Araceli Tinajero, Kokoro, una mexicana en Japón. Madrid: Verbum, 2012. 166 pp. ISBN 978-84-7962-711-9.


Our assumptions about cultural encounter tend to be global, rather than bilateral in scale. In other words, we talk about the East and the West, or Europe and Asia, but we do not, outside a specifically diplomatic context, talk about intercultural relations between two specific countries. We see much discussion of Japan and the West, but seldom on, say, Japan and France, Japan and Canada, Japan and Mexico. In US Latino/a studies, the idea of the borderlands between the US and Mexico has perhaps provided a precedent for an idea of bilateral interaction that is also critical. But critical analysis has tended to focus on the supranational over the national. When Asia is involved, there is often an assumption that the Asian country is the specific case whereas the Euro-American nation can be represented by an overarching umbrella. Exceptions might be made for superpowers like the US—there are certainly many books on the Japan-US relationship—but these books tend to assume the US is tantamount to the West. There is little consideration of how two discrete national spaces relate to each other.

In Kokoro, Araceli Tinajero gives us a feast of lush, incisive, and poignant writing. But she also meditates on precisely this sort of bilateral cultural relation, in this case, between Mexico and Japan. In the penultimate section of the book, “Mekishiko to Nihon,” Tinajero explicitly narrates some anecdotal indicators of this bilateral relationship. She cites the extended stay of the poet Efrén Rebolledo, the more ephemeral sojourn of Octavio Paz, and above all the thorough study of Japanese literature made by José Juan Tablada, who actually brought the haiku as a poetic form into Spanish. Also cited is the role of Mexico as a staging ground in the attempted Catholic conversion of Japan in the late 1500s, well known to readers of Shusaku Endo’s The Samurai. As Tinajero indicates, many Japanese writers have also explored Mexico. And Japanese culture and literature in general has become more popular in Latin America in the past decades.

With regard to Asia more broadly, Mexico was a transit point for the colonization of the Philippines in the 1500s, and the iconic figure of the china poblana shows the extent of the Asian influence in Mexico. But Tinajero’s focus is specifically on Japan. Tinajero demonstrates cultural engagement operating on both general and specific levels: from Mexico as a major importer of Japanese products in the 1970’s to Tablada’s use of specific Spanish words to approximate, but inevitably not match, their closest Japanese equivalents. There is a philological aspect to Kokoro, as Spanish-speaking readers gain a sense of the lexical and semantic properties of Japanese without having to make a serious attempt to actually master the language.

This Mexico-Japan chapter sets the tone of the book. First of all, Tinajero, as both a creative writer and a scholar, feels the exuberance of creation but also the responsibility of notation. In depicting Japan, she is at pains to pay tribute to the Mexicans who have gone before her (with a nod to one contemporary, Juan Villoro, who has written amusingly of Japanese foibles). This provides transparency about the process, letting readers know of books Tinajero no doubt read on her way to writing this one. Usually this sort of “literature review” would be found at the beginning or end of a project. Here, it is placed in a strategic position of second-to-last. We cannot navigate around it, ignore it, or see it as only supplementary material.

This illustrates the book’s renunciation of any authoritarian narrative drive, and prevents Kokoro from becoming an official academic treatise on the subject (which it does not seek to be). But there are compensatory benefits. Though more unified than a mere collection of feuilletons or sketches, there is no overall hierarchy. One could see this as “Japanese” rather than “Western”, even as Tinajero questions both those sorts of binary oppositions, as well as our very ability to predicate “what is Japanese”. Nor is the identity of the “Mexican” essentially grounded.

In a chapter on the Japanese obsession with sumo and baseball, Tinajero analyzes the ironies of Japan being obsessed with the highly Japanese sport of sumo wrestling and the highly American sport of baseball, all the while showing only moderate avidity for the worldwide sport of soccer. This reveals both Japan's interaction with the world and its adamant distinctness. With all the influence of popular culture and modernity—as signified by baseball and karaoke—Japan remains somehow different from the West. Even without essentialism, there are boundaries to be traversed. Cultural encounter adds something to experience, does not just reproduce what is already known.

