Old Sow In The Back Room: Japan Behind The Screens

by Emily Wells

Old Sow In The Black Room by Harriet Sergeant, 208 pp.Trafalgar Square (July 1995), $14.99

British journalist Harriet Sergeant once noted that men wrote the vast majority of the accounts of Japan. So, with husband and daughter in tow, she traveled over six-thousand miles away from home to live Tokyo for a grand total of six years. The varied assortment of characters she meets in her travels show a much broader and more well-rounded view of Japan than one would expect, but at a price. Old Sow In The Back Room paints a picture of Japan that is dismal at best, and at worst a confirmation of Western suspicions of corruption, social and gender inequality, and depression previously masked by cultural spectacle.

The main point that Sergeant tries to impress upon her audience from the start of the book to the end is the fact that one’s experience in Japan, whether you are a native or a foreigner, depends almost entirely on your gender. Western men wrote most of the well-known travelogues on Japan and most (that is to say, most that have gone for that fabled “Japanese experience”) seem utterly enchanted, and with good reason. Provided you are of some means, the men bend over backwards to make their western counterparts comfortable, the women throw themselves at them, and women are hired for the sole purpose of being pretty and delightful. Sergeant, however, saw no ceremony, no indulgence, no proverbial “slack”. She was on her own, left to her own devices with nothing more than a few weeks of Japanese lessons.

In her travels, she joins the social circle of Mrs. Abe, with whom she first learns about etiquette and gender norms. She goes on to befriend Yuno, a professional gambler and member of the yakuza, and Midori, a young woman who ignores her country’s expectations of what women should do but finds herself without a side she can identify with. The elderly of the Kobokan Community Center teach her about the Great Kanto Earthquake and see themselves as living relics of a very different Japan long since dead. A visit to a family of burakumin, the Japanese equivalent of India’s untouchables, further drives home the severity of Japanese ideas of social hierarchy. They are far more warm and affable than most higher-class Japanese that Sergeant meets, with a sense of family unity that seems to come from facing generations of contempt..

While Sergeant’s tale is first and foremost an account of her travels and personal experiences in Japan, it is without a doubt a comparison and criticism of the country in how it conflicts with western ideas. Her visits to Mrs. Abe and her many attempts to navigate and follow the rules of a strange city give the impression that Japan is simply rigid and fixated on etiquette, which one may not be keen on but would surely agree is not worthy of condemnation.

Sergeant never explicitly criticizes Japan, but simply retelling her experiences and feelings at the time evoke enough empathy from a western reader to remove any need for blatant criticism. It is in her unique perspective as a woman and a mother that the reader gains a true understanding of what goes on behind the scenes. Women fill minor roles in society and are expected to marry before they are considered past their prime and forever afterward are only wives and mothers who are to sacrifice everything for their parents, in-laws, husband, and children. Japan is known for placing heavy pressure on students and salary men, but that which is placed on women is rarely acknowledged. And though Sergeant is clearly concerned by the near-total divergence of spouses and the coldness she perceives between them, she spends most of her time on her own, away from her husband and with her child in the care of a nanny (which is an exotic and somewhat appalling luxury to Japanese women.)

The most telling episodes in the entire book, however, deal with the infamous yakuza. The first glimpse is with Yuno, who shows her a not-so-underground family reminiscent of The Godfather and its prevalence in government and business. Several smaller incidents show shop home owners threatened and forced to pay protection money and yet think it’s just how things are done. While the yakuza are portrayed mostly as a sinister, unseen force, they are given a moment of sympathy when Sergeant discovers that, being primarily made up of the ostracized burakumin, they are a product of the system they manipulate.

Every anecdote and chapter in her book is essential, however minor or trivial it may initially appear. Learning new words shows how ingrained certain concepts are into the Japanese psyche, a trip to a public pool shows the parental role of the government, and a preschool questionnaire shows the excessive involvement Japanese mother have with their children. No part of this book could or should be cut down or paraphrased. I was unaware that Sergeant spent six years abroad before reading the inside cover because the book was so engrossing that it never seemed tedious in the least. That, in combination with a commentary free of prejudice and Sergeant’s wide range of acquaintances and daily experiences is what makes Old Sow In The Back Room such a revealing portrait of Japan. Through a woman’s eyes, she manages to peel back the superficial layer that the West sees, like peeling back the drywall to see what’s living in the walls.


Wrong About Japan: A Father’s Journey with His Son–Can Gaijin Ever Get It Right?

