So I saw The Last Samurai the other day—the Tom Cruise movie. It’s basically Dances with Wolves, but in Japan. And set about five or ten years later, I guess. (As an aside, I’ve read several different theories as to why so many Hollywood movies are set in that time period, and none seems to really adequately explain it. But that’s something for another time.)
    Anyway, there’s this one point in the movie where Cruise’s character describing the Japanese village and he says (I’m paraphrasing) something like, “There’s something very spiritual about this place.” Now, like a lot of people, I think that comment is offensive. Westerners have a long, bad habit of ascribing spritualism to Eastern (and Native American, for that matter) cultures and people. And it’s not harmless—these depictions inform the way that we in the West view the lives and actions of non-EuroAmericans. And whether you’re talking about relations at the interpersonal level or at the international level, interpretation plays a larger role than we generally like to admit.
    We are often trying to decipher the statements and actions of people we don’t know well, and sometimes a great deal hangs in the balance. Given our recent penchant to invade other countries militarily, one might even say that it’s a matter of life and death. And on what basis do we interpret those statements and actions?

So there’s that. But here’s the thing: I am not at all surprised by those kinds of comments. I think Cruise’s character likely would have had that reaction to a Japanese village. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Westerners—and Americans in particular—are very likely to see spiritualism in most foreign cultures. Why? Because there is so little of it in our own.
    Two of America’s overarching concepts are the supremacy of logic and the purity of individual self-determination. We are a nation where Aristotle meets Horatio Alger, and we don’t leave much room in our philosophy for any supreme being—nor even for any real sense of transcendency. This is lacking in our culture, and it is only natural that we would be acutely aware of it when we encounter even the slightest bit of spirituality in other cultures.
    I’m not excusing, or even apologizing for, The Last Samurai. There is harm in that kind of orientalism, and I am bothered by it. But I can see where it comes from, I guess.

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