The book also tacitly redefines the Pacific Rim to include the Portuguese --and Spanish--speaking world, so often excluded from such conceptions, but which recent work --on the Philippines, Timor Leste, Macao, the Pacific archipelagoes ruled by Spain pre-1898, the Australian-Latin American relationship, and Asian-Latin American literature-- has done much to ameliorate. The new ingredients that Kokoro injects into the cultural mix shake up our sense of the set of terms that comprise “East” and “West”. They are another indicator of transcultural awareness that, in the past, various purisms kept cordoned off.  Tinajero makes what had previously been a parochially bilateral Japan-Mexico relationship into a more provocatively transcultural one. She does this, though, without jettisoning the valuable specificity of the bilateral and lapsing back into the diffuse generalities of the global.

Kokoro possesses an academic integrity about its sources and preconditions. But it also maintains an observer’s discernment of nuance and detail. The Sabetsu section takes up another sort of discernment, in the sense of “discrimination,” which this term signifies in Japanese. Here we are not speaking of pleasing refinement in aesthetic terms, as seen in Kokoro in the lovingly rendered “Ikebana” chapter about flower-arranging: but social discrimination, mistreatment of outcasts. Though the narrator notes that the situation of those less well off improved during the time she spent in Japan, she suggests that beggars and stray dogs can be victims of sabetsu. Furthermore, she likens the discrimination against Koreans to that against Mexicans in the US, and compares the two relationships as cognate ones of uneasy neighborliness. For all the delight Kokoro takes in Japan and its idiosyncrasies, its view is not utopian. The more negative side of Japanese life is fully related, as are areas such as shiatsu therapy that are viewed more positively. The Karaoke chapter, where Tinajero translates Japanese karaoke lyrics into Spanish is hilarious. “Gin gira gin ne sarigenaku” is translated as “Deslumbrado suavecito.” In English would this be rendered as “killing me softly with his song?”.

Thus, even as compared to fairly recent and hip Westerners-in-Japan books, such as the Canadian writer Sarah Sheard’s Almost Japanese (1985) and the Belgian novelist Amélie Nothomb’s Stupeur et tremblements (1998), Kokoro is materially grounded. We are a far cry from old-fashioned Orientalism of the sort that characterized even such empathetic observers as Lafcadio Hearn, who, as Roberto González Echevarria has noted, also wrote a book called Kokoro (“heart” in Japanese, or as close to it as the translation can come.) Hearn assumed he could convey, to use his subtitle, “Japanese inner life.” The only inner life that this book feels confident narrating is the narrators own. But this does not mean the book suffers from clinical distance or post-Saidian timidity about representing the Other.   

There is an emotional confidence, a full-fledged, robust quality, which energizes Kokoro. As the very title signifies, Tinajero's book also possesses an intense lyricism, a passionate yearning. There is no cultural mystification in Kokoro.

The narrative point of view shows a fascination with and longing for Japan. But it suggests that no matter how Japanese it might wish to become, it can never quite get there. There is a sense that desire and object can never converge. This though is not cause for defeat, but celebration. Indeed, the more substantial the book gets --as the narrator is hospitalized, looks for a job, observes the beggars and manual laborers that are hardly part of tourist brochures-- the more the language is lyrical, eloquent, and filled with both desire and loss. The tone of Kokoro, its non-essentialist lyricism, reminded me of the French novelist J. M. G. Le Clézio, who writes as a Westerner about non-Western lands, in a celebratory way which is not imperialist, but instead takes delight in the very possibility of cultural contact, however contingent. Cultural barriers are not, for both Le Clézio and Tinajero, cause for defeat but a realization that hybridity or transculturation produce emotional consequences. There can be a visionary cross-cultural search that is not essentialist, not mystified. In turn, transculturation can be rescued from the corporate capitalist maw. The Nobel Prize committee’s citation for Le Clézio, stating that he is “the author of new departures, poetic adventures and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond or below the reigning civilization” could apply, in a minor key, to this book as well. Kokoro is fun to read as an offbeat travelogue. But, more importantly, it redefines the very terms in which we think about cultural dialogue.

Nicholas Birns

Eugene Lang College, the New School