mjj (flemmings) wrote,

Am reading Pico Iyer's The Lady and the Monk, and being bemused, as ever, at the Japan other people saw that I never did. Iyer goes to Kyoto on a whim and winds up staying at a temple that's perfectly happy to have him. How? I suppose, when your dad's a friend of the Dalai Lama, kone does its work. The gaijin Iyer meets in '87, either the ones who've been in Japan for a quarter century or those who've just arrived, are all studying Zen, or want to. Four years later, the gaijin I met in Tokyo were there to teach English, complain about the Japanese, and meet girls. Iyer's friends only want the last: a universal constant. But he at least got some decent conversation out of it, she grumps.

His biography explains a lot of why he seemed to have been welcomed with open arms by that notoriously closed city, Kyoto-- where one hears the Japanese won't rent to other Japanese unless their families are known to each other. Taught at Harvard, writes for Time- by all means invite him to a closed Buddhist investiture ceremony. Timing may explain some of the rest. In 1991 Tokyoites at least were tired of the wave of unilingual brash foreigners, but the golden years were within living memory; they may well have been current four years earlier. In the early 80s, and even more the 70s, foreigners didn't go to Japan to get rich. There had to be a hook that connected them to the place, which saved them from some of the unlovely attitudes of the English teachers.

In the end it might be no more than personality. Introverts and melancholics do not fare well in that cheerful extroverted culture; a liking for, indeed a need to be in, other people's company, and a tendency to take things lightly puts you smack in the culture's mainstream and makes you congenial to the Japanese themselves. Helps that Iyer grew up a perpetual outsider, which is about the only way to survive happily in Japan. And of course he's a reporter, and edits his experience; which saves him from the petulant ego displays of books like The Inland Sea or The Roads to Sata-- both of which, note, are about gaijin during the golden age who were still sulky that the Japanese refused to be the way they wanted them to be.

(I see Richie died two months ago. Wikipedia notes "Although Richie spoke Japanese fluently, he could neither read nor write it proficiently." I suppose I respect someone who can travel in a country where he can't read the names of the train stations; I couldn't do that.)
Tags: japan, reading_13

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