Japan can look like a compendium of all the world's cultures. But it is just strange enough to make an eternal outsider feel at homeby Pico Iyer / February 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
The biggest challenge today is how to make our peace with alienness. The villager in Cambodia (or Tibet or Ethiopia) suddenly runs into visitors from Stuttgart, or Vancouver, or Manchester; the person who has never left north London walks out of his door to find himself surrounded by signs he can’t read and voices he can’t follow. Never in human history have so many been confronted by so much they don’t understand.
My answer to this global swirl is to live in a two-room apartment in rural Japan, in a mock-Californian suburb, none of whose buildings are older than I am. I live with a long-time love whose English is as limited as my Japanese, and her two children, who have even fewer words in common with me. You could say that much in the area is familiar-my apartment building is called the Memphis, and my girlfriend worked for years at a boutique called Gere. Gere is inside the Paradis department store, just across from a Kentucky Fried Chicken, a Mister Donut and a McDonald’s. A ten-minute bus ride takes me to the Bienvenuto Californian trattoria, the Hot Boy Club (with surfing shop next door), and a coffee-shop above an artificial lake which used to be called “Casablanca” and contained the very piano that Dooley Wilson played for Humphrey Bogart.
Japan is probably less apologetic about embracing artifice and plastic replicas than any country I know. Yet the children in the neighbourhood call every older woman “Auntie” and the Aunties feed whomever’s child happens to be around. At dawn, old women take showers in freezing cold water, and shout ancestral prayers to the gods. The very cool clarity with which the neighbourhood shuts me out, calling me a gaijin, or “outsider person,” is partly what enables it to dispense courtesy and hospitality with such dependability, and to import so much from everywhere without becoming any the less Japanese. Surface is surface here, and depth is depth.
Japan will never be entirely my home, of course, and Japan would never really want me to come any closer than I am right now. It assigns to me a role (a role which diminishes every foreigner and marvels at his stammerings as at a talking dog). It asks me to go about my business, and to let it go about its own. It offers politeness and punctuality on cue, and it requests in exchange that I accept my fixed role in the cheerful pageant which is official life here. Coming from quicksand California, where newcomers are warmly welcomed to a vacuum and no one knows where he stands in relation to anyone else, I find comfort in this culture’s lack of ambiguity.
Magic realism-the literary form native to our floating world-tells us that the simplest facts of our neighbours’ lives may read like fairytale to us. The forgotten appendix to this is that our lives, in their tiniest details, may be marvellous to our neighbours. One virtue of living in so strange a place is to be reminded daily of how strange I seem to it. When I am tempted to laugh at the notebook on my table which says, “This is the hoppiest day of my life,” or the message from the abbess of a local nunnery which prays (in translation) for “Peace on the earth and upon every parson,” I recall that the real sense of local comedy, for the Japanese, is me: an unshaven, dishevelled, seemingly unemployed Asian who speaks like a three year old and seizes the senior citizen “silver” seats on the bus. “The most peaceful place on earth,” as Canetti says, “is among strangers.”
Japan famously treats its residents like coddled children, often with English props. Paddington Bear smiles down at me from street corners (he is the mascot of one of Japan’s leading banks). Signs on the local train announce the arrival of Thomas the Tank Engine at the local theme park. Noddy books are scattered across the desk where I work. The shop around the corner has Smarties and Mentos, Maltesers and McVitie’s chocolate digestives (in bite-sized, haiku form).
Yet, deeper than such toddlers’ levels of response, I recognise in my neighbourhood the outlines and emotions of the safe, protected England I knew when young, with its orderly, changeless world of corner shops and drizzly afternoons, with tea served promptly at 5pm. I recognise-more than the words, the codes and silences-the force of all the things unsaid. I recognise the imperial shelteredness, the island suspiciousness, the old-world cultivation of private hopes and habits which leave the status quo alone. On its surface, Japan is more alien than anywhere I know. Under the surface it speaks the language I was trained to hear.
i am reminded of how little I belong here-how alien I am to Japan’s image of itself-each time I return. At the immigration desk the authorities generally scrutinise my passport with a discernible sense of alarm. I am a foreigner who neither lives nor works here, yet seems to spend most of his time here; an alien who is clearly of Asian ancestry, yet brandishes a British passport; a post-modern riddle who seems to fit into none of the approved categories.
