Wrong About Japan


Read 20/09/2017-22/09/2017

Rating: 4 stars

My husband noticed this on the non-fiction shelves in the library. I like Peter Carey’s novels, and a memoir of how he and his teenage son became captivated by manga and anime and travelled to Tokyo to meet artists and directors in each industry sounded interesting.

Their odyssey began in the early 2000s. The internet was a thing, but I had to remember that it wasn’t yet quite the thing it is today when Carey’s habit of presuming things about Japanese culture made me want him to do some research.

His son Charley quietly gets on with his own research, making friends online with a Japanese teen who offers to meet them in Tokyo and show them around. Takashi begins the theme that provides the title of the book when he politely but firmly puts Carey right about most of his presumptions about Japan and the lives lived by most Tokyo residents.

I enjoyed reading Carey’s first impressions of Japan, particularly as his plans for the trip mirrored the Tokyo part of my honeymoon, to an extent. He chooses Asakusa as their base, and stays in a ryokan that reminded me of the ryokan we stayed in on our second trip to Japan. The way their taxi driver leaves his car with doors open and engine running as he leads them down the alley to their ryokan made me think about the time we couldn’t find Mamecha in Kyoto and ended up in a taxi that took us one block to a pedestrian street we’d walked up twice. The driver jumped out and beckoned us to follow him as we anxiously worried about his taxi being stolen. He took us pretty much to the door of the restaurant.

Akira and Gundam are Carey and Charley’s ‘in’ to manga and anime, before Charley moves them on to an anime called Blood: The Last Vampire. This film piques Carey’s interest in the history of samurai swords, and one of the first interviews they conduct is with Yoshihara-san, a sword maker who lives in a Tokyo suburb. One of Carey’s publishing contacts, Jerry, is married to a Japanese woman, Etsuko, who guides them through the Japanese block system to the address. I liked Takashi’s explanation of the Japanese system of chome (district) number, ku (ward) name, block number and building number to locate an address.

“It is not because we are secretive,” Takashi told me later. “Westerners think we want to hide from them. No one is hiding. Our way is logical. It is zoom shot, see. Begin wide, then zoom in until you have [close up] of your building.”

Yoshihara-san also politely but firmly puts Carey right on one or two things he’s read in Western books on the subject of sword making in Japan. I felt a little frustrated by Carey’s telling of the encounter. He is light on detail, but that is probably because Yoshihara-san felt unable to explain the history and cultural importance of swords to the Japanese, and his own practice as a National Living Treasure in a modern city, in the course of an hour. Carey also had to balance his desire to examine this tradition in depth with his teenage son’s boredom threshold, so I was also frustrated on Carey’s behalf.

Carey and Charley have different trips. Carey is almost constantly feeling excited about learning about this different culture and simultaneously ashamed by his ignorance and presumptuousness. Charley is a quieter presence, chatting with Takashi by text, learning in his own way, more at home with the modern Japanese way of doing things.

“Give me some change,” he said. “I’ll get the tickets for Akihabara. Please …”
I gave him a handful of coins, and by the time Jerry, Etsuko, and I caught up with him, Charley was feeding a very alien-looking ticket dispenser as if it were a Vegas slot machine. Now he was alive, engaged. The machine whirred at his command, spitting tickets out into his waiting hand.
“How do you know how to do that?”
“I’m going to live here,” he said, “after my band fails.”

The tension between what Carey wants from the trip and what Charley wants is by turns excruciating and funny. Charley wants the full on, neon-lit, otaku, cosplay experience, but not in any clichéd, touristy way. He’s a teenager who wants to immerse himself in the culture of other teenagers. Carey doesn’t get it and has to keep reminding himself that he promised that the trip would be Charley’s trip. Of course, because he’s funding it as work, part of the trip has to give him sources for a book, but it’s his choice to make those sources about the things he’s interested in, rather than taking an opportunity to explore the things his son’s generation is interested in. Carey comes across as a massive ego trampling on his son’s personhood at times.

In their pursuit of understanding the origins and importance of manga and anime, Carey and Charley interview Yuka Minakawa, author of Gundam Officials, an encyclopedia of all things Gundam. I have a large tome that covers the history of manga, which I’ve started but not finished. Yuka Minakawa provides Carey and Charley, and therefore me, with a brief history of manga’s beginnings that makes me want to read more on the subject. Yuka also continues the practice of correcting Carey on his presumptions while remaining enigmatic about the truth.

One of Carey’s friends, Kenji, who is a Tokyo-based architect, is the most forthcoming about the subtexts of manga and anime which are obvious to Japanese people because they are part of the fabric of Japanese life, but which are hidden from non-Japanese. They arrange to watch My Neighbour Totoro together, pausing at points where Kenji can offer an explanation of things that Carey didn’t even know were things. I found this really interesting. I know some things about Shinto, such as the reason certain trees have a rope with paper twists attached tied around the trunk, and the way torii gates of various sizes indicate a sacred spot, but there are other things in the film that I have never noticed and now want to look out for.

There is a magical moment at the end of the book, which I won’t spoil by describing it in detail, but which made me melt with joy at the way interest in something can transcend language. Carey and Charley meet someone by surprise, having hoped for it but not expected it, and therefore having made no preparations, so that one of Carey’s excruciating interviews can’t intrude on the moment. I read the passage a couple of times to drink in the wonder of it. It was like a version of Christmas that involved someone real but also mythical. It was on a par, for me, with the time Murakami set up a site where his readers could submit questions and I asked something I never thought he would answer, but then he did.

By the end of the book, Carey is self-deprecatingly aware of his tendency to egotism and Charley is increasing in self-confidence. It’s a book that works in many different ways. If you’re interested in Japan, its culture, the history behind manga and anime, or if you’re the parent to boys, or if you’re a fan of Peter Carey, give this book a whirl.

3 thoughts on “Wrong About Japan

    1. I found what his friend Kenji says interesting. It made me realise how much I must miss in Japanese literature and cinema because I don’t have the correct visual/symbolic understanding of cues that are obvious to Japanese people. I hope you enjoy it!


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