Book: Wrong About Japan by Peter Carey

Excellent premise, doesn't live up to it

Peter Carey
Wrong About Japan: A Father's Journey with His Son
Alfred A. Knopf, 2004
ISBN: 1-4000-4311-5
158 pages

Peter Carey is an Australian who lives in New York and his book Wrong About Japan is a slim volume with a nifty premise. Mr Carey's son Charley is a shy 12-year-old who becomes fascinated by Japanese comic-books (manga) and becomes a lot less shy when talking about them. Mr Carey and his son plan a trip to Japan to learn about the country through its popular culture rather than through its ancient history, temples, and tea ceremonies. Though I'm no uncritical anime fan, that's an approach that I have a lot of sympathy with. Unfortunately, it doesn't actually work for Mr Carey.

In Japan, Mr Carey talks to various interesting people who ought to have lots of interesting things to say, but he learns almost nothing from any of them. He presses ahead with his prepared questions even when it becomes clear that they're not useful ones.

He and Charley visit Yoshiyuki Tomino, the creator of Mobile Suit Gundam and they find out that the series was originally conceived as a promotion for a line of toys and that Mr Tomino was concerned about the how the huge size of the fictional robots (which the toymaker insisted on) would affect how they could plausibly work on Earth. Instead of imagining that those might be interesting things to discuss even if they're not obvious keys to Japanese culture, Mr Carey presses Mr Tomino about war and national identity. Not surprisingly, he gets nowhere.

Much the same thing happens when Mr Carey interviews Hiroyuki Kitakubo, the director of Blood: The Last Vampire. This time, Mr Carey doesn't even tell us what Mr Kitakubo said, only that he couldn't get him to talk about the Vietnam War or Douglas MacArthur.

We do get a few bits of useful interpretation when Mr Carey watches Hayao Miyazaki's fabulous movie My Neighbor Totoro with a friend, Kenji, who is a Tokyo architect. Kenji gives us some very good explanations of some details in the movie that would likely only be understood by a Japanese person. Unfortunately, nothing either he or Mr Carey says rises to the level of useful insight into Japanese culture. Worse, they stop watching a third of the way into the movie.

Late in the book, Mr Carey and Charley go to Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli. After a conversation with the studio's publicity manager (which Mr Carey doesn't relate) they get a tour of the studio. By chance, they meet Mr Miyazaki. (It's not surprising that an interview with Mr Miyazaki wasn't scheduled, he's famously reluctant to be interviewed.) Since the meeting was unplanned, there's no translator present and Mr Miyazaki's English is very limited. Mr Miyazaki shows them a few things in his office and Mr Carey writes:

    And, thank God, we had no language. Thank God there
    were no questions to ask...." (p. 151)

Mr Carey goes on, referring to Mr Miyazaki:

    He took us over to his pinboard, and I saw that he'd been
    collecting works of nineteenth-century science fiction, the
    graphic equivalents of Jules Verne. Had I spoken Japanese,
    I might have confessed to having a similar fascination but
    what would be the point of that? (pp. 151-152)

That's great: we have an author who thinks it's pointless to communicate.

Mr Carey misses other opportunities to learn about Japan. Charley makes a friend over the internet while they're still in New York and the friend, Takashi, meets them shortly after they arrive and lends them a cellphone to use while they're there. Showing more generosity, Takashi invites them to his grandmother's apartment where he lives. Mr Carey doesn't accept the invitation and it's not clear that he should have, but he doesn't even seem to chat much with Takashi. Indeed, rather than asking Takashi about his life in Japan, Mr Carey asks an Australian expat who has just met Takashi what sort of person he thinks he might be.

Takashi goes so far as to volunteer interesting information, but Mr Carey doesn't seem to be interested in it. He shows Mr Carey a book, Tokyo: A Certain Style which contains photos of the messy apartments of youngish Japanese people. Mr Carey says, "not one of them displaying anything like what you would call a Japanese aesthetic." (p. 23) That Mr Carey's idea of a Japanese aesthetic has been demonstrated to be mistaken or at least out of date doesn't make much of an impression on him and he doesn't follow up on it.

Mr Carey doesn't even seem to want to try very hard to figure things out for the benefit of his readers. He quotes a New York Times article and then writes:

    This appeared in the New York Times well after our return
    from Tokyo, but that quote -- we Japanese want to live
    alongside robots -- recalled again this common but
    inexplicable enthusiasm. (p. 90)

It's sadly typical that in this travel book about Japanese popular culture, Mr Carey is content to leave that enthusiasm as inexplicable. Indeed, Mr Carey reminds me of the Bill Murray character in the movie Lost in Translation. All sorts of interesting things are going on around him, but he can't see them.

The title of the book is all too accurate. I had hoped that it meant that Mr Carey began by being wrong about Japan and became less so during the course of the book. But he doesn't learn much and neither do his readers.

Charley, on the other hand, seems to learn plenty about Japan. He figures out the Japanese cell phone he's lent, he figures out Tokyo's subways, he correctly identifies a Japanese gangster, he seems to have any number of interesting conversations with Takashi, and he correctly figures out that it would be courteous to give Takashi a present before they leave. I suspect that the book would have been better if he had written it.

There are more errors in the book than the editor should have let slip by: The Japanese word irasshaimase is misspelled on page 143, gaijin does not generally mean barbarian, that a Japanese word ends in u does not particularly suggest that it's an import from English, and the word anime isn't necessarily from French.

Update January 31, 2005:

It turns out to be doubly ironic that Mr Carey didn't speak with Hayao Miyazaki when he met him. Judging from a recent article in The New Yorker by Margaret Talbot ("The Auteur of Anime", January 17, 2005), Mr Miyazaki might well have had some things to say of the sort that Mr Carey was predisposed to listen to.

It seems that Ms Talbot also met Mr Miyazaki by chance during a tour of Studio Ghibli, but she had a translator with her and Mr Miyazaki was willing to answer her questions. He even spoke indirectly of the second world war. Ms Talbot writes, referring to Mr Miyazaki:

    Hs image of Japan was so shaken by memories of the country's
    postwar devastation that for years afterward, he told Kurosawsa,
    his imagination turned reflexively to Europe -- a fantasy version,
    stitched together in his mind, that had never experienced the
    Second World War. (p. 71)

Indeed, the article turns out to be quite interesting. It seems that Mr Miyazaki is not a big fan of the modern world and would prefer that it were practical for everyone to live in the sort of world he imagines in his movies.

Posted: Mon - January 24, 2005 at 09:07   Main   Category: