By Isabel Bush
Peter Carey is one of Australia’s most famous contemporary authors. His novels and short stories have earned special praise, and he is one of two writers to win the prestigious Man-Booker Prize twice. For the past two decades, he has lived with his family in New York City. In the early 2000s, Carey took his teenaged son Charley to Japan to explore the culture together. The resulting voyage became Wrong About Japan: A Father’s Journey with His Son, an exploration of his relationship with his son, and that of Japan with Western society. The narrative is pleasant enough to read, but Carey’s conclusions about Japan are disappointing and almost superficial. At times, his experience in Japan seems to have less to do with Japan than Carey’s attempt to connect with Charley as he becomes an adolescent.
Carey first noticed his son’s interest in Japan after Charley began immersing himself in Japanese comic books and animated films (called manga and anime, respectively). Charley was a quiet boy to the outside world, but when his interest in Japan led him to become more extroverted, his surprised father offered to take him to Japan, ostensibly to interview the anime and manga idols Charley so admired. Charley assented on one surprising condition: they would not visit “Real Japan.” “No temples. No museums,” no delicate geisha or the like (11). Carey and Charley would only examine “Real Japan” inasmuch as it could help them understand the country before them. As their trip progressed, however, it became clear that their preconceptions about Japanese culture were mistaken in almost every instance, leaving the reader wondering whether a foreigner can ever understand Japan. Carey concludes that Japan is a delicate enigma wrapped in a lacquered puzzle box, to which gaijin (foreign barbarians) could never get the key.
While Charley wants to understand contemporary Japan, Carey looks to more arcane artifacts of Japanese culture, searching to understand a thoroughly modern, paradoxically traditional culture. One of the author’s fundamental questions is whether he or his son had the correct method for interpreting Japan. Is it better to analyze a culture’s context and condescend, as Carey does, to its modern existence, or is it better to examine a culture only as it is in the present, without any knowledge of how it became this way?
Carey never fully answers this question. Initially, he is convinced that his methodology is correct, but as the story progresses and Carey misses every pitch, culturally speaking, he begins to doubt himself. Every time he thinks he can draw some conclusion about Japan, he talks to another of his experts (and who is more expert than an actual Japanese person?) and he is contradicted again. How Japanese people perceive Americans, how they read their manga, why they enjoy what they enjoy, what they eat for breakfast, how proud they are–Carey strives to understand it all, but blunders into Japanese culture with the delicacy of a stereotypical American tourist. Neither Carey nor Charley speaks Japanese, nor makes any effort to beyond the occasional konnichiwa. Furthermore, they stay in and around Tokyo, and never visit any less-urbanized areas, which are arguably more genuinely Japanese than the Westernized cities like Tokyo.
One of Carey’s most prominent Japanese “experts,” and the narrative’s most confounding addition, is Takashi, a friend Charley met over the internet, who guides them around Tokyo. He represents another in a crowded chorus of characters who sing a confusing, dissonant melody of what it means to be Japanese. However, Takashi is not real. Takashi is supposed to explicitly show the reader how the Japanese think and live their daily lives, but the knowledge that he was created by a Western man, one who claims throughout his narrative that he cannot understand Japan, only hurts the character’s credibility, and ultimately, the narrative’s. Takashi’s narrative purpose is superficially to compare the young Japan Charley idealizes with the traditions Carey seeks, but he could have been added to allow the author to rationalize his lackluster relationship with Charley.
There is, however, a lurking disappointment to Wrong About Japan. While the story itself is strong, it can sometimes seem a little flat. Carey’s other works, like My Life as a Fake, are vivid and captivating in ways that this book just isn’t. The book takes time to generate its momentum, but once it does, it’s quite enjoyable. The extensive, ambiguous quest in Wrong About Japan is a common motif in Carey’s work, and as he does in his novels, Carey leaves his readers unclear about the story’s conclusion. One never knows if Carey or Charley find what they came to Japan for, or if they ever figure it out for themselves. One of the more irritating aspects of Carey’s narrative is its travelers’ privilege. Carey and his son have a marvelous itinerary, and could have done and learned so much more. It’s disappointing when, after meeting people like the iconic animators Hayao Miyazaki and Yoshiyuki Tomino, Carey is bogged down thinking that he can’t fully understand Japan, and seems to stop trying to. His Orientalist distancing of Japan as the “Other” almost certainly guarantees that he could never fully understand this group of people.