Carey, Peter. "Wrong About Japan: A Father's Journey with His Son." Random House, Inc., 2005. pp 158. $14.10.

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.

Traveller From Tokyo: Thoughts on Education and More

by Aaron Buncher

Traveller from Tokyo is a first hand account of John Morris’ life in Japan, from pre-World War II through World War II times.  The work starts out detailing his arrival as a foreigner in Japan, and his job as an English teacher, educating high schoolers in response to demand for native speakers to teach the language.  Morris continues on to explain his search for a suitable house and his difficulties with the Japanese method of street numbering, as well as with procuring a telephone (a rarity in 1930’s Japan). He then digresses and begins to discuss facets of Japanese life, through both his own commentary as well as personal anecdotes.  He does so in an organized manner, first discussing everyday Japan (food, dress, and language), then Japanese thought, English and Japanese print, recreational activities, marriage and sex, and finally mass media, including that of the West and its influence on Japan. Part II of the book consists of Morris’ life as a foreigner after December 7th, 1941, the date the Japanese Attacked Pearl Harbor, and entered WWII.  This section of the book is less organized, although it does follow Morris’s time in Japan more chronologically. Part II is comprised of sections on Japanese police and criminal proceedings, several personal stories, wartime practices (including rationing and air raid sirens), the Japanese army, and Morris’ departure from Japan after nearly four years.

Traveller from Tokyo is a concise work that covers a broad range of topics.  The structure of the book allows the reader to have a ground-level view of Japanese culture, while refraining from taking on an Orientalist perspective.    Morris exposes the viewer to Japanese life by picking out facets interesting to Western readers at the time, such as his telephone difficulty: in Japan, it is customary for people to constantly borrow their neighbor’s telephone, since telephones were extremely scarce during the 1930’s.  He emphasizes why owning a personal telephone could become such a problem: people would line up in queues down the street waiting to use it!  Such glimpses into the author’s life help make the work much more personable.

By discussing events such as dining out, Morris is able to elaborate upon Japanese lifestyle in general.  He illustrates customs for Japanese restaurants, as well as their attempts to copy foreign foods.  Morris repeatedly writes about the     Japanese’s ‘imitation’ of foreign cultures and their adaptations to serve their own needs. He explains how the Japanese have taken foreign foods (chiefly British, French, and American cuisines) and altered them to fit their tastes and preferences.  Morris’ chief point is describing how the Japanese are able to assimilate the distinctive traits of other cultures without losing their national identity.   The author declines from portraying incorporation in a negative fashion, and thus does not place the West in any superior way to the East, avoiding any ‘Orientalist’ perspective.

Morris also spends a great deal of time explaining the educational system in Japan.  After middle school, students that wish to continue their education must take a high school entrance exam and then another for college.   The author points out that almost every student’s aim is to secure a government job, which can only be achieved by attending a government-sponsored university.  Government jobs are secure, high paying, and will more than pay back the cost of education, and thus attract the interest of well educated students.  There is a noticeable difference between the Western and Japanese universities that Morris makes sure to highlight: in Japan, there is no one to regulate the students when away from classes (they are free to do as they please, and have no adult supervision or guidance).  The reason for disparity between Western and Japanese students is that Japanese students are more responsible (there have been very few incidents of students causing trouble) and therefore receive more trust from authority than do their Western counterparts.  At no point did Morris ever allude to Japan’s inferiority in education, or portray it in a false light; he very carefully avoided any stereotypical or other racist comments that could portray an Orientalist perspective on Japan.

Traveller from Tokyo is concise in its description of everyday Japanese life, and contains a thorough explanation of how the educational system works relative to the books length.  The author points out differences between Western culture and that of Japan without placing judgmental criticisms on the Japanese.  Unlike many other authors on Eastern culture that attempt to stereotype the Japanese and describe them as inherently different from the West, Morris avoids giving facts based on mere whims and describes things precisely.  He does not place his own commentary on things he cannot accurately depict, and evades the typical ‘Orientalist’ perspective found in most works from the era about the East.  Rather than coming across as a racist and biased book like many other works of the time, Traveller from Tokyo is informative and contains numerous well-grounded thoughts and ideas.  Traveller from Tokyo is an excellent introduction to Japanese culture during and pre-World War II.

