Sunday, July 29, 2012

Japanland by Karin Muller

In Japanland, Karin Muller joins a crowd of Westerners (including, I should acknowledge up front, myself) who want to describe Japan.

She subtitles her book "A Year in Search of Wa." My dictionary gives one definition of "wa" as peace; harmony; concord; unity; union. One of the example sentences is "Harmony among people is most important."

In her preface, Muller says that she was 34, been married, divorced, blown through a half dozen careers, learned six languages and forgotten three, but there was only one place where her worries would temporarily disappear: a judo academy. "Most of my instructors were Japaneses; and they approached judo with a sense of utter dedication to perfecting a profoundly difficult art." She decided that if she went to Japan she could find peace and happiness. She could obtain wa.

Or that's the rational she gives. Actually, she went to Japan to make a documentary that was, I'm told, shown on PBS. And because she's there to make a video, she is looking for the off-beat, the colorful, the unfamiliar Japan—scenes that will entertain an American television audience. At the same time, she wants to explain Japanese culture:

Executives retire at 60 and their wives, who have been in charge of the house and the children, don't know what to do with them.

Adult daughters live at home as "parasites" until they get married. They have to marry by age 30 or they become "Christmas cake," something that has no value after December 25.

The majority of marriages are still arranged.

Japan is filled with colorful festivals and traditions. She goes to one where young men go for a naked New Year's Eve swim in the Pacific that turns out badly for her; climbing back from her own midnight swim, "I feel my body stiffening like a piece of roadkill after the sun goes down."

Because I am currently writing a novel tentatively titled Mt. Koya, I was particularly interested in what Muller had to say about her visit to the sacred spot. I'm afraid I found the brief chapter (most of the chapters are brief) superficial and condescending. She does not find wa (and Mt. Koya with its emphasis on meditative practice is probably a better place to find it than dressing up as a geisha which she does), but she takes a wrong turn in the temple in which she's been staying and finds  the student monk rooms. "They are anything but austere—in fact, they look like miniature versions of a college dorm."

I thought Japanland was fun but not as a guide to finding wa or learning about Japan. Muller is hard on herself--she is regularly thrown to the mat in her judo sessions; she so offends her host family's matron she's driven from the house; she comes down with pneumonia on a pilgrimage to the 88 temples on Shikoku. But the book's title, I think, suggests her attitude toward the country. It's not really a culture, a society, a place with real people living real lives. It's an amusement park fill with colorful, often charming, sights. That's what she looked for and that's what she found.

1 comment:

  1. Books with this sort of misinformation (the "parasites", arranged marriage, etc.) based on minimal experience with Japanese culture is what keeps Westerners ignorant about the realities of modern Japan. One of the reasons I blog about Japan is I'm tired of the tedious tourist observations. Unfortunately, nobody really wants to know the truth. They prefer to embrace their fantasy notions about Japanese society. Far be it from me to forcibly divorce them from their ignorance. However, I would not read these sorts of books and I think your conclusion beautifully summed things up. Well done.