Want to do something different? Read a Japanese novel. No, I don’t mean in Japanese, in English. Americans have enough trouble trying to figure out when to use I and when to use me. ‘Couse I’m not putting my wily readers in THAT category.
Back to the question: Why do most westerners avoid Japanese authors? My suspicion is that any mention of Asia puts a whole new microscope on the word foreign.
“First I have to wear a robe, drink green tea, walk through a garden, and have my genitals shrivel when men dressed in black try to break me of the oxygen habit.”
We of European ancestry share little of Asian history and while everyone knows the French talk funny, dislike Americans, and make great wine, we don’t know quite how to put a finger on the Japanese. The Japanese mind we see as a stone wall, only to be penetrated by weird Americans who sit like pretzels and meditate while humming. I say it’s not the Japanese mind that’s so hard to understand, but the Japanese culture. American ignorance dosen’t help. When my son went to the U.S. from Japan, somebody asked him: so, you know a lot of Chinese people? Yes, Confucius say man who claps with one hand is an idiot.
I admit, Japanese culture views life from a different perspective and it’s reflected elegantly in literature and in battle. I’m drawn to a quote by Field Marshal William Slim, World War II’s Supreme Allied Commander in Southeast India. “Everyone talks about fighting to the last man, but only the Japanese actually do it.”
To us, the Japanese approach to living and dying, happiness and duty rests somewhere in that mystical Asian place between martial arts and sushi. We understand the words, but the direction and intent keeps us guessing.
When it comes to literature, what we see as a happy ending might have the Japanese scratching their heads over the very meaning of what we call happiness. In what we see as a tragedy, the Japanese might very well ask, what tragedy? Everyone did their duty, fulfilled their obligation! Oh, joy for the multitudes!
How about sexuality? A Japanese friend wanted to know all about American dirty words. I started by asking if he knew the F word. He looked a little confused. “We know it, but we don’t know why it’s dirty.” My kind of culture.
Enough talk about culture. Best of all, the Japanese novels can be a lot of fun. Pick up the Japanese novel The Hotel Iris, by Yoko Ogawa, and you’ll glimpse what I’m talking about. Puts you in a different world. But, you have to think about it. Differences don’t come in numbered sets, unlike what your chem teacher told you.
A short book of just over 160 pages, Hotel Iris is something I call a one sitting read. All the same, the characters stand so sharply drawn they’re almost alive. And keen edges on the plot grab you and won’t let go.
Mari is seventeen years old, working as a maid in her mother’s hotel. Hotel may be too charming a word. The clientele are generally not the best, but even when they are, Mari’s mother is not one to waste emotions. No sentimentality and nothing for free. One night Mari’s mother is forced to expel a middle-aged man and a prostitute engaged in a shouting match of cyclonic proportions. Oddly enough, a spark of intrigue unaccountably draws Mari. Remember the female seventeen-year-old brain is still a wasteland. Wish I’d known that earlier. The man’s not handsome, but there’s something about him. His voice resonates within her. Mari’s razor edged sense of human emotions leads her on, from fascination to an active and nearly explosive interaction of raw physical emotions.
Questions abound. What’s the man’s background and what does he see in Mari? Will he get her clothes off before my wife finds out what I’m reading? Well-lubricated titillation, slides down every page, spiraling the reader toward the intersection of erotic imagination and self-preservation.
It’s a common enough plot that could come straight from our own lives, if we’ve very, very lucky. How do we get what we want, or even know what we want? And, when we find it, how do we hide ourselves so deeply in our mundane lives that our secret remains ours alone?
What if we’re found out? Do we plot excuses, plan how to cover our tracks, pass the blame? File for divorce? What is love and what is infatuation? Yoko Ogawa’s novel plunges into every aspect of a closely guarded, self-destructive soul. But, it’s a Japanese soul, a soul whose rights and wrongs challenge us to observe, but not to judge.
How would we react? When and if a reckoning comes, are we regretful of our transgressions or only sorry for being caught? Or, do we somehow slide away. We think we know the American answers. The Japanese answers make for a wonderful novel. Check it out and check in: The Hotel Iris