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  • Water under the BridgeUnsettling the Concept of Bridging Cultures in Yoko Tawada’s Writing

Within the context of ideas about bridging cultures, the article analyzes how Tawada’s use of bridges and in-between spaces in the short story “In Front of Trang Tien Bridge” and in selected essays reveals novel ways of imagining intercultural convergences. These new ways point in unexpected directions that make connection and exchange a never-ending process, one that can lead as easily into solipsism as into dialogue. The story uses the setting of Vietnam to complicate the function of the in-between space while also undermining East-West dualisms. It addresses the ongoing effects of colonialism and war linking Japan, Germany, and Vietnam.


Yoko Tawada, “In Front of Trang Tien Bridge”, bridging cultures, in-between spaces, third space, transcultural, Germany-Japan-Vietnam

The phrase “a bridge between cultures” is ubiquitous in references to efforts to increase intercultural understanding by providing an opportunity to bring people together.1 However, this concept of bridging cultures supports the notion of distinct cultures in need of some kind of stable entity to open communication between them, rather than recognizing the constantly shifting contours between and within cultures. The image of a bridge also deflects attention away from the areas that it spans. The goal of crossing from one defined place to another makes lingering in the spaces in between seem undesirable or of little consequence. This neglect, through the use of the bridge [End Page 44] metaphor, of the in-between, the interstitial, or what post-colonialist scholars designate as the “third space,” can end up hindering intercultural understanding. Writer Yoko Tawada, a contemporary poet, novelist, dramatist, and essayist who lives in Berlin and writes in German and Japanese, is among those who find the bridge metaphor inadequate for representing transcultural encounters. In her review of a collection of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s essays about Japan she explains, “Es gab Zeiten, in denen man ‘Brücke’ als Metapher für eine gelungene Kulturvermittlung benutzte. Heute kann man die Kulturen nicht mehr als feste Ufer verstehen, und daher kann man sie nicht mehr durch ein unbewegliches Bauwerk miteinander verbinden” (There were times in which one used “bridge” as a metaphor for successful cultural communication. Today, one can no longer understand cultures as firm shores, and thus one cannot connect them any more with an immovable structure [Tawada, “Von alten Hasen”]). Tawada’s texts focus instead on the fluid spaces between shores or under bridges, spaces that in her writing allude to multiple ways of experiencing and understanding cultures, and these spaces in turn reveal the indeterminate nature of the supposedly monolithic cultures that border them. Indeed, Tawada contends the shores on either side of a bridge are provisional sites that function primarily to make visible the intermedial nature of the water between them: “Doch dies sind keine Grenzen, sie existieren nicht um etwas zu überschreiten oder festzulegen” (Yet these are not borders, they do not exist in order to traverse or to define something [Gutjahr, “Gespräch” 44]). The dynamics of moving from one condition or mode of perception to another within ever-changing borders makes lingering in the Zwischenraum (in-between space) in Tawada’s texts much more productive than crossing any borders, which would imply leaving the limitless possibilities of the uncertain and settling for the constraints of definite meaning (Surana 337). Nevertheless, her writings radically question the privileging of the “between” as a site of potential resolution, which links them to reassessments of this concept by other intellectuals (e.g., Adelson, Schulze-Engler, Lossau, Şenocak).

A key example of Tawada’s contribution to this reassessment is her use of the bridge metaphor in her fiction and essays. Bridges in Tawada’s writing at first seem to represent pathways to different cultural perspectives that can provoke interpersonal dialogue, but upon closer scrutiny, they serve to complicate in unexpected ways efforts to communicate and to deflect attention onto the spaces they are supposedly spanning. Yet these spaces, too, are not what they seem. Tawada’s focus on the Zwischenraum evokes allusions to concepts of the third space, as Homi Bhabha conceives of it,2 but her imaginative explorations of this space also question its liberatory potential. Within the context of ideas about bridging cultures, this article will analyze how Tawada’s unorthodox use of bridges and fluid in-between spaces in the [End Page 45] short story “In Front of Trang Tien Bridge” (2000, originally in Japanese, then translated into English) and in selected essays reveals novel ways of imagining intercultural convergences and how these affect subjectivity. It will first address ideas about the “between” to which her writings contribute. It will then explore how Tawada’s story dismantles the notion of bridging cultures by blurring the status of the space between. The analysis will focus on the paths the narrative’s protagonist takes to move from a position uneasily suspended between two ostensibly different cultures to a mutating position in an expanding space that confuses difference and sameness.

On the one hand, the concept of the third space seems to offer the possibility of a neutral site for negotiating among different ways of thinking and for testing new subject positions. In Bhabha’s words, “The third space is a challenge to the limits of the self in the act of reaching out to what is liminal in the historic experience, and in the cultural representation, of other peoples, times, languages, texts” (“Cave” xiii). He refers especially to the power of this space to enable those in formerly colonized parts of the world to resist the dominance of Western discourses of power by creating more differentiated identity constructs. The third space privileges the untranslatable, the ungraspable, in Bhabha’s view. Precisely this situation prompts those in the third space to reflect on conventional frames of reference, to entertain different possibilities of meaning, Bhabha argues, and to “reach . . . out to the specific thought of the other and grappl[e] with what is not entirely intelligible within it” (“Cave” xiii). He compares this process of simultaneously trying to grasp the ungraspable to that of holding a thought in synchrony with others without it being the exact same thought, as members of a chorus hold a note in common, but it sounds different to each one. As Bhabha asserts, “vibrating beyond the control of any one voice, is the timbre of translation working its way into our thinking” (“Cave” ix). The third space offers a site for working through cultural differences without erasing them. Tawada’s writing builds on these ideas by stressing the “Vielheit ohne Einheit” (multiplicity without unity [Maurer 330]) of the in-between space.3

