Sweet Bean Paste

Title: Sweet Bean Paste
Japanese Title: あん (An)
Author: Durian Sukegawa (ドリアン助川)
Translators: Alison Watts
Publication Year: 2013 (Japan); 2017 (United States)
Publisher: Oneworld Publications
Pages: 216

Sweet Bean Paste is a novel about the trauma of discrimination and the stress of living in an unjust society, but the experience of reading it will help you remember the pleasure of being able to readjust your perspective, even if doing so is initially awkward and unpleasant.

Sentaro Tsujii is a young(ish) man who runs a stall called Doraharu that sells dorayaki, pancakes filled with sweet paste made from adzuki beans. Although Doraharu is owned by his former boss’s widow, Sentaro works by himself all day every single day of the year. When he finally decides to put up a “Help Wanted” announcement, a 76-year-old woman named Tokue Yoshii shows up and offers to work for only 200 yen an hour. Sentaro declines, thinking that he doesn’t want to be bothered by an old woman hanging around, but he quickly changes his mind when he tries her homemade red bean paste, which is unlike anything he’s ever tasted.

Doraharu is located in an open-air shopping arcade called Cherry Blossom Street, which is slowly losing foot traffic as customers gravitate to suburban shopping centers. Nevertheless, thanks to the deliciousness of the bean paste Sentaro makes with Tokue, the stall experiences a brief period of prosperity. It’s especially popular with students on their way home, and Tokue chats with the girls as she helps Sentaro. She becomes particularly friendly with an otherwise standoffish middle-school student named Wakana. Once Tokue finally draws Wakana out of her shell, the girl asks her about her hands, something Sentaro has wondered about as well.

Tokue reveals that she once had Hansen’s disease, and Sentaro realizes that she must live in Tenshoen, a sanitarium just outside of town. Until 1996, Hansen’s patients were secluded from the rest of society by law despite the fact that the illness has been cured and is no longer transmissible. When Wakana’s mother finds out who Tokue is and where she lives, however, she spreads the information around the community. The flow of business at Doraharu dries up, and Tokue voluntarily quits her job.

Sentaro served a prison sentence after being arrested in possession of recreational marijuana as a college student; and, as someone who was prevented from realizing the ambitions he held as a young man, he sympathizes with Tokue’s plight as a target of irrational discrimination. Wakana, a social outcast herself, regrets the part she’s played in how events have unfolded, and she agrees to accompany Sentaro on a trip to visit Tokue at Tenshoen, where they learn things about their community that they’d never suspected.

The savory center of Sweet Bean Paste is the slow development of the relationship between Sentaro, Tokue, and Wakana, but the novel is ultimately about learning to find beauty and meaning in an unfair world despite knowing that some injustices may never be corrected. This theme occasionally results in a cloying level of sentimentality, but its emotional straightforwardness is balanced by the narrative itself, which offers no easy answers or conclusions.

Something I appreciate about Tokue is that, even though she’s a generally positive and upbeat person who doesn’t see herself as a victim, she expresses genuine sorrow and resentment at forces beyond her control, and the reader is occasionally made to feel uncomfortable in her presence. Meanwhile, Sentaro has a history of alcoholism and depression, and Sweet Bean Paste portrays the lived experience of these conditions with the respect and sensitivity it deserves. Although the novel doesn’t normalize illness, it humanizes it.

Sweet Bean Paste is not moralistic or didactic, however, and its major accomplishment is doing what all good fiction does, which is to allow the reader to experience the world from another point of view. Sukegawa excels at narrating from different positions while subtly shifting the reader’s viewpoint away from the emphasis on able-bodied “health” conveyed by so many aspects of mainstream culture and society. Readers looking for a happy ending may be disappointed, but the novel’s wholesomeness lies in its positive outlook on life. This is a small story about ordinary people, but it’s filled with hope and sweetness.

