Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa by Karin Muller

The only way you’ll ever become a part of Japanese society is if you were born in a Japanese village to Japanese parents.
— Karin Muller

Jim Breen’s Japanese-English dictionary defines wa as the “taste for the simple and quiet.” Freedict.com defines it as “sum, harmony, peace,” but also as “ring, hoop, circle,” and “ancient Japan.” All these definitions are valid, but wa is one of those elusive foreign terms like chutzpah that convey an idea or mood or characteristic that English has no direct translation for. Thirty-four year old documentary filmmaker, Peace Corps veteran, and judo black belt Karin Muller (Hitchhiking Vietnam) isn’t sure what wa means either, but she’s certain that the word holds the key to eternal happiness.

Muller is so certain, in fact, that she decides to pack her bags and depart for Japan in order to immerse herself in the culture, to become Japanese — despite overwhelming discouragement (her old Asian-studies professor quips, “Just study Japanese etiquette for the next 30 years, speak through a ventriloquist, and wear a paper bag over your head”) — in an attempt to find this ideal that will end her forever fruitless soul-searching adventures.

Japanland — the complementary volume to Muller’s public television documentary of the same name — chronicles this spiritual and continental journey. The book functions both as a study of Japanese culture from an outsider’s perspective and as a memoir. It’s both a travel guide and a narrative. While Muller doesn’t always effectively balance the informative and the personal, particularly towards the rushed last leg of her journey, she certainly paints a fascinating and comprehensive portrait of Japan.

Indeed Muller leaves no stone unturned, participating in a geisha tea ceremony, working in a rice field, collecting trash with the homeless, and walking on burning coals with an ancient ascetic mountain cult. But the majority of the book focuses on the tenuous relationship between Muller and her sometimes-host family the Tanakas, particularly the conservative woman of the house, Yukiko. Yukiko is quick to point out her houseguest’s shortcomings, whether for her athletic build (“Do not wear shorts,” she scolds, “you are too fat”) or for her failed attempts at gardening or cooking (when Muller suggests the idea of a man loving her despite her cooking and for her other qualities, Yukiko retorts with a stern “no”).

While Mr. Tanaka — who also acts as Muller’s resident judo instructor — accepts and enjoys Muller’s Americanisms, Yukiko cannot accept anyone who functions outside the rigid Japanese social structure. This is not a unique stubbornness on Yukiko’s part, but a general sentiment among the Japanese. Muller observes that while Americans stress individualism, the Japanese “seem to take comfort from just being part of the team — being Japanese is like signing up for a lifelong military stint.”

Even the purple-haired youth who hang out in hyper-city Tokyo accept their eventual place in society as businessmen or wives. After an evening out in the town, they remove their glitter makeup and platform shoes to obligingly return to their economics classes.

Compared to the amount of pages detailing life with the Tanaka’s, many of Muller’s encounters with other factions of Japanese culture feel a bit underdeveloped. While Muller always offers extraordinary detail when participating in Kango(midwinter purification when ascetics visit 48 waterfalls and stand for hours under the cold blasts of water) or when embarking on a multiple-day Buddhist pilgrimage, she never lingers on these adventures for more than a chapter. Each of these chapters impart much information and some analyses, but the reader misses the self-deprecating humor, the sardonic quips, the frustration and cultural disconnect Muller so eloquently renders in the episodes with the Tanakas. One gets the feeling that Muller’s adventures away from the Tanaka household are more fully explored in her documentary, and her writings serve to enhance the documentary, rather than substitute it.

If this is the case, Muller’s travelogue certainly piques the reader’s interest enough to seek out her documentary. The chaos of the crowd struggling to board the last train out of Tokyo at midnight is so wonderfully suffocating, the rigidness of sumo training so extreme, that they beg to be witnessed in person — or at least vicariously through Muller’s camera lens.

Japan, as of late, has cropped up in a slew of American pop artworks: from the portrayal of Japan as a weird, spastic, and trend-obsessed culture in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, to Quentin Tarantino’s fetishization of ancient Japanese lore and traditions in Kill Bill. While Muller certainly delves into both these worlds — her account of the cutting of a sword is one of the most thrilling passages of Japanland — she also takes care to show the lesser-known parts of Japanese culture, not just the rural villages, but also the expat and gay communities. While Muller may not have become Japanese during her yearlong stay, she certainly shows a rare understanding of the culture. Perhaps wa isn’t so unattainable after all.