Critics praise Yoko Tawada for her creative explorations of language and culture. They focus on how she presents being foreign as a process that transforms perceptions, whether she is writing about a Vietnamese character escaping from Germany to Paris only to become addicted to films starring Catherine Deneuve or a Japanese tourist trying to appreciate nutcrackers in Rothenburg ob der Tauber.4 Her humorous, surreal plots and wordplays emphasize the strangeness of language, especially German. Her writing also criticizes dualistic and Eurocentric ways of thinking by employing, for example, a pseudo-Japanese perspective to deconstruct conventional concepts of Japan and of Europe.5 In her words, “Das ist der Versuch der fiktiven [End Page 46] Ethnologie, in der nicht das Beschriebene, sondern der Beschreibende fiktiv ist” (That is the attempt of fictive ethnology, in which not the described but the one describing is fictive [Tawada, “Erzähler” 24]). The deracinated characters in her stories often express their disorientation in the situation of being foreign as an inability to comprehend meaning through hyperliteral translation,6 such as misunderstanding the German word Brezel as B-rätsel (“Rothenburg ob der Tauber” 29). An individual word can become an enigmatic symbol of intercultural encounters that can both perplex and provoke unconventional insights. Tawada’s characters’ misreadings of cultural and linguistic conventions produce a multiplicity of perspectives that challenge binary models of cultural difference, for there is no stable cultural perspective from which they can judge others. Borders, thresholds, and other liminal images recur in Tawada’s fiction and essays as tropes for ways of thinking that lead in many directions, such as the author’s discovery of the recurring ideogram for Tor (gateway) in Japanese translations of Celan’s poetry (Tawada, “Tor”) and the unexpected associations it prompts. These ways of thinking can confound attempts simply to bridge cultural differences. Tawada’s texts create, as Kathrin Maurer explains, “eine Form von Transkulturalität, die nicht aus Vermittlung verschiedener Kulturen hervorgeht, sondern sich aus einem eigenen Zwischenraum konstituiert” (a form of the transcultural, which does not emerge from the transmission of different cultures but is constituted from its own in-between space [Maurer 328]). Liminal images allude to this confusion and merge with the in-between or third spaces that predominate as settings in Tawada’s works.

Karin Ikas, Gerhard Wagner, and Frank Schulze-Engler are among a group of scholars who have expanded the framing of the third space to encompass other sites, geographical as well as cultural and literary, indeed any location where “a dominant definition of identity is challenged by another one” (Ikas/Wagner 7; see also Schulze-Engler 153; 166). Yet, as Julia Lossau contends, such emphasis on the transformative power of the third space runs the danger of reifying it “into a bounded space which is located next to (or, more precisely) in-between other bounded spaces, like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle” (Lossau 70). The third space risks becoming homogenized and fixed like the other spaces that it borders. To counter this tendency Lossau calls for critical reflection on how spatial metaphors are deployed in articulating this space, so that any new positions created are clearly presented as being as invented as the fixed positions they criticize. In a similar vein, Leslie Adelson explains that the notion of being “between two worlds” implies the “worlds remain stable while unstable migrants are uncertainly suspended between them” (Turkish Turn 4). Tawada’s writing reworks these concepts in the realm of literature, particularly in her texts that play with bridge and water metaphors. [End Page 47]

Tawada combines poetic and narrative aspects, as well as fantastic and realistic elements,7 to expand on and test ideas about the in-between. Her writings also reject teleological impulses in favor of innumerable changes of course, often by making her central characters foreigners or tourists who end up in alienating places. In contrast to Tawada’s stories about encounters in the West among pseudo-Japanese characters and westerners, the story “In Front of Trang Tien Bridge” uses the setting of Vietnam to complicate the function of the in-between space while also undermining East-West dualisms. The story is more historically grounded than many of Tawada’s writings about disoriented Japanese-like characters in German settings. Translated from the Japanese, it addresses in concentrated form the ongoing effects of colonialism and war that Tawada explores from a different perspective in her novel Das nackte Auge (2004, translated from the German as The Naked Eye, 2009), about a Vietnamese woman stuck in Paris without a passport and addicted to the films of Catherine Deneuve. In “In Front of Trang Tien Bridge” a Japanese woman living in Berlin receives an unexpected invitation to meet someone she barely knows in Hué, the former capital of Vietnam, near the border between the northern and southern parts of the country. Her resulting trip to Vietnam to meet this person and the person’s friend, who supposedly resembles the narrator, never reaches its destination. Escaping for a while the native/foreigner dichotomy underlying her interactions with Berliners, the main character undergoes a number of experiences in different places in Vietnam and ends up on a bus headed towards the bridge to Hué and filled with characters who look and speak like her. The story ends before they reach the bridge. They are enveloped in fog and stuck on the Hai Van Pass, which leads to the bridge. The setting of Vietnam derives its in-between status from its connections to both Asian and European cultures as well as from the links of all of these to global consumer culture and to a legacy of violent intrusion, a legacy completely opposite to the idea of bridging cultures.8 As the narrative progresses, this status starts to disintegrate.

