In writing about Japan, his home for more than 30 years, essayist and novelist Pico Iyer recognizes the complexities of offering insight into his adopted culture — one to which he knows he cannot truly belong. Hence, A Beginner’s Guide to Japan carries the subtitle Observations and Provocations, a forewarning to the reader that there are limits to what can be known.
Finding a feeling of belonging in a place is a theme in Iyer’s work, as his life is one of perpetual dislocation. He was born in England to parents of Indian heritage, then moved to the United States as a child when his father began teaching at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He eventually settled in Japan after his marriage to Hiroko Takeuchi in 1992, but continues to travel extensively.
Iyer’s observations and provocations are packaged in spare but descriptive prose, so fitting for the minimalist tradition in Japanese art and literature. Following a brief introductory essay, the aptly-titled first segment, “The Enigma of Arrival”, begins with a description of the sign that greets visitors at Kyoto Station. There are 11 arrows on the sign. “They point left, right, straight ahead and backwards. In the middle is a question mark.” This is the enigma of both the sign and the culture, establishing immediately that there is no direct route and there is always, at the center, a degree of uncertainty.
Despite his decades living in Japan, uncertainty remains a constant for Iyer, yet he comes to appreciate it. In his glimpses into both private and public life in Japan, he points to the distinctions between the two. Public life may lead the visitor to think that Japan is an impersonal place, he notes, adding: “Everything is deeply personal; it just has nothing to do with you.” This idea is explored through the details of everyday life: that his wife will put on a proper outfit and makeup just to go to the grocery store down the street, that subway passengers will fall asleep with their head on a stranger’s shoulder and neither party is concerned by what another culture might perceive as an improper, accidental intimacy, or that love-hotels are marked on official Tokyo maps.
Because of the differences between Japan’s collectivist culture and the individualist cultures of Iyer’s other homes in the United States and England, the self is a provocative theme that runs throughout the book. The shift in perspective about the self is fundamental to many misunderstandings, whether poignant or humorous. For example, Iyer notes that the Japanese have different words for the self in public and in the home, potentially causing confusion for the visitor with just a cursory knowledge of the language.
He points to the difficulty of sorting out understandings of the self for outsider by using his neighbors as an example, as is often the case. Here, the neighbors take great pleasure in being part of a chorus that renders perfect and full harmony. The chorus can serve as a broader metaphor for the collectivist culture: “No single contribution is heard, but if any of them were absent, it would be missed.”
Alongside discussions of voice and harmony is Iyer’s attention to silence in Japan. He notes that being comfortable with silence is more important that being adept at speaking Japanese. The neighbors, again, say as much with their nonverbal behaviors and their pauses as they do with words. The significance of silence is brought home with a historical example. In the aftermath of the atomic bombs, the silence was striking, even where hundreds of people gathered. No one screamed, and those who wept did so silently. The profound absence of language in a circumstance where no words will do recalls Theodor Adorno’s admonition that after Auschwitz, to write poetry would be barbaric.
The idiosyncrasies of Japanese culture are not overlooked, effectively balancing some of the book’s more emotionally charged passages. Iyer says that theme parks and spaces where the imagination take flight are deeply appreciated and needed in a culture that is invested in reality and its rigors. Much like the replica culture of Las Vegas, Iyer notes that the Japanese are as enthusiastic about visiting a reproduction of the Eiffel Tower as they would be to visit Paris, knowing that even the not-quite-real can evoke emotions that are “entirely authentic”.
The abundance of convenience stores and vending machines are part of the conversation as well. Then there are the mascots, of which there are thousands: fluffy, silly, almost-lifelike characters represent cities, businesses, attractions, parks, and certainly, the upcoming Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Iyer notes that in 2016, Osaka prefecture alone had 92 different mascots, including two dogs and a flying hot water bottle.
A Beginner’s Guide to Japan does not answer the questions a curious traveler might have about the country. Nor does it intend to. Rather, the book creates more questions and curiosities, inviting readers to experience Japan for themselves, and to become immersed in its enigmatic culture.