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April 20, 2012 5:45 PM   Subscribe

I prepared for my first-ever trip to Japan, this summer, almost entirely by immersing myself in the work of Haruki Murakami. This turned out to be a horrible idea. For his cover article on the novelist Haruki Murakami, Sam Anderson visited some key places from Murakami’s life and work. Murakami's Tokyo. The Fierce Imagination of Haruki Murakami.

A few choice selections:

Hotel Okura: With its high ceiling and muted lighting, the capacious lobby of the Hotel Okura’s main building seemed like a huge, stylish cave. Against the cave walls, like the sighing of a disemboweled animal, bounced the muted conversations of people seated on the lobby’s sofas. The floor’s thick, soft carpeting could have been primeval moss on a far northern island. It absorbed the sound of footsteps into its endless span of accumulated time.

Metropolitan Expressway 3: The taxi’s radio was tuned to a classical FM broadcast. Janacek’s ‘Sinfonietta’ -- probably not the ideal music to hear in a taxi caught in traffic. The middle-aged driver didn’t seem to be listening very closely, either. With his mouth clamped shut, he stared straight ahead at the endless line of cars stretching out on the elevated expressway, like a veteran fisherman standing in the bow of his boat, reading the ominous confluence of two currents. Aomame settled into the broad back seat, closed her eyes, and listened to the music.

The Fierce Imagination: When he was 3, he told me, he managed somehow to walk out the front door of his house all by himself. He tottered across the road, then fell into a creek. The water swept him downstream toward a dark and terrible tunnel. Just as he was about to enter it, however, his mother reached down and saved him. “I remember it very clearly,” he said. “The coldness of the water and the darkness of the tunnel — the shape of that darkness. It’s scary. I think that’s why I’m attracted to darkness.”
posted by byanyothername (49 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

 
I prepared for my first-ever trip to Japan, this summer, almost entirely by immersing myself in the work of Haruki Murakami. This turned out to be a horrible idea.

This is so obviously true that I nearly laughed out loud when I saw this sentence. It's like preparing for a trip to the UK by watching Beatles movies.
posted by DoctorFedora at 5:47 PM on April 20, 2012 [17 favorites]


Dude shoulda dropped me (or any number of thousands of expats living here) a mail before he came over. Coulda set him straight on a lot of the stuff.

I had always assumed — naively, Americanly ...

Uh-huh. Well, I reckon that'll learn ya then! Never assume! And, have a nice day, you naive Amarican!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:55 PM on April 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


The subway in Tokyo is navigable by naive Americans.

The uncovered stop on the spur near Suzuka Speedway, staffed by leathery rice farmers pressed into duty for the big race weekend, not at all.

Never read Murakami and now I'd like to. Where should a naive American start?
posted by notyou at 6:19 PM on April 20, 2012


Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World was my first. I don't know if it's the best to start with. But it was incredible. It will definitely give you something to think about.
posted by Splunge at 6:25 PM on April 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Where should a naive American start?

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, although a bit long, is what I would recommend.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:26 PM on April 20, 2012 [5 favorites]


Skipping the snark toward the journalist for the moment, I've always been curious about the blatantly western elements in Murakami's works.

Anyone with a better sense of the culture know what to make of young adults in the 1960s and 70s who are constantly washing down European cheeses with coffee and gin drinks while listening to jazz?

I've always assumed it was the equivalent of a white American twenty year old in the 60s who makes a point of drinking turkish coffee and listening to Serge Gainsbourg albums; which is to say, exuberantly bohemian. But, I don't really have much basis for that assumption.
posted by eotvos at 6:26 PM on April 20, 2012


Haven't read much Murakami, although the one image of his that has stuck with me is that a character in one of his stories always had a fridge full of cold beer. I thought that was great.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:54 PM on April 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Anyone with a better sense of the culture know what to make of young adults in the 1960s and 70s who are constantly washing down European cheeses with coffee and gin drinks while listening to jazz?