Convenience Store Woman

Title: Convenience Store Woman
Japanese Title: コンビニ人間 (Konbini ningen)
Author: Sayaka Murata (村田 沙耶香)
Translator: Ginny Tapley Takemori
Publication Year: 2016 (Japan); 2018 (United States)
Publisher: Grove Press
Pages: 163

Keiko Furukawa is 36 years old and has been working at the same convenience store for almost two decades. She loves the job, which suits her perfectly. Keiko has never fit in and constantly finds herself at a loss for how to talk with other people, but human interaction is governed by detailed rules and a prewritten script in the perfectly ordered world of the convenience store. “A convenience store is a forcibly normalized environment where foreign matter is immediately eliminated,” Keiko explains, adding that she appreciates this sense of distance from unnecessary social and emotional disturbances (60). The structured environment of the convenience store provides Keiko with a safe space in which she can perform work that she finds satisfying, meaningful, and helpful to other people.

At its core, Convenience Store Woman is a novella about the dignity of a job that many people find trivial and demeaning. Keiko takes obvious pride in the convenience store where she has worked since it opened eighteen years ago, and it’s not difficult to share her enthusiasm as she cheerfully describes seemingly banal tasks such as preparing food, restocking shelves, and greeting customers. Unlike the confusing and conflicting expectations imposed on her by the outside world, Keiko knows exactly what needs to be done in the convenience store, and she knows exactly when and how to do it. She often remarks on the feeling of satisfaction her experience and competence give her. For example, at the beginning of the novel, Keiko declares…

It is the start of another day, the time when the world wakes up and the cogs of society begin to move. I am one of those cogs, going round and round. I have become a functioning part of the world, rotating in the time of day called morning. (4)

Keiko pays close attention to the smallest details of the self-contained environment of the store, and her keen powers of observation allow her to appreciate the personalities and behavioral quirks of the customers. She does not judge or discriminate against anyone who enters the store and does her best to unobtrusively ensure that they are comfortable. She applies the same keen focus of her attention to her coworkers, mimicking their comments and speech patterns so that they find her friendly, companionable, and – most importantly – normal.

Convenience Store Woman doesn’t have an overarching plot, but its story is propelled forward by small scenes of conflict resulting from the friction between Keiko’s contentment and the expectations of other people. A crucial incident occurs during a backyard barbeque during which the husbands of Keiko’s high school friends have too much to drink and start laying into her for remaining in the same dead-end job without getting married. “The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects,” Keiko later rationalizes as she thinks back on the conversation. “Anyone who is lacking is disposed of” (80). Keiko comes to the unfortunate realization that, by remaining unmarried and childless at 36, she has begun to stray so far outside of normative social expectations that she risks ostracization.

Partially because of this incident, Keiko feels pressured into inviting a thirty-something NEET named Shiraha to live in her apartment. Shiraha briefly worked at the same convenience store as Keiko but had been dismissed because of his poor performance. He had also, it turns out, been stalking some of the customers, and he continues to hang around the building even after he’s fired. Keiko views this as a threat to the harmony of the convenience store, so she takes it on herself to drag him to a family restaurant and try to talk sense into him. During this conversation, Shiraha echoes many of Keiko’s anxieties regarding social belonging, saying that he risks ostracization himself if he remains unmarried.

Although Shiraha is thoroughly unpleasant, Keiko invites him into her apartment and treats him like a pet, happy to tell the people in her life that a man has moved in with her. The circumstances aren’t ideal; but, as Keiko explains to the reader, “Deep down I wanted some kind of change. Any change, whether good or bad, would be better than the state of impasse I was in now” (94). The “impasse” Keiko faces has nothing to with wanting to advance in life; rather, the complications that arise from Shiraha’s presence trigger a crisis that forces Keiko to choose between becoming the person she is expected to be and her own unique sense of happiness.

Keiko reads as being on the autism spectrum, and her thought processes and behavioral patterns remind me a great deal of some of my friends and students with Asperger’s Syndrome. Keiko never explicitly identifies herself as being on the spectrum, however, and I get the impression that she would probably find the label distasteful. When she honestly informs a group of women that she has never been romantically attracted to anyone, they sympathetically respond that it’s become much more common and socially accepted to identify as asexual, and that they would understand if she were to come out as such, but Keiko finds this offensive.

