Japan for beginners

edited on Feb 10th, 2012.

[This is the first of a series of three posts on Japan. A second one about Kyoto and Takayama can be found here. A third one on Tokyo is here.]

As I will be travelling around Japan for 11 days starting from tomorrow (I’ll try to post from Japan in this blog, stay tuned), in the last month and half I felt like I needed to know more about this country. Being born in Italy in the early ’80s, I grew up knowing everything about US (sub)culture, while my understanding of Japan was limited to this and this. Hence I browsed through the net looking for something to look at and read. Here come the highlights of my search.

I read a collection of essays by Yukio Mishima, a deeply nationalist and conservative novelist. He committed a ritual suicide in 1970 after his coup attempt failed – his purpose was to fight against modernization of Japan and what he claimed to be its humiliating situation after World War II. Reading them was a good way to get to know Japan classical values, and the most prominent effects american cultural influence had on them. I can suggest especially Spiritual lectures for a young samurai (I translated the title from the Italian, hence the official English one may be different).

I wanted to read something by Haruki Murakami, who is rocking modern Japanese literature. By mistake, I borrowed from the library In the miso sup, a pulp, post-modern novel by Ryu Murakami about the encounter of a young Japanese with an american serial killer who also turns out to be a psychic (this is a spoiler, but you’re not going to read it, are you ?). The background is the Tokyo sex industry, where people bring together their loneliness and alienation. Mishima’s hate for modern lifestyle and its consequences on Japanese society echos everywhere in this novel. I’m not too much into this kind of books, but it was an easy read so I devoured it and, all in all, it was ok.

I flickered through other books, most notably The road to Sata, the account of a 3,500 km long tour of rural Japan the late Englishman Alan Booth did (by feet) some 35 years ago. It describes a Japan that I won’t visit and may not exist anymore; still, it provides a nice glimpse at the lifestyle of Japaneses, as well as at their attitude towards foreigners. Witty descriptions and observations are often coupled with surreal dialogues, like the following between the author and the host of a ryokan – a traditional Japanese inn:

– Are there any free rooms ?
– Well, yes, there are, but we haven’t got any beds. We sleep on mattresses on the floor.
– Yes, I know. I’ve lived in Japan for seven years.
– And you won’t be able to eat the food.
– Why, what’s the matter with it ?
– It’s fish.
– I like fish.
– But it’s raw fish.
– Look, I’ve lived in Japan for seven years. My wife is Japanese. I like raw fish.
– But I don’t think we have any knives and forks.
– Look…
– And you can’t use chopsticks.
– Of course I can. I’ve lived in Japan for…
– But it’s a tatami-mat room and there aren’t any armchairs.
– Look…
– And there is no shower in the bathroom, it’s a o-furo.
– I use chopsticks at home. I sit on tatami. I eat raw fish. I use an o-furo. I’ve lived in Japan for seven years. That’s nearly a quarter of my life. My wife…
– Yes, but we can’t speak English.
– I don’t suppose that will bother us. We’ve been speaking Japanese for the last five minutes.

It seems that Japanese modern movies are either action-packed, manga style films, or quite sophisticated ones. From the second category I watched Maborosi, the story of a young bride dealing with a sudden loss. It has some poetry: the photography and the direction are extremely accurate, especially in the exterior shots. Also, the characters are charming and intense. But sometimes it gets too slow. A funny documentary about Japan and Tokyo are those shot by OLN [edit: I found out this documentary is part of the Globe trekker series, produced by Pilot Productions and broadcasted, among others, by OLN], that follows the discovery of Japanese culture by a British journalist.

Also, it seems the gathering a decent amount of practical information before landing into Japan is very important, as few people speak English there, especially out of big cities. The tourist guides Eyewitness travel and Lonely Planet (and the website listed therein) are very good sources of travelling tips, also providing a brief introduction to Japanese culture and habits.

[Edit: Another book I liked is Tokyo Underworld by Robert Whiting. It is an account of the development of Western mafia in Japan: it arrived right after World War II and had a key role in boosting economic and industrial growth in the subsequent years. The leading character is Nick Zappetti, a former Italian-American marine, which came to Tokyo at the end of the war and went on to be a beer and checks smuggler, a wrestler, a jewel robber, a chef, the owner of the biggest chain of Pizzerias in Tokyo, a pig breeder, and much more – always with a close connection with Japanese and foreigners “that really count”. Entertaining and informative (the book, not Zappetti).]

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3 thoughts on “Japan for beginners

  1. Pingback: Traditional Japan: Kyoto and Takayama | Forty-two

  2. Pingback: 2.5 days in Tokyo | Forty-two

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