Tag Archives: culture

the first-world internet

I heard an interesting presentation today, but it concluded with a very developed-world, class-based interpretation of the Internet that I simply can’t agree with.

Although it’s true that more students are coming from abroad to study in the US (attributed in the presentation partially to budgetary issues in public schools in the US, another issue entirely), the idea of ‘globalization’, I’d argue, is really a concept based in the developed world. Yes, we have more students studying ‘cross-border’ topics, and interested in the world outside of the US. American students are coming into more contact with international students thanks to their presence in American universities, and perhaps gaining more cultural competency through this interaction. ‘Global studies’ are now a thing.

But this presentation talked at the end about the global power of the Internet, and globalization generally, about being able to reach across borders and communicate unimpeded. It doesn’t just have the potential to break down barriers, but already actively does so, this presenter posited. It doesn’t just encourage dissent but is already a channel for dissent, and an opportunity available to all.

International students in the US may be experiencing this power of the Internet, yes. But at home? Students from nations such as China and Saudi Arabia may not have experienced the Internet in this way, and may not be able to experience it back home in the same way as they can in the West, in Korea, in Japan, in other developed countries. (And I realize that’s a problematic term in itself.) Moreover, not all American students have experienced this Internet either. The students we find in universities generally already have opportunities not available to everyone, including their access to technology and the Internet.

There’s also the inherent assumption that this global access – and ‘global studies’ in general – takes place in English. While many students abroad are studying English, not all have this opportunity; moreover, their access to the educational opportunities of the developed world are limited to those opportunities they can access in English. Many undergraduates and even graduate students in the US limit themselves to the kind of global studies that can take place without foreign language competency. I realize that many do attempt foreign language studies and while the vast majority of undergraduates I encounter who are interested in Japan and Korea cannot read materials in their focus countries’ languages, they are often enrolled in language classes and doing their best. However, there are many more who are not. They do not come to the world – they expect the world to come to them.

And there are many, many students around the world who do not have access to the English Internet, or cross-border collaboration in English through the opportunities the Internet potentially affords (or doesn’t, depending on the country). They may not even have reliable access to electricity, let alone a data connection. This is changing, but not at the speed that the kind of thinking I encountered today assumes.

Related to this, another presentation talked about the power of MOOCs and online learning experiences in general. And yes, while I generally agree that there is much potential here, the vast majority of MOOCs currently available require English, a reliable connection, reliable electricity. They are by and large taken by educated adult males, who speak English. There is potential, but that is not the same as actual opportunity.

Overall, I think we need to question what we are saying when we talk about the power of the global Internet, and distinguish between potential and reality. Moreover, we need to distinguish exactly the groups we are talking about when we talk about globalization, global studies, and cross-border/cross-cultural communication. Even without the assumption of a developed-world, upper-class Internet, we need to recognize that by and large, our work is still conducted in silos, especially in the humanities. Science researchers in Japan may be doing English-language collaboration with international colleagues, but humanities researchers largely cannot communicate in English and cross-language research in those fields is rare. I can’t speak for countries other than Japan and the US, really, but despite the close mutual interest in areas such as Japanese literature and history, there is little collaboration between the two countries – despite the potential, as with digitizing rare materials and pooling resources to create common-interest digital archives, for example.

Even those international students often conduct their American educations in language and culture silos. Even the ones with reliable Internet access use country-based chat and social media, although resources such as Facebook are gaining in popularity. We go with what is most comfortable for us, what comes to us; that doesn’t apply only to Americans. Our channels of communication are those that allow us the path of least resistance. Even if Twitter and Facebook weren’t blocked in China, would they prove as popular as Sina Weibo and other Chinese technologies? Do Americans know what Line is or are they going to continue using WhatsApp?

If we find that English, money, and understanding of American cultural norms are major barriers to our communication, we might find other ways. Yes, that developed-world Internet may hold a lot of potential, but its global promise may not go in a direction that points toward us in America anyway.

fans, collectors, and archives

In the course of my research, I’ve been studying the connection between the first “complete works” anthology of writer Ihara Saikaku, his canonization, and the collectors and fans who created the anthology – a very archival anthology. (I say this because it has information about the contemporary provenance of the texts that make it up, among other things. It names the collector that contributed the text to the project on every title page!)

It’s struck me throughout this project that the role of fans – which these people were – and their connection with collectors, as well as their overlap, is of crucial importance in preserving, in creating archives and maintaining them, in creating resources that make study or access possible in the first place. They do the hard work of searching, finding, discovering, buying, arranging, preserving, and if we’re lucky, disseminating – through reprinting or, now, through making digital resources.

As I’ve become more acquainted with digital humanities and the range of projects out there, I can’t help but notice the role of collectors and fans here too. It’s not so much in the realm of academic projects, but in the numbers of Web sites out there that provide images or other surrogates for documents and objects that would otherwise be inaccessible. These are people who have built up personal collections over years, and who have created what would otherwise be called authoritative guides and resources without qualification – but who are not academics. They occupy a gray area of a combination of expertise and lack of academic affiliation or degree, but they are the ones who have provided massive amounts of information and documentation – including digital copies of otherwise-inaccessible primary sources.