The bridge in this story seems to have a limiting function because the main character never crosses it to leave the Vietnamese space she has entered. Margaret Mitsutani, who translated “In Front of Trang Tien Bridge” and two other of Tawada’s stories into English, in the collection Facing the Bridge, states in her afterward that she selected the collection’s title because Tawada “chooses to face the bridge, to stare it down, perhaps refusing to cross” (176). She finds that Tawada is more interested in “the spaces in between that are hidden by conventional bridges including official channels of communication” (176). Mitsutani asserts that Tawada “seeks to create a new kind of bridge—not as a structure built of stone or concrete, but as a physical process, a continuing dance” (176). The interpersonal and intercultural connections [End Page 48] or disconnections Tawada’s main character experiences as she nears the Trang Tien Bridge expand on ideas about the bridge metaphor that Tawada addresses in other writings.

For instance, in the essay “Ich wollte keine Brücken schlagen,” Tawada rejects the German notion “eine Brücke schlagen” (to strike a bridge) as implying a forced bond, which she compares to hyphenated terms of cultural identity, such as German-French. Such an artificial linkage of two groups cannot, in her view, magically transform into a third group. She focuses instead on the river under the bridge as a site for interconnections. The bridge metaphor cedes to an already existing in-between space, but this watery space cannot be fixed within definite borders. Tawada plays with language to support her notion of unbridgeable cultural fluidity. For instance, she claims that even the word Brücke is susceptible to slippage by appearing in her mind as Blücke when she tries to pronounce it, thereby changing a word that means “connection” into a nonsense word that sounds like Blicke (gazes). And gazes may or may not be reciprocal. Tawada proceeds to assert that looking for the meaning of a word is like viewing a gap under a bridge, where a river is moving slowly and where people discuss various ways of crossing or not crossing the water, conjuring up a variety of images for the gap: “Einer schwimmt im Wasser, ein zweiter baut ein Boot, und ein dritter sitzt am Ufer und wartet auf Regen” (65) (One swims in the water, another builds a boat, a third sits on the shore and waits for rain [Tawada, “I Did Not Want” 416]). Those gazing at the place under the bridge forge different kinds of meanings to make sense of the same view. Tawada’s suggestion that these gazes might form links to other gazes is analogous to Bhabha’s assertion of the “side-by-side synchrony of different voices” all holding the same thought but each perceiving it differently (Bhabha, “Cave” ix). Tawada partially resurrects the bridge concept by offering the possibility that it can emerge from a set of common gazes, although they may or may not focus in the same direction. She wonders, “Wer kann einen Blick werfen, der die Form eines Bogens hat? Brücken aus Blickbögen erreichen vielleicht das andere Ufer” (65) (Whose gaze can take the shape of an arc? Bridges made of arched gazes may reach the other shore [Tawada, “I Did Not Want” 416]). Shifting perceptions can thus create symbolic but impermanent bridges, which may not reach anything solid at all.

Yet this shaky structure is, for Tawada, more conducive to initiating transcultural connections. It calls attention to its own flimsy construction as much as it challenges the legitimacy of fixed notions of any cultural identities. The water the bridge spans evokes the constantly changing nature of the space under the bridge, a space, however, where things can change shape but nothing disappears. In Tawada’s words, “Die Finger des Wassers berühren alles, was in die Nähe kommt: Sommerluft, Zigarettenkippen, Fische und die Erde [End Page 49] am Ufer. Die Erde hat keine Angst vor dem Wasser. In dieser Stille wird kein Element durch eine Berührung gelöscht” (65–66) (The fingers of the water touch everything that comes near: summer air, cigarette butts, fish, and the soil on the shore. The soil has no fear of the water. In this silence, no element is dissolved by touch” [Tawada, “I Did Not Want” 416]). This watery border site is productive in its own right, rather than just preparing those who enter it to transgress it. This space is tangible, historically situated, and touches the thoughts of those within it, with unpredictable consequences.9 The bridge recedes into the background.10

In Tawada’s texts attempting to maneuver between cultures can open so many possible connections already at play within them that any aim of neatly bridging them fails. Her characters seldom arrive at their destination as they negotiate new contexts. Tawada thus prefers to imagine the self as a net or a web, leading in all directions and confusing borders and gaps. In her essay “Writing in the Web of Words” (“Schreiben im Netz der Sprache”) she explains how it feels to be immersed in a different language and culture, “The structure of a web gets denser when new traits are incorporated. In this way, a new pattern is formed. There are more and more knots, tight and loose spots, irregularities, uncompleted corners, edges, holes, or superimposed layers” (148). Such unstable subject positions prompt closer reflection on notions of cultural identity, as in “In Front of Trang Tien Bridge.” While this narrative demonstrates the impossibility of completely distinct cultures, it also rejects a flattening of cultures into one global world culture. Instead, it highlights historical, political, and religious obstacles to intercultural understanding, obstacles that also can reveal unexpected cultural linkages. It represents a turn towards the political in Tawada’s narratives set mainly outside of Germany, such as Überseezungen (2002), Das nackte Auge, and Schwager in Bordeaux (2008).11

