Expatriates on Japan

In his new book, T.R. Reid follows a grand tradition: Western writers evoking and explaining daily life in their adopted home.


Don George
April 21, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

There is a long and rich tradition of expatriate writers settling in Japan and publishing accounts of their lives in the inscrutable East. This tradition
stretches back to the turn of the century, when the roving Greek-British journalist Lafcadio Hearn sailed to Yokohama to
report for Harper's Weekly -- and ended up staying there for the last 14 years of his life, marrying a Japanese woman and becoming a Japanese citizen. Hearn's quirky, vivid, romantic portraits of Japan and renderings of Japanese folk tales and beliefs defined Western perceptions of the country and culture for decades -- and laid the
foundation for all the impressionable chroniclers to come.

The latest addition to this expatriate oeuvre is T.R. Reid's
"Confucius Lives Next Door." Based on his five and a half
years in Tokyo in the early 1990s as bureau chief for the Washington Post, Reid's work is a penetrating mix of anecdote and analysis, designed to illuminate, as the subtitle suggests, "what living in the East teaches us about living in the West."

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His goal, Reid told me on a recent swing through San
Francisco, was "to write about the Asian social miracle. There have been numerous books and articles about the Asian
economic miracle," he said, "but no one has focused on the social miracle. If you look at all the East Asian countries,
you find very low crime rates, low divorce rates, no broken homes, 1 percent of babies born to single mothers, even
low drug use in most of these countries. By many social measures, these are very successful societies. How? What did
they do that we didn't do? Or what are they doing better than we are?

"The answer, I think," he continued, "is that these are fairly
harmonious, civil societies because they are based on ethical values or moral values. And many people, including me, think that these
values first came from Confucius. Today, even people who don't know Confucius know his rules. Japan, for example,
is a very Confucian society, even if the Japanese don't recognize it. There's a woman quoted in my book who was first asked if she was a follower of Confucius.
She said, 'No, not anymore. I read Confucius in the third or fourth grade, but Confucianism has no role in my life.' And
then the professor questioning her said, 'Well, let's see, Confucius talked about the virtues of a really serious devotion to family, the
notion that group loyalties run up and down, a commitment to education, a belief in long-term relationships. And she said,
'Well, that's me. I think I'll go back and reread Confucius because this is what we're all about.'"

Striking a nice balance between edification and entertainment, Reid mixes statistics and historical research with day-to-day tales of neighbors, school life and joining-the-corporation ceremonies to present his thesis of Confucianism as code and context. "Nonfiction books on Asia are pretty off-putting," Reid acknowledged. "Publishers don't like to publish
them, and people don't like to buy them. I thought I had something serious to say, but
I really felt I needed to be entertaining, to write it in the first person, talk about my family, make it personal. It was really hard to get the
right measure and at some point to still say: Well, these are fun stories, but by the way there's an important point here."

Happily enough, this personal touch is precisely what makes Reid's arguments persuasive.

Reading "Confucius Lives Next Door" set me to thinking about all the expatriate books on Japan I've enjoyed since my own American-abroad stint in Tokyo, from 1977-79. I was able to reread many of these in co-editing the recently published anthology "Travelers' Tales: Japan." That anthology is an easy one-stop introduction to Western accounts of Japanese life and culture, but if you're inspired to start your own collection, here are some recommended titles.

Anything by
Lafcadio Hearn: To a certain extent, Hearn viewed Japan through rose-colored glasses, but nothing compares to the
freshness of his precisely observed descriptions of the place or the palpable excitement he conveys in discovering and uncovering
a rarely visited land. If you can read just one of his books, make it "Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan," which offers
extraordinary accounts of turn-of-the-century rural life and incisive, empathetic cultural analyses that still ring true a century later.

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Donald Richie is best known as the preeminent Western critic on Japanese film, but his travel book "The Inland Sea," published in 1971, is rightfully considered a classic. It is a compelling, sympathetic, richly detailed account of his journey through the islands of the Inland Sea, which stretches between the main island of Honshu and the smaller principal island of Shikoku.

Three works of fiction -- "Bicycle Days" by John Burnham Schwartz, "Ransom" by Jay McInerney and "Pictures From the Water Trade" by John David Morley -- are worth reading for their portraits of young Western men naively coming to terms with the frustrations and felicities of the foreigner's existence in Japan. Morley's tale is especially insightful. Deeper contradictions, ambivalences and illuminations are afforded by Cathy Davidson's "Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji," Leila Philip's "The Road Through Miyama" (about a two-year apprenticeship in a pottery village) and J. D. Brown's "The Sudden Disappearance of Japan."

Alex Kerr's "Lost Japan" is a learned, revealing and extremely moving collection of lessons and entreaties based on the author's 30 years in Japan. A connoisseur of Japanese art and culture, Kerr brings an unequaled passion to his observations and explorations of the ironies and dangers inherent in the country's rush to embrace modernity.

Pico Iyer's "The Lady and the Monk" is a delightful, fragile unveiling of Japan old and new -- embodied in Kyoto, the ancient capital that so elegantly manifests Japan's contemporary contradictions, and a woman named Sachiko, who over the course of the book transforms herself from a typical salaryman's wife to a liberated woman with a job and a life of her own. By delicately detailing his own four seasons in Kyoto and the unfolding of his relationship to Sachiko -- and to the city itself -- Iyer creates a profoundly compelling portrait of innocence and infatuation, cross-cultural misunderstanding and magic.

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The two last but emphatically not least titles -- in fact, in many ways the two books I would most heartily recommend -- are Alan Booth's "The Roads to Sata" and "Looking for the Lost." I remember meeting Booth shortly after moving to Japan. He was draining one beer after another and complaining bitterly -- as most of the foreigners I knew were wont to do -- about Japan: how the Japanese discriminated against foreigners, how absurdly restricted and restricting the culture was, how little independence of thought or action could be cajoled even out of students.

And yet beneath all the bitterness I sensed the passion of a lover -- here was someone who felt betrayed by the great love of his life, the country he had left his native England to woo. Booth kept threatening to leave Japan, but he never did, and later, long after I had left, he found a way to reunite himself with this lover: by walking from the northernmost tip of the northernmost island to the southernmost tip of the southernmost of the country's four main islands.

The book that resulted, "The Roads to Sata: A 2,000-Mile Walk Through Japan," is an absolutely wonderful depiction of Japanese ways and people off the beaten track, a rambling, foot-weary infusion of song and folk belief and beery revels and backcountry festivals and feasts. Booth beautifully captures the dilemma of being a foreigner in Japan -- never quite being accepted even when you speak impeccable Japanese, always being left out of the country's shielded center -- and the glory of those transcendent moments when connection and compassion somehow do bloom.

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"Looking for the Lost" is haunted by tragedy, for Booth died far too young (in his 40s) of stomach cancer shortly after finishing it -- but both works are full of grand humor and heart and the redeeming sense that, even as he was dying, at last he had found a home.


Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

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