It's not all that exotic at all, even for the 60s and 70s.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:55 PM on April 20, 2012


Reading Murakami is a great way to prepare for a visit to Japan, at least that's what the cats in my neighborhood tell me.
posted by betweenthebars at 6:56 PM on April 20, 2012 [25 favorites]


I don't know that you can consider the western elements in Murakami's works without looking at how western culture was an aspirational thing for everybody in Japan in the 60s, not just the hipsters who populate Murakami's works but all kinds of people, upper-class, middle-class, highbrow, lowbrow, everybody.

But even so, there is something different about American culture in Murakami's books -- I think the American hipsters listening to Serge Gainsbourg are probably a decent analogy. I once ate lunch at an out-of-the-way cafe so tiny that there was only a single staff person the whole time I was in there, doing the waiting and the cooking. It looked like a 1970s bachelor pad and the bookshelves were fill of Murakami novels.
posted by Jeanne at 6:56 PM on April 20, 2012 [5 favorites]


I prepared for my Japanese holiday by reading the novels of Natsuo Kirino. Everything went much better than expected!
posted by Ritchie at 7:11 PM on April 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


I had always assumed — naively, Americanly ...

Uh-huh. Well, I reckon that'll learn ya then! Never assume! And, have a nice day, you naive Amarican!


One of the things I find pleasurable about travel is having my assumptions challenged. I don't think there's anything wrong with being slightly naive about things and realizing it- you get to experience something new, and in a way that is arguably more complex and meaningful than just being told about it. In the case of this journalist, the fact that he was immersed in something out of his element -and beyond his basic capacity to understand and deal with, in spite of being a pretty everyday thing, a ride on transit in a 21st century metropolis- is pure Murakami.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:20 PM on April 20, 2012 [5 favorites]


Well put, oneirodynia, well put. I essentially agree. But there is something to be said for doing enough preparatory basic research on the foreign country you're setting out for so that if, say, you've scheduled a meeting for your first morning, you won't be late for it, wandering around in some other part of town because you'd assumed everyone would speak your language. That sort of thing.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:38 PM on April 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


'Hard-Boiled Wonderland' & 'The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle' are what I recommend. Those two are the most powerful, fascinating and surreal books among the ones Murakami wrote. The only downside to this is: reading any other of his books after reading those two first is kind of disappointing! Don't get me wrong: read Murakami if you haven't!

On topic: Anyone consider that the author uses this as bait? He wants to lure you in, into his article. He wants to give his story a little spin. We all (fortunate citizen of the western world) have been to/have seen distant corners of the world. Looking at it through Murakami’s eyes is a new experience. It's a ‘the framing of a piece makes an old story new’ kind of thing.

Thanks for posting, OP.
posted by travelwithcats at 8:06 PM on April 20, 2012


Anyone consider that the author uses this as bait? He wants to lure you in, into his article.

Actually, yes. That was the first thing that entered my mind. *Of course* it's his angle. Had he started the piece with...

"I prepared for my first-ever trip to Japan, this summer, by learning about the country from non-Japanese people who live and work there, as well as people who've visited there, so that I might have a reasonably good idea about what to actually expect."

... his editors would've sent him packing!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:18 PM on April 20, 2012


Funny he mentions getting lost in the subway. The train stations in Japan are the one place you do find English. In the cities, anyway. Most definitely Tokyo. Once you exit a station and attempt to find your way by street signs, that's when you'll get hopelessly lost. Native Tokyoites get hopelessly lost. Only large, main roads actually have names, and most smaller streets are part of blocks which have names. These blocks are called chome and after almost ten years here, I still have only a vague idea about how to navigate via chome.

But trains and train stations are a navigational oasis. You have no excuse getting lost using a Tokyo train. Though it helps immensely if you check a route planner like Hyperdia.
posted by zardoz at 8:34 PM on April 20, 2012


The train stations in Japan are the one place you do find English.

