Old Orientalism, New Digital Space
“I just got to be careful to not disrespect the culture, but Japan is all about respect…”
On December the 29th 2017, Youtuber Logan Paul uploaded the first video in a short travel vlog series of his trip to Tokyo, titled “KICKED OUT OF JAPAN! (I’m sorry).” Three entries later, he posted his now infamous run in with a dead body in Japan's Aokigahara forest near Mount Fuji (dubbed “Suicide forest”) which has now been removed.[i] This act sparked viral outrage due to his jovial nature over the situation (laughing while recording the body), which prompted advocates of mental health awareness and suicide prevention to speak out against Logan. This also tarnished his brand and reputation not only with Youtube, but also his internet celebrity persona. The backlash was so great that on January the 1st 2018 Logan issued both a written and video recorded apology via YouTube and twitter. But the secondary source of conflict - which is arguably the primary issue and root cause of this incident, and others like it - is often not mentioned, nor is it even widely discussed in terms of the media coverage surrounding Logan’s post. This issue, or conflict, comes in the form of cultural awareness, which Paul displayed a disregard of during the trip. This lack of cultural awareness was caught on camera – it is still available on Logan’s YouTube page, unlike the suicide video – and was evident in many different forms during the series: Logan calling traditional rice/farming hats “pointy hats”, disrupting a community temple and its visitors, jumping on top of vehicles while in transit until police officers are prompted to step in. Fellow Youtuber Yuta (That Japanese Man Yuta), a cultural exchange content creator and native of Japan, underlines similar examples of Logan’s cultural insensitivity, but also states that from the beginning of Paul’s Tokyo travel vlog, there should have been uproar over his lack of cultural respect and illegal antics captured on video during the course of his stay. Yuta’s critique of Logan’s actions in his native country is an example of a white Western traveler’s notion of Orientalist exoticism being contested, interrogated, and unpacked in a digital space by an Eastern native; in this debate 'Eastern' refers to the people of Southern Asian countries: Thailand, Nepal, Cambodia, Singapore. Furthermore, digital social platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and YouTube, are being used to post and expose instances – such as Logan’s moment in Japan – of the lack of cultural awareness on the part of white Western tourists: a lack of awareness that is shaped by a system of exoticism that operates within and helps to sustain modern notions of Orientalism.
To understand this system of exoticism, Edward Said’s defining work in Orientalism and John M. MacKenzie’s critique of these beliefs needs to be explored.[ii] Said outlined how Western interpretations of Asian, Northern African, and Middle Eastern cultures are inherently rooted in colonialist hegemonic politics. The West’s love affair, or what John M. MacKenzie describes as “a system of Exoticism” - the romanticizing of eastern cultures - can be traced throughout all forms of Western art and media, i.e. Miss Saigon, Lawrence of Arabia, The King and I. However, MacKenzie reexamines Said’s work and the epistemology of Orientalism under the pretext of exoticism and representation: which he defines as Westerners' attempts to flirt with fictional expectations. MacKenzie states that 1) exoticism is a process: it is constant and works off of past and present historical information built from a Western lens about these foreign territories; 2) the object being represented is assimilated by the audience, or an attempt to do so is made, so that it defies the norms of western spectators; and 3) representation is not merely a form of transmission, it is also transformative for the viewer; the Western lens invokes the Western viewer to create a somewhat mythical interpretation of this object that is being represented.
Within the framework of exoticism and tourism today, many white Western tourists visiting Eastern territories are constructing a false reality of these spaces based off of preconceived notions from limited forms of representation such as other Western travelers' content on the web. These forms of representation are inherently framed though the lens of an outsider looking into a foreign land. While these spaces defy Western norms, they are assimilated and documented visually through the personal lens and adventures of these travelers in their accounts. However, in some cases these Orientalist beliefs are countered by Eastern natives and the postcolonial realities that they live in, via the web.