When I have been reluctantly waved on to the customs hall, I collect my bag and stand in a line of law-abiding Japanese tourists returning from their Californian holidays. When it’s my turn to be questioned, I am confronted by a customs officer who is always young and fresh-faced. He or she goes through the standard list of queries: where have I come from, how long will I stay, what am I doing here? Then he asks, “You have marijuana, heroin, LSD, cocaine?” No, I say. “You have ever had marijuana, heroin, LSD, cocaine?” he goes on, waving a laminated picture of these substances. No, I say, not always able to keep a straight face. “Porno video?” No. “Please open your bag.”
He pores carefully through my belongings: the stacks of reporter’s notes in a scribble even I can’t read; the bottles of hotel shampoo which have begun to leak and deface everything in their vicinity; the Olympic pins I bought for my girlfriend’s children; the elaborate set of inhalers I need to protect myself from Japan’s allergy-producing cedar trees. Then he comes upon a tiny red tablet of Sudafed anti-allergy medicine. Gravely, he mutters something to a colleague. Whispers are exchanged. Then, nervously, they radio a superior. With brusque politeness, I am led by at least two officers to a distant room. My guards look anxious and unhappy, as if they recall that the only time Paul McCartney was separated from Linda was as the result of a Japanese customs check.
I know the drill by heart. In the back-room interrogation centre, I proceed to take off my clothes until I am down to my underpants. Meanwhile, seven uniformed officials gingerly go through my possessions, surveying every bottle of leaked shampoo, every sticky Mento in my coat pocket. Then I am subjected to a barrage of questions. Why do I carry over-the-counter allergy pills which contain a stimulant as prohibited as LSD or cocaine? What prompted me to bring anti-histamines into a peace-loving island? Will I formally consent to hand over my drugs to the authorities, and authorise confiscation of my tablets, while signing a confession? I am more than happy to do all this, sometimes saying so in such amiable gibberish that the officials, fingers sticky with shampoo, tell me: “Okay, okay. You’d better leave before you miss the last train.” But my answers only compound their dissatisfaction. “Where were you born?” one asks me, while another tests my suitcase for false bottoms. “England,” I say. “No, where were you really born?” “Oxford, England,” I say, “as it says on my passport.” “What are you doing here?” I show them my Time business card, even my name in Time magazine. I show them a book I wrote on Japan, interviews I have conducted in Japanese magazines, notes on Japanese topics I am researching. Unhappy with this, they try a quiz. “Who is Masaoka-san? What is the importance of Kyoto? Where are you really from?”
Sometimes, sensibly enough, I make sure that not a single anti-histamine tablet can be found within a 100-yard radius of my person. But really that is beside the point, since it is not my allergies which trouble them. Once I was strip-searched for making a telephone call from the customs hall, once for going to the men’s room. Once I was taken aside because my overcoat was abunomaru (I was flying to the Himalayas), and once I was even stopped as I was leaving the country (“Why is your photo so creased?” “Because so many Japanese officials have pored over it.”). The British embassy was hastily faxed on a Sunday night to authorise my departure.
What concerns the Japanese, clearly, is that I am a modern citizen of nowhere and, more specifically, one who looks like exactly the kind of person who threatens to destroy their civic harmony. During the Gulf war, I was routinely treated as if I were Saddam Hussein’s favourite brother; at other times I have been detained on the grounds of resembling an Iranian (41,000 of whom live illegally in tent cities in Tokyo parks). The rest of the time I am suspected of being what I am-an ill-dressed, dark and apparently shiftless Indian without a fixed address.