It's often scanty, though, truth be told. And in the red-hot moment when you need to see an English sign, through, say, the window of the crowded train that you're on, it's highly likely that there won't be any visible one. There are also lots of private lines stations (like, say, the Seibu Ikebukuro line that I travelled yesterday) where English signage is next to nonexistent.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:55 PM on April 20, 2012


For those new to Murakami, I'd personally recommend starting with Kafka On the Shore. While he's sort of outgrown it now, Murakami used to kind of have two distinct styles: the surreal, dreamlike symbolic fantasy novel and the wistful, nostalgic melancholy romance novel. I think Kafka does a wonderful job blending those styles into something more enjoyable together than they are alone.

Although it's a fantastic book, I'd recommend against reading The Wind Up Bird Chronicle first. It's a bit weird even for Murakami, and it's likely to leave you with the same kind of wrong impression of the author as you'd get if the only Kafka you ever read is The Metamorphosis.
posted by byanyothername at 9:37 PM on April 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yes, Kafka on the Shore is a great blend of what had been, anyway, his two different novelistic tendencies. The first book I read was his strangest: Hard Boiled Wonderland...which I'd like to read again, fifteen years after one of my students turned me on to Murakami.

I've lived in Japan three times, for less than a half a year, in toto, of my long life. It is a very strange place, but not "Murakami strange." Stranger. And stranger still for appearing, at first blush, to be similar to Western consumerist culture.

But, then, with Kafka and PKD as literary guides to my Euro-American native land, I am aware every day that the West is perhaps even stranger, although it is home to many of us.

I still feel permanently grounded with Planet Earth and the Source of my existence for having had the good fortune of having stood on the ground in front of the great Buddha statue of Kamakura.


Nonetheless, I was always lost in Tokyo. In countless ways.
posted by kozad at 9:56 PM on April 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Where should a naive American start?

You should start with The Elephant Vanishes and TV People (paywall, go read it free in the library). You should also stop there.

Someday when you get back from your first trip to Japan, you can read Norwegian Wood, and you'll not just read it, but smell it.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:59 PM on April 20, 2012


I lived on Okinawa for 15 months, Hokkaido for a bit over two years. Nothing strange about it...wait, yes there was. Never mind.

1Q84 by Marukami is a good place to start.
posted by mule98J at 10:04 PM on April 20, 2012


I started reading the NYTimes article. This turned out to be a horrible idea. The second paragraph is one sentence of 143 words. The third paragraph is a single sentence of a mere 78 words. Apparently you can be a Critic without understanding the purpose of a Writer or an Editor.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:11 PM on April 20, 2012


I was always lost in Tokyo. In countless ways.

I'was aaaaaaaalways lost,
was neeeeeeh-ver found,
waaa-aah-aahs blind,
aaaa-aaa-and stiiiiiiillll can't see
posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:24 PM on April 20, 2012


The author sounds fascinating, as nearly no one here has agreed what is a good place to start reading him. That's auspicious.
posted by maxwelton at 10:46 PM on April 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's often scanty, though, truth be told.

I dunno, flapjax. I always see signage in English in Tokyo (along with kanji and hiragana). Though once you get out of the city, all bets are off. I lived briefly in Osaka and IIRC there wasn't as much English there, but there was some.
posted by zardoz at 11:11 PM on April 20, 2012


I preparerd for my first trip to Japan by only reading Roland Barthes' L'Empire des Signes and, though it's such a singular interpretative grid overlayed on what is surely, like any other country, a mixed multiicity of realities, it really heightened my experience of the place. Insofar as any guidebook will pre-shape what might otherwise be your own "true" perception of a place, I can't recommend his brand of pre-shaping strongly enough.

