift's delightful paper on Cosmetic Cosmologies in Japan, and look forward to Daniel Miller's An extreme reading of Facebook, I find myself rummaging through Evernote and stumble across something written last December. I've probably posted it before, if not on OAC then somewhere else. Be that as it may, it takes on added significance by reappearing in this liminal moment between two OAC seminars, illustrating by its reappearance one of its central claims, that

in any case, culture determines only significance, not what people do. Every culturally significant act involves both the actor's personality and the situation in which it occurs, as motive, opportunity and circumstance.

Here, then, once again is the context in which that claim was made.

What does it mean to conceal one's true identity? Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and Vietnamese have all long been famous for masking their true feelings. It was in Frances Fitzgerald's Fire in the Lake, a book about the Vietnam War, that I first encountered a compelling alternative to Shakespeare's immortal line, "to thine own self be true." Vietnamese, wrote Fitzgerald, saw true sincerity as faithful performance of required social roles, regardless of personal feelings. Then I found in the Analects of Confucius the maxim that a gentlemen participates in ritual as if the spirits are present. He does not concern himself about whether they actually exist.

The Japanese young man I met at the party celebrating a Toscanni photo shoot for Benetton, who denied that his costume expressed his true self and said, "I never show anyone that" had plenty of cultural models to choose from. Noh and Kabuki, celebrated worldwide as uniquely Japanese forms of theatre, both conceal the actor's face, Noh behind immobile masks, Kabuki behind elaborate make-up. Both involve elaborate costumes that extend the concealment to the body as a whole.

Turning to popular culture, I find myself recalling numerous jidai geki(historical dramas) whose plots involve concealed identities. A Tokugawa shogun pretends to be an ordinary ronin (unemployed samurai) who hangs out with his firefighter buddies, discovers the machinations of evil doers, and reveals his true identity at the climax in which he confronts the villains. They recognize but refuse to acknowledge that he is, in fact, the shogun, the supreme ruler of Japan and direct their underlings to kill him. He and his ninja take down the lot, including at the end, the arch-evildoer. A retired uncle of the Shogun travels around Japan with a group of ordinary-seeming subordinates who are, in fact, experts in martial arts. They, too, discover and punish evildoers. In a third famous series, a group of ordinary seeming townspeople, a florist, a doctor, an apparently bumbling, low-ranking samurai bureaucrat are, in fact, skillful assassins, superheroes in Edo-period costume. When they uncover evildoers, they do not reveal their identities. They kill them using stealthy approaches that leave their everyday identities intact. Flash forward to manga, animated films, video games, science fiction and fantasy films in which similar motifs are ubiquitous.

I remember that one of the most famous plays in Kabuki is the Chushingura, "The Forty-Seven Ronin" about samurai sworn to avenge the murder of their lord. They pretend to be dishonorable men, who have given up their vendetta, preferring to survive as social outcasts. Until that is, the moment is right. They complete their vengeance and then commit suicide at their lord's grave. Here the revelation of the true self requires an honorable death. That reminds me of romantic love-suicides, another famous Kabuki theme. Lovers whose feelings transgress the status barriers between them can only be united in death.

My noting this evidence should not be seen as reducing the young man I met to a Japanese stereotype. One has only to think of Superman, Batman, Iron Man, Spiderman, X-men, the Marvel and DC comics superheroes who now appear in successful comics, films and TV programs around the world. Playing with identities is not a peculiarly Japanese habitus. And, in any case, culture determines only significance, not what people do. Every culturally significant act involves both the actor's personality and the situation in which it occurs, as motive, opportunity and circumstance.

My noting this evidence points, however, to the fact that, whatever the young man's personal motives, playing with public personas, impression management, and concealment of the true self all have deep roots in Japanese culture — and may make his performance less startling in a Japanese than in other cultural contexts.

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Comment by Robert Guang Tian on November 13, 2010 at 3:51pm

I am the editor for International Journal of Business Anthropology and would like to invite you to write an article for us. Please visit my blog for detailed information in the page of journals edited. We also have an online discussion group established recently, you can sign up in my blog. Thank you.


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