Lost Japan: A Personal Journey

Lost Japan by Alex Kerr 276pp $10.70

 

by Kanako Matsuda

Alex Kerr’s Lost Japan is a deeply personal journey through what he views as a dying Japan. As such, this book is not a mere travel guide on the myriad facets of Japanese culture, but an intimate exploration of the country as experienced by one person. Despite the fact that Lost Japan is essentially a compilation of seemingly unrelated articles, Kerr conveys a common theme which ultimately serves as his message for the readers. Using vivid, flowing details, historical analysis, and above all, passionate dialogue, he successfully incorporates this message: his despair at the modernization of Japanese culture, while simultaneously capturing the beauty of Japan.

His experiences are certainly unlike any other. From the first chapter, “Looking for a Castle”, he makes clear his wild enthusiasm for traditional Japanese architecture, one which he cultivated as a child. He even fashioned for himself a “castle” in Iya Valley, Shikoku, during college, renovating an abandoned home in the mountains. His interests soon evolved to encompass kabuki theater, calligraphy, antiques, and inadvertently, the business world of Tokyo. However, Kerr does not merely express a fleeting curiosity in these subjects; he takes it upon himself to amass as much in-depth knowledge as possible, significantly more than an average traveler, and even indeed, a native. He familiarized himself with the backstage scenes of kabuki, apprehended the rich, connotative styles of kanji characters, and imbibed the plethora of quirks and habits associated with Japanese traditions. Readers will finish this book acknowledging that Kerr is not only a gifted writer, but also a specialist in the “old” Japanese culture.

Kerr describes Japan with such loving, enticing detail that it allows his audience to form an indirect yet strangely genuine connection with his story. In a way, it is heartbreaking. After 1974, Japan undergoes a period of modernization which renders all he valued obsolete. His nostalgic tone then vacillates to hate and bitterness as he outlines the advent of technology. As mentioned before, his careful word choice and tone are a key strategy towards connecting, and almost coercing, the readers into his point of view. Not every reader will have the same attachment as he did to the Buddhist temples or the quaint villages, but with his heartfelt descriptions he can compel the readers to care immensely about the decaying “old” Japan. Thus, when he describes his hatred of technology, the readers will most likely find themselves agreeing with his impassioned argument.

Comparisons are a key component of this book: old versus new, beauty contrasted with ugliness, permanence against ephemerality. He views Kyoto’s attempt at modernization, the construction of the Kyoto tower, as a “symbolic stake through the heart”, because it symbolizes the “new” encroaching on the “old” (192). Kyoto no longer represents scenic elegance, but soulless, gray blocks of buildings. Technology is not progress, but a destructive force. However, once again, Kerr writes with such conviction that it is hard to remember that this view is entirely subjective. Is modernization such a monster he depicts it as? The telephone wires crisscrossing the skyline of the inaka (countryside) are not picturesque, but are entirely necessary for communication. The Gion Matsuri (festival) which he attended in his youth did not showcase yomise (stalls) as they do now, but buying gifts and merchandise is a form of enjoyment in the present. Kerr antagonizes modernization so heavily that he ignores the benefits which it brings.

Once again, Lost Japan is a personal journey for Kerr. No one else can truly understand the depth of his feelings over the changing structure of Japan. No one else can comprehend Japan as he experienced it. Thus, he makes several bold statements which readers may not entirely relate or agree with. One memorable quote, “In Japan, people are conditioned to be satisfied with the average” (122) is used to explain the Japanese educational system. Another is used to justify technology, that “the Japanese are haunted by the insecurity of their cultural identity” (106) and therefore needs progress and identity in the form of modernization. In numerous other general questionable statements I completely disagree with, Kerr insinuates that the Japanese youth lack in individuality and therefore, do not and cannot appreciate “old” Japan. His mistake, in my opinion, is that he stereotypes the Japanese youth as “haters”, when he has no basis for saying so. He should not assume that he accurately perceives every thought of every individual. This is the only time I regard Kerr as a true traveler, a tourist. Even if he has mastered the tea ceremony or developed his own unique style of calligraphy, his understanding of Japan as a whole entity, is lacking in my opinion.

Even with my dissatisfaction with Kerr’s analysis, this book is valuable in that it provides insight into an unfamiliar, disappearing world on an emotional level.  Not many people have the connections which Kerr had to be able to travel Japan in the way he did, which makes his narrative that much more worthwhile. Just with his words, Kerr allows the readers to enjoy Japan as he did, to participate in foreign, exciting practices, and crushingly, to feel the loss of it all. Despite the depressing tone of this book, Kerr ultimately imparts with a glimmer of hope: “At the moment of its disappearance, Japanese traditional culture is having its greatest flowering” (263). Nothing is permanent, but with endings come new beginnings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lady and the Monk: Bittersweet Love

The Lady and the Monk by Pico Iyer 352 pp. $11.21 Amazon

By Jordan Cheresnowsky

Born in Oxford, England, Pico Iyer became known for his accounts of his life living outside of set categories. In 1991, Iyer’s travels took him to Japan to live outside of the bustling culture, in the old Japan of poetry. The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto catalogues Iyer’s year spent in search of Buddhism in Japan. Though religion was his original focus in going to Japan, Iyer’s chance meeting with a young Japanese woman turns his story of traveling into the unknown into hers. Together they share the experience of breaking from the enjoyable to leave only the bittersweet.

