Lately, I have been engaging quite extensively with literature pertaining to Orientalism. For those who are unfamiliar with this highly influential theory, Orientalism refers to a particular discursive understanding applied to “the Orient” (that is, all that is East of Europe, including the Middle East, India and Asia. This is a somewhat utilitarian definition of the term, but it should suffice for the present discussion.) which portrays “the Orient” as being fundamentally different to “the West” (another highly problematic, fictive category). Orientalism, according to Edward Said (the father of the tradition of critiquing “Orientalist discourse”), places “the Orient” into a subordinated, feminised position in relation to a powerful, dominant, “masculine” West.
Naturally, many of us academics working within the study of Asian cultures try our best to avoid Orientalist tropes and analyses in our writing, and that is why I was rather surprised when, upon picking up Grear Mirrors Shattered by John Whittier Treat, to find a book which was subtitled Homosexuality, orientalism and Japan actively and non-problematically engaging with Orientalism. Indeed, Treat seems to promote Orientalism within his book, a book which many reviewers before have largely condemned as racist, sexist and ultimately egomaniacal.
Treat is a Professor of Japanese Literature at Harvard University and a gay man. Indeed, I believe it might be most accurate to describe him as a gay man first, and other categories afterwards. Being gay seems to be the pillar upon which Treat’s life is built, all of his writings draw upon his homosexuality and he belongs to a tradition of American homosexual academics who violently and passionately promote the rights of gay men. Naturally, I believe that this is commendable. But, I do find that these types of men tend to, in their zeal for gay rights, become clouded and jaded in their opinions towards non-American queer lives.
So, I decided on the outset that I would hate this book. And hate it I did, as I turned page after loathsome page in which Treat describes his sexual conduct with white men living in Japan. Treat consciously states that he was not interested in Japanese men until he came to “learn” to find them attractive, but only if they were willing to conform to stereotypical portrayals of the effeminate “Bottom.” Treat describes in lurid detail his various sexual escapades not with Japanese boys, but with Thai and Filipino ones who he meets while on sex tours of South East Asia.
As I read, however, my disgust begins to dissipate. This is not because I somehow reached a stage where I could find his Orientalism bearable. In fact I will never seek to excuse Treat of his inherent racism, despite the fact that a recent reappraisal of his book by Katsuhiko Suganuma (a much respected colleague of mine) has quite conclusively demonstrated that Treat’s Orientalism may have been a “subversive, queer tactic” to deconstruct his (Treat’s) own white subjectivity.
No, my disgust has turned to pity, and not pity towards his racism but pity towards a man who seeks to escape the shadow of AIDS in a country which is not suited to fulfil his desires (both his desire to escape and his desire to be with White men). Treat’s memoir is not so much about Orientalism than it is about an exsistential dread which he feels as a gay white man who has lost his privileged status amongst “backwards” Japanese gays who now view him as the host of a deadly disease.
Indeed, Great Mirrors Shattered confirms in me the necessity for we scholars of Asian queer subjectivity to engage more explicitly with issues of desire. Treat’s narrative is built around a highly complex network of desires, as I mentioned above. In fact his desires for “white bodies” are quite cleverly juxtaposed with his “desire to escape AIDS” in such a way as to bring into question the superiority he senses as a privileged white male.
As I read his tale, the character about whom I find myself thinking of the most is Tetsuji, the young Japanese gay man that Treat carelessly throws aside in his first sabbatical in Japan (the memoir is based upon Treat’s second sabbatical). I wonder “what desires did Tetsuji have? Did Treat manage to fulfil them? Why is it that scholarship on Japanese queer experience has yet to engage with these issues?”
I hope that within my own project I can at least begin to answer some of these questions. Despite hating this book, I feel that Great Mirrors Shattered does indeed still remain relevant to all of us working within the study of Asia as it reminds us that even with Orientalist discourse we may find ideas of note… ideas upon which whole studies may be founded.