Minamiyama Kazuko, the main character, seems caught in a web of stereotypes as she travels from Berlin via Paris to Vietnam, a place where she tries to free herself, by assuming the displaced persona of a tourist, both from the pan-Asian identity forced on her in Germany by the Germans with whom she interacts and from a narrow type of Japanese identity promulgated by the Japanese immigrant community. In Berlin, for example, Kazuko reads in a Japanese-language newspaper advice on how to avoid being taken for Vietnamese. She reads that the best way for Japanese women to pass as acceptable in Germany is to wear lots of jewelry and carry brand-name handbags and that the men should wear glasses and neckties (54–55). Such an overt connection to globalized consumer culture is supposed to override any physical differences that may make Japanese people suspect to German xenophobes, as seems to be the case with the poorer Vietnamese immigrants. [End Page 50] The costumes that the Japanese community is suggesting for its members will not change their basic identity as “Japanese,” however, as the metaphor of the inside-out sushi roll (which a restaurant owner shows Kazuko) suggests. Like the notion of a stable self, the chewy rice on the outside protects the nori deep within, “so tough it seems like a will that can never be broken” (54–55). Kazuko struggles against such fixed concepts of what it means to be Japanese as much as she does against German views of Japanese and Vietnamese as culturally the same. Her trip to Vietnam is an attempt to flee the limited notions of “Japanese” imposed on her in Berlin and to partake in the illusion of some kind of unfettered form of identity, evoked by her memories of the Cham people’s struggle for independence in Vietnam. These notions leave her little room for developing different ideas of self, ideas that already appear in her imagination as alternative embodied responses to her encounters with others (such as her references to herself as Ms. A, B, C, etc.). Even by purchasing a ticket to Vietnam from a German travel agent she links herself in the eyes of the agent with the pan-Asian identity she rejects. Yet, she cannot admit that she is Japanese; she can only explain that she is not Vietnamese. As Kazuko muses, “How could she claim to be Japanese when she wasn’t wearing a single piece of jewelry or even carrying a brand-name handbag?” (57). Her best German friend, moreover, incapable of imagining a Japanese tourist in another Asian country, cannot understand how she could travel to Vietnam without visiting Japan. Frustrated with pressures to embrace either a “Japanese” or an “Asian” identity in the supposedly cosmopolitan city of Berlin, Kazuko is ready to change locations.

A change of setting in Tawada’s texts promises to provoke alternative ways of imagining identities and affiliations and to avoid being caught in dichotomies.12 As she explains,

Auch ich suche stets nach neuen Orten. Wenn die Leser anfangen zu glauben, in meinen Texten den japanischen Blick auf Europa finden zu können, fühle ich mich wie zurückgestoßen und eingesperrt in einer Zelle namens Herkunft. . . . Um mich aus der Gewalt der Dichotomie Ost/West zu befreien, suche ich nach einem anderen Schauplatz in Russland, in Sibirien, in New York oder woanders.

[I also am constantly seeking new places. Whenever readers begin to believe they can find in my texts the Japanese gaze on Europe, I feel rebuffed and imprisoned in a cell named heritage. In order to free myself from the force of the East/West dichotomy, I search for another setting in Russia, Siberia, New York, or someplace else.]

Vietnam figures as a displaced site for pondering cultural difference, as a space where characters and the narration move in ever-changing directions [End Page 51] and as a site where Asian, European, and North American cultures blur. The story is ostensibly about Kazuko’s visit to meet an acquaintance, but the trip’s goal becomes irrelevant. Instead, the chance encounters become the primary focus, and they lead to a variety of interconnections and reflections on identity and memory in the third space of the Vietnamese setting. In a scene that evokes Tawada’s description in her bridge essay of characters mingling under a bridge and discussing idly ways of crossing or not crossing the water, Kazuko, gazing at a Vietnamese boy cycling idly by while reading a book and wobbling between parked cars and rice paddies, muses, “since time spent in between places is a part of life, too, reaching one’s destination isn’t necessarily the most important thing” (79). This insight occurs as Kazuko becomes aware of the heterogeneity of Vietnamese society, for example, in the variety of worshippers she witnesses in a Buddhist pagoda and in the Cao Dai Temple, dedicated to a religion with roots in “Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, blended with the thought of Victor Hugo” (80). This awareness challenges the comfortable descriptions Kazuko reads in her guidebooks and which cause her to question her role as a distanced sightseer.

The narrative is not only about a displaced character in search of a place to develop without the pressures of prejudice. It also addresses the biases that the character carries with her into a supposedly neutral space, despite her efforts to remain at a distance, in her persona as a tourist. Kazuko realizes, for instance, in a scene about purchasing coconut milk from two Vietnamese girls, that she is assessing their age as a German would. The narrator explains, “It occurred to Kazuko that she might be seeing them through the same eyes as the people in Berlin who saw her and always thought she looked so young” (72). The internal contradictions of her supposedly objective tourist persona become more and more exposed as she interacts with the Vietnamese, as foreshadowed in a dream she has in Berlin that her body is spread open like a Turkish flatbread with parts of a rotting fish buried in it (57). This image of decay contrasts with that of the inside-out sushi roll, in which the tough seaweed at the center remains intact. The story connects a repugnance at the amalgamated immigrant identity she feels forced to embody in Berlin with a desire to be unaffiliated, like a tourist.

Her trek through Vietnam is also a search to interlink the disparate and disquieting aspects of her persona without embracing a nationalistic form of Japanese identity. The pull of historical memories complicates her vague experiences as a tourist, and these memories threaten to catch her in their web and expose her as “Japanese,” such as the “twisted sort of pride” she experiences in the War Museum when seeing a famous photograph by a Japanese photographer of an American war atrocity (74). Kazuko tries to counteract such sentiments by stressing her role as tourist. This role sets her in a perpetual [End Page 52] state of being figuratively between other cultures and gives the appearance that she can grasp another culture from without, as in the case of her reliance on a guidebook to explain Vietnamese culture. Yet whenever she consults her guidebook the unexpected occurs, such as Vietnamese running up to her and trying to persuade her to purchase postcards or coconuts from them. These encounters accentuate the artificiality of the cultural information contained in her guidebook because she experiences Vietnam as different from what she reads. Identifying her to the Vietnamese as a Japanese tourist in need of enlightenment and consumer goods, the guidebook pushes Kazuko to forsake her distanced, voyeuristic stance by connecting her to different characters, some of whom call her “Big Sis” as they sell her coconut milk to drink, thus penetrating her physically with a part of their world. Indeed, as Kazuko sips a coconut, she thinks “the milk inside felt like it flowed from her own heart” (67). The nickname, too, links her more closely to the Vietnamese than she had anticipated. As the third-person narrator explains, “Kazuko was embarrassed to be called Big Sis. Surely it wasn’t appropriate for this situation, she thought, but then again, what was wrong with it? And what exactly did they mean, anyway?” (69). The more Kazuko travels through the country, the more she gets caught up in a net of cultural connections between the Vietnamese and the Japanese, but these connections are much more specific than the undifferentiated notions that the Germans in Berlin have about Asians. The Vietnamese images of Japanese that Kazuko experiences, however, often have a militaristic dimension, reminding her of both of Japan’s history of aggression and the echoes of that history, such as in her memories of scissor-stepping marchers in Shinjuku (66).

