Rescue fantasies

Anthropologists are saving the world from every evil except culture

By William Wetherall

Drafted 10 October 1990
First posted 3 August 2010

This is a draft of an article I began writing in the fall of 1990 after a rather heady decade of associating with some very stimulating people, several of whom make cameo appearances in this story. I was in the midst of reflecting on my own loss of innocence after the even headier years at Berkeley in the 1960s and 1970s. No, I didn't smoke or pop a thing -- though I must confess, I inhaled my share of idealism and teargas.

Spring 1968

It is spring, 1968, at the University of California at Berkeley. Oblivious to the campus turmoil, a then Oriental Languages major writes a term paper entitled "The Theme of Loneliness in Japanese Literature and Japanese National Character".

One element of Japanese loneliness is "cultural nostalgia", which the student observes "can be mild or intense, according to the trauma that settles in the faults between the old and new." He cites passages from postwar fiction to support his view that many Japanese writers pang for the peace of their pristine primordial past.

Yet this was no simple nostalgia that retarded life. Rather it was one that "gave buoyancy to tradition" and thus enabled work-a-day Japanese to live "improbable" lives -- like the business man who comes home after work, bathes, puts on a house kimono, sits down on a zabuton cushion, and watches "Bonanza" while drinking beer and snacking on rice crackers. "Modern Japanese are blending steel and concrete with bamboo and cherry blossoms in such a manner that one can still recognize and even appreciate the elemental integrities of both the new and the traditional," our student writes in the idiom of his time.

In the final chapter of the term report, called "Vernalization", the student explores the bowels of Japanese popular culture. He flips through the pages of a popular comic magazine that "a Victorian would consider pornographic." The sheer bulk of its pulp is symbolic of a publishing industry that feeds the world's most word-thirsty people.

Its features include a comic strip that criticizes the American government's disregard for Asian life in both Vietnam and Japan. The student interprets the strip to mean that Japan, though prospering from American wars in Asia, and by American craving for Japanese products, is being statutorily raped by the presence of American military bases in the country. The nuclear umbrella has made Japan America's favorite Greater East Asian Whore.

Hence loneliness for Japanese who dislike such geo-political and geo-economic arrangements, yet take pride in the ranking of names like Sony and Honda with Coca-Cola. Japan's loneliness stems its inability to decide between "a withdrawal into the confinements of an indigenous past or a fostering of an intimate economic and cultural intercourse with the greater and lesser nations of the world."

In conclusion, our student really strutted his orientaliscameot stuff. "If the Japanese anticipate more than most peoples the uncertainties that spring will come, they at least have the probable cultural advantage of knowing more than most peoples just how lovely spring can be. Japanese may be soil-poor, but they are richly sensitive to the beautiful in nature. For them there is more than jovial festivity and seasonal ritual in blossom-viewing. The petals may fall, and their colors and fragrances may yield to the awesome forces of impermanence. But the expectation that the cycle will repeat itself is quite enough to keep the Japanese heart throbbing with its peculiar spirit. As Thoreou might have put it, the loneliness that would dampen this spirit is a measure of the distance between winter and spring."

Were Thoreau alive today, twenty years after our student involved his name, he would probably be right in the middle of the "new paradigm" crowd that is thronging to Japan to see what the long-since disillusioned student mistook for an environmentally determined cultural love of nature. Were he to have stayed a while, he would discover -- like yours truly discovered -- that "nature" in Japanese culture is "made in Japan". There is no contradition between bulldozing and paving countryside by people who cultivate views of trimmed and wired trees in landscaped gardens.

Fall 1990

I am looking straight down at a Yanomami village in an Amazonian rain forest in Brazil. The village sits on the crest of a hill in the foreground of an aerial photo in a Japanese weekly magazine. I imagine a thatch lifeboat pitching on an unbroken sea of vegetation.

Twenty or so smoky huts, each covering a family hearth, join into an almost seamless shelter that rings a large court. The forest presses against the backs of the huts, which face the bare earth of the court. Around one-hundred people are living in the village, the caption says. A third of them are in the court, a few hunkering, the others standing, some by themselves, most in groups. Beyond this shelter, which serves as a fort when the village is at war with another village, the dense forest rolls away on waves of hills that rise into misty clouds.

"Isn't this incredible?" I say to a friend.

"I see a whole world there," he says.

"An entire universe," I echo.

But when I move my face closer and study the detail, I am forced to change my mind.

In fact, the village is very much a part of our world, I tell my friend. We are even more so a part of its world -- in the sense that while the moon and the earth pull at each other, the earth's pull on the moon is greater. The village is doomed to be become more like us.

Look at the people in the court, I say. Though their age and sex are unclear, some are obviously adults, others children. Their faces are too tiny to see any features, but many are plainly looking up, as though at us. A few of the people are waving their hands. None appear to be clenching their fists, but who knows.

"Heisenberg," I say. "Cargo cults."

"As soon as they see us, we become part of their mythology," my friend says.

And we of theirs, I add.

Magazines and other print media, like television, are space-time machines. They are windows on places and periods that we travel to only vicariously. The photo of the village had seemed like a one-way mirror. I had brought to its high-tech printing an eye that had been trained on hundreds of novels written by omniscient narrators. I was not at first aware that my vision was being impaired by delusions of distance and anonymity, and by a false sense of power to observe without being seen. Later I thought that I would have made a good bombardier on a B52 over Vietnam or Cambodia. Or a fighter pilot who could napalm a village with emotional impunity so long as he couldn't smell the burning flesh.

