A Circle Round The Sun: Coming Full Circle

A Circle Round The Sun: A Foreigner In Japan by Peregrine Hodson 305 pp. William Heinemann Ltd.$16.99

by Angel Zhang Junnan

A Circle Round The Sun (1992) by Peregrine Hodson took a full circle around Japanese culture in search of the heart of Japan. This book was presented in the form of a diary which was written by him as a banker during his return visit in Japan. Hodson is an English man that speaks fluent Japanese and he became comfortable with daily life in Japan due to his previous experience as a student, but his understanding of Japan was very shallow. In his book, the author initially tried to gain a deeper understanding of Japan but in the end he realized that it is impossible because Japan is incomprehensible. Hodson started his journey by participating in many traditional Japanese rituals; however, rather than gaining a deeper understanding, he found himself lost and gained nothing. Eventually, he returned to England convinced Japan is impenetrable.

Hodson went through a process of returning to a familiar Japan and eventually becoming an expert on “real” Japan, as he terms it, however, he had a sudden a realization of his status as an outsider. This particular characterization is a stereotype of a Japan which is closed to foreigners. This is surprising given Hodson’s knowledge of the language and culture. In addition, not only is Japanese culture hard to comprehend, but the book is also hard to read. The fragmentary sections of diary do not integrate as a whole. His mentioned many trivial details in his daily life, but he never got a chance to take a look of the big picture. That might be the reason for his inability to understand Japan.

Even though he felt at home and his friends consider him as an expert on Japan, he still cannot assimilate into Japanese culture; because he learned only Japanese people can understand Japanese. When he first came back, he thought he knew the language, the customs, and the culture and therefore he could behave like “real” Japanese. Additionally, other foreigners considered him as an expert and always asked him to introduce them to the “real” Japan. For instance, he went with Tanya, his girlfriend, for the annual viewing of cherry blossoms and to enjoy the hot spring. By doing things that native Japanese would do, he considered himself Japanese. On the contrary, he felt isolated from his colleagues at work and was considered a foreigner even though he could speak perfect Japanese. He was asked by several people whether he is a spy or not. He seemed to be really hurt and after being repeatedly questioned he answered:“Yes, I am a spy, like everyone who wants to understand another country.”(205) Through Hodson’s story, we can see his unremitting effort to comprehend Japanese culture. Nonetheless, it was not very successful.

From his experience, Hodson portrayed the Japanese as “ignorant” by his friend Johnny’s death. In this particular scenario people did nothing to either help him or prevent him from committing suicide. Therefore, Hodson expressed his disapproval of Japan’s “ignorant” by stating “Sometimes doing nothing does more harm than doing something.” (212) Silence and sameness are also characteristics he found in Japanese people.

Later in the diary, he talked about his encounter with Fujiko which is a turning point in the book. He realized the irreconcilable difference between the cultures in his relationship with Fujiko, especially when he saw Fujiko’s black hair. After the long search for the Japanese heart, he conceived Japan

“as a labyrinth which anyone who wants to understand the Japanese has to enter in order to find, somewhere in the middle of it, at the centre, the secret of Japan. But the labyrinth has a curious effect on people who enter it; gradually as one gets towards the middle one forgets where one is coming from, who one is and why one is there, so that by the time one actually reaches the centre of the maze and finds the secret of Japan, it has no meaning.” (227)

When he started searching for the heart of Japan, he did not recognize Japan is a maze. Therefore he spent many efforts to search for the prize located in the center; however the prize has no meaning to him. Mainly because the core value of Japan can only be understood by Japanese people, therefore the prize did not make sense to him. Thus this journey became meaningless and he can attain nothing from it. It seems like he have traveled in a circle for years and found that no meaning came out of it. That’s the only conclusion he got from his time spent in Japan: nothing.  

I think the author made a great combination of his idea in the title of the book-A Circle Round The Sun. First of all, it symbolizes the Japanese flag by vividly describing the color and shape and also refers to the sun as the origin of Japanese people. Secondly, it illustrates of author’s final conclusion about Japan: the journey to explore Japanese culture is going like a circle and you will end up in the same place as you started it being an outsider. Consequently, Japanese culture can only be revealed to its own people but not foreigners.