Japan: An Attempt at Re-imagining (or how I write about Japan)

A thousand books have been written about Japan; but among these, -setting aside artistic publications and works of a purely special character,- the really precious volumes will be found to number scarcely a score.  The fact is due to the immense difficulty of perceiving and comprehending what underlies the surface of Japanese life.  No work fully interpreting that life,-no work picturing Japan within and without, historically and socially, psychologically and ethically,-can be written for at least another fifty years.  So vast and intricate the subject that the united labour of a generation of scholars could not exhaust it, so difficult that the number of scholars willing to devote their time to it must always be small. Lafcadio Hearn, Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation, 1904

It is has become obvious to me in the last few weeks that the world of Japan non-fiction writers, has altered much since Lafcadio Hearn wrote his seminal Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation in 1904.  Maybe it is just that Hearn didn’t have the luxury of blogging, and the delight of having dozens upon dozens of people throughout the globe writing to him personally, and sometimes in public forums to tell him how closely his book resembles faecal matter of the loosest variety.

Recently, I have been getting emails about my Japan Times article on having a disability and living in Japan.  Most has been positive, along the lines of ‘nice article’ and ‘write more’.  A minority of readers, however, seemed to take umbrage with my offering, not just saying it was badly written, it may well be, but that I had misrepresented Japan in some way. My critics divide into two camps, let me introduce you to them.

One camp thought I had been too positive, that surely life in Japan for a foreigner with a disability cannot be that good.  Surely, the pointing and staring must get to you; surely life is not really that sweet.  You must have made this is up, Japan can’t be that positive an experience for someone like yourself.  The second camp, somewhat bizarrely in my view, thought I’d been too negative, that in writing about being a disabled foreigner, I had somehow failed to attempt to integrate, to become part of Japanese society, as if in Japan, I should set aside such categories as ‘disabled’ or ‘foreigner’.

My direct response to the first chorus of disapproval (a woefully large portion of which seem to be disabled, and oftentimes disabled and living in Britain) I can simply say this: I made no claims that Japan is perfect; indeed it is certainly not perfect.  Japan only recently ratified the UN Declaration on the Convention of Rights for Disabled Persons, and was the 140th country to do so, instead of say, at least in the first hundred, and there are only fifty-three member states left to sign.  The experience of being disabled would be different for someone like my wife, a Japanese citizen who, like me, has cerebral palsy.

I am not quite sure what to say to the second group to answer their criticism except this.  Both groups, in different ways raise the issue of my being a foreigner, a gaijin, as something which acted as a lens in my understanding of Japan, both seem to see the ‘gaijin lens’ as offering a distorted and inaccurate view, even if it is a positive vista that one sees from behind the lens.  And there is an interesting question about the duty of a non-fiction writer, writing about Japan.  Is it to simply report ‘the truth’, what is ‘actually there’, or is it to report what she or he sees, thinks and feels and hears, even if it is from a perspective that may not be shared by all?

I am of the latter school of thought.  No one can simply abandon their pre-conceptions and prejudices, nor perhaps should they do so.  Whilst a good writer, native to Japan like Haruki Murakami may help me understand a point of view that could be called ‘Japanese’, I cannot look at Japan except as a foreigner, as that is what I am, a British subject, who has cerebral palsy, living in Japan, and I report what I experience in these blogs.  The mistake though, is to assume that I think that reportage is an innocent process, and simply ‘true’, that Japan is ‘simply’ how I describe it, it isn’t of course, even Hearn titled his book Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation not Japan: A Description. A journalist’s first duty may be to the truth, but a writer’s is not by necessity. Writers, even non-fiction writers, are telling you a story, much like impressionistic painters they are telling you about the world they see, not the world that is ‘actually’ there. Why is such a world, when presented to some, seen as the opposite of the ‘true’ or ‘real’ world? My being a foreigner, and being disabled, is the only perspective I have, something that Donald Richie understood when he wrote ‘On being a foreigner in Japan’, after he had been living in the country for forty-six years.

One could report events that did not happen, or describe people that did not exist, that would certainly be lie, but when did it become a writer’s job to simply describe what is ‘actually there’, to avoid ‘misrepresentation’ instead of also utilising their imagination to try and bring their subject alive to an unfamiliar audience?

And, oh, sometimes Lafcadio was lucky not to have to deal with the Internet.

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One thought on “Japan: An Attempt at Re-imagining (or how I write about Japan)

  1. I found your blog over the “Global tags” from wordpress and started off with your artcile for the Japan Times and I think the article was a great read and very interesting. I think the experience of the Japan “paradox” was explained very well and I really could relate to it remembering my time in Japan as a “gaijin”.
    Japan seems to be a topic that brings somewhat extreme opinions to the surface and it doesn’t matter how well written or researched an article is (that would be the members of Camp No. 2). But I also think that it is the best trait of a writer that he writes out of his (or her) own perspective, that it’s a mix of feelings, experiences, education and character that makes the writing special and interesting.
    I just got started myself, but I am looking forward to read a lot more from you.

    Like

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