There was, of course, a go-between. There always is when you're not there yourself. Not that being there guarantees understanding. For numerous factors, beginning with personality and ending with worldview, can loom as barriers to the translation of experience into wisdom.

The photo was taken by a Japanese ethnographer in a helicopter. That the Japanese and Yanomami worlds were able to notice one another is proof that both are part of the same world, that neither is truly closed or otherwise entire. Each has always had the capacity to recognize and respond to the other. Once this potential for mutual awareness is realized, then each begins to penetrate the other in ways that inevitably and irrevocably change both.

Indeed, the process of change has already started. Maginification of the photo betrays its essential graininess. But I can see that many of the people in the court have something around their loins reminiscent of shorts. One is even wearing what appears to be a white t-shirt.

"It's too late," I tell my friend.

The missionaries have already been there. And the ethnologists. And the farmers, miners, loggers, politicians and journalists. And now the tourists. And these bearers of goodwill, curiosity, greed -- these seekers of land, wealth, power, adventure, pleasure, good stories -- have brought their infectious diseases, their mechanical contraptions, their industrial appetites. And these have begun to decimate the native populations and destroy their environs and cultures.

Faced with such overwhelming forces, how do the Amazonians defend themselves? Not very well. And ultimately by assimilating.

At first they resort to traditional methods of coping with evil. But local gods and familiar weapons fail to stem their loss of life and territory. And eventually it falls to the natives who have been inside of the enemy's world to lead survival movements that advocate adopting the invader's ways and adapting them to their own advantage -- starting with the gadgetry, but then the mass media, laws, economy, politics, education, and technology, and to some extent even the philosophy and religion.

The savviest native leaders venture abroad for support.

"Where's the water?" asks Paulinho Payakan, confronting a bank of vending machines in Tokyo. He settles for orange juice but doesn't finish it. In this, at least, he is right at home with many of his industrialized enemies: judging from TV, a lot of orange juice (or maybe it's orange drink) is left untouched on Japan's busy conference tables.

Payakan is a chief of the Kayapo, a tribe that lives in the rain forests of the Xingu river, which spills into the Amazon in central Brazil. He has come to Japan to rally support for his battle to save his native lands. When not meeting the press and giving interviews, he shops for cameras, radios, and other devices to help his people fight their cause.

"The white man thinks because we use the video camera that we want to be like him," says Payakan, whose people now like to to watch videos of their tribal dances and rituals. "But we use it to not forget who we are." Payakan has also recorded the poverty in Brazil's major cities. "If our children ever decide to leave the tribe," he says, "they will know where they came from and also where they are going."

Benjamin Wapparia

A couple of weeks later I taped a television documentary of life in the village of an Amazonian tribe that gets by with little clothing. I showed the tape to my assistant while we were eating lunch.

"How did this get by the censors?" she said though the rice in her mouth, the instant she realized that she was staring at the penis of a tall, handsome tribesman who smiled as he softly spoke into a microphone held by a Japanese journalist, relaxed in the burden of clothes his gate-keepers compelled him to wear.

Then came a scene of tribeswomen cooking a meal.

"They're so dirty!" my assistant exclaimed. The women were covered with dust from the ground. Some of the food was set directly on rocks and leaves. My assistant had already used three tissue papers to wipe her mouth and fingers as she ate the morsels of food that she had wrapped in foil and saran before putting everything into a plastic box and the box into a cloth bag. Everything would be washed with lemon-scented detergent. The foil and saran, and a wad of tissues, would be thrown away. Then she'd clean her teeth with toothpaste on a brush that she'd replace every month out of fear of recatching an old cold.

Several minutes passed without a word from her. She had finished her lunch but left her tea. The vignettes of Amazonian life had started to touch her. They were touching me too, to the point I had nearly lost all awareness of her presence beside me.

Toward the end of a sequence showing the birth of a baby girl, attended by other village women and their daughters, my assistant broke her silence.

"We're just like animals," she said. And as though to prove it, she wiped the tears from her eyes with her palms. I offerred her a smile and a tissue. She returned the smile and declined the tissue, then rubbed her bloodshot eyes with her fingers. I felt a surge of hope.

Hoshino Kazuko

Enter actress Hoshino Kazuko -- for whom, very frankly, I would give up my subscription to Ms. Magazine for an opportunity to save from savages, anywhere in the world -- except from the savage sitting in my chair. Hoshino took her charms and intelligence up the muddy flow of the Great Amazon, the river of greed, followed by a camera crew, and survived to write a book about it. Of course I had to have it, as it has lots of stills of her joining in the daily life of the local human fauna.

I have a recollection of TV footage from her adventures showing a pregnant woman who had been working in the field, squatting at the edge of field and gives birth to a baby pretty much like a cow drops a calf. And the mother stands and walks away with her baby.

Japan's steamy jungles

In the meantime, panty bandits, morning shampooers, and other forms of advanced civilization are evolving with impunity in Japan's steamy urban jungles -- among a population that, for the most part, is totally insulated from art of slaughtering domestic animals or poultry, dressing wild game, even cleaning fish.



  1. Shukan asahi, 31 August 1990, pp. 168-169.
  2. Sekino Yoshiharu.
  3. Peter Hadfield, "Indian Speaks For Brazilian Forests," The Daily Yomiuri, 19 September 1989, p. 7.
  4. Sam Seibert with Michael Kepp, "Mighter Than the War Club (The Amazonian Indians' newest weapon -- video)," Newsweek (Asia edition), 23 July 1990, p. 32.
  5. Hoshino Tomoko, Dakuryu ni notte (Yokubo no taiga Amazon), Tokyo: Zenkoku Asahi Hoso (Terebi Asahi), 1990.