The mobile world and its porous borders present a challenge to a uniculture like Japan, which depends for its presumed survival upon its clear boundaries, its maintenance of a civil uniformity in which everyone knows everyone else-and how to work with them. And it is not always easy for me to explain that it is precisely this ability to draw strict lines-to sustain an unbending sense of within and without-which draws me to Japan. To invert Robert Frost, in the post-modern world home is the place where, when you have to go there, they don’t have to take you in.
my daily life in Nara is itself a curious artefact, belonging to a kind of existence which even I could not have imagined only a decade ago, before technology made centrifugal lives possible. I go to bed every day by 9pm, in part so as to wake up at 5am, when my employers in New York (13 time zones away) are at their desks (their office hours stretch from 11pm to 7am, Nara time). My research facility, if I need to check on something, is an English-language bookshop 90 minutes away by train, and my version of the internet is a copy of the World Almanac. The person I see most often, outside my immediate household, is the Federal Express boy who collects and delivers packages from distant Osaka. In our shrunken world, I can complete articles or even books without having to exchange a word with editors, and can draw money in a local department store from a bank account on the other side of the planet.
For breakfast I enjoy some combination of asparagus cookies or “chlorella biscuits,” chaperoned by what is here known as “Royal Milk Tea.” For lunch I go to a convenience store around the corner, where all the goods of England and America are on sale, yet nothing is quite as I would expect. Little old women are photocopying Chopin scores to the sound of piped-in Clash songs, and teenagers with safety pins all over their faces are consulting magazines with titles like Classy, Waggle and Bang. Although the store is only four aisles wide, it is crammed with wild plum chews and mangosteen candies, tubs of Grand Marnier pudding and vitamin jelly drinks. Once, while munching from a bag of potato puffs, I noticed that the three characters prancing around the bag were labelled “Jean,” “Paul” and “Belmonte.”
Usually, in the afternoons, I go to the post office next door. All the clerks look up as I enter, as at the arrival of their daily soap opera. My principal means of communicating with the world is fraught with hazards: the envelope I am using is too large-measured against a green post office ruler-or I have neglected to attach a “Par Avion” sticker. Once I was rebuked for including too long a PS on the back of an envelope, and another time, during the holiday season, I was presented with an invoice for $30 when it was discovered that my New Year’s greetings exceeded the five-word limit. Afterwards I walk around the local park, past the “bad boy” son of the electrician, polishing his Corvette until it is as red as his waist-length hair. And at one street corner, in this placid neighbourhood, I pause before a set of vending machines where I can buy 49 kinds of cigarettes, 36 alcoholic drinks and 92 non-alcoholic drinks.
Perhaps the way in which my neighbourhood most solidly uplifts and steadies me, though, is its tonic blend of cheerfulness and realism, measured (as I see it) with the wisdom of a culture which has been around long enough to know how to mete out its emotions. To many people I know, the Japanese response to every setback-Shikataganai, or “It can’t be helped”-sounds fatalistic, too ready to surrender power to the heavens. But to me, coming from California where it sometimes seems as if everyone is restlessly in search of perfection in his life, his job, his partner and himself, it feels bracing to hear of limits which imply a sense of past as well as future. A republic founded on the “pursuit of happiness” seems destined for disappointment, if only because it is pursuing something which, by definition, doesn’t come from being sought. A culture founded, however inadvertently or subconsciously, on the First Noble Truth of Buddhism-the reality of suffering-seems better placed to deal with sorrow, and to be pleasantly surprised by joy. In a world overheating with the drug of choice and seeming freedom, Japan, for all its pell-mell consumerism, suggests in its deeper self a post-global order which knows what things can really be perfected (streets, habits, surfaces) and what cannot.
