Asians Just Don't Get ItBill Halvorsen
We in America are so used to having the Holocaust bulk large as the preeminent symbol of inhumanity that we tend to forget that there are about 5 billion people outside of the reach of Western Civilization who just don't see Twentieth Century history the way we do. Recent events in Asia demonstrate the culture clashes involved: where we are supposed to see indescribable horror, Asians, it appears, see just another series of symbols manipulated by the long nosed Whites which they can use for fun and profit.
The first of what has become a series of Asian gaffes occurred last fall, during the Pokemon boom. The popular TV show spun off a series of trading cards, and demand was so high that the price of the cards skyrocketed. In order to meet demand, some enterprising marketer obtained cards meant for Asian distribution only. When these cards surfaced in America, however, new problems began: it turned out that one of the cards was marked with a "manji", otherwise known as a swastika, which in Japanese culture is a sign of hope and good luck. When some Jewish kids found the cards, they complained "it's about hate" and the usual Jewish advocacy groups, led by the ADL, instead of teaching the kids a lesson in cross-cultural awareness, opted for intolerance and immediately went on the offensive. One of children, endearingly, suggested that the card makers should make good for creating the cards by contributing to a Holocaust project. Within a couple of weeks, the card makers were issuing profuse public apologies.
At about the same time, a Hong Kong firm, selling heating units chose to market them in billboards featuring a diminutive likeness of Adolf Hitler giving the stiff arm salute with the caption, "Declare war on the cold front!" Bearing in mind that Hitler's army was indeed done in by General Winter in their invasion of Russia in 1941, the ad seemed witty and apropos. Moreover, the caricature of Hitler was ludicrous, conveying nothing of the charisma and forbidden power that seems to make his image attractive to various people on the margins. Nevertheless, fresh outrage erupted and after complaints by the usual advocacy groups, followed by pious appeals from German and Israeli diplomats, the ads were withdrawn.
Next, an enterprising journalist "discovered" a restaurant in Taipei that featured on its wall photographs of emaciated concentration camp inmates. The exact reasoning behind this choice of décor is hard to fathom, but it is certain that there was no intent to make a political statement: apparently the owners of the restaurant simply wished to juxtapose photos of people who presumably would leap at the chance to dine on the appetizing fare of this particular eating establishment. Again, the chorus of complaints from the "round eyed" Westerners eventually led to the removal of the photographs.
The most recent Asian faux pas concerns a bar in Korea, known as the "Third Reich", which, in keeping with its theme, features waitresses dressed in black leather and drinks entitled "Adolf Hitler" and such. Again, complaints came first from Westerners, and after the by now predictable domino effect of freak outs from offended individuals to Jewish agencies through the German and Israeli embassies down to local government officials, the bar made a surprising decision: they simply barred Westerners from the establishment. However, the pressure continued to be applied, and, the last word is that the bar is revamping its décor.
Of course, if we take our cue from the Holocaust Reactionaries who see Nazis under every bed, we might be inclined to see in these actions "gross insensitivity" among Asians to the ineffable horrors of the Holocaust, or we might even see these as symptomatic of growing neo-Nazism and Hitler rehabilitation in this region, where about half the world's population resides.
However, a thoughtful reflection on the phenomena indicates something else entirely. There were no political, racial, or even anti-Semitic overtones in any of these actions, just Asian businessmen co-opting western symbols in order to make a buck. And what's wrong with that? It seems ridiculous to propose that these Asians would be expected to know the immense freight of meaning that these symbols are supposed to convey. After all, Holocaust education is not mandated in Asia as it is in the West. And, anyway, why should be expect Asians to know our context, they were, after all, simply using the symbols in their own. One starts to wonder how Asians think of our periodic expropriations of Asian culture, whether they think our musical chinoiserie is authentic, whether they think "The Mikado" is funny, whether they think it is appropriate to hijack Confucian expressions to sell canned chow mein, Lao Tse to write lyrics for Beatles songs, or turn the Buddha into a lawn ornament.
It's hard to say. But it does appear that the equilibrium of outrage all seems to be moving in one direction, where westerners or segments thereof are leaning hard on Asians not to use the designated accoutrements of evil as they have been designated by the professorate and the politicos. All of this must be rather baffling to Asians, who at this point are probably wondering what the hell is wrong with us.
At bottom these various brouhahas are probably indicative of a couple of things. One would be the closer interpenetration of western and eastern societies. But since eastern societies outnumber us by a factor of three or four to one, it seems likely that as events unfold the tables will be turned and we will be the ones getting lessons in sensitivity: which means, among other things, get your "Kung Fu" episodes on tape while you can. On second thought, maybe the Asian reaction will not be proscriptive, but relaxed and philosophical. If so, that would contrast sharply with the current western reaction, which is the other symptom here.
What drives it? Our guess is that the Holocaust industry is running out of fuel. The war's long over, the pips of reparations have almost squeaked, and, sorry to say, there are a lot more things going on that are more important in our daily lives than what happened over fifty years ago in Eastern Europe. When you run out of fuel you look for something else: apparently, the Holocaust industry seems intent on finding its future raw materials in the less developed countries of the Far East. To paraphrase a Chinese expression, there should be some interesting -- and amusing -- times ahead.
Installed: 06/04/00, 12: 30 PM, EST