I’d never experienced sex, and I’d never even had any particular awareness of my own sexuality. I was indifferent to the whole thing and had never really given it any thought. And here was everyone taking it for granted that I must be miserable when I wasn’t. (37)

To Keiko, she is no one but herself, and she has no interest in serving as a representative for anyone else. Be that as it may, I think people who identify as asexual or on the autism spectrum will find a great deal of resonance in Keiko’s experience of being misunderstood and pressured to conform to arbitrary expectations, often “for her own good.” Toward the end of the story Keiko grows increasingly annoyed at the irrationality of the people who claim that they are trying to help her, including her own sister, who is “far happier thinking her sister is normal, even if she has a lot of problems, than she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine. For her, normality – however messy – is far more comprehensible” (133). Regardless of Keiko’s opinion as the narrator of her own story, I feel that she does in fact perform advocacy, especially in her insistence that her personality and life choices are not a result of psychological trauma and that she is, in fact, healthy, happy, and strong.

In an enlightening interview with Fran Bigman at LitHub, Sayaka Murata talks about her own experiences of working as a convenience store cashier as she has continued to publish more than a dozen books during the past fifteen years. “For me and also for Keiko it is both a utopia and a dystopia,” Murata explains. “It is a utopia where you can make people happy, make friends, or feel less gendered.” Customers don’t have to put on an act (or fancy clothes or makeup) to walk into a convenience store, and foreign customers and employees are welcome. For an employee who is unwilling or unable to conform to corporate-dictated guidelines, a convenience store can be a dystopia, but clearly defined behavioral standards are exactly what Murata’s narrator needs in order to feel like a well-adjusted member of society. To anyone who’s ever felt that life might sometimes be a little easier if there were a rulebook, it’s easy to see the appeal of the utopian aspects of the convenience store environment.

Identity politics aside, Convenience Store Woman provides an entertaining glimpse into the mind and worldview of a fascinating character. Many parts of the novel are humorous, while others are uncomfortably cringe-inducing. More than any sort of social critique, however, Murata offers her readers finely detailed observations of the human beings inside a Japanese convenience store, which is a marvelous ecosystem unto itself.

Writing Pregnancy in Low-Fertility Japan

Title: Writing Pregnancy in Low-Fertility Japan
Author: Amanda C. Seaman
Publisher: University of Hawai‘i Press
Publication Year: 2017
Pages: 230

This guest review is by Tyran Grillo (@tyrangrillo on Twitter).

Amanda C. Seaman’s Writing Pregnancy in Low-Fertility Japan is a masterfully written and timely monograph. It explores the role of pregnancy, if not the pregnancy of roles, concerning women as subjects within, and creators of, Japanese literature in a time of social restlessness around questions of procreation.

In her first chapter, “Write Your Mother,” Seaman seeks to define the practical and symbolic overtures of pregnancy as literary trope. Summarizing not only the large amount of literature on pregnancy and childbirth, but also the media blitz on Japan’s falling birthrate and rising aging population, she rightly asks: Does there continue to be a national obsession with all things baby? None have given this question proper attention, and Seaman’s work provides a compelling response. In addition to a widespread media blackout on this question, even less attention is paid to “cultural, artistic, and intellectual responses to and representations of pregnancy and childbearing in the ‘low fertility’ age” (1). This, Seaman claims, lenses a unique perspective on pregnancy as a metaphorical site for the actual bodies undergoing misunderstood changes.

Seaman is concerned with how women writers are using storytelling as response mechanism, and to make this point focuses on works of Takahashi Takako, Itō Hiromi, Ogawa Yōko, Tadano Miako, and Hasegawa Junko, among others. While politicians and other policy makers have taken it upon themselves to make pregnancy a matter of intense public interest, these writers make it matter of intense private interest, albeit in the decidedly public format of mass-market publishing.

Seaman’s book opens with an erudite summary of the scare regarding declining birth rates from the end of the Pacific War to the present century. Despite surface-level concern and efforts, Japan’s government has done little to promote childbearing in any way amenable to actual women. As the media continues to propagate a sugarcoated version of marriage and childbirth, the realities explored by Seaman’s writers of interest reflect an unabashed landscape of “danger, repression, destruction, or pain” (4). Their focus on bodies as continents shifting to the seismic activity of public opinion ensures that the self becomes not simply a beacon but a lightning rod to political provocation.