Iyer’s year begins in autumn, at the beginning of his dream of living alone in a foreign country where he knows a bare minimum of the language. In the red light district of Kyoto he finds home is tacky yet traditional, the mixture of old and new placing Zen temples next to convenience stores and bars. The mixture of old and new reflects the traditional sense of the old, timeless Japan he seeks, and the more prominent, modernized Japan, presenting a two-sided city. Iyer keeps his opinions of the area moderate, not giving into stereotypes or being critical, and he tries to find the poetic qualities of his new surroundings. Despite the solitude he seeks, Iyer meets up with many Westerners who help close the language gap keeping him from Japan. From artists to those seeking Buddhism, Iyer is able to obtain many different perspectives on Japan, while withholding his own from the reader. “Every statement I made about Japan applied just as surely in the opposite direction,” Iyer states, remaining cautious about his own opinions of Japan. “I might think it odd that Japanese girls cover their mouths whenever they laugh – until I remembered that we were trained to cover our mouths when we yawn” (329).

The true focus of the novel is unclear at first, hidden behind Zen poetry and chance encounters at gaijin bars, or those catering to foreigners. Iyer’s true tale begins to shine when he meets a young woman, Sachiko, at a temple. The comical misunderstandings of their relationship begin at this point, with messages lost in translation between elementary Japanese and broken English. Yet Iyer soon realizes that this relationship is more than casual meetings to discuss music and movies. A love is born, one similar to Madame Butterfly, due to the “pairing of Western men and Eastern women [being] as natural as the partnership of sun and moon” (79) This love is simply because “everyone falls in love with what he cannot begin to understand” (79).

The Lady and the Monk is as much Sachiko’s story as it is Iyer’s. The focus of the novel is not on the mysterious land, or even on travels throughout the country, but on Sachiko’s growth from hesitant housewife with an often-absent husband to an independent woman. Sachiko, for Iyer, reveals the two-sidedness of Japan, the difference between the surface and emotion. On the surface is a highly efficient new-age Japanese mother. She dedicates herself to her children, her husband, and her family, being punctual and proper, and fulfilling every role expected of her. Underneath the shining surface, a whirlpool of emotion bubbles up, manifesting itself only in a teenager’s clothing and obsessions with foreign musicians, like Sting. A woman who was forced to grow up so fast, who was too busy fulfilling duty to truly discover what she wanted for herself, welcomes a friendship with Iyer, the nearest gaijin, as a way of escape.

“Encouraging people to realize their potential was an especially dangerous occupation in a country that taught them to fulfill their duty instead,” Iyer states, realizing the role he begins to play in Sachiko’s life (97). From his perspective as her foreign “savior,” he knows that his role is to stand by her for as long as he can, for the four seasons he will be in Japan. So Iyer teaches her about America, and she teaches him about Japan in turn, mostly causing her to realize the constraints placed upon her own life. Similar to girls whom he saw on one of his first trips to a gaijin bar, Japanese women are meant to play their role, to dance perfectly in unison, to fulfill expectations. Still, the story of the lady, Sachiko, and Iyer, the monk, moves across the four seasons, while their love for one another grows. He helps her break from the constraints of Japanese society and stand on her own while he experiences Japan with a woman at his side, his Madame Butterfly. However, Sachiko is the one who holds control over Iyer. The role of Madame Butterfly is truly played by Iyer, the foreign mystery there to liberate and then be done with.

“I little sad feeling,” Sachiko repeatedly states throughout the book, whether the situation is happy or sad, which Iyer comes to understand. The fleeting moment, the beauty of what once was, is something to be treasured in Japanese culture. Iyer and Sachiko’s journey is truly about breaking from what is enjoyable, such as love, leaving only a bittersweet feeling behind. Iyer flawlessly depicts Japan as well as his journey, providing an enjoyable read and glimpse into a foreign land. I believe Iyer’s is a wonderful story of love, one that can be used to understand the people, though not necessarily Japan.