(In fact, the experience of trying to find the other thing that I wanted to read - a monthly culture magazine that a funny girl on the flight over recommended to me - and spending a long afternoon finding and then negotiating department store book&magazine section semantics and attendant-etiquette, and ultimately failing to get what I was looking for - remains as a really clear, significant chapter of "my time in Japan". I think I knew what I was looking for - whatever I found or didn't find was exactly it.)
posted by progosk at 11:32 PM on April 20, 2012


As regards Murakami, I've only read 1Q84, which, from my perspective after three stays in Tokyo, felt... pretty realistic.
posted by progosk at 12:08 AM on April 21, 2012


multiiicity = multiplicity
posted by progosk at 12:11 AM on April 21, 2012


I read Norwegian Wood first, and I loved it. It has an amazing mood, and in some ways, it's a lot more... damaged than his other books. There's pain there, and it feels more real, yet more numbed by the pain than some of his other stuff.

Other than that, South of the Border, West of the Sun is a good, moody, woman with a mysterious past shakes up a boring guy's life. Sputnik Sweetheart was, to me, like a more upbeat version of the same novel, with almost the exact same plot, and was pretty forgettable.

My favorite short story of his has got to be The Second Bakery Attack. It's like a pure, concentrated dose of everything about Murakami that works.

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is astounding, and of the ones I've read, probably the best. Maybe the least omniscient narrator ever, and it sprawls in an amazing, but not excessive way. Kafka on the Shore seemed like an attempt to recapture some of the more fantastical spirit of his earlier works, but something seemed lacking, it seemed too forced to me.

That said, my favorite is still Hard Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World. It's like magic realism set in Tokyo, mixed with cyberpunk so banal it's nearly unimportant, much like the throwaway bit about the Tokyo analogue to C.H.U.D.s It builds so well, so perfectly that the ending is the only ending that could happen, and it's perfect Murakami to me. That, and in terms of discovering Tokyo through Murakami, at the time I read it, I lived one down from a station that is the center of an absurd conversation in the book. Other than that, nope, no talking cats, certainly no legion of unpleasant, possibly sinister men named Noboru Watanabe (seriously, what is up with that?), and no more mysterious women that you'd throw everything away for at the drop of a hat than your average metropolis.
posted by Ghidorah at 1:18 AM on April 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Come to think of it, the funny girl's business card (she had a whole packet of these, with her name and Tokyo address written in marker on the back) was a little square photograph of herself, in a frilly polkadot skirt, sitting under a tree somewhere in the countryside, with a demure smile, holding an accordeon - an imagine that, in retrospect, held the kind of imaginary potential that seems typical of Murakami.
posted by progosk at 1:19 AM on April 21, 2012


imagine = image; DAMN YOU, THUMBS!
posted by progosk at 1:23 AM on April 21, 2012


Kafka on the Shore was my first exposure to this author, LOVED it!
posted by point1 at 1:38 AM on April 21, 2012


I think the problem with starting with Wind-up Bird is that you really ought to read A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance, Dance, Dance before it. Or more specifically you shouldn't read the two of them after it, even though Wind-up is the better book. Hard Boiled Wonderland, also the first Murakami I read, is better in that respect because it's a more self contained book and it's definitely the place you should start if you're any sort of science fiction fan.

An alternative place to start is one of the short story collections: The Elephant Vanishes or Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.
posted by robertc at 3:09 AM on April 21, 2012


My favorite from him is still, I think his early work, the whimsically surreal A Wild Sheep Chase.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:10 AM on April 21, 2012


As for Murakami, I loved Norwegian Wood for its lessons on loss. And The Wind-up Bird Chronicle for taking mundane, everyday settings and making them so very creepy and weird. In a perfect world, David Lynch would adapt and direct the film version (in Japanese? Don't know how that would work).
posted by zardoz at 3:48 AM on April 21, 2012


zardoz, talking about stations: I dunno, flapjax. I always see signage in English in Tokyo (along with kanji and hiragana).

