The Emperor Has No Clothes Ritual

In ‘Expect to be Lied to in Japan‘ (New York Review of Books, 8 November 2012), Ian Buruma writes:

I decided to go on a little trip to Matsushima this summer because I had never seen this particular “Great View,” even though I had in fact been there once before, in 1975. Then, too, I set out from the harbor in a boat filled with fellow tourists—all from Japan. As we took a leisurely cruise into the bay, a charming guide gave us a running commentary on the islands we were supposed to be gazing at, their peculiar shapes, names, and histories. The problem was that no matter how keenly we craned our necks in the directions indicated by the guide, we could not see a thing; we were in the midst of a thick fog. But this did not stop the guide from pointing out the many beauties, or us from peering into the milky void.

It was a puzzling experience. My familiarity with Japan was still limited. I didn’t quite know how to interpret this charade. Why were we pretending to see something we couldn’t? What did the guide think she was doing? Was this an illustration of the famous dichotomy that guidebooks say is typical of the Japanese character, between honne and tatemae, private desires and the public façade, official reality and personal feelings? Or was it the rigidity of a system that could not be diverted once it was set in motion? Or was the tourists’ pretense just a polite way of showing respect to a guide doing her job?

I still don’t really know. But since then I have seen other instances of Japanese conforming in public to views of reality that they must have known perfectly well were false, to protect “public order,” or to “save face.” Japan is a country where the emperor is rarely seen naked.

The collective participation in an ‘emperor has no clothes‘ ritual is always fascinating to observe: the collective pretense and participation in make-believe, so seemingly irrational on the surface, but which in fact might be an entirely rational response to the perceived threat of a loss even greater than that necessitated by the temporary suspension of disbelief.

Its most interesting current variant might be the responses to works of art that are clearly felt to be too inaccessible by those that interact with them. Here, a group of ‘consumers’ come face to face with an artwork–perhaps a musical composition, perhaps a painting–that is intractable. But no one is willing to admit their lack of comprehension, their distaste for its rendering, their reluctance to submit to its demands. So the mask is slipped on; quiet, polite, murmurs of appreciation emanate; to say much more would be to admit ignorance, to request admission into philistinism; better then, to move on, maintaining the facade of knowledgeable understanding, or if not that, then at least, not active dislike.  The active bullshitter adds his own distinctive flourish to this collective act; loud exclamations of sensitive, nuanced, yet entirely misplaced, insight emanate, which would invite ridicule were it not for the fact that they would break the collective spell.

It seems to me to be a worthwhile venture for some budding social scientist to investigate the phenomenology of participants in such rituals where every participant is aware of the his own inauthenticity and that of the others, but still feels compelled to maintain the charade. What is the felt experience of the cognitive dissonance, the strain of the maintenance of such public artifice?

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