Explicit discussion on the printed page of women’s fertile bodies in such intimate terms is a relatively modern concession, and before its advent women’s bodies were relegated to a relatively impressionistic realm of unclean impulses and male-defined mystery. Yosano Akiko, notes Seaman, was instrumental in bringing an embodied approach to pregnancy and childbearing in the early 20th century, as well as for addressing the suffering involved in both. Her call was not taken up by many, although it did spark the “maternal turn” promulgated by such writers as Okamoto Kanoko. After the Pacific War, women’s maternal roles were more intimately associated with carbon-copied nuclear family archetypes. Only in the 1960s and 1970s did a “new wave” of women writers emerge. Among them, Tsushima Yūko reclaimed motherhood, in all its ups and downs, as something distinctly women’s own. Pregnancy manga soon followed in the early 1990s, and Seaman includes analyses of quintessential examples.

The title of Chapter Two – “Hey, You, Get Out of My Womb!” – references pregnancy as both a literal and metaphorical cipher of invasion. In this chapter, Takahashi Takako, Takekawa Sei, and Ogawa Yōko are shown to focus on the alien aspects of pregnancy. Seaman opens with an poem by Yosano Akiko that pays homage to folkloric themes newly applied to pregnancy. This sets a precedent for writers to come by exploring the ambivalences of the womb and using horror as a device of interruption. By capitalizing on the latter tropes, these writers challenge the characterization of pregnancy as uneventful. In Takekawa Sei’s “Tsuki no nai yoru ni” (On a moonless night), we encounter fantasy as manifestation of fear of sexuality in tandem with childhood trauma. And yet, Seaman concludes, “nothing can supersede the maternal instinct, not even the personal wishes or well-being of the maternal subject herself” (26). Takahashi Takako’s “Kodomo-sama” (Holy terror), on the other hand, takes fears of pregnancy into monstrous dimensions, while Ogawa Yōko’s “Ninshin Karenda” (Pregnancy diary) is alienation incarnate. Seaman characterizes the latter story as a modern fairy tale in its evocation of a collective unknown as it spirals into a pseudo-scientific and occult-like framing of family bonds and communication. She further notes an overarching ambiguity at play in all of these stories.

Chapter Three, “And Baby Makes One,” examines pregnancy and its connection to notions of escape and reformation of personal identity. Both Hasegawa Junko’s “Museiran” (The unfertilized egg) and Tsushima Yūko’s Chōji (Child of fortune) deal with women treating pregnancy as an escape and motherhood as a “type of personal salvation” (52). Seaman reveals motherhood as a leitmotif throughout Tsushima’s oeuvre in constant negotiations of opposites – both in the physical and emotional sense. The 36-year-old protagonist is on the cusp of losing her womanhood (at least from society’s point of view), and the narrator recalls the indifference with which she treated her present daughter, finding peace only when her maternity slips away from conscious reiteration. Hasegawa’s “Museiran” goes further in its depiction of a painful hermetism, but both authors make use of dreams and fantasies, using the power of pregnancy to go beyond the playing field of romance in the shadow of failure.

Pregnancy as a way to partnership is the subject of Chapter Four, “Manual Labor,” which discusses millennial writers Kakuta Mitsuyo and Tadano Miako. Seaman sees both as challenging what she calls “canonical pregnancy,” by which is meant the “ideals and practices promoted by pregnancy literature” (81). Such literature “trains” expecting mothers to become realizations of the ideal, as if such extraneous knowledge were only available in magazines, books, and guidelines and not in the hardwired mechanisms of the female anatomy, which are carefully monitored by doctors and, after a child is born, education systems. Everything the mother does during pregnancy is believed to have a direct outcome in the birth and subsequent development of the child, even as little is said in such literature about a mother’s relationships with others in her life.

Kakuta Mitsuyo’s Yoteibi wa Jimi Peiji (My due date is Jimmy Page’s birthday) and Tadano Miako’s Sannen migoromu (The three-year pregnancy) rework the canonical pregnancy as “an emphatically social enterprise” (85). In Kakuta’s novel, a seemingly textbook pregnancy churns the protagonist’s mind into a slow, diaristic unfolding of ennui over, and alienation from, her growing fetus. Paradoxically, the story underscores and unravels restrictive pregnancy norms as she settles into the reality with relative peace and acceptance. Tadano is less introspective and more humor-oriented, choosing instead to follow surreal sequence of events, thereby underscoring folkloric tendencies and problematizing the notion of self-made mothers.

