mjj (flemmings) wrote,

Lost Japan

Reading Alex Kerr's Lost Japan, a book someone gave me almost a decade ago. (Time works different after 50. It bothers me more than I can say.)

The book irks me less this time than it did when I first tried it. Then, I think, my problem was that it was *so* different from westerners' books about Japan that I couldn't deal with it. Kerr wrote it in Japanese and someone else translated it, and it read like translated-from-the-Japanese normally does, which is flat and a little... off. IME English and Japanese do different things, as languages per se, and stuff that we unthinkingly expect to find in English isn't there in Japanese. This is fine as long as one is reading in Japanese, because the resonance comes from other things, but put it into English and it's a little like having all the tenses missing, or the articles. Something very basic just isn't there.

Now I find what's missing to be, mh, default western male attitudes to writing about oneself, and especially oneself in other cultures. It's utterly refreshing. Prior to this the only travel books about Japan I could take were written by women, because (I warn for stereotypes) the women were looking at the Japanese people they met and the men were looking at themselves. The Anglo male default is IT'S ALL ABOUT ME, LOOK AT ME!!!!! LOOK AT ME TALK TO THIS GEISHA, THIS BUSINESSMAN, THIS CUTE YOUNG GIRL. Not much concern with what's going on the heads of these people and a lot of concern about 'will they screw me? why won't they screw me? screw them for not screwing me' when it's not 'look at these strange people who aren't us, aren't they strange when they're not us, HYUK HYUK HYUK funny people who aren't us.'

This gets tiresome.

Kerr doesn't do that. Or doesn't do the 'will they screw me' and 'aren't they strange' bits. But I begin to suspect he's just being a lot more subtle about the 'all about me.' Because, mmh, it's either that, or the man has been incredibly lucky, and I'm still not sure which.

I have no money so an American friend and I go to the Kabuki and sit in the upper balconies. Fine; we've all done that. Then we go to a Kyoto teahouse and the master of the teahouse asks what did you think of the performance (Err- he does? Do the masters of teahouses always come and talk to clients?) and Kerr says Amazing, this 60 year old actor is so sensuous as the courtesan Wossname, and the master of the teahouse says Look, this guy here is going off to see that actor right now, you go with him. And Kerr does, and gets to know the famous onnagata, and then becomes friends with Tamasaburou Bando and spends the next five years backstage at kabuki theatres.

This sort of stuff doesn't happen, though I can see very well how it might have happened to Kerr. Bref: it's the 1970s, gaijin are rare, and prized as a rare species is. I heard echoes from people here and there about this golden age when it was fashionable to know foreigners and the Japanese would bend over backwards to accommodate us. Recall a newspaper article in the Japan Times pointing out that the days when the Japanese would translate everything for their English speaking friends were long over, and don't expect that level of convenience any more, learn a little Japanese for heaven's sake. From which you may conclude that gaijin who spoke fluent Japanese were even rarer. Along comes a red-haired! gaijin (helps if you look like people's conceptions) who can actually talk to you, of course you invite him in.

With Tamasaburou, Kerr himself says that the actor was just back from a tour in Europe and looking for someone to talk international culture with, and here's a Japanese-fluent Oxford-educated American navy brat whose first language was Italian, from being born during an Italian posting, and who learned chinese characters at his first grade school. That would do as a qualification, I'd say, and no need for Kerr's self-effacing 'he seemed to think I fit those requirements.'

But then again-- Kerr hears of an American collector somewhere, goes off to see him (apparently without an introduction, but maybe he just didn't mention it), and then stays at the house for three days, staying up all night with the night owl collector talking antiquities. And one sort of understands that there wer or might have been other people around as well, maybe, but these people are never identified, so maybe it was Kerr and collector tete-a-tete all the time, passionately discussing something Kerr was the rankest of amateurs at. (See what I mean by English and Japanese doing different things? English rather demands more detail-- are there other people staying here, who are they, does the collector hold a kind of open house for any gaijin wandering by, *how come* Kerr is asked to stay on just like that, isn't this all a bit odd or is it just the way things were done among expats at the time? Explanations: we expect them. The sum effect of the Japanese elisions, if you really want to know, leads this western reader to the conclusion that Kerr is gay (he's certainly not married) and so is the collector, and the instant rapport arises from a different kind of instant rapport.)

Kerr also does something that always annoys me a bit, the 'you missed the best times and now they're gone forever' song and dance routine. He wrote the book in 1994, when I was there, and spends a lot of time moaning that the country has gone to the dogs and everything is lost and the old ways that still survived when *he* first came to the country are vanished forever. I can take that from people who're talking about the good ol' days for expats. Yeah, it was a free lunch for decades and about time it got over with, guys. But Kerr is talking about the country country-- the forests vanished, no more straw raincoats in the mountain villages, young people don't know the meaning of the traditional kabuki props any more, fans and such and even kimono, oh how could they throw their culture away like that?

This would be more affecting if Lafcadio Hearn hadn't said exactly the same thing a century earlier, and Tanizaki fifty years after that. The old Japan, traditional Japan, is always vanishing, rather the way Oxford is, I think. Somehow it just never goes. It'd help if Kerr maybe did a little thinking about the forces that prompted the trend to discard tradition. Push to shove, Kerr is still a westerner, from the country whose simple existence as a marketing force and cultural entity has made any number of countries abandon their old ways. He's not a native Japanese entitled to moan about the direction the country chooses to take, and I think it a touch uppity of him to do so. And I'm getting a faint unlovely hint of that ugly American, Donald Richie, in The Inland Sea, about to hear a young woman play in a small town in Shikoku somewhere, happily expecting to hear old folk airs or lost songs, and being all gakkari when she played Faure's Pavane instead. Oh la vache! The Japanese are failing to be picturesque!

However, that's by the way. The restraint imposed on Kerr by the langauge he chose to write in (and the fact that he could write in that language *and* get a literary prize for it) makes this actually a very pleasant read all told. I shall take it as a snapshot of a period that is indeed gone, the marvellous 70s, as it might be the Parisian 20s; from the pov of someone capable of seeing a bit from the inside and not wholly from the out.
Tags: japan, reading_08
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