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.