A net or mesh can link but also constrict, as Kazuko learns while negotiating her way through the Cù Chi Tunnels of Ho Chi Minh City. The Vietcong used these tunnels during the war, and tourists can visit them now. Parts of the tunnels have been enlarged so that Western tourists can fit into them. After her experience of connection to the Vietnamese, emphasized by the label “Big Sis,” Kazuko concentrates on her difference from them because of her stature and fear of getting stuck in the narrow tunnels. She finds her body is closer to that of the Americans, whom Japan supported in the Vietnam War, and this association with the foes of the Vietnamese calls to mind Japan’s role as aggressor in WWII. While the Germans occupied parts of France from 1940–44, the Vichy French government allowed Japan, allied with Nazi Germany, to use ports, bases, and airfields in the French colony of Indochina to support Japan’s military operations in Southeast Asia. The Japanese eventually took control of Indochina, ending French colonial rule there in 1945. After the war, France regained colonial control of Indochina until 1954 (Havens 14–17; Spector 93–116). Kazuko’s new awareness of her [End Page 53] link to a violent cultural past opens up an aspect of her subjectivity that she has never confronted and connects her in uncomfortable ways to the Vietnamese she encounters in Vietnam as well as to those in Berlin, from whom she had long tried to distance herself in the hopes of avoiding neo-Nazi attacks. Her detached tourist persona clashes with the recognition of her Japanese heritage and how that heritage includes Japanese complicity in the deaths of countless Vietnamese during the Vietnam War and outright Japanese brutality against the Vietnamese during WWII. This convergence of different facets of Japanese-German-American-Vietnamese intercultural relations overwhelms her as she navigates one of the tunnels:

A dampness that was neither the tunnel wall nor her own skin clung to her like a fishnet and she could no longer move. It was a frigid numbness, a sense of loathing about to explode; it was her mistrust of everything around her. This clammy web she was caught in could not be real; if she chanted a magic spell it would surely disappear. But nothing came to mind. Not even “dark.” She was not trapped, she would eventually get out, she could go back as well as forward, she was not going to suffocate, she could not possibly die here. None of these reassurances had any effect. And then, by a route as yet unknown to Kazuko, two words materialized: “all right.” ALL RIGHT. The words were suddenly on her tongue then reached out to enshroud her shoulders and belly until her whole body was covered and the fishnet melted and disappeared.


The tunnels that connect Kazuko to past aggression involving Japan, the United States, and Vietnam have the potential to suffocate her psyche by catching her in a web of nationalistic thinking, but she dissolves their power over her through her unexpected use of language. As Doug Slaymaker notes, languages in Tawada’s writing recur as “witchy nets (mahō no ami), whose sometimes suffocating constriction can only be loosened with other words that have magical power to break the grip of the threads” (47). “All right” in the context of Kazuko’s position in the tunnels, in which she repeats the role of the Vietnamese in the war hiding from American attackers but is also reminded of the Japanese loss to the Americans in WWII as well as of the Japanese occupation of Indochina, suggests that she has distanced herself from the nationalistic Japanese identity to which she clung while visiting the War Museum and viewing the famous photograph by a Japanese photographer (74). Yet this feeling of relief deceives. Kazuko is still constrained by the stereotypes she has of others and of herself as both tourist and Japanese.

Her attachment to fixed ideas of ethnic and cultural identity is clearest in her interactions with the figure of James, a tall, blonde Japanese man, whom Kazuko mistakes for an American. Indeed, she asks him on more than one occasion why he speaks Japanese, and he must remind her at least four times [End Page 54] that he is Japanese (88, 91, 97, 99). He first appears outside the War Museum sick and in need of her help. As she travels and recalls events from her past that also link Japan to the Vietnam War, he reappears, always weak and in need of a wet towel to soothe him, and increasingly more desirable to Kazuko. Even after he informs her that he has been dead for twenty years she sticks with him and lets him penetrate her sexually after purchasing with him a pair of pink plastic raincoats, which they wear as their bodies start to disintegrate (102–3). James seems linked to a tradition of American-Japanese military cooperation informing Kazuko’s Japanese identity and interfering with her interactions with the Vietnamese. She is unable to escape this tradition despite her longing for a counter-tradition, linked in the narrative to her nostalgic support for an independent Champa. Champa will never return, James asserts (97). Yet, although the attraction of the nationalistic identity he embodies seems to strengthen as they later embrace, Kazuko refuses to open herself emotionally to the suffering such an identity caused during the war. Her stubborn refusal to reflect on all that James represents sets in motion a dispersal of the selves that she has been restraining.