Hitching Rides with Buddha: The Guide for Gaijin-sans

Hitching Rides with Buddha by William Ferguson 432 pp. Cannongate $14.00

by Paul Atienza

If you are a gaijin (foreigner) who wants to be exposed to real Japanese culture, then hitchhike the archipelago with Will Ferguson in Hitching Rides with Buddha.

The Sakura Zensen or the “Cherry Blossom Front” is a whirlwind of flower petals that travels throughout Japan from south to north. It has been said to mark the culmination of winter as well as the commencement of spring. This phenomenon is often observed through joyous celebrations at parties with friends or deep reflections of life at cemeteries.  At one fateful cherry blossom party or hanami, Will Ferguson, Canadian writer and English teacher who was drunker than in previous years, proclaimed to his colleagues of his plans to follow the Cherry Blossom Front. Three years later he set out on his journey from his residence on the remote Amakusa Islands all the way to the northern end of Japan, Hokkaido. Despite others’ suggestions of taking the train to reach his destination, Ferguson decided to hitchhike in order to travel with the Japanese instead of viewing from afar, being the first ever to do so. In the course of four hundred pages, Ferguson encounters an assorted bunch of characters ranging from a university professor to a mafia man to sailors. In addition, Ferguson visits various locations and landmarks including shrines to the many gods of Shinto, castles from the Warring States Era, an island with the “Wisest Monkeys in Japan,” and even a museum devoted to sex. To add to the places he visits, he includes brief and informative histories of Shintoism, of different eras, folklore, and as well as famous people in the past and present such as sumo wrestler “The Wolf” (Chiyonofuji). All in all, he begins to understand Japan as much as a foreigner possibly could. Through his humor and recurring racial stereotypes, Ferguson determines the role of a foreigner in Japan which is a paradoxical one where the person is and is not part of the country.

Due to Ferguson’s spontaneous mindset, most of the events in Hitching Rides with Buddha come off as humorous, differentiating his book from other travelogues. Most writings about travels would probably talk about the dry history in a poetic or romanticized fashion or just have the entire journey comedic. However, Ferguson has an informative while fun experience in Japan accentuated with the hitchhiking aspect and the addition of interesting historical information and folklore. His interactions with various people make Ferguson’s humor apparent. For example, Ferguson met a man who pestered him by practicing his English with a barrage of pointless as well as prejudiced questions. It is through these encounters that Ferguson’s voice is heard in the form of his stream of consciousness writing style. He basically comments on the situations mostly suggesting that the Japanese are still strange and foreign to him despite living in Japan for a considerable amount of time. It is through his writing style that he comes off as funny by the way he presents these encounters. Also, Ferguson’s spontaneity adds to his humor in addition to hitchhiking. He does not really have a detailed itinerary of everything he will do on his journey, but instead Ferguson makes spur-of-the-moment decisions that frequently put him in life threatening yet hilarious states i.e. his traumatic snake incident on the island with the “Wisest Monkeys in Japan.” Such impulsive actions add to the unpredictability of his work, making it interesting. Seeing all of these events and places makes Ferguson feel like an outsider of Japan because of their novelty. Through hitchhiking, Ferguson illustrates that the act of going on an adventure in itself is enjoyable, which is made apparent in his humor with his entire journey.

Also through these diverse encounters, prevalent themes of racial stereotypes reveal themselves such as the constant mistaken references of Ferguson as an American despite of the fact that he is a Canadian. That example theme parallels the Western, Orientalist stereotype of all Asians being the same despite originating from different countries such as China or Korea. The Japanese pride in their technology as “number one” presents another theme that parallels the West. In the past around the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Westerners had pride in themselves too in which they believed that they were a dominant and superior influence in the world through their imperialistic efforts. These themes provide a glimpse of the similarities between the Japanese and the Westerners despite aesthetic and geographic differences.

Overall, Ferguson is able to show a reality of a travel in Japan for Westerners, establishing the place of foreigners in Japan where they are seen as part of the country, while at the same time not. The Westerners are part of Japan in the similarities of both reflected in the racial stereotype themes of pride and mistaking other races’ identities. Ferguson’s humor that comes with his descriptions of the multitude of meetings he has with the Japanese reflects a Western view of Japan, that the people are novel, strange, and odd. Through that mindset of Japan, Ferguson is still just an outsider despite having lived in Japan for a considerable amount of time. Therefore, Hitching Rides with Buddha truly exemplifies a realistic trip for a foreigner in Japan.

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.

