Thursday, March 27, 2014

Stephanie Dowrick explores two views of Japan

 Co-host Stephanie Dowrick reviews two books - a memoir and a novel - that may help us to understand more about the fascinating, alluring culture of Japan, and what it may mean to be "Japanese".

Stephanie Dowrick in Kyoto
My fascination with Japan and Japanese culture and aesthetic still has far to run. I've been to Japan five times in recent years but see myself as a mere beginner. I am delighted that William Suganda and I will pick up our "Writing in Kyoto" adventures again in 2015. (This year we are offering "Happiness in the Land of Happiness" - Bhutan - as a glorious diversion.) But meantime I continue to read and think about Japan - and it multiple layers of meaning.

Two "Japan" books that I have read recently have added real depth to my Japan understanding. Each is quite different from the other; but that's part of the charm of a reading life...that one is continuously creating a reading quilt of many, many colours.

Let's start with the beautifully titled and written Talking to High Monks in the Snow by Lydia Minatoya. Her book is subtitled "An Asian-American Odyssey" and what it turns out to be is a quite exceptionally thoughtful, observant account of what it means to be born Japanese outside Japan.  As I read it I realized how first-generation migrants are almost uniquely poised to observe what their parents' culture signifies (for the parents, for those who remain at home, and for the children of those migrants) and also to see into and through their "host" culture far more clearly than those who belong to the dominant culture and find its peculiarities, customs, assumptions entirely natural or self-evident.

The differences are heightened when the migrating family comes from a monocultural, self-referencing, claustrophobic but ceaselessly rich culture such as Japan was and is.

Minatoya writes: "Coming from a land swept by savage typhoons, ravaged by earthquakes and volcanoes, the Japanese have evolved a view of the world: a cooperative, stoic, almost magical way of thinking. Get along, work hard, and never quite see the things that can bring you pain. Against the tyranny of nature, of feudal war lords, of wartime hysteria, the charm works equally well."

High Monks is not a new book (though it is still easily available). The author is reflecting on a period of post-war growing up that will have changed significantly in the United States as well as in Britain and Australia. That doesn't make it any less interesting. Racial and cultural stereotyping continues to blind us to individuals' humanity and uniqueness. Nonetheless some things have changed. In Minatoya's childhood, "Everyone knew real American families were white." Also, "Call it denial, but many Japanese Americans never quite understood that the promise of America was not truly meant for them."

But this multi-award-winning book is not about being Japanese American only. Much of its charm (and I was captivated) comes from Minatoya's adult investigation of what being "Japanese" might mean for her, individually. To discover this, she spends a considerable amount of time in Japan. Also, and far less predictably, she spends time in China and in Nepal. Throughout, she juggles trust and risk. "Cautiousness and boldness. I am a curious creature - half mole, half bird - a burrowing being constantly lured aloft by glimpses of the sky." A shy woman of great charm and intelligence, she attracts people's confidences and brings her odyssey to life through gently unfolding tales of real people and their deep hopes, their losses and gains, their shames and their courage. She also uses a very Japanese way of evoking deep feeling through subtle everyday externalities: "I look into my green tea. A stem floats perpendicularly. The Japanese say that this is an omen of luck."

The second of my Japan "finds" is written by a Westerner, an American writer with a long-time interest in Japan: John Burnham Schwartz. Called The Commoner, it is a fictional portrait of the talented, spirited young woman who became Empress Michiko, the first non-royal to marry into the Japanese royal family.

An imaginative excursion such as this one is fraught with dangers. Schwartz is taking himself - and us - into a culture that is not his own, into an arcane world within a world, and also telling the story in the first-person of a character at least somewhat based on a still-living woman. But that is what the incredible adventure of fiction allows: an imaginative journey. That is its magic, and if the magic doesn't entirely succeed, the journey is nonetheless entirely worth taking.
The young commoner who eventually became Empress Michiko
Most of the novel focuses on the period of life when "Haruko" and the Crown Prince of Japan are very young adults, and genuinely fall in love. That this is a love match is immensely convincing and perhaps the book's greatest strength is in telling this story, although Haruko's great love for her parents and especially her father is also tender and convincing. But love doesn't protect Haruko from the harshness of an almost entirely hermetic existence. The Japanese royal family were regarded as divine until the aftermath of the Second World War. As this novel presents them, they continued thereafter to live in every way far removed from ordinary existence and freedoms. Haruko's every move and moment is supervised, criticized and found wanting. The undermining of her relationship to her first child, the son she was intended to have, is especially poignant.

The novel is told in Haruko's voice. Highly intelligent, deeply thoughtful and kind, she emerges as a most endearing narrator. We are always on her side. Nonetheless, in observing the struggles of her son's wife (even more loosely based on the current Crown Princess of Japan), the novel takes flight in ways that are less convincing and therefore less intriguing. But that loss of pace and conviction nonetheless pointed up to me, at least, how engaged I'd become with Haruko's own fate, and the intense court culture from which she - a modern woman - could not escape, nor significantly affect.
John Burnham Schwartz
 You can buy Talking to High Monks in the Snow postage free via this LINK.
You can buy The Commoner postage free via this LINK.
Sales via QBD on-line return a small % to us to help support this Book Club. We also provide links above right for readers outside Australia.  And we love to hear from you in response to our articles and suggestions! Comments box is below.

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