In practical terms, this serenity-some would say complacency-may be what gives an air of pink-sweater innocence to protected neighbourhoods such as mine. I do not believe that the Japanese are more innocent than anyone else, but they are, perhaps, more concerned with keeping up appearances, especially of innocence. Whole communities are urged to play their part in this display of public sweetness (it is certainly the only culture I know where women, to look seductive, don’t narrow their eyes, but widen them). Much of this can be regarded as hypocrisy, but it can also suggest a prudent drawing of boundaries in a world where they are in flux, and a sense of which illusions can be serviceably maintained and which cannot. Japanese society urges its members to conceive of a purpose and an identity higher than themselves. Even punky nose-ring boys and scruffy Indians are implicitly urged to tend to responsibilities beyond their mortal bodies. I find myself picking up stray pieces of trash as I walk down the street; getting up from my seat in the bank, I stop to brush it clean as I would never do “at home.”
The homes we choose, in short, deserve a tolerance we might not extend to the homes we inherit. In a world where we have to work hard to gain a sense of home, we have to exert ourselves just as much to sustain a sense of Other. I choose, therefore, to live some distance from Kyoto’s eastern hills, which move me like memories of a life I didn’t know I had.
a large part of the liberation of living in suburban Japan comes, I think, from the enforced simplicities which accompany a very foreign life. Living far from anywhere, without a bicycle or private car, I conduct my days, nearly always, within the boundaries of my feet. Living without newspapers or magazines-and a television most of whose words are modern Greek to me-I can be free, a little, of the moment, and get such news as I need from the falling of the leaves, or the Emerson essays on my shelf. Living in a small room, moreover, prompts me to be sparing, and to live only with the books and tapes which speak to me in ways I can respect. And not knowing much of the local tongue frees me from gossip and chatter and eavesdropping, leaving me in a more exacting silence.
Of course this can be an evasion more than a transcendence, and in any case I cannot hold very much to these austerities. (Nor can I really refuse technology when technology allows me to communicate with bosses half a world away-and to get on a plane when I need a dentist.) Yet being in so alien an environment is the first step towards living more slowly and trying to clear some space, away from a world ever more revved-up. In our global urban context, it is like living in the wilderness.
The person with whom I share all these adventures is a little like the society itself, alluring both for the parts I recognise and for the parts which I don’t. Daily she recalls to me that the point of familiarity is to make one comfortable with mystery. All of us know, too well, that no place is more foreign than the face asleep by our side; yet in our modern world such old truths gain especial force, as more and more of us find ourselves sharing homes with our own private Japans, half strange and half strangely familiar.
Every couple has its private tongue-it is almost the distinguishing sign of being a couple. In my case, the set-up is even stranger because I share no public tongue with Hiroko, my partner of 12 years. Because my Japanese has never been good enough to teach her English, nor her English good enough to teach me Japanese, we can communicate only in a kind of fluent pidgin with English words thrown into Japanese constructions. It sounds a little like the way the neighbourhood looks to me.
This means, however, that we are free, for the most part, from subtexts, and from the shadows and hidden stings that words can carry. I can’t make puns with her, spin ambiguities, or engage in very much verbal subterfuge, and she can’t pore over my words to see what they mean or what they don’t mean, what covert weapons they hide. Speaking across a language gap means speaking less to win than to communicate.
The global village has given more and more of us the chance to move among the foreign, and so to simplify and clarify ourselves in this way. Even in the neighbourhoods where we were born, often, we find ourselves speaking by gesticulation, or enunciating very slowly to saleswomen and telephone operators. And living a little bit away from words means living a little bit away from the surfaces they carry; my long-time girlfriend has little sense of who I am in terms of brand names and labels-what my job means, what my schools connote, who I am on my CV-and I, likewise, can’t confine her to the answers on an application form. Neither of us can read a word the other has written, and so we have to apprehend one another in some way deeper than the known.
perhaps the deepest obligation of any foreigner in a place he loves, which is not his own, is to remember, daily, that his paradise is a fallen one for many of the people around him. When I read the books of Haruki Murakami, the Japanese novelist who has seen his country from the perspective of living in Europe and teaching at Princeton while translating Raymond Carver and John Irving into Japanese, I recognise that Japan can appear as soulless to a native, as sad with loneliness and loss, as London or LA to me. In the 600 pages of his magnum opus, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Murakami delivers a series of x-rays on modern Japan, revealing a culture which has lost dimension and depth. His characters have “Vacant” signs hanging up outside their souls, and float through life as through the pages of a glossy magazine, hardly more substantial than the images they devour.
