Roland Barthes shares his experiences in Japan
There are prominent English-language books about China, including “The Good Earth” by Pearl Buck, “Wild Swans” by Jung Chang, and “Red Star Over China” by Edgar Snow.
About Japan, there are “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” by Ruth Benedict and “Empire of Signs” by Roland Barthes.
Are there readable English-language books about Korea? “Song of Arirang” by Nym Wales, the wife of Edgar Snow, and “The Origins of the Korean War” by Bruce Cumings, come to mind.
But the former is about a Korean revolutionary who left colonized Korea as a teenager and fight against Japanese imperialism together with Chinese communists. Hence, the memoir’s background is mostly China.
And the latter is about the country’s most tragic history of the three-year war between 1950 and 1953, which killed almost 5 million people, with more than half of them being civilians.
In a nutshell, Korea does not have a representative book, which tells good stories about the country’s history or people in English, unlikely its neighbors of China or Japan.
In this sense, Japan is enviable as it has “Empire of Signs” authored by renowned French philosopher Barthes, one of the most outstanding names in post-war structuralism.
In his 1970 book, Barthes mediates on the culture, art, literature, iconography, and language of Japan based on his visits to the nation in 1966, 1967, and 1968.
The left-wing intellectual in his early 50s fell in love with Japan to write multiple chapters, each one dedicated to detail. They are chopsticks, pachinko, bowing, Japanese language, and literature, to name but a few.
“The harmony between Oriental food and chopsticks cannot be merely functional, instrumental; the foodstuffs are cut up so they can be grasped by the sticks, but also the chopsticks exist because the foodstuffs are cut into small pieces; one and the same movement, one and the same form transcends the substance and its utensil: division,” the book reads.
Book and movie
The French title of the book is “L’Empire des Signes.” Six years after its publication, France and Japan cooperated to make a pornographic art film whose French title is “L’Empire des Sens.” The title is taken from the book.
The movie’s English title is “In the Realm of the Senses,” and the Japanese one is “Bullfight of Love.” The Korean importer of the controversial film translated the French title.
Hence, some Korean critics said that the movie is designed to criticize imperialism by focusing on passionate love. But they seem to misinterpret its title, which has nothing to do with imperialism.
It’s an homage to Barthes’ book. Piquing curiosity is how Barthes evaluated the Franco-Japanese movie directed by Nagisa Oshima. Because Barthes died in 1980, the chances are that he watched the movie, whose title was named after his book.
Regrettably, however, Google fails to find his commentaries.