I think we can see this in action with fandoms surrounding contemporary media, in particular – just look at how much information is available on Wikipedia about current video games and TV shows. Check out the Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages and other similar wikis. (Note that UESP began as a Web site, not a wiki; it’s a little time capsule that reflects how fan pages have moved from individual labors of love to collective ones, with the spread of wikis for fan sites. A history of the site itself – “much of the early details and dates are vague as there are no records available anymore” – can be found here.)

I’m not a researcher of contemporary media or fan culture, but I can’t help but notice this and how little it’s talked about in the context of digital humanities, creating digital resources, and looking at the preservation of information over time.

Without collectors like Awashima Kangetsu and fans like Ozaki Kōyō and Ōhashi Otowa, we may not have Ihara Saikaku here today – and yet he is now among the most famous Japanese authors, read in survey courses as the representative Edo (1600-1867) author. He was unknown at the time, an underground obsession of a handful of literary youths. It was their collecting work, and their dedication (and connections to a major publisher) that produced The Complete Works of Saikaku in 1894, a reprinted two-volume set of those combined fans’ collections of used books. Who will we be saying this about in a hundred years?

For my readers out there who have their feet more in fandom and fan culture than I do, what do you think?

where are the japanese exchange students?

I was recently reading Jake Adelstein’s review of Reimagining Japan and he noted the need for openness as a topic explored in the book – and defined that as a reluctance for both young Japanese to go abroad, and for companies to reach outside of their own borders. I don’t have any profound insights into this issue (or even on whether it is the issue that people make it out to be), but it reminded me of a touching conversation I had last year.

I organized a flower-viewing party (for cherry blossom season) in the last April that I lived in Tokyo. For those of you who haven’t had the experience of cherry blossom season in Japan, I’ll give you a representative image: cold, cloudy, miserable day, often with no cherry blossoms in sight, a park completely covered in blue tarps (“leisure sheets!”), populated by shivering drunk people trying their damndest to get even more drunk while snacking on party foods like octopus dumplings. Doesn’t it sound like that romantic image of an elegant branch of cherry blossoms against the clear blue sky, perhaps with Fuji-san lurking nearby, that has become the representative of Japan? Well, don’t believe it. The version I’ve given you is hard cold reality.

Still, you do hanami (“flower viewing”) in late March and early April, flowers or not, and regardless of whether you need a winter coat. Once you’re plastered, you won’t notice anyway! Well, let’s move on now that I’ve set the scene.

I was chatting with my friend Naoko who had brought her shy but nice cousin along with her, who was interested in learning and practicing English. We got to talking about how I’d come to Japan in the first place and how my experiences were.

As we talked, she surprised me with her reaction: She revealed that she’d love to live abroad for a year or two after college, and she was so jealous of people like me and my friends who had been able to do that in Japan. It really threw me. After all, she was shy and hesitant about speaking, but her English was passable enough that after a few weeks in a place like the US or UK, she’d be doing fine. Her interest in foreign countries and languages was obvious. So why the resignation to not having a chance? What was stopping her?

Her answer to this really blew me away. “Well,” she said, “companies want to hire their new employees when they graduate from college, on time.” (By this she means that graduation is in late February, and the start of the new school/employment year is in April. Because of this, if you happen to not pass your entrance exams or not get a job offer, you have to wait until that time in the next year to try again.) “So if I were to go abroad, I’d come back and I wouldn’t be a new graduate, and I wouldn’t be with the class I graduated with. So it would be really difficult to get a job because I wouldn’t be in the category of people that companies want to hire.”

It really shouldn’t have surprised me so much. After all, it’s true. There is a deeply ingrained system of when and how, from college exams to job interviews. Of course, part-time jobs, and going into business for yourself, are different. But overall, despite a lot of shifting preferences and more varied ways of living compared to a decade or two ago, that system is still there. And if you don’t fit into the path that leads you to a position as a regular company employee (as opposed to contract or part-time), you are going to be stuck in what’s still considered by many to be an underclass.

The irony here is that Japanese firms would benefit immensely from young employees who have at least traveled, if not lived, abroad – anywhere. In fact, I worked very informally at a large company in Tokyo and my contact there confided in me more than once that he’d like the old guard to open their minds to hiring foreigners as in-house workers, instead of using contractors to do tasks like translation. His argument was that it would be more cost-effective and flexible (at one point they needed a rush translation and had to pay through the nose to get someone else to do it), and even more than that, that it would change the culture of the workplace in a positive way. But at the same time, he sighed when he said this and said, “There’s no way that could happen now. I’m hoping in two or three years, it might be possible, if I keep working on them.”

I see how this system is set up and I understand the logic of it, because everyone knows how it works and it’s self-perpetuating because of it. But looking at it from the outside, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. On the one hand I’m reassured and even inspired by the people I’ve talked to in Japan who have either made a path that weaves in and out of the system as they like, or who have become successful within powerful companies and used that position to shape their work into something international. There are plenty of people I know who lived abroad for a while (from three months to like 20 years) who were then perfectly successful when they returned. But by and large, if this attitude is there – well, the fear that success can only be had along one specific, limited path is self-fulfilling.

I can only hope that more people like my friend’s cousin who have a desire to go abroad and experience life in other countries do get the courage to do it regardless of the rigid system that they live in, and make something successful out of it. But in the meantime, I am a lot more understanding of why the Asian exchange students at my university come to us from every nation but Japan.