Kazuko’s different selves are pulling apart by the end of the tale, and it is unclear what is on the inside to keep them together. She keeps seeing herself in the faces of the Vietnamese she meets, confounding her efforts to maintain her difference from them. The more she encounters others who do not correspond to her preconceived notions in the interstitial space of Vietnam, the more she splits apart, “but she was terribly worried that if all of her selves were to become hopelessly lost she would have no idea who would remain” (100). Thus her donning of the pink, plastic raincoat, analogous to skin or a mesh covering, as an effort to hold herself together in the strange world through which she travels. This “pale membrane” also links her to James like a twin (102), emphasizing a sameness she strives to ignore. It also contrasts with the metaphor of the inside-out sushi roll in Berlin. Kazuko’s skepticism of a stable center deep within becomes in the raincoat metaphor both a fear of dissolution and an attempt through that dissolution to evade the definite links between Japan’s past atrocities in Vietnam and her connection to them through her Japanese heritage, to evade any responsibility to remember them.

In an effort to take control of her selves by reaching a destination, Kazuko aims to reach the famous Trang Tien Bridge over the Perfume River in the old capital city of Hué. She moves towards Hué after leaving Da Nang on the coast, retracing the path the American military forces took in their 1968 battle with the Vietcong in the devastating battle of Hué. Kazuko is by now well aware of Japan’s support for the Americans during the Vietnam War. Implicating the Japanese in the Americans’ war with the former French colony complicates the West/East dualism in this symbolic space between Germany [End Page 55] and Japan. As Kazuko moves from tourist site to tourist site, more and more mindful of the Vietnam War, she tries to perceive differences between herself as a Japanese woman and the Vietnamese as well as between her desired identity as “a member of the tourist race” (56) and her Japanese heritage. Yet the closer Kazuko gets to the bridge, the more she sees herself reflected in those around her. Her efforts to remain detached fail the more she is touched by the legacy of the Vietnam War and Japan’s role in it until she loses her ability to function as an outsider in Vietnam, and can no longer see Vietnam distinctly, including the Hai Van Pass, which becomes shrouded in ocean mist as her bus heads toward the Trang Tien Bridge.13 Far from being “all right,” Kazuko becomes more and more confused as she hears one version of herself claim that she has finally come home while another states, “You’re Japanese and you know it.” (103). Yet another asserts, “The real tourists are the ones who think they’re the only ones who aren’t tourists” (104). Surrounded by characters who all look like her yet contradict each other, Kazuko is unable to depart from an interstitial space that seems to be constantly expanding, never reaching a border. The image of the bridge has thus changed in this tale from a stable exit out of a bounded space, where different cultures confront each other, to an illusion of the discrete separation of cultures and cultural identities. By the end of the narrative, Kazuko has difficulty in establishing whom she resembles and from whom she differs.

Bhabha stresses that the third space between the colonizing and colonized worlds is “a dialogical site—a moment of enunciation, identification, negotiation—that [is] suddenly divested of its mastery or sovereignty in the midst of a markedly asymmetrical and unequal engagement of forces” (“Cave” x). Both Bhabha and Tawada conceive of this space as a symbolic site where different modes of thinking and seeing come into contact. As Tawada shows, however, an in-between space is not always a dialogical site, and this space can entrap as much as it can liberate. Her main character is in conversation with herself, and while her stereotypes about the differences between Japanese and Vietnamese seem to dissolve, her resulting identification with all Vietnamese replaces a cultural mindset based on discrete differences with one of universalism. On the one hand, the trope of Vietnam as third space seems to juxtapose differences without offering a new framework for connecting (“Writing” 153). It evokes specters of Japan’s complicity in the Vietnam War next to images of Vietnamese dependence on global consumerism and tourism, including tourism from Japan. On the other, this juxtaposition occurs after the American-seeming Japanese ghost has touched Kazuko, so that both he and she are starting to burst out of the confines of the pink, plastic raincoat that were limiting their concepts of identity. Thus Kazuko’s search for uniqueness and difference from other Japanese and from Vietnamese has [End Page 56] brought her into intimate connection with aspects of her cultural past and with the untenability of her stereotypes. The different subject positions she has assumed in her mind all come pouring out to take possession of the characters around her, so that she sees only versions of herself on the bus. She ends up caught in this other place, unable to pass through to the bridge. The bridge’s invisibility challenges the in-betweenness of Kazuko’s situation, for there are no more perceivable borders. Her anxiety about being falsely categorized as Vietnamese by the Germans unleashes a probing of her own stereotypes about the Vietnamese, which in turn reveals how Vietnam is linked both to Japan and to Germany, and how part of her cultural identity is intertwined with that of the Vietnamese. By the end of the narrative she has confronted a more specific, historically grounded notion of her connections to the Vietnamese, arising from the emergence of certain aspects of her Japanese identity that she had ignored. Dealing with this new knowledge affects her sense of self, especially with the way it thwarts her efforts to see herself as unconnected to the Vietnamese, and opens up so many new ways of perceiving that Kazuko becomes blind in a different manner. Her encounters with the heterogeneity of Vietnamese culture hinder her from bridging differences, for the more she seeks to understand the Vietnamese, the more she sees only different reflections of herself. The uncanny other, James the Japanese ghost who seems American, pushes her out of her distanced perspective as perpetual tourist into a close-up view of her own heterogeneity—and the specificity of a tradition of antagonistic relations between Japan and Vietnam. In this in-between space without a bridge or visible border, she struggles to see that her idea of herself (as Japanese “tourist”) as separate from the Vietnamese arose only from the prejudices that informed her way of seeing and her ignorance of history. As one of her personae asserts, “Believing you can understand how someone else feels is sheer arrogance. You’re assuming that other people see the world within the limits of your own imagination” (104). Yet Kazuko’s last words in the narrative, “You’ve got it all wrong,” show that she remains stuck within her field of view.