Platform name signs, yes, but in 2005 I'd sometimes find myself in a metro station with the network (route/fare) map only in kanji. That was a bit of a problem when it came to figuring out which ticket to buy and which platform to head for. Could be a thing of the past by now, of course; I've been back since, but I don't often need to look at the maps any more.

Also, as per flapjax, sometimes you look out of the window when the train pulls in and the only platform sign you can see is in hiragana and kanji, like this one (found on a blogger's rather useful guide to the Tokyo Metro). If you could see along to the next one, it would be in romaji, but...
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 6:03 AM on April 21, 2012


Murakami recommendations? Well, if you're totally new to his stuff, his signature novels are Norwegian Wood and Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, although they are quite different from each other - the former is a crushingly bittersweet love story, while the latter is a solid example of Murakami's talent for guaze-ifying the boundary between reality and dreams. His short story collections are also fine places to start.

In terms of his personal bests, my vote's going to have to be for 1Q84. I think this novel may even end up surpassing his previous works in terms of his masterpieces, but it's still too soon to say.

On the other hand, maybe you shouldn't listen to me. My favorite novel of his is Sputnik Sweetheart, which as I understand it is universally regarded as second-rate. But I loved it.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 7:36 AM on April 21, 2012


Haven't read much Murakami, although the one image of his that has stuck with me is that a character in one of his stories always had a fridge full of cold beer. I thought that was great.

This character re-appears in several of his novels:

He sips his cold beer and watches baseball on TV while waiting for the pasta to boil.
His wife has left him.
He befriends a quirky teenage girl.
He has a meeting with his wife's creepy brother.
He leaves town in search of something.
etc.
posted by ovvl at 8:42 AM on April 21, 2012


As an English speaker, I'm curious what difference the translation from Japanese makes. I'd be hard pressed to pick a favorite between Dance, Dance, Dance and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle but Kafka On the Shore is easily my least favorite. By the time I finished it, I'd read most, if not all, of his other works and Kafka seemed forced and predictable. But if memory serves me, I checked to see who did the translation and Kafka was someone different than the translator of his earlier works.
posted by hangingbyathread at 8:46 AM on April 21, 2012


Jay Rubin has translated almost all of Murakami's novels -- very well, I think. A few of his have been translated by Alfred Birnbaum, but I think that those are mostly older and harder to find (like an edition of Norwegian Wood published for Japanese speakers studying English.)

Murakami's style is very American and somewhat flat (in a flat-on-purpose kind of way), though, and I don't think it takes any feats of dazzling literary pyrotechnics to make a translation which is faithful in content and in style. I read What I Talk About When I Talk About Running not long after it came out, which Murakami actually wrote in English, and his English writing voice sounds exactly the same as his Japanese writing voice sounds in my head, and Jay Rubin translating Murakami sounds much the same as both of those.

(I haven't read Jay Rubin's book Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words but it may be worth reading. In addition to being Murakami's usual translator, Rubin also wrote my favorite book on Japanese grammar...)
posted by Jeanne at 8:58 AM on April 21, 2012


(I haven't read Jay Rubin's book Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words but it may be worth reading. In addition to being Murakami's usual translator, Rubin also wrote my favorite book on Japanese grammar...)

It is worth reading, mostly for the parallels Rubin draws between Murakami's life and the work that went into his writing.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 9:00 AM on April 21, 2012


I preparerd for my first trip to Japan by only reading Roland Barthes' L'Empire des Signes and, though it's such a singular interpretative grid overlayed on what is surely, like any other country, a mixed multiicity of realities, it really heightened my experience of the place. Insofar as any guidebook will pre-shape what might otherwise be your own "true" perception of a place, I can't recommend his brand of pre-shaping strongly enough.

OMFG that book is just terrible, it's full of highly developed theories that are based on complete misinterpretations of basic facts. At points, it is unreservedly racist. That book is the laughing stock of Japan Studies, we used to cite it as examples of total bullshit.