A Year in Japan: Glimpses of the Orient

A Year in Japan by Kate T. Williamson 192 pp. Princeton Architectural Press $13.57

by Luis Madrid

The mysteries of the Orient have always attracted the attention and captured the imagination of the Western world: in both the elaborate ceremonies and distinctive day-to-day traditions of Eastern culture, the Occidental mind discovers not only an endless source of fascination, but also an expanded perspective upon alternate lifestyles. In her short work, A Year in Japan (日本の一年), Kate T. Williamson chronicles the details of her journey and offers the reader a unique portrayal of Japan as a country of both modern innovation and unusual anachronisms—a nation where past and present coexist within customs to create one of the world’s most remarkable cultures.

Throughout the journal, Williamson engages Japan through several different mediums, each unveiling a different aspect of the country’s rich and diverse character. Furthermore, rather than focusing upon topics that have already been overused in other works—such as the bizarre fashions of Harajuku or the innate, prevalent courtesy of the population—the author strives to present new topics to her readers, supplemented with a variety of exquisite watercolor paintings and her own insightful observations. One of Williamson’s favorite techniques is to introduce and analyze Japan in the context of its distinctive material culture: from carefully plastic-wrapped apples to convenient, space-efficient electric rugs, she draws conclusions regarding the nature and mentality of the society that produced these items.

One notable example of this tendency is the cultural significance that Williamson attaches to simple items, such as washcloths. In a chapter entitled “Beauty and Washcloths,” the young author recounts her fascination with the breathtaking color and variety present within the washcloths displayed at one of Kyoto’s department stores. Williamson is quick to juxtapose the consummate detail and effort that is required to fashion these products with the “neutral bathroom hues” of their American counterparts, which she characterizes and dismisses as being exclusively confined to some “fourth-floor linen department” (Williamson 5). From these painstakingly crafted washcloths—actually used to dry one’s hands in public restrooms—Williamson concludes that the “details of beauty” and “nuances of word and deed” expressed by these simple, mundane items are key elements to understanding the social culture of Japan (6). Furthermore, she asserts that this attention to the detail behind appearance and action is not only appreciated by the indigenous population, but also expected in most cases (6).

In another variation of this principle, Williamson invites the reader to draw parallels between the manner in which Japanese view and define art and the remarkable flexibility of their culture when it comes to adapting and preserving elements of the past. For example, when she is presented with a recently repaired pottery bowl on display at a museum, the author is surprised to see that instead of reconstructing the fractures with a similarly colored material, a distinctive metallic gold was used. As she later learns, this event is expressive of the Japanese perception and preservation of art; in other words, when certain pieces of art are repaired, the craftsman is encouraged to leave behind some trace of his efforts. In this fashion, these pieces continue to evolve over time, adopting new forms as needed and eventually transforming into entirely new art (Williamson 107).

This belief, which differs radically from the techniques of aestheticism employed by the West, can also be applied in terms of understanding certain aspects of Japanese society as a whole. In particular, Japan’s remarkable ability to adapt traditional elements of its culture serves as an excellent example of this principle. Unlike many past figures from Western culture, several of Japan’s traditional icons are still in existence, having successfully adapted to the many changes of the twenty-first century. A Year in Japan captures not only two of these encounters, but also portrays the author’s amazement at the contemporary lifestyles of these personages.

First of these is Williamson’s lunchtime rendezvous with an acquaintance and his friend, who works as a geisha. Although the author takes a few pages to explain the origin, nature, and concept of the Japanese geisha, her true focus is centered upon the manner in which a traditional figure often historically associated with mystery and beauty can partake in an activity as mundane as ordering an egg sandwich at a café (Williamson 92). In essence, this event is evocative of the fluidity with which Japan is able to adapt aspects of its culture to change; certainly, there are few countries today that retain such a large portion of their traditional culture while also utilizing extremely advanced technology. The author’s experience with sumo wrestlers is set along similar lines: as these athletes are usually associated with lack of clothing, bare feet, and traditional ceremonies, Williamson was no doubt surprised to observe two sumo wrestlers dressed in bathrobes, wearing glasses, and Nikes.

Ultimately, the portrayal of Japan employed by Williamson in A Year in Japan draws its most unique and poignant elements from its disparities with the narrow kinds of imagery that are traditionally associated with the island nation. By presenting thought-provoking material to a primarily Western audience in a novel fashion, the author creates an enduring and highly individualistic narrative of her travels in Japan, as well as the manner in which they allowed her to expand her horizons and improve her understanding of a culture utterly different from her own.