In Tawada’s writings, in-between spaces offer sites of plural subject positions for anyone who becomes aware of them.14 Yet one can get lost in these in-between spaces, which expand to overrun their borders, as water flows onto shores. In Tawada’s works the “third” spaces under or next to bridges offer possibilities to change one’s perceptions, but these new ways of seeing point in unexpected directions that make connection and exchange a never-ending process, a process that can lead just as easily into solipsism as into dialogue. The in-between space she describes undoes concepts about cultural interchange by showing the provisionality of any notion of cultural identity. It serves instead as one of many “Beobachtungsräume,” as Kathrin Maurer argues, “in denen [End Page 57] sich Kultur, Sprache, Tradition und Rituale in immer neuen Konstellationen wiederfinden” (Spaces of observation, in which culture, language, tradition, and ritual find themselves again and again in new constellations [Maurer 330]). However, if Kazuko is supposed to function as a possibility for intercultural communication, as Maurer suggests about Tawada’s in-between characters, then she represents a failed opportunity, for the more she encounters others, the more she sees only herself reflected in them. Once she is in Vietnam each of Kazuko’s encounters confuses the neat generalities she has about differences between Japanese and Vietnamese until she can no longer see any differences between herself and the others, but this happens only after she is forced to view herself as connected to a Japanese culture that had a politically aggressive and exploitative relationship with Vietnam, and this insight also reveals connections to U.S. and European political history. Kazuko’s growing political awareness undermines her attempt to remain untouched by cultural differences.15 At the same time, the more she sees herself in the Vietnamese, the less she can take for granted her own “Japanese” culture and its connection to “Western” cultures, for she loses her ability to comprehend the Japanese language at the end of the story. She has exchanged her limited tourist identity for that of a mutating Japanese/Vietnamese character that is caught in the space where the histories of the two cultures merge and their contours blur. This travesty of identity also links to stereotypes of American and European culture, which permeate the consumer goods that surround Kazuko. Thus her efforts to escape German stereotypes about Asians result in a distorted confirmation and explosion of them. The vanishing bridge that demarcated a third space for working through cultural differences signals that the space itself has changed, along with the perceptions of the protagonist. This new space offers unlimited opportunities to create new identity constructs, including constructs that are historically and politically situated, but leaves open whether such transformations can contribute to a dialogue.

Susan C. Anderson

SUSAN C. ANDERSON is a professor of German in the Department of German and Scandinavian at the University of Oregon. She works on German and Austrian literature and culture from the late nineteenth century to the present. Her research focuses on representations of difference, gender, and the foreign in literature and film; translation studies; transnational approaches to literary studies; concepts of disease and embodiment; and the cultural meanings of water. Her publications have addressed voyeurism and gender in early twentieth-century literature; notions of masculinity around 1900; metaphors of seeing and power; and translation, gender, and assimilation in contemporary literature.


. The author thanks the Deutsches Literaturarchiv in Marbach am Neckar for access to some of the sources that were consulted for this article.

1. For instance, the German Institute for Cultural Diplomacy hosts conferences on such topics as “Building Bridges between Europe and the USA,” and various “Building Bridges” organizations in the U.S. sponsor seminars and workshops that are meant to foster intercultural understanding by bringing together people from different cultural or ethnic groups in a neutral space (“Cultural”).

2. See, for example, his discussion in The Location of Culture (36–39).

3. Maurer writes that Tawada’s texts call into question the concept of a multicultural literary model, “indem sie das Fremde und das Eigene in einen [End Page 58] globalen Bezugsrahmen setzen, der . . . als eine Vielheit ohne Einheit gedacht werden muss” (by setting the foreign and the native into a global framework, which has to be conceived of as a multiplicity without unity [330]).

4. See, for example, Claudia Breger’s discussion of this latter story in “Mimikry als Grenzverwirrung: Parodistische Posen bei Yoko Tawada” (51–52); see also Bettina Brandt (“Schnitt”) and Julia Genz for analyses of Das nackte Auge.

5. Clara Ervadosa asserts about Tawada’s writing, “Es geht also um die mentale ‘Dezentrierung’ einer eurozentrischen bzw. westlichen Weltsicht und eines Wissensarchivs, der/dem auch Japan durch den rapiden Modernisierungsprozeß im imperialisierten Zeitalter am Ende des 19. Jahrhunderts ausgesetzt war” (It is thus a mental decentering of a Eurocentric or western worldview and of an archive of knowledge, to which even Japan was subjected through the rapid process of modernization in the imperial era at the end of the nineteenth century [455]).

6. See Anderson for more on Tawada’s use of hyperliteral translation.

7. For example, the husband who turns out to be a squid in “Missing Heels.”

8. Tawada discusses her interest in Vietnam by stating, “In my eyes, the Vietnam War is not over, and colonialism in Southeast Asia is not over either. . . . Our present becomes more visible when we look at it from the perspective of that which is only supposedly over” (Brandt, “Postcommunist” 45). In another venue she criticizes the terms Asia and Asian as remnants of colonialism: “The term ‘Asian’ is a child of colonialism; born in Europe and adopted and abused by the Japanese, who abandoned it after the Second World War” (Tawada, “Europe”).

9. See Silverman’s discussion of the need to ground concepts of hybridity and the in-between in material reality and historical specificity (41–47).