For example, in 2017 Thailand began cracking down on Western “beg-packers,”: travelers who would beg or trade simple goods to finance their travels, by augmenting the financial requirements needed to obtain proper entry into the country. Such immigration reform was made possible by natives, locals, and even fellow travelers of Thailand – particularly in Bangkok – who brought the issue to social media via photos of these beggars on the streets. Exoticism’s operation, in this case, can be understood as the white tourist living out an Orientalist fantasy: they perpetuate these false notions of mysticism and spiritualism in order to satisfy their ideas of what adventure in this land is like. The journey is adventurous, mystical, and spiritual in their eyes. This interpretation is echoed by one local who argues that Malaysian beg-packers see his country as “a playground for white people.”[iii] The same elements of mysticism, adventure, and non-normative (Western) culture can be applied to some Western territories and cities; most notably the city of New Orleans, Louisiana and its Voodoo cultures which are rooted in the transatlantic slave trade.[iv]
Another example of this digital conflict happened during September 2017, when two British tourists were chased along the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal by an angry local shop owner. One of the tourists, Gemma Wilson, complained about the price of a cup of tea which at the time was 150 rupees (£1). In the video recorded by Wilson, the shop owner voices her frustration with Western travelers, stating: “You English people are rich. Why bargain?”. Given that the video was shot from Wilson’s GoPro camera, its biased nature has been challenged. For example, one Pasang Gurung (tea shop owner) is interviewed by a YouTuber, explaining her side of the story and frustration with English travelers in Nepal. This phenomenon of bartering indicates a Western belief in a lack of structure, institution, and a freer market in these Eastern countries. Would these same tourists go into a Starbucks in their native countries and barter the price of a cup of coffee with their local baristas? Most likely not. This is not primarily an issue of cultural ignorance, it’s a matter of cultural perception rooted in false narratives: An Orientalist narrative. False beliefs that prices can be negotiated, or that there is no standardized procedure implies a belief that anything goes in this land. Notions like this are rooted in the limited perception of Westerners, which are then represented via their own documentation of their trips in the East. The tea shop owner’s video response echoes the sentiments of both Yuta’s video to Logan, and the online responses to 'beg-packers'. These responses are anti-Orientalist. They attempt to both update and expose the reality that they live in. This phenomenon is similar to the use of social media and digital activism in the Black Lives Matter movement which combats police brutality in the United States of America: digital space “gives them narrative form and agency.” [v] It allows them to combat these colonial, Orientalist narratives while at the same time, giving them agency to control their own.
This discussion is not an attack on anyone who is white and from an affluent nation that has benefitted from the intricate and devastating history of colonialism, and who ventures into territories that have been affected by that same history. It is more an interrogation of visitors in general, and their constructed notions of these Eastern spaces, as well as the flaws of these notions and their colonial roots that reinforce ideas of “Us,” and “Them”. Everyone should be able to enjoy traveling, but this enjoyment should never be at the cost of another group's cultural dignity. When that cultural dignity is sacrificed, for example in the case of Paul, the "beg-packers", and the conflict over bartering in Nepal, this division between natives and tourists is maintained. Furthermore, the power of social networking spaces is showcased in these incidents; it gives access to voices that otherwise might have never reached an audience in a pre-globally connected world. More importantly, it offers an avenue for the dismantlement of Orientalism, and the reclaiming of one’s own narrative.
[i] Lah, Kyung. 2009. "Desperate Japanese head to 'suicide forest'". CNN.com/Asia. 19/03/2009. Retrieved 10 April 2012.
[ii] Said, Edward W. 2014. Orientalism. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Internet resource; and MacKenzie, John M. 2007. Orientalism: History, Theory and the Arts, Print.
[iii]“'Beg-Packers': White Tourists Who Beg in Southeast Asia.” The Observers, France 24, 04/10/2017, observers.france24.com/en/20170410-“beg-packers”-white-tourists-who-beg-southeast-asia.
[iv] Long, Carolyn Morrow. 2002. “Perceptions of New Orleans Voodoo: Sin, Fraud, Entertainment, and Religion.” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 86–101. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/nr.2002.6.1.86.
[v] Yang, G. 2016. Narrative Agency in Hashtag Activism: The Case of #BlackLivesMatter. Media and Communication, 4 (4), 13-17. https://doi.org/10.17645/mac.v4i4.692