A Ride in the Neon Sun: A Gaijin in Japan: Cyclist Experiences Japan

A Ride in the Neon Sun: A Gaijin in Japan by Josie Dew 699 pp. Time Warner £6.39

by Dylan

A Ride in the Neon Sun: A Gaijin in Japan is a travelogue of Japan by Josie Dew that chronicles Dew’s experiences cycling throughout Japan, after arriving in the country unexpectedly. Dew comes into Japan knowing extremely little and has to rely on a few acquaintances, and mostly just herself to navigate the country. A Ride in the Neon Sun is extremely well written and enjoyable to read. It appears to just be a chronicle of Dew’s trip to Japan and is successful in doing so, but it is also more than that. Dew attempts and appears to succeed in explaining various aspects of Japanese culture, both broad and general. The book is broken down into shorter sections chronicling her experiences with one aspect of Japanese culture. There is never any focus on one particular topic or city for too long. I would describe Dew’s sections as being made up of disparate parts that, when put together, paint a more holistic picture of Dew’s trip throughout Japan, and of Japan itself.

Sections in the book contain three main aspects. First, there is factual information on the places Dew visits or things she sees. For example, when Dew arrives in Tokyo she first gives information like “the area is so massively industrial and so hugely productive that, if it were an independent nation, it would produce more goods and services than the whole of Great Britain” (48). Second, there is what Dew herself sees or does. Third, there is analysis from Dew on Japanese culture that relates to whatever she is talking about in the section. This analysis about Japanese culture is presented as factual, rather than opinionated. The formula is quite engaging and successful, however it becomes a bit deviating at times, and makes it difficult to fully focus what she is actually experiencing in Japan.

When Dew does focus on what she is seeing and doing in Japan, it is presented with an innocent curiosity that makes you want to read more about whatever she is experiencing. And in describing an experience, she does it with a level of detail that immerses you into her travels. For example, when taking a train to Tokyo, Dew describes the girls she sees on the train as wearing “navy-blue sailor suits, sensible ‘matronly’ black shoes and spotless white socks hoisted to the knee” (32). Dew seems to be immersed and enthusiastic in whatever she is seeing or doing, and it definitely comes across that way to the reader, and draws you into her experiences.

But the most interesting part of Dew’s sections is when she explains Japanese culture. An example of this is when Dew just arrives in Japan and is in a hotel room that she describes as “the simple and the ugly; the silence and the noise. These two opposites standing paradoxically beside each other were to appear to me time and time again as a stark epitome of Japan” (17). It seems rash when Dew judges the culture that in the context of the book she is just experiencing. This is especially true in beginning, like in her hotel room. She posits her thoughts not as theories, but as facts deemed by her. But they do seem accurate, and paint a vivid picture of Japan.  There are stereotypes I have heard that are rehashed, but there are also new ideas about Japan are presented too.

Of the cultural aspects that Dew runs into in Japan, she expects some while others seem surprising to her. Examples of both can be found on the train I mentioned earlier. Dew knows on that train that “to blow, or even wipe, one’s nose in public is the height of bad manners” (34). These things she comes in knowing are reinforced by her experiences, like when she needs to sneeze on the train. But there are also unexpected things like when she notices on the train, “the choice of reading material for most salarymen took me by surprise. Comics” (32). Dew’s current voice is then replaced by what seems like her looking back and explaining the culture of manga in Japan. Both of these explanation methods of Japanese culture are frequent throughout the book, and both are effective in portraying and elucidating Japanese culture.

The combination of these three aspects of each passage in the book makes all of the passages interesting and keeps your attention. In addition, the combination allows you to be immersed in her journey, while also learning about and “experiencing” Japan. The use of the shorter passages themselves is probably representative of Dew’s journey: she experiences many things and her attention is often diverted into some other new occurrence.

Overall, A Ride in the Neon Sun: A Gaijin in Japan provides a great picture of Japan for those visiting, or who just want to read about a far off land. It’s expertly written and is about the journey of a woman who is so open and enthusiastic about what she experiences, that she makes you want to experience Japan for yourself.

