Wednesday, January 19, 2005

time to take a breather

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.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is my favorite post.

Anonymous said...

I've read that Basho collection too, and it inspired a Winter Term travel writing project my sophomore year. My peaceful journal reflections ground to a halt when I got back to Oberlin, though...remember that? You buzz-kill.

But yeah. Everybody should read Narrow Road to the Deep North, it's really awesome. Thanks Ron DiCenzo for sticking it on the syllabus--I think I read it with some Ryokan for a good mix.

And yeah, it's amazing how much you've been writing.

Jamie said...

Man, who are you people?!?

I installed this counter on my the site a few days ago, and I've gotten 268 discreet hits in the past 3 days. I love that people are reading and leaving comments, but it seems like I've met a lot of you, and I'd love it if you could sign your posts with a first name or something, just so I could know who exactly is keeping up with this little experiment.

I mean, I'm flattered as hell that someone would write "this is my favorite post so far", indicating they've not only been keep up with my ramblings but enjoying them, but I'd love to know who you people are!

Anonymous said...

that wasn't me who said it was my favorite post so far. but I was the one who read the Basho and meant to sign my name. whoops! sorry.

--rachel

Wayne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kazuhide said...

harro, this is kazuhide.
Just wanting to say, thank you for the mention my advice column, but by the way, charisma man comic is over 15 years old, same as japanzine. thanking you.

Kazu

Anonymous said...

Reading this in one sitting - but a few years behind the real-time curve. Enjoying your perceptiveness and incisiveness very much.

Your rich observations colour in much of what my peripheral vision missed during my time in Tokyo, contributing in no small way to my desire to return as a more confident and aware traveler.

I will force myself to wait until the end of this blog to find out where your decisions took you after Japan.

I wish you a good rich life.

Jacques in ZA