I have generally observed that people who "prepared themselves" for a trip to Japan have filled their head full of so much bullshit that they are incapable of seeing what is right in front of their noses. The only real way to prepare is learning the language, which of course entails some level of cultural studies as well. But if you "prepare" by reading some type of literature or even a guidebook, you will unconsciously adopt some writer's model of Japan which is invariably based on some mistaken assumptions, and you will unconsciously use it to filter your perceptions of reality.

There is a whole branch of Japan Studies that deals with Japan interpretive literature, even going back beyond Lafcadio Hearn. It takes considerable effort to survey the entirety of foreign interpretations of Japan and its culture, to see a broad enough spectrum of materials to enable oneself to neutralize the pernicious influence of theoretical interpretations from outside the culture. Even insider interpretations like Doi's "The Anatomy of Dependence" are filtered through western cultural models.

Perhaps the best interpretation of this effect was from a journalist who was assigned to a Tokyo station. He said that for westerners, your experience in Japan is a Rorschach Test, it will reveal more about your self than about Japan. What you see is filtered through your psyche, preventing you from seeing it as it is: daubs of ink. It takes deliberate effort and self-analysis to become conscious of your rigid preconceptions, let alone eliminate them.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:12 AM on April 21, 2012


Perhaps the best interpretation of this effect was from a journalist who was assigned to a Tokyo station. He said that for westerners, your experience in Japan is a Rorschach Test, it will reveal more about your self than about Japan. What you see is filtered through your psyche, preventing you from seeing it as it is: daubs of ink. It takes deliberate effort and self-analysis to become conscious of your rigid preconceptions, let alone eliminate them.

I'd say this is true about going to any other country. The more starry-eyed and full of childlike wonder you are about the country you're going to visit or move to, the more jarring the actual experience of being there is going to be for you. And I say this as someone who emigrated from the US to a very Americanized European country. Had I gone to Japan instead, even to visit, I think the experience would have been vastly more jarring.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 9:48 AM on April 21, 2012


I prepared for my Japanese holiday by reading the novels of Natsuo Kirino. Everything went much better than expected!
Cheers to knowing her! What awesome novels, and such a shame that there are so many of them that have never been translated to English (alas, at the rate I read Japanese these days, it would take me a year to finish them in the original version). I hope she gets more attention that leads to translation...

I read Norwegian Wood first, and I loved it.
But DO NOT start with Norwegian Wood the movie, which took a good atmospheric book with a lot of emotional things going on and turned it into Psycho Girlfriend & The Magic Penis: Do Not Stick Your Dick in Crazy. It was such an awful movie I apologized to the friend who watched it with me.

Anyway, having read a lot of Murakami, and seen a lot of Japan, I think Dance, Dance, Dance is one of my favorites. Though technically it should be read after A Wild Sheep Chase, nothing will be lost by not reading them together.
posted by whatzit at 10:16 AM on April 21, 2012


Yes, I think my point is that Asia is sufficiently different than Western countries that people don't have any way to interpret it, so they feel the need to prepare for it. This ends up alienating you in a very unique way, since many of the structures you encounter are like the West but adapted in a way that is difficult to decode. If you've already internalized a way to decode it, you're probably wrong, and you will have a harder time learning how it is properly decoded.

I'll give you a good example. My first day in country ever, I met a Japanese friend in Tokyo, she agreed to come to my hotel and we were going to visit some art supply stores. I met her when we were both in the same classes in Art School in the US. So she comes to the hotel, we walk to Shinkuku station and she says she will show me how to use the ticket machines. I had taken a couple of language lessons about subway commuting and the language of stations and how the ticketing worked, so I thought I could handle this, it would be easy and orderly. As we approach, I see the absolute pandemonium and crowds and freaked. I told her this is rush hour, let's go have a coffee or something and come back when it's less crowded. She says no, it's like 10AM and this is the low point of traffic, this isn't bad at all, it's actually quite orderly, come on let's do it. So we did. And I was quite glad to have some native guidance in my first trip through the subways, to see a native model of commuting and how it was experienced.

