A Beginner’s Guide to Japan: Pico Iyer

Review by B.V. Tejah

Some travel books are well-suited for pandemic lockdowns. We find ourselves locked inside, while our minds can soar to distant places. These books make us ponder over the nature of faraway cultures; they would be a useless tourist guide and would not include maps. Pico Iyer’s wonderful, odd little book (240 pages) is a beginner’s introduction to Japan. It includes insights that only outsiders can offer, and a warm familiarity that living in a community for decades fosters. The book is an unreliable ‘guide’—no maps, strong convictions that can’t possibly be true for entire cultures—and as he notes in the introduction, assertions in one section are contradicted elsewhere.

The book presents a series of pithy, tweet-length thoughts and observations, structured as a journey from the outward to the inner. Pico’s insights, quotes ranging from Oscar Wilde, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jane Gardam and others, and his travel reporting takes us along this deeply personal trip. His gaze takes us to Japan’s cities, its interlocutors, its cultural specificities (fashion, Love hotels, crowds, literature) and its universality.

“Young societies are distrustful of artifice; older ones—and few are more seasoned than Japan—know that artifice may be all we have in a world where pain is never distant.”

The book begins where tourists first encounter a new city: the railway station. We quickly get outward glimpses of Japanese preferences and fashions: their emphasis on a cheery exterior, the need for make-up (both men and women) and a different sense of the lines separating the public and the private. Like koans, the writing balances the dichotomy of sameness and difference one finds when encountering a new culture. Sample this:

“Strangers routinely sleep with their heads on strangers’ shoulders on Japanese trains, and the leaned-upon agree not to flinch. A sign of trust— of community, perhaps—but also a reminder that what constitutes public and what constitutes private is something subtler than homes and walls.”

This could be any of the busy Metro-rails shuttling packed compartments full of tired denizens home. But what about: “‘Jaguar model names sound like rockets,’ notes Paul Beatty in The Sellout. ‘XJ-S, XJ8, E-Type. Hondas sound like cars designed by pacifists and humanitarian diplomats. The Accord, Civic, Insight.’”

Pico’s tone never wavers even when we encounter colour: the love-hotel scene in Tokyo, the many cartoon-y mascots (Pluto-kun for the nuclear industry for example), anime and manga. Which brings us to Buddhism, Shintoism and Confucianism and their micro-impact on Japanese culture.

“Japan has a sharp-edged sense of what can be perfected—gizmos, surfaces, manners—and of what cannot (morals, emotions, families). Thus it’s more nearly perfect on the surface than any country I’ve met, in part because it’s less afflicted by the sense that feelings, relationships or people can ever be made perfect.”

Is that why, in Japan, “men always come first”? Nothing dissects a country better than their infatuation with sport. Pico mines Japan’s obsession with baseball, where a slogan says, in English, “Let your you out”. Interspersed between these terse texts are (relatively) long-form essays one of which is a beautiful travelogue to Naoshima. In this essay, “Out of Time”, Pico and his Japanese wife visit a set of minimalist art installations on the Naoshima-Teshima islands in Japan’s inland sea.

The Beginner’s Guide is a playful book, and its odd structure allows the reader to dip in at any point and read a few pages. While there are many anecdotes and references to Japanese fastidiousness, we do come away with a sense of shared humanity. Who has not seen this dichotomy? “’FREE OF PEANUTS,’” it says in English on the front of my little bag of Kameda Seika rice crackers. On the back it says, ‘This product may contain traces of peanuts.’”

2 thoughts on “A Beginner’s Guide to Japan: Pico Iyer

  1. I enjoy reading your posts as they arrive in my inbox, thank you for writing so regularly. Hope this blog will see many more years of wonderful book reviews to come!

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