Chapter Five, “Riding the Wave,” moves on to tropes of pregnancy manga, texts that allow Seaman to discover novel ways of depicting the pain of childbirth in their deft mélange of humor and critique. From Itō Hiromi’s illustrated 1984 manual Yoi oppai, warui oppai (Good breasts, bad breasts) to the manga collection of 12 short stories, Go-shussan! (Birth!), published by the editorial collective known as “Cream Puff” (Chou Crème), Seaman notes a metaphorical hyper-realism at work. Using symbolic imagery “in favor of an affective but rather static emphasis on motherhood” (129) in personal narratives that challenge medicalized notions of pregnancy in dealing with a matrix of pain for which they feel ill prepared, while their use of humor, as Seaman observes, “counteracts the impression that the pregnant body is grotesque or abnormal” (143).

These themes are deepened in the sixth and final chapter, “Em-bawdy-ing Pregnancy,” which offers a deep reading of Uchida Shungiku’s eclectic blend of critique and family values-focused conservatism. Her controversial book of autobiographical fiction, Fazaa Fakkaa (Father fucker), examines a life of abuse at the hands of an unnamed stepfather. Seaman looks beyond the obvious sexual perversions of the novel to its catalytic pregnancies. The manga series Watashitachi wa hanshoku shite iru (We are breeding) is an optimistic yet no-less-frank examination of pregnancy. Uchida’s experiential mixture of realism and exaggeration makes manga a suitable vehicle for self-expression, by which she delineates personal experience outside the trigger-happy realm of politics.

In her Afterword, Seaman concludes on an open-ended note: “It remains to be seen whether literature can offer a similarly [i.e., to manga] compelling, challenging, and idiosyncratic account of what it means to become a mother in millennial Japan” (182). The keyword in Seaman’s statement here is “account,” which underscores the importance of personal experience. The implicit question of this study, however rhetorical, inspires us to think beyond the script of pregnancy in search of individual connections and to view said connections not as objects of fetishizing scholarship but as the voices of living human beings.

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Tyran Grillo is a Dorothy Borg Postdoctoral Scholar in East Asia and the Americas at Columbia University (link). Tyran received his doctorate in Japanese Literature in 2017 from Cornell University, where his research focused on (mis)representations of animals in Japanese popular culture, as well as intersections of Asian Studies and Posthumanism. He has been a professional translator for over a decade, translating twelve books of Japanese fiction into English to date, including Parasite Eve by Sena Hideaki (Vertical, 2005), Paradise by Suzuki Kōji (Vertical, 2006), and Mr. Turtle by Kitano Yūsaku (Kurodahan Press, 2016). Alongside his academic life, Grillo is an avid arts critic, having written over one million words of impressionistic reviews and essays on music, performance, and film on his website, Between Sound and Space.

The Pleasures of Metamorphosis

Title: The Pleasures of Metamorphosis: Japanese and English Fairy Tale Transformations of “The Little Mermaid”
Author: Lucy Fraser
Publication Year: 2017
Publisher: Wayne State University Press
Pages: 232

This guest review is by Annaleigh Marshall.

Lucy Fraser’s The Pleasures of Metamorphosis analyzes the idea of “pleasure” through the lens of mermaid stories, all of which branch from Hans Christian Anderson’s original “The Little Mermaid.” From a girl turning into sea foam to a man trying to have sex with a mermaid and then being eaten alive, Fraser uses the transformations present in the texts to show how different societies enjoy them and thus find pleasure in the tales. Through her feminist voice and academic knowledge of Japanese culture, Fraser reevaluates interpretations of both fairy tales and Japanese society.

The Pleasures of Metamorphosis is composed of six chapters, as well as an Introduction and Conclusion. Throughout her study, Fraser argues that the pleasure found in the idea of “The Little Mermaid” is achieved through the act of transformation. She discusses not only the legitimacy of being able to transform the fairy tale but also the ways in which this is done. Using concrete examples drawn from literature and film, Fraser shows how authors play with the ideas of Anderson’s original text.

Creators from both Western and Eastern backgrounds transform the figure of the mermaid, resisting the straightforward portrayal of an innocent girl becoming a male possession and transforming her into an adult woman on a journey to find herself within a society of gender norms and restrictive societal rules. The pleasure is in the journey of the characters, authors, and readers, and it exists within a conversation of laughter and societal critique that Fraser argues can only be created by a fairy tale. Fraser maintains a strong connection to the idea of transformation throughout the book, using evidence from multiples sources and disciplines.