OK, so months later, I am arriving back in the US at SEATAC. I am on a plane full of Japanese people. We have to take a bus to the terminal and walk through Customs. We walk in a single file in the regular pace of commuters in Japan. Everything is extremely orderly, everyone is queuing and cooperating like I'd been experiencing in subway and train stations for months. This is all so natural that I didn't even think about it. Then I am released from Customs and after a few steps with the other Japanese, we enter the terminal and merge with the crowd. I am shocked by the sudden disorder. People are cutting in front of me, going in unpredictable directions, walking at the wrong speed, stepping on my heels and toes, people are not cooperating. For a moment I am dizzy. Only then did it strike me, "oh shit I'm back in the US."
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:31 AM on April 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


I think Dance, Dance, Dance is one of my favorites.

Ah! Yes, of course! I'd forgotten that one, but it's really great. I liked it better than the Bird Chronicles, actually.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:50 PM on April 21, 2012


[...]Roland Barthes' L'Empire des Signes[...]

OMFG that book is just terrible, it's full of highly developed theories that are based on complete misinterpretations of basic facts. At points, it is unreservedly racist. That book is the laughing stock of Japan Studies, we used to cite it as examples of total bullshit.


That's actually comforting to know, charlie don't surf - insofar as I think the incidental traveller is doomed to "not get" any significantly different culture that he's just passing through. That Barthes' take is skewed only becomes a problem if you're under the illusion that what you'll take away from visiting a very foreign country for a couple of weeks will be anything approaching a full understanding of the culture.

The only real way to prepare is learning the language, which of course entails some level of cultural studies as well.

Surely true, but clearly not applicable to casual travel.

[...] my point is that Asia is sufficiently different than Western countries that people don't have any way to interpret it, so they feel the need to prepare for it. This ends up alienating you in a very unique way, since many of the structures you encounter are like the West but adapted in a way that is difficult to decode. If you've already internalized a way to decode it, you're probably wrong, and you will have a harder time learning how it is properly decoded.

[...] for westerners, your experience in Japan is a Rorschach Test, it will reveal more about your self than about Japan. What you see is filtered through your psyche, preventing you from seeing it as it is: daubs of ink. It takes deliberate effort and self-analysis to become conscious of your rigid preconceptions, let alone eliminate them.


Yes, and one way to become aware of your own preconceptions is precisely to try on someone else's - the net effect being a faster loosening your seemingly sure footing, resulting in a different, heightened awareness in approaching the place.

The more starry-eyed and full of childlike wonder you are about the country you're going to visit or move to, the more jarring the actual experience of being there is going to be for you.

Beg to differ, Marisa: to me "childlike wonder" seems like a pretty good definition of "free of preconceptions" - no? (But then, visiting and emigrating-to are two very different cans of worms in this respect.)
posted by progosk at 1:58 AM on April 22, 2012


Beg to differ, Marisa: to me "childlike wonder" seems like a pretty good definition of "free of preconceptions" - no?

No, by "starry-eyed and full of childlike wonder" I meant more precisely, "full of highly idealized notions about the country one is about to encounter". To be actually totally a clean slate and approach a new country ready for anything would be "free of preconceptions".
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 3:31 AM on April 22, 2012


Preparing for Japan? Impossible. Japan is what you bring in your baggage. On the other hand, you can make yourself more open to the experience.

I like Donald Keene. A forward to one of his books has him examining the diaries of dead Japanese soldiers during the final days of WWII, and the occupation afterward. My heart went out to him. He thought that by learning the language he understood something. The diaries showed otherwise. Fortunately he is an intelligent and perceptive man, and seems to be able to transmit things about people that languages tend to obscure. If you'd like insight, read some of his books.

It won't hurt to spend a few years trying to pick up the language, either.
posted by mule98J at 5:25 PM on April 23, 2012


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