mjj (flemmings) wrote,

The Lady and the Monk

There needs to be a term for people who once lived in Japan and don't anymore. Ex-expatriates? But in my day 'expat' had a very precise meaning: it was a foreigner working for a large multinational, living in one of the hideously expensive gaijin districts, in a palatial apartment that his (usually) company paid for, associating with other expatriates, probably not speaking much Japanese and certainly not reading any: a psychic holdover from the Occupation, whatever its real age; and despised by the rest of us who taught English and studied Japanese and lived in mokuzou haitsu (two storey wooden buildings with maybe a two-room apartment on each floor) or the more modern one-room/ galley-kitchen/ unit bath apaatos, or even an over-priced gaijin house with cockroaches and shared bath and toilet.

So ex-expat won't do. Maybe FJR: 'formerly Japan resident.' In any case, FJRs will always read books on Japan with a different slant from anyone else. I'm not sure what Pico Iyer is actually doing in The Lady and the Monk-- sober memoir? fictionalization? populated travelogue?-- and only mildly interested in how he does it. (Even if the events are factual the structure is artistic, so that it's all lovely sensuous mysterious Kyoto for many chapters and only near the end is there a paragraph about the noise in the guest-house Iyer lives in, that would have made *me* leave in a day.) With the single-mindedness of the FJR I'm only interested in how his Japan looks compared to mine.

As I said, his Japan is full of people who came to study Buddhism. Maybe the Buddha-fanciers all went to Kyoto because I never met a single one in Tokyo. To study shamisen or shakuhachi, yes; the language for sure; but Buddhism per se, no way. Even then, as he notes, 'most people seemed to come to Japan for Buddhism, and ended up after girls or cash.'

This is where I start to eye-roll a bit. A bloke thing, perhaps: Iyer professes great admiration and sympathy for two guys who spent years in the monastery but sneaked out regularly to screw their girlfriends-- arguing, as Iyer nods agreement, that all the monks do it. But oh it ends soooo sadly:
Trained as a conservatory student at Oberlin, he had suddenly abandoned family and career and come to Kyoto to serve as a monk. (W)hen his girlfriend had borne him a baby... Rick had felt obliged to quit the temple to join her. But the temple, of course, had prepared him for everything except living with a woman (J note: and obviously growing up in Ohio hadn't either) and soon thereafter they had ended up having terrible, screaming, plate-throwing fights. Finally, he had left her- only to find himself totally isolated: his girl, now his wife, enraged that he had left her as a fallen woman, in charge, moreover, of a half-caste child; the monastic community outraged at his defection; and all the foreign community gathered in one clucking chorus to condemn a man- a monk, no less- for seducing a Japanese lady and then abandoning her.
And him such a quietly intense chap: "his eyes arresting, his voice softly purring, all of him buzzing with a quiet fire." How can people be so meeean to a man like that? Me, I bet he was the one throwing the plates.

(My beginners' Buddhist reading suggests that Buddhism teaches you how to deal with *everything.* Maybe Zen doesn't. I have deep reservations about Zen, or at least the versions that make it over here.)

Then there's the difference in physical perception. Here's a sentence that follows Iyer's rhapsodizing on the green colours of a Kyoto summer (which I agree- the greenness of *parts of* Kyoto is intense: the parts that don't look like Stockholm): "Always the sharpened intensity of solid colors in Japan, so strong they knock the breath out of you: pink against blue, gold on black, a blaze of reds." And Canadian me goes 'Hunh??" Japan everywhere is watercolour when it isn't straight dun: all that moisture in the air softens and bleaches. I never saw a decent sunset in the five years I was there, not even in the dry season, winter. Yes, the Kyoto momiji are famously red: but they're surrounded by trees that look like ancient polaroids-- greens gone yellow, yellows gone brown, everything going beige. But Iyer comes from California and was schooled in England from the age of nine. I can only assume that compared to what he knows, Japanese colours are indeed strong-- as the Australians in Tokyo were enchanted by leaves that OMG changed colour at all! (Mutatis mutandis, accustomed to saturated primaries, I could never name the indeterminate in-between shades on half the kimono I saw: kind of a bluey green pale aqua only not; not salmon and not peach and not tangerine and certainly not pink but uh kind of all of them?)

Iyer has one line that knocked me out. "No other place I knew took me back so far or deep, to what seemed like a better time and self." No one else I've read or talked to has had that experience, of constantly finding in Japan an unplaceable piece of one's past, transported whole and with no sense of incongruity to a Tokyo back street. I can't remember the experience clearly now, after all these decades; I think I'd assumed it was a sort of deja-vu, something that only seemed to mirror something I might have seen when I was maybe five or so-- long long ago when the world was a different place entirely. This may not even be what Iyer is talking about at all but clearly something spoke as deeply to him as it did to me.
Tags: japan, reading_13, religion

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