Fraser makes it clear that she does not wish to compare the West to the East. Instead she wants to show the reader how fairy tales serve all of humanity as a safe way to critique our societies and experiment with concepts impossible to test in reality. The West and the East are in a cycle of constantly borrowing from one another, transforming and creating something new, sometimes to the extent that the original author does not recognize their own work’s influence. Fraser argues passionately for the idea of cross-cultural transformation, using “The Little Mermaid” as a case study and prime example. She also discusses other fairy tales, such as “The Snow Queen” and “Snow White,” but her primary focus is on the story of a youthful fish-girl going through a metamorphosis to enter the patriarchal world of adults.

Fraser’s writing style is detailed and specific, and she favors a system of presenting an idea and then illustrating this idea with lengthy examples. Often her detail-orientated perspective creates page-long discussions concerning minor details of a story. These extended explorations add strength to her argument that the pleasure of reading fairy tales lies in their transformations. Fraser shows how authors from Oscar Wilde to Japanese postfeminist writer Nonaka Hiiragi take Anderson’s original tale and use their own life experiences, national history, and personal beliefs to create unique retellings of “The Little Mermaid.” Sometimes these stories can act as methods to teach children proper social behavior, while sometimes they serve as a way to question our shared cultures and beliefs.

It should be noted the writing is not as accessible as it could be, as the author frequently uses academic jargon from Gender Studies, Folklore Studies, and Cultural Studies without sufficient explanation, expecting her reader to already understand her terms. The biggest problem lies in the author’s handling of Japanese-language expressions. Since she takes the time to explain these words, she seems not to take Japanese language proficiency for granted. Her explanations of these concepts can feel rushed, however, and she also refers to historical eras in Japanese history without providing a great deal of context, which can be alienating to readers unfamiliar with Japanese language or history.

Overall, I enjoyed reading Fraser’s informative study of the movement of fairy tales across national and cultural borders. By incorporating an interdisciplinary viewpoint, she is able to depict multiple perspectives on the transformative use of Anderson’s classic story as a means of understanding both society and individuals. As Fraser argues, we are all mermaids waiting for our metamorphosis, and the pleasure we find in mermaid stories exists in the potential for transformation.

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Annaleigh Marshall is a rising senior double majoring in English and Modern Languages at George Mason University. She has previously published an essay on Hawai’ian Pidgin in the George Mason Review (link), and you can find her full professional profile on LinkedIn (link). Annaleigh is passionate about linguistics and translation, and she aims to enter the field of video game localization when she graduates.

Lost Japan

Title: Lost Japan
Japanese Title: 美しき日本の残像 (Utsukushiki Nippon no zanzō)
Author: Alex Kerr
Translator: Bodhi Fishman
Publication Year: 1996 (America); 1993 (Japan)
Publisher: Lonely Planet
Pages: 269

If you’re thinking about reading this book because you’re interested in Japan, I am sorry to inform you that Alex Kerr doesn’t like you. He just doesn’t think you’re very smart:

I will surely be criticized for making broad generalizations about the nature of Japanologists and Sinologists – but I can’t resist. Lovers of China are thinkers; lovers of Japan, sensuous. People drawn to China are restless, adventurous types, with critical minds. They have to be, because Chinese society is capricious, changing from one instant to the next, and Chinese conversation is fast moving and pointed. You can hardly relax for an instant: no matter how fascinating it is, China will never allow you to sit back and think, “All is perfect.” Japan, on the other hand, with its social patterns designed to cocoon everyone and everything from harsh reality, is a much more comfortable country to live in. Well-established rhythms and politeness shield you from most unpleasantness. Japan can be a kind of ‘lotus land,’ where one floats blissfully away on the placid surface of things. […] Since World War II, Japan has had fifty years of uninterrupted peace, during which time the concrete of its social systems has set hard and fast. It has become a land of social stasis, and the foreigners drawn to Japan tend to be those who find comfort in this. (106, 107)

A Rhodes scholar friend of Kerr’s from Australia studying China, for instance, had the opportunity to become involved in the 1989 Tienanmen [sic] Square incident. What a hero! There is nothing more exciting than politically motivated massacres. If only they had more of those in Japan, amirite? Japan is such a boring place. All they have there are earthquakes, terrorist attacks, and nonviolent political upheaval, not to mention a dynamic feminist movement that really began to gather momentum in the years following an unprecedented economic downturn. Japan is home to a conformist society, where everyone is unbearably polite, and there aren’t any youth movements to capture to attention of intellectuals who have picked on the connections between Japanese society and their own.