Breaking the Barrier in Travelers’ Tales Japan: True Stories

Traveler’s Tales Japan: True Stories by Donald George and Amy Carlson 411 pp. Traveler’s Tales Inc. $18.95

by Jenny Lee

Through voices from established travel writers such as Alan Booth, Pico Iyre, Dave Berry and the voices of the average traveler, Travelers’ Tales Japan: True Stories offers encounters to experience or to avoid. The book expresses appreciation and a newfound enlightenment through experiences in Japan. Tales Japan parallels a guidebook, though it relies on subjective encounters over objective information. From serene temples to high-tech toilets, it creates a heterogeneous image of Japan as it breaks the country’s stereotypical barrier of impenetrability. Editors Donald George and Amy Carlson successfully push the idea that anyone can find solace and understanding within Japan’s mysticism — and it’s outrageous modernity. At the same time, however, the editors also highlight the strains between Western foreigner and Japanese native, something I found unique about this travelogue.

Tales Japan contradicts Japan’s impenetrable reputation in the first section, “Essence of Japan.” Though the narratives in this section capture Japan’s morals and values, they also support the idea that travelers can relate to traditional Japanese customs, regardless of whether they fully grasp Japan’s theology or not. Brad Newsham’s “Smo,” for instance, portrays the importance of timing and the necessity of intimidation in sumo wrestling. However, Newsham also feels connected to a sumo wrestler he sees on the street, as he emphasizes the wrestler’s docile and bewildered behavior among the crowd. The wrestler looked lost — just as Newsham feels as a foreigner in Japan. Thus, Newsham mitigates the reader’s insecurities about displacement in a seemingly barricaded Japan. Even though one might feel displaced, one is able to parallel one’s sentiments with the Japanese, for even one of Japan’s iconic symbols of tenacity — the sumo wrestler — looked lost in his own country.

Though penetrable, Japan is not always a place one can empathize with due to its modern quirks. “Things to Do,” the second section, playfully characterizes expected or unexpected activities a foreigner can experience in Japan, whether it is taking the traditional flower arranging, ikebana, class or going all-out native by scavenging local trash heaps. Steve Bailey’s “Of Gomi and Gaijin” gives the reader a disgustingly tasteful experience as he prowled through Osaka gomi, or trash piles. Bailey explains it is rude to give one’s old belongings to a friend or neighbor. Instead, one throws one’s old things out into the gomi, and others are allowed to take home up whatever they find. Being, “the most inexplicable and undignified of eccentricities,” gomi hunting is exemplary in how Tales Japan lives up to its reputation of portraying an accurate depiction of Japan (148). Although foreingers like Newsham can find consolation in their experience, Bailey shares a unique tale only Japan can offer. This section, in effect, illustrates Japan’s distinctive edge and unique appeal; it invites the reader to experience Japan not only through its traditional activities, but through its oddities as well. I found this section to be the most appealing part of the book, as the writers exposed me to unknown parts of the Japanese culture and convinced me to visit a place where I can expect things to be different. 

Tales Japan continues to rectify common Japanese stereotypes in section three, “Going Your Own Way,” where people take on personal journeys and learn how common assumptions about Japan are not always true. Through her experience in the Miyama rice fields, Leila Philip discovers the resoluteness and strength of Japanese women in “Rice Harvest.” Though usually thought of as submissive, Japanese women do not conform to this generalization. Philip realizes that, after having reached an age of respect in Japanese society, rural women “drop the pro forma fame subservience” and are outspoken and frank as they bicker about others and chide Philip as they correct her harvesting methods (298). Philip also commends Japanese women who “rule the house, the children, and even the family finances with an iron fist” (299). Through stories like Philip’s, one can discover the real Japan. Using the experiences and discoveries of others as a guide, Tales Japan encourages its readers to travel to Japan and personally break the country’s myths. Only by traveling to Japan and immersing oneself in its culture can people distinguish reality from misconception.

“In the Shadows”, the most powerful section of Tales Japan, contains the narratives I found most meaningful. By peeling away Japan’s playful façade, the writers provide a truthful overview of Japan’s darker side — its irritability of Westerners. In Alan Booth’s “A Thousand Cranes, A Thousand Suns,” Booth struggles with a contemptuous Japanese worker at the Hiroshima Peace Park, which displays the damage done by the atomic bombs during World War II. The aged worker blames Booth for the damage done to his country. Though the man eventually apologizes, Booth concludes with grim optimism, hoping that the historical mistake will never be repeated. By making this the last section of travelogues, Tales Japan is not afraid to comment on the negative realities that lie within Japan. In the end, no one has ever forgotten the strained relationship between foreigner and native.

Overall, Tales Japan provides a truthful and accurate depiction of Japan. I would recommend this book to any prospective tourist because it makes Japan identifiable, but also attractively eccentric at the same time. Additionally, with the different voices presented, Tales Japan allows the reader form their own opinion of Japan; he or she can pick and choose the voices they find more appealing or can empathize with.