Perhaps the most shocking thing in Murakami’s novel is that he comes almost to express nostalgia for the atrocities of the war, and the campaign in Manchuria, when at least people had lives instead of lifestyles, and a sense of intensity and humanity arising from a close acquaintance with suffering. The other, quieter shock of his book is that all its dislocated fashion victims and Sprite-drinking teenagers, sleepwalking through their planless days as if on Prozac, might be dropping in from an Ann Beattie story. The hero wears a “yellow, promotional Van Halen T-shirt,” and listens to FM radio while cooking spaghetti; the women he runs into are called Nutmeg, Malta and Creta. “I felt a strange emptiness inside, a helpless kind of feeling like that of a small child who has been left alone in an unfamiliar neighbourhood,” the narrator confesses. It’s not hard to see that this neighbourhood is Japan’s future.
I realise now that this is my home in incidental ways; I can tell when the trees in the park are going to change colour, and when the vending machines will change their offerings from hot to iced. I know when my girlfriend will bring out the winter futons from the cupboard, and when her daughter will change her school uniform from white to blue. I read Thoreau on sunny Sunday mornings, as hymns float over from the nearby Baptist church, and think that in our mongrel, mixed-up planet, this may be as close to the calm and clarity of Walden as one can find.
One midsummer day last year, I took Hiroko to Kyoto on the final day of Obon, the traditional holiday in August when faithful Japanese return to their home towns to pay respects to their departed ancestors-and when the departed ones themselves are believed to return to earth for three days. It is a time of solemn obsequies and traffic jams on the expressways, as Kyoto comes alive with ghosts and lights.
Heading towards the eastern hills, the two of us walked along a broad avenue of trees, with the night before us, through a receiving line of lanterns. Old, old men, from another age, walked past in kimono, half-doubled over, to visit loved ones at their gravestones. Cicadas buzzed, and lanterns began to glow as the sky darkened. We followed the old men through a small entranceway to the south, and emerged in a world of shining lanterns as far as we could see, all across the slope above us, zigzagging towards the heavens. Below, at our feet, were the lights of the modern city, cacophonous, fluorescent, a distant hum; above us, stretching towards the heavens, was one shivering sea of golden lights. Then we walked back into town and dined on a summer platform along the Kamo River, while five great bonfires were lit up along the northern and eastern hills, spelling out a Chinese character.
That night I fell into a deep, deep sleep, and dreamed myself in a country house in England. There were only a few other people there: some flop-haired schoolboys, a woman who had been kind to me in my youth-and Hiroko. It was a lazy Sunday morning; we were reading the papers and making the occasional witticism. Everything had a languid, undirected air; once we went for a walk in green, green hills, encircled in mist; once I asked something about Egypt before the war. Somewhere Lou Reed played Heroin. A few half-familiar figures drifted about-the unremarkable languor of a country weekend.
But something in this unexceptional scene felt absolutely right. I couldn’t find the words, and I didn’t need to find them, but as I slept I heard myself saying of the everyday English scene, “This is my home. This is where I belong. Usually I’m not very sociable, but this is me. This”-the large red-brick houses, the grey afternoons, the musty light and dullness, the sense of nothing special going on- “is who I am.” Words I never thought to say in waking life. But here, suddenly, I could not only feel and see all the days of my childhood, but also taste them, and be inside them, in this distant science fiction land on the night when departed spirits find their way home.
Then I woke up-to the sounds of a bright Sunday morning in the northeast quarter of the ancient imperial capital of Japan, in the tenth year of the era known in English translation as “Achieving Peace.”