Perhaps I’m being too critical. Lost Japan doesn’t have end notes or a bibliography, and the book works much better as a travelogue than as a serious study of Japan. Unlike many other “foreigner in Japan” books that came out of the nineties, however, Lost Japan is still in print and still referenced and recommended within communities of English-speaking people visiting and living in Japan.

As should be apparent from the passage I quoted above, Kerr is a person with strong opinions. As Kerr himself readily admits, his opinions tend to be polarizing, but it is their controversial nature that make them so interesting and compelling. Unfortunately, these opinions also tend toward sensationalism. Kerr seems to firmly believe that Japan is hurdling along a downslope slope towards cultural disaster. In order to demonstrate what Japan is losing, Kerr offers examples of the beauty he himself has experienced. These descriptions are vivid and immersive. Kerr details natural beauty…

As anyone who has hiked through the mountain ranges of Shikoku and Kyushu will know, Japan’s mountains are a jungle of sorts. Wherever one looks, the humid, dense slopes are covered with ferns, moss and fallen leaves. Coming along the bend of an unpaved mountain road, I would suddenly have the illusion that I had traveled back hundreds of millions of years. It felt as though at any moment a pterodactyl might come flying out of the mist. (17-18)

…architectural and artistic beauty…

Even within tourist-clogged Nara Park there are places which possess […] religious appeal. Entering the Sangatsu-do Hall, next door to the Hall of the Great Buddha, you find a quiet room far removed from the flurry of people in the park. In this dim space, there towers a magnificent gilt statue of the Fukukensaku Kannon Buddha, surrounded by a mandala arrangement of statues of guardians, the Sun and the Moon, and other bodhisattvas. From the halo behind the Buddha’s head project gilded rays, gleaming in the darkness. Tourists come to Sangatsu-do talking and laughing, but they soon fall silent in the presence of Fukukensaku Kannon’s fearsome light. None of them, including myself, has the slightest idea what the significance of Fukukensaku Kannon is. It doesn’t matter – those beams of light are enough. (207)

…and more intangible types of cultural heritage:

Other villagers from Tsurui came one by one to look at the foreigner, and then pitched in to help with the renovation. A foreigner was rare enough, but a foreigner who was trying to repair an old thatch-roofed house was doubly bizarre. Old folk took an interest, and would come over with straw to teach me how to weave straw sandals. […] At night, Shokichu and his friends told ghost stories in the spooky light of the floor hearth. (35)

What Kerr seems to love more than describing beauty, however, is describing ugliness. There is the ugliness of Japanese cities in general…

There are innumerable detailed building codes, but the overall design of a building and its aesthetic relation to street and skyline are ignored; the result is careless, disjointed, ugly. (66)

…the ugliness of Japanese cities in particular…

I was once taken to see the new Yokohama residential district Kohoku New Town, and was amazed at the multitudes of enormous steel pylons and smaller utility poles clustered everywhere – a hellish web of power lines darkening the sky above one’s head. This is a site which is considered a model of urban development. (50)

…the ugliness of the Japanese countryside…

There is hardly a single object on the Kabuki stage recognizable to young people today. When stage chanters sing of fireflies or autumn maples, such things are now almost mythical objects in this land of vast cedar plantations. (67)

…and the ugliness of the Japanese people themselves…

Japan’s national problem is homogeneity. The school system teaches everyone to say and think the same thing, and the bureaucracies restrict the development of new media, such as cable TV, the information highway and even movie theaters. As a result, no matter where you go, from Hokkaido to Kyushu, all the houses look the same, the clothes look the same and people’s loves center around the same humdrum activities […] The passivity, the way in which [a department store counter saleswoman]’s shut out the outside world – it was a distinctive posture which I have seen in Japan so many times. Sensory deprivation? Passive silence? Fear of the world? I wish I could find the right words for it, but Japan is becoming a nation of people like this. (223)

…even though they know better:

I do not believe that the Japanese have completely lost the delicate sensibility of the Heian era. Somewhere, deep in their hearts, they know that Japan is becoming an ugly country. (51)

Sometimes I wondered whether Kerr really believed what he was saying, which seemed to be that Japan is an ugly country full of people who are either stupid or lazy. I wondered if it was really okay to say make generalizations like that about a country with a land area of more than 350,000 square kilometers and a population of more than 127,000,000 people. I also couldn’t help wondering what sort of person sees beauty only in very a small number of specific instances while seeing ugliness everywhere else.

