Don't know how many of you are actually out there following this thing, but it's been occupying a much larger role in my life than I expected when I started it. Ever since I came to Japan I've been writing essays in my head, but never really had much of an outlet. It's now snowballing to the point where I find myself thinking over blog entries in my head whenever I take the train or have a spare moment. Which cries out for some kind of limits or structuring.
In my first post I invoked Alan Booth's name. Booth wrote just two books, both travel writing about his walks through rural Japan, and they are both masterpieces, and subsequently quoted to death by ex-pats living in Japan. Booth's famous last line to "The Roads to Sata": "You can't understand Japan" has been rehashed at too many goddamned teacher's seminars and Japan forums, but people invariably take his conclusion the wrong way, taking Japan as some mysterious unknowable entity, even to a fluent long-termer like Booth. Horse-shit. While he set out to understand Japan, and his life in it, his conclusion was that not just Japan, but life is unknowable.
What I love so dearly about Booth's two books is that he avoids the kind of meaningless generalizations about the country that plague so much writing about Japan. He just writes about his walks, and the people he meets ("I talked to an old woman who complimented my hyojungo [Standard Japanese] while picking a piece of flaking skin off her nose."), and the occasional smattering of cultural commentary. But he does not stray far from what is in front of his face.
Read simply as a walk through Japan, Booth's books are excellent, but I recently tackled haiku poet Basho's poetry travel journal "Narrow Road to the Deep North" and it was like being struck by lightning. Without advertising it or calling attention to the fact, Booth had taken most of his style and structure from the 17th century masterpiece. From the locations (rural northern Japan), to the method (a journey on foot, stopping at cheap local inns and temples), to the style (a series of isolated moments that do not possess any other meaning than their own uniqueness), Booth had taken a dead writing form and created a modern masterpiece.
Booth is alone in Japan writing in that he does not generalize, doesn't fetishize it's frantic modernity (hello William Gibson, cyber punks, anime geeks), he just lives it quietly, if somewhat inebriated. Probably the best example of the current state of writing in English about modern Japan is Japanzine. The overall tone of the contributors, mostly spoiled English teachers who are bitter about their jobs, is one of cynicism, condesencion, and a really dark sense of humor. To the foreign observer Japan can be hilarious (I'm laughing everyday), but the tone here is nasty and angry, toeing racism. At it's best Japanzine features the iconic Charisma Man comic, a spot on satire of scrawny white guys who come here to score chicks, over three years running, and at it's worst you get Ask Kazuhide, a fake advice column written by a made up Japanese old man who replies in Jap-talk, spewing a concentrated litany of the crap we hear all too often.
On one hand this is preferable to the hagiographic bullshit or xenophobic racism that both essentialize Japan as a country of geisha girls, suicidal samurai, mysterious martial arts and subtle indirection. But they both share the initial assumption that Japan is somehow essentially different from them, that even though they may have lived here for years, married into Japanese families, and speak the language, that there's something they're not getting, that there is a Japan to know. Japan itself is dry heaving through a cultural identity crisis. I don't pretend to understand Japan, but then again I don't pretend to understand America either.
I can just write about what I've seen and touched and tasted, and if you want to call it Japan, you can, but I wouldn't recommend it.