Noel Burch's book, To the Distant Observer, is actually a book about Japanese film. But he wants to alert his readers to possible differences in the Japanese "eye," the way Japanese see the world, that may be attributed to linguistic and cultural differences. For example, he cites two stereotypes about Japanese: their faculty for assimilation and their strong sense of tradition which have an important subtext for westerners. That is, Westerners commonly believe that the Japanese a) Lack Originality and b) are culturally Stagnant and Conservative. This fails to recognize, Burch argues, that in fact Japanese don't just copy things--such as the writing system from China--but adapt it creatively. But he also points out that whichever way you see it, you are relying on an ideological base that rests on the belief that originality is a fundamental virtue. The base is not shared in Japan where the whole social system works against the very idea of originality.

What lies behind this perception of Japan, he asks? A tendency in the bourgeois, capitalistic west to reify originality (and individualism) and therefore to place the Artist in the central position of Creator and Proprietor of works of art. Such a view, Burch contends, really makes no sense in Japan where the whole social system denies the concepts of individuality and originality, favoring instead an open acknowledgment of "the material reality of the circulation of signs." (p. 32) Quoting Kato Shuichi, he notes that "different types of art. . .did not supplant each other, but co-existed and remained more or less creative from the time of their first appearance up to our time." Western art, by contrast, is more absolute and is regulated by the law of supersession. The classical age is superceded by what comes next where new techniques and design sensibilities govern the world of art and architecture.

Is there a useful explanation of why Japan tends to borrow, adapt creatively, and to sustain or even recycle cultural and artistic forms? Burch suggests that it may have something to do with the unusual coexistence of phonetic and non-phonetic writing. In the west--where logocentrism has come to prevail--the spoken word has always been seen to come first ("In the beginning, there was the Word and the Word was God") and the written word is therefore derivative. For the Japanese, the picture is more obscure because both written and spoken word are seen to be coterminous and Burch finds the "Japanese writing system occupies a privileged middle ground. . .afford[ing] access to both a linear mode of linguistic representation, such as that in the west, and to an 'oriental' mode which it is legitimate to regard, in a theoretical perspective, as a 'practical' critique of linearity." (p. 40) So it is a double way of experiencing reality that is very different from the west where the linear mode led to modern, rational (linear) ways of thinking which ultimately generated the growth of science, the industrial revolution, etc. Now, the western scientific worldview, with the rise of the industrial revolution and the creation of what we call "modernity," ultimately comes to dominate societies everywhere and, indeed, Japan was the first nonwestern nation to have a successful industrial revolution and generate a variant of western capitalist society on its soil. But Burch wants us to consider that this doesn't necessarily make Japanese people just like westerners and they may, indeed, embrace very different ways of perceiving and representing reality in art works.