Elevate Difference

The Japanese Wife

Here’s what I can muster for Aparna Sen’s film The Japanese Wife: I still don’t quite get it.

The Japanese Wife is not as simple as Madame Butterfly, but I think a similar analysis applies. This film was odd. The story is about this awkward (poor!) Bengali school teacher who is lifelong pen pals with an equally socially obtuse (relatively poor) Japanese woman. Neither of them speak English as a first language, yet they communicate, fall in love, get married, and live their lives (separately) through letters. There was no miscegenation happening.

Now what is the term for sub-empires orientalizing other sub-empires?

Every time Miyage, the Japanese Wife character, spoke there would be this ever so delicate music wafting in (gongs!) and all of a sudden, as if it were the elusive groundhog itself, would come her voice. Her tiiiiiny, high-pitched, broken-English voice. I have nightmares about this voice. Exotic yes, feminine definitely, little Miyage. Flutter flutter. "Miyage" to my knowledge, is a Japanese surname, not a first name. Miss!

A lot of The Japanese Wife was by the book. Like Snehamoy (the husband) being seen as a “race”-traitor/Japan-lover, so the plot line included the exotic Asian woman captivating Snehamoy enough for him to shun Indian women, specifically Sandhya (Raima Sen’s character), the beautiful young widow who (due to unfortunate circumstances) moves in with Snehamoy and his aunt. It’s best shown in a scene that takes on nationalistic proportions, where Snehamoy represents Japan in a village kite battle against the ultra-Indian kite team manned by the local teenage boys of Snehamoy's village.

So I figure, like the timing of M. Butterfly, Incredible !ndia, too, is going through major cultural-economic shifts. I mean look at the March Nuclear Agreement; thanks to the Obama Administration, India’s ascendancy as a "sub-empire" is firmly in place. Clearly Incredible !ndia’s capitalist growth and emerging status as world economic power (8.2% growth according to Asian Development Bank in 2010) is a discursive force in itself.

New India should exercise its growing machismo and brand its own Orientalism. But that’s not it! Bengali men are not exactly the epitome of machismo. Neither does India share in the post-WWII relations between the U.S. and Japan. India is expanding and the wave it’s expanding on is producing, circulating, and reinventing cultural practices and relations. So, it’s not as simple as saying that this example of fetishizing Japanese women is some sort of inherited or weird mimesis of nation-buildings past.

In a sense (and I feel like I’m sidestepping history, power, labour, etc.), the idea of the gaze is flexible. And employed by Indians. Just watch The Japanese Wife. Or Chandni Chowk to China. Or the host of new Indian films featuring ethnically Asian characters.

Now the celibacy of Miyage and Snehamoy remains. Maybe Sen really is a genius and made it easy for us to see the symbolism in Snehamoy’s celibacy as a way of describing a postcolonial nation-in-process. Clearly India is not Empire-proper. Indian men are still symbolically emasculated, same as U.S. hegemony still exists. Or I mean, shoot, it really is all about miscegenation. And Indians are not ready for transnational-transracial love like this. You’ve got to preserve some Brahmin in there.


Written by: Nafisa Ferdous, June 11th 2010