Title: A Beginners Guide to Japan: Observations and Provocations
Author: Pico Iyer
Publication: Penguin Viking
Price: Rs 499
(Written by Brij Tankha)
The title, A Beginners Guide to Japan, brought back memories of a book I read in Japan in the mid-Seventies, 45 years ago. Jack Seward, who had worked for US intelligence during WWII and then the CIA, lived in Japan as a translator, educator and writer of popular books on the language and country. He was a refreshing guide, navigating the subtleties of language usage and the cultural terrain with ease and humour. He had immersed himself in the life of the people. Seward, I recall, wrote in one of his books, that he wanted to call it, ‘How to Learn Japanese in 30 Years’. To emphasise the difficulties and slow process of learning about another culture.
I suppose Pico Iyer, who has spent over 30 years in Japan, alludes to that feeling of not really ever having a sense that you know a country. Iyer comes from a very different background, thinking and style. He seems to spend part of the year in Japan — autumn, in fact — with his family in Nara, and he divides the rest of the time between his home in the US, and work that takes him around the world. He has also chosen the life of a foreigner, not making any effort to learn the language, which he underlines he speaks a smattering of, like a little girl. Alluding to the fact that he has picked up a few phrases from his wife.
The book is a collection of aphoristic paragraphs arranged, apparently, in a fan-shaped design. The pretty cover seems to play with this idea, to take the reader on a journey from the outer to the inner, from arrival to the end and a new beginning. Some 50 pages into the book, there is an ‘Advanced Guide to Japan’, where he discovers that Oscar Wilde provides the key to understanding Japan. Wilde understood the power of performance, and wrote, “The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”
Iyer finds confirmation of this everywhere. A yakuza gangster tells him that you have to think of yourself as being on-stage all the time, “It’s a performance. If you’re bad at playing the role of a yakuza, then you are a bad yakuza”. It reminded me of that wonderful account by an Ivy League PhD scholar trying to become a bodybuilder, Muscle, The Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder. Samuel Fussel wrote that he had to not just train his body, but learn to walk like a bodybuilder to project his power.
This is the fulcrum around which the book turns, or should I say it is the catch which binds the leaves of the fan from where, with a flick of the wrist you can spread the fan and display the delicate painting, and use it. It takes a little practice, but it is something so Japanese, East Asian — even more so, I think, than bowing while speaking on the phone.
The book combines observations on Japanese life and culture, koan-like statements that may lead some readers to satori, and random facts. So, some random samples: “Girls in Japan are trained to put the right earring on with the left hand, because it looks more attractive”. “When you are all in your robes”, the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki told his students in San Francisco, “I can see you individually.” And, “More people live within 30 or so miles of Tokyo than in the rest of Japan.”
The last reminded me of Michael Caine who, in an interview, explained how he just naturally, without any special effort, remembered random facts. He quoted some examples. One, that there is no place in England further than 70 miles from the coast.
There are many books on trying to understand Japan and its culture, ever since the Portuguese began going there in the 16th century. Some of these describe the exotic people who do everything topsy-turvy, the wrong way around, are full of contradictions, but are intriguing. This book, for all it’s circling, really fits into this pattern. There are limits to understanding a place when you don’t have the language. And who are the explanations for? I much prefer reading the effect a place has on a person. The dynamics of the interaction place all on an equal footing. Sometimes, even without language or any deep knowledge of the place, writing emerges that continues to speak to us.
Take the case of Jonathan Swift. He sends Gulliver to Japan, where he meets real “natives”, not the imagined ones of Brobdingnag or Lilliput. Captured by a Japanese pirate, he has an audience with the emperor. Swift uses Japan’s refusal to trade as a way to look at the limits of European power. He is neither interested in idealising a civilisation, nor in trying to understand the “heathen”. A more recent book, Ian Buruma’s Tokyo Romance, is a thought-provoking recollection of time spent in seriously engaging with Japan, and how this transformed and shaped him. Again, it offers ways of thinking both about Buruma and Japan. Iyer remains a remote figure and his Japan flat.
Tankha is a honorary fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi