Home > Books/Magazines, Reviews, Travel & Tourism > Book Review: A Beginners Guide to Japan: Observations and Provocations

Book Review: A Beginners Guide to Japan: Observations and Provocations

A Beginners Guide to Japan Pico IyerA particularly idiosyncratic book this may not suit the tastes of some but is certainly one which provokes.

There are many and often inexperienced travellers to Japan who seem to think they understand the country after just one visit. The author and commentator Pico Iyer, who has lived in Japan for more than thirty-two years, seems to ‘beg to differ’. In this enjoyable romp, through a plethora of very varied perspectives from other commentators, philosophers and writers and also from his own experience during his time there, Iyer seems to assert that even after thirty-two years he no more understands Japan than he didon his first visit.

Drawn to Japan from an overnight stop over at the airport and visit to Narita (How a Stopover at Tokyo Airport Changed my Life: Pico Iyer, The Guardian, 16 May 2020) Iyer has never looked back and apart from his travelogues and TED talks has written a couple of very enjoyable books about Japan ‘The Lady and the Monk’ about his sojourn as a monk in Kyoto and his meeting with the housewife Sachiko, and more recently ‘Autumn Light: Season and Fires and Farewells’ about the rhythms of life lived in Japan.

Divided into six chapters, ‘On the Streets’, ‘At the Counter’, ‘In the Temple’, ‘Behind Closed Doors’, ‘Out the Window’, and ‘On the Horizon’, the contents of which are in the form of paragraphs of quotes and statements, the range is impressive and maybe just a little too ambitious. Quite apart from quotes from Japanese authors and thinkers such as Natsumi Soseki, Junichiro Tanazaki and Yukio Mishima, Iyer makes points by also ranging across a panoply of quotes from eminent non-Japanese thinkers, from Epitectus and Oscar Wilde to La Bruyère and the Dalai Lama, and in this perhaps goes slightly too far. Though uncertainty is unavoidable in Japan the uncertainty made explicit in this book occasionally left this reviewer wondering what was actually being referred to. Allusion might be fun for the ‘allusionist’ but can stretch the patience of readers not ‘in the know’ and there is an old adage about avoiding appearing aloof to one’s readers by potentially excluding them from things which the author is ‘in the know’ about.

Other staements are quite striking in their assertions. For instance contrary to Monisha Rajesh’s assertion that Sofia Copploa’s film ‘Lost in Translation’ is a reductionist insult (‘I started to miss brazenly beautiful Japan before I’d even left’, Monisha Rajesh, The Guardian, 1st June 2020) Iyer asserts that the film itself is revealed as totally Japanese quite simply because it’s last lines are spoken without being given away.

One sign that Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation is a Japanese movie is the fact that the audience never hears its last, and presumably most important, sentence.’ (Pg. 111, Section ‘No Words’, Chapter ‘In the Temple’).

Perhaps the most revealing ‘chapter’ for this reviewer was ‘Playing Ball’, which was entirely dedicated to baseball, a hugely popular game in Japan. Without any understanding of baseball the entire chapter held no meaning for this reviewer, and perhaps this was the most revealing – that perhaps without an understanding of the country’s obsession with baseball there will always be an element of the general persona and psyche of the Japanese that will never be understood.

Some of the observations Iyer makes don’t hold back and are as often critical as not, though in more of an observational way than being subjectively judgemental. However whilst some of the unwelcoming manifestations of Japanese phobias and resultant discriminatory legislation are revealed (minimal acceptance of refugees and the ban on dual nationality) some of the most disturbing elements that reveal Japan’s ‘Yamato-jin’ style ethnically homogeneous xenophobia haven’t been covered (for instance marriage to foreigners and citizenship, the citizenship of historically abducted ethnic Koreans, and the discrimination towards and extreme untouchability of the Burakumin). Yet in spite of these how welcoming and hospitable the Japanese are revealing the underlying compartmentalisation inherent in the Japanese character.

Whatever the reader’s take is on Japan this book is marked by many contradictory statements… …but then perhaps that’s the point this book is trying to make about Japan… …that whatever you think you know you turn a corner and are smacked full on in the face with something so contradictory to what you might have felt was your understanding of Japan that you realise that no matter how many times you visit, how long you have lived there, how beautiful the sites are that you visit, how mysterious and enlightening the philosophy is, how far your in-country travels range, how many Japanese people you speak to or befriend, that ultimately your understanding of Japan is no understanding at all. Maybe that’s what is really the ultimately and shrewdly perceptive thing about this book, and what makes Japan so attractive. Maybe the Japanese don’t really even understand themselves…

Absorbing vs exclusionist, philosophically spiritual vs ritualistically restrictive, adaptive vs fixed, forward looking vs backward looking, modern vs historical and on and on and on the contradictions range. This is less a guide book than an observational commentary and is great fun and, just like the Japanese, endlessly and inventively contradictive. Well worth a read.

A Beginners Guide to Japan: Observations and Provocations

by Pico Iyer

Bloomsbury Publishing

ISBN-10: 0451493958 (ISBN-13: 978-0451493958)

Retail price: £8.99

Reviewer Profile:

Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.

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