Peter’s new friends

Peter’s new friends
By Angel Gurria-Quintana
Published: January 9 2005 16:23 | Last updated: January 9 2005 16:23

Wrong About Japan
by Peter Carey
Faber £12.99, 166 pages

Ever since Commodore Perry sailed into Edo Bay in the 19th century, forcing Japan out of its isolation, western curiosity about the land of the rising sun has been boundless. From the creations of Puccini to Tarantino, Japanese stereotypes have doggedly inhabited our popular culture, while a number of scholars and specialist have taken it upon themselves to “understand” Japanese culture.

In the postwar period, American anthropologist Ruth Benedict explained that the essence of Japan could be found in its unique coupling of aesthetic and militaristic values - the chrysanthemum and the sword, to use her own memorable phrase. Years later, French intellectual Roland Barthes opted for an approach that forewent any knowledge of Japanese culture altogether - the country was an empire of signs, where calligraphy, flower arrangements and gambling parlours were equally open to interpretation. Needless to say, very few Japanese felt adequately portrayed by such intriguing but simplistic foreign readings.

Among the most endearing traits of Peter Carey’s Wrong About Japan is a blunt admission of the fact that gaijin (the Japanese term for foreigners) have never quite comprehended Japanese culture, and never quite will. “I slowly began to understand that I was wrong,” he writes about his various cultured assumptions. “Because once I was in Japan,” he continues elsewhere, “I understood that, as a foreigner, I could never know the truth.”

Carey went to Japan to satisfy his 12-year-old son’s intense curiosity about the comic books known as manga and their animated version, anime. To parents of adolescent youths, his dilemma will be familiar: how to find an interest shared by one’s moody, introspective offspring. When Charley developed a passion for manga and anime, the Booker-winning author of Oscar and Lucinda and The True History of the Kelly Gang thought he had found the common ground that might lead to fruitful discussions about Japanese history, poetry, theatre and woodblock printing. “I began to wonder if we might enter the mansion of Japanese culture through its garish, brightly lit back door.”

As it turns out, he was wrong about that, too. Not only because Charley never warmed to kabuki theatre and ukiyoe art, despite his father’s desperate pleas, but because, as the author soon finds out, the alleged back door to Japanese culture is, in fact, its main entrance.

There is a running joke throughout Carey’s essay, involving the nature of “the Real Japan”. To Charley, the phrase conveys Shinto shrines and teahouses, and he intends to stay as far away from it as possible. As it happens, he finds himself in the thick of a culture that is just as “real” as the other more ancient one. The only realities that can exist, Carey concedes, are versions of the same multifaceted country. “Of course to think that manga... are somehow more authentic than temples is wrongheaded,” he realises, “but this actually was our Japan, and we liked it here.”

Carey’s earnest anthropologist’s attempt to study manga and anime as “artifacts worthy of cultural investigation” - is comically offset by his travel companion’s matter-of-fact expertise on such matters, and by the realisation that he is inevitably prone to misunderstandings.

He knows, however, that such misunderstandings are fruitful for a writer. On meeting a venerable swordsmith, he asks if making a steel blade is a spiritual experience. The old master’s wry answer is: “You’ve been reading American books?” Later, the director of a cult anime listens respectfully to Carey’s hypothesising before making it clear “that nothing in this country was as I thought it was. My misunderstandings were very interesting, he said.”

Caricaturing a foreign culture is the easiest path for authors of accounts of travel. It is easier when dealing with one so alien, so teeming with apparently inscrutable peculiarities, as the Japanese. Carey studiously avoids caricatures. His Japanese characters are as filled with contradictions as his disoriented gaijin.

Although Carey owns up to a depressing feeling that stems from his “shameful ignorance” and an “inability even to break the skin of this culture”, his attempts at dealing with his admitted lack of knowledge are, ultimately, superficial. For someone claiming to be anxious to understand, he is remarkably relaxed about not knowing the language.

And yet, it is the sheer lack of pretension that makes this understated account of travel so illuminating. Like Carey and Charley, we may never cease to be wrong about Japan. The “Real Japan” may yet elude us, but realising this may be the first step towards unpicking inevitable misapprehensions. For this reason alone, readers of Wrong About Japan should be grateful.