THIS IS AN AMAZING BOOK. I believe it is my first experience reading a companion piece to a documentary film its release is timed to coincide with the film’s broadcast on PBS but I read it like a novel, a travelogue, a memoir, and an investigation into the maze that is Japan, all rolled into one. This is also a book that is quite distinctly divided into two halves; first the author’s “home stay” with the Tanaka family near Tokyo, and second a myriad collection of what I can only think to call “in-depth snapshots” of various aspects of Japanese culture, both esoteric and mainstream.
The first half first. The Tanaka family is comprised of Genji, the patriarch, a successful businessman and Judo master, who has agreed not only to take Karin Muller in, but to teach her the intricacies of modern Japanese life, Yukiko, his (traditional and irritating) wife, and Junko, their mostly off-stage, trapped and miserable daughter.
Ms. Muller’s stay with the Tanakas is moving and complexly rendered. She has painted Genji with such deft brushstrokes that I was reminded not only of men I knew during my own years in Japan (some three decades ago) but of characters from film and literature. And Yukiko, whom I was predisposed to like because she bears the name of the magnificent heroine in Junichiro Tanizaki’s masterpiece, The Makioka Sisters, is such a subtle horror, so evenly mean-spirited with her American visitor, that I wanted to make my way to Tokyo and throttle her. This is a woman who seems not only to have fled into modern times from an earlier century, but to have brought with her a dozen little straight-jackets, all meant to blunt the movement and growth of the foreigner. When Ms. Muller tries to nurture a small vegetable garden, for example, in order to offer the family a gift of her own making, Yukiko has it covered over because it is unsightly. When she chats with Genji, asking him questions about Japan in pre-dinner conversation, Yukiko turns frigid because she hasn’t come directly into the kitchen to help prepare the store-bought vegetables. Yukiko is a hateful woman and Ms. Muller’s time with the Tanakas is doomed, though she is forever trying to understand and forgive the rough treatment she receives.
This first half of Japanland is novelistic and it made me want to give Yukiko her comeuppance. Yet Ms. Muller, perhaps because she fears a living breathing Yukiko will either read her book or see her film, has made a forced-sounding tribute to her near the end of the book. “And Yukiko,” she writes, “She had the courage to take a stranger into her house and the patience to give me one hundred times more chances than I deserved.” In her acknowledgements Ms. Muller quite correctly writes that “An expedition is an iceberg.” But Yukiko is an iceberg, too, and my own writerly instincts desperately wanted something to happen to melt her.
The second half of Japanland is very different, both in style and depth of discourse. Cut loose from the Tanakas Ms. Muller moves to Osaka, shares lodging with a gay and slovenly foreigner, and begins a series of treks to the north and south and east and west. She is brave and adventurous, just as she was with the Tanakas, but also one gets the feeling that she has so much to get done, so much to “cover” during her remaining time in Japan, that she opts for a series of vignettes. Still, she is wildly successful in finding entree to the disparate worlds of geisha, yakuza, Zen monasteries, midnight nude bathing rituals, Japan’s growing homeless population, and various street artists, to name just a few. She is a quick study, seeming to have ventured more deeply into some aspects of Japanese culture than many who live there for years, and to have acquired a phenomenal ability in that most difficult of all that Japan has to offer: its language. She engaged with people openly, using charm and a lightness of touch that I’m sure would succeed most anywhere in the world, and thus has given us a view of Japan that I, who love the country, treasure.
The subtitle of the book, A Year in Search of Wa, (harmony) sits in direct opposition to its main title, Japanland, in that the first is a pun on Japan (alas) having turned into Disneyland, and the second is a steadfast attempt to uncover the inner complexity of the place. Karin Muller has shown us the first sad truth without flinching, and the second, far more timeless one, with grace and humor insight.
I can’t wait to see the film for the book has succeeded marvelously.
Richard Wiley is the author of five novels. His sixth, Commodore Perry’s Minstrel Show will be published next year by the University of Texas Press, and his first, the PEN/Faulkner Award winning, Soldiers In Hiding will be reissued in September by Hawthorne Books.