It wasn’t just Kerr’s diatribes against ugliness that made me raise an eyebrow. For example:

Today, many Japanese would hardly know what the word yobai means, and it was a little short of miraculous that the custom still existed when I arrived in Iya. It was the subject of many a laughing conversation, and villagers slyly asked me now and then when I was going to start on my nocturnal adventures. At the time, yobai seemed to me just another local oddity, but later I discovered that there was more to it than I had thought. In the Heian period, the loves of the aristocrats immortalized in novels such as the Tale of Genji were modeled on the yobai pattern. (37)

Yobai, or “night crawling,” is when a young man breaks into a young woman’s bedroom late at night, often after a village festival (which usually involves alcohol), and ostensibly with the consent of the young woman’s parents. What an elegant, noble custom! It’s a shame that people don’t do this anymore. Let’s laugh about it, because there is nothing funnier than surprise sex! (Also, I think Kerr might be suggesting that marriage practices among the elite in an earlier historical period were modeled on a subset of rural customs from later historical periods, but this is excusable as everyone knows that history is like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly… timey-wimey… stuff.)

Also, sometimes Kerr says things that made me wonder if the Japan he’s talking about is some kind of bizarro-Japan from an alternate dimension. For example:

Standard Japanese, to the sorrow of [my younger cousins], has an almost complete lack of dirty words. (224)

The Japanese language has an almost complete lack of dirty words only if the words used to describe feces, effluvia, human genitalia, sexual acts, gay men, gay women, women in general, and displeasure at the behavior of others aren’t considered “dirty.” Seriously, there’s a whole book about this, and this book was written before cell phones and the internet became mainstream.

The finished pearl is a thing of great beauty – often, as in the case of the tea ceremony, more refined than the original – but the essential nature of the original is lost. This is why Japan, which has hundreds of thousands of Italian and Chinese restaurants, has almost no genuine Italian or Chinese food. (231)

I guess the huge historic Chinatowns in cities like Yokohama and Kobe don’t exist?

One can scour the history of Japan, however, without finding much in the way of articulated philosophy; to put it strongly, Japan is not a country of thinkers. (113)

Not only is this not true, it’s also not a very nice thing to say.

If nothing else, Alex Kerr is an extraordinarily entertaining writer, and his strong opinions certainly contribute to the entertainment value of his writing. If one can simply take what he says with a grain of salt and understand Lost Japan as a story the author is telling about Japan, then it’s easy to enjoy being swept up in his tales of adventure. Kerr has had no small number of unique experiences, and he can take his readers into worlds that they would not be able to enter without him. Bodhi Fishman’s translation is both eloquent and frank, and each of Kerr’s chapters is written so that disappointment with one aspect of Japan will be balanced out by wonder and amazement at another.

Kerr’s follow-up book to Lost Japan, Dogs and Demons, reprises many of the same themes but contains a great deal more factual information. The author’s bitter and rancorous tone is somewhat gentler in Lost Japan than it is in of Dogs and Demons, however, and the earlier book contains much less ranting on the topic of how all popular culture is worthless and offensive. In comparison, Lost Japan has aged much better than Dogs and Demons, and its balance of adulation, criticism, colorful descriptions, and strong opinions make it an enjoyable light read more than ten years after its first publication in English.

Still, the book is far from unproblematic, and the reader is encouraged to maintain an attitude as critical of Kerr as Kerr’s own attitude is critical of Japan.

I’d like to end this review with a picture that I took while waiting for the bus one morning this past April just outside of the center of town in Kyoto, which Kerr describes as one of the ugliest cities in Japan. Is it really ugly? It’s a truism that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so it’s ultimately up the reader to decide for him or herself.