Book: Japanland by Karin Muller

Pretty good in its genre

Karin Muller
Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa
Rodale, 2005
ISBN-13: 978-1-59486-223-6
ISBN-10: 1-59486-223-0
307 pages

Despite pretty cheap airfares and lots of other things that make travel easy these days, to most Americans, and I expect most Europeans, Japan remains pretty exotic. The number of people I know who have been to Japan is much smaller than the number of people I know who have been to Europe. That's despite Tokyo's being only about 20% farther (as the crow flies) from here than Rome is.

I suspect that, at least partly because Japan is still considered exotic, there's a genre of book in which someone who's not a professional writer has occasion to spend some significant amount of time in Japan and writes a book about their experiences. I can find a few of them on my bookshelves: Beyond Sushi: A Year in Japan, 36 Views of Mount Fuji, Max Danger: The Adventures of an Expat in Tokyo, Foot-Loose in Tokyo, and Japan: It's Not All Raw Fish. The book Japanland is another in that genre. How interesting a book of that sort is going to be depends on several things: how good a writer the non-professional author is, how interesting the things that they went to Japan to do are, and the keenness of their insights into their host culture.

Karin Muller has had various jobs, most recently as a documentary filmmaker. Finding herself bored and annoyed living in Washington, D.C., Ms Muller realizes that the only thing that she's doing that she finds rewarding is judo, a Japanese martial art that she has studied for the last eleven years. That provides a good enough excuse for her to go to Japan for a year and film a new documentary, pretty much single-handedly. (It seems that the documentary of the same title is scheduled to be shown on PBS in the U.S.)

So how well does Ms Muller's book do in its genre? Pretty well, but only pretty well. Ms Muller's writing is serviceable or better, but rarely sparkles. She's in Japan to film a documentary which means that she sees various interesting things, but there isn't much of a common thread to what she does. The book is largely a diary. And her observations of Japanese culture and an outsider's relationship to it are rarely new, but generally sound.

Ms Muller finds a host family through her judo connections. The husband, Genji Tanaka (presumably a pseudonym), is intelligent and charming and likes to chat with Ms Muller. He takes her with him to his judo academy. His wife, Yukiko, is less keen on having an American in her house. She may be a bit jealous of her husband's treating Ms Muller pretty much as an equal. That isn't the role that Yukiko grew up to play and she wants to teach Ms Muller how to be a proper woman in Japan. That doesn't work very well. Sometimes the results are interesting, as:

    When I came to Japan I fantasized about training under
    a master for whom I could perform herculean feats of
    discipline in order to win his respect and the right to be
    his student. I always assumed it would be Genji, but it's

    It's Yukiko. (p. 91)

And sometimes the results are rather unfortunate. There's an ugly scene at Ms Muller's departure from their house.

On another aspect of Japanese culture, Ms Muller views a Japanese person's web of relations, senior and junior colleagues, duties, and favors generally as a bad thing when she's in Tokyo and a good thing when she's in the countryside. For example:

    Nothing matters more to me than freedom and equality.
    But in Japan, hierarchy has been a fact of life for centuries.
    [. . .]
    Virtue depends on recognizing one's place in the vast web
    of mutual interdependence that makes up their society. (p. 94)


    The days slip by in a blur of snapshot images as I am passed
    from hand to hand through the web of Yuka's friends and
    acquaintances. (p. 160)

She may have meant for her readers to notice that for themselves, but I think that the book would have been a bit better if she had discussed the difference explicitly.

Ms Muller comes to the conclusion that the best thing about Japan is the Japanese people, which is not an entirely new observation, but is probably quite right.

The book's title is a bit misleading. Japanland suggests Disneyland and there's nothing in the book that's related to that. And, while Ms Muller says that she went to Japan in search of wa ("harmony"), she finds precious little of it there.

There are a few small errors in the book. Ms Muller says that several of the streets in the district of Asakusa don't have names (p. 37). I suspect that most of them don't. There's "a place" where "places" is wanted (p. 115). And "Kobe City" doesn't need the "City" (p. 262).

Posted: Sat - December 31, 2005 at 05:55   Main   Category: