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…