10. Along similar lines, in her manifesto “Against Between,” Leslie A. Adelson argues that the metaphor of a bridge between two cultures can hinder intercultural understanding even as it supposedly promotes it. In Adelson’s words, “The imaginary bridge ‘between two worlds’ is designed to keep discrete worlds apart as much as it pretends to bring them together” (267). Such a bridge implies a stable structure for negotiating between two clearly defined cultures, such as the German Federal Republic and Turkey. Although the two cultures can be conceived of as changeable, the bridge metaphor suggests an “absolute cultural divide” separating two distinct groups (267). The bridge trope leaves no place for Turco-German writers, for instance, for they are always being perceived as part of Turkish national culture. This misperception ignores migrant writers’ roles in helping to shape postwar and post-wall German culture. Thus, as Adelson describes, “Migrants are at best imagined as suspended on this bridge in perpetuity; critics do not seem to have enough imagination to picture them actually crossing the bridge and landing anywhere new” (267). Adelson refers to Zafer Şenocak’s call to reconfigure the spaces of cultural labor in new ways that will abandon a focus on “sites of thought” (Orte des Denkens) and their geographical or ethnic grounding for “sites of reorientation” (Orte des Umdenkens), that is, imaginary sites that allow for a radical rethinking of migration and cultural transformation. Both Adelson and [End Page 59] Şenocak consider culture a constantly mutating process, of “the renunciation of illusions and fixations of identity” (Şenocak, “Orient” 17). Adelson cites Tawada’s writing as creating sites of reorientation through their emphasis on the threshold, which Adelson describes as “a site where consciousness of something new flashes into view” (Transit 269). Tawada links these thresholds or gateways to the process of translation, opening up to spaces where new ways of thinking develop. She argues, “Der Zwischenraum ist kein geschlossenes Zimmer, sondern er ist der Raum unter einem Tor” (The in-between space is not a closed room but the space under a gateway [“Tor” 130]). Just as she associated bridges with gazes to destabilize the function of the bridge metaphor, Tawada stresses the transformative power of words to create new frameworks of perception. She asserts, “Words create places (listen to the sound: ‘Worte schaffen Orte’), but you have already left the place you inhabit” (“Writing” 153).

11. See, for example, Yasemin Yildiz’s analysis of Tawada’s “Bioskoop der Nacht” in Überseezungen, a story that deals with, as she characterizes it, “the traumatic legacy of unredeemed justice” (Beyond 139) in South Africa. Yildiz also cites Bettina Brandt’s claim that this story and the novel Das nackte Auge “constitute a new turn to the political in Tawada’s writing” (Beyond 245).

12. In Yildiz’s analysis of “Bioskoop der Nacht,” a similar attempt to flee “imposed ethno-cultural, national, and racialized forms of identity” occurs through a change of location. This change “indicates that Tawada continues to privilege a move outside national contexts as a solution to this problem” (Beyond 141). Yildiz notes, however, that the problem cannot be solved simply by a move. It calls for continuous reflection on conventions of language and identity. It thus, in Yildiz’s words, “requires constant exit strategies” (Beyond 142). See also Christina Kraenzle’s analysis of virtual, linguistic, and physical travel in Tawada’s works.

13. While an extended analysis would go beyond the scope of this article, the tropes of the bridge, Vietnamese setting, and increasingly surreal encounters also recall Francis Ford Coppola’s rendering of these topics in his film Apocalypse Now (1979). His protagonist and his fellow soldiers travel in their boat past the embattled Do Lung bridge on the Nung River (a fictional version of the Mekong River), the last army outpost before Cambodia and the region where the renegade Colonel Kurtz is in charge. The bridge is rebuilt each night after the Vietcong destroy it. After leaving it behind, the main characters, Captain Willard and his crew, appear to have crossed into an archaic world, reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s tale of Europeans losing their sheen of civility and rationality the farther they sail along the Amazon in Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre, the Wrath of God, 1972) (Doherty). Coppola’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) is not overtly addressed in Tawada’s narrative, but Willard’s inability to tell the difference between enemy and friend parallels Charles Marlow’s confusion of native, enemy, and friend in Heart of Darkness, which Bhabha cites. This confusion gives rise to a third space of conflicting thoughts and efforts to make sense, [End Page 60] which provokes the characters to reject their conventional views of colonizer/ commander/rational and native/subjected/irrational in search of new ways of seeing. As Bhabha explains about Marlow, “In reaching out to the specific thought of the other and grappling with what is not entirely intelligible within it—rather than acknowledging an ‘identity’—there lies the possibility of identifying also with the unconscious of the other, and extending oneself in the direction of the neighbor’s legible will and his unreadable desire (Bhabha, “Cave” xiii). Scenes of brutality accompany Willard’s and Marlow’s struggle to keep a hold of their usual mode of perception. Tawada’s tale places the brutality in the past, but this past intrudes at times aggressively into Kazuko’s present and accompanies her breakdown and letting go of her customary notions of self and other.

14. As Yildiz asserts, “Tawada’s writing offers a multilingualism that does not just reproduce the pre-existing boundaries of cultures, ethnicities, and nationalities, but imagines subjects as intricately, if invisibly, tied to other places, languages, and histories” (Beyond 141).

15. Tawada explores a similar constellation of displacement, history, and national identity in “Bioskoop der Nacht,” and Yildiz’s assessment of that text is relevant to “In Front of Trang Tien Bridge”: “Transnational dislocation as represented here does not liberate from history, it does not escape the violence of national contexts, but rather makes visible a more implicated relationship between seemingly separate languages, histories, and national contexts” (“Multilingual” 85).


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