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.