Interlude: No Fixed Abode

Smilingly excluded here in Japan, politely stigmatized, I can from my angle attempt only objectivity since my subjective self will not fit into the space I am allotted…how fortunate I am to occupy this niche with its lateral view. – Donald Richie, Japan Journals, 2005

No observer of Japan, and perhaps no other non-fiction writer appreciated the power of objectivity, the ability to observe and describe without indulging in partiality more than Donald Richie. As I continue my soujourn in Britain I think a lot about Richie’s words. I have begun to notice that I now think of myself, if not an outsider, certainly a stranger in Britain. I have a British passport, I speak English, so in some ways, I cannot call myself an outsider, bureaucratically at least, I ‘fit’ in Britain, there is a space for me. But yet at times I feel estranged from Britain. 

This sense of estrangement is not something I can give an example of, but it is something I become aware of feeling quite recently. On my journey up to Scotland from Doncaster, from Edinburgh onwards I began chatting with an academic from Robert Gordon’s University. Being an academic myself and curious about the state of academia in Scotland we spoke for sometime. Since he asked what university I was affiliated with, I said Hull and Osaka. When he asked how did Japanese academia compare to Britain’s I found myself starting a sentence like this: ‘With British academia there is a culture…’

Not ‘here in Britain’ or simply ‘here’, but ‘With British academia’.  Even as the words rolled off my tongue, which they did quite naturally, I became aware that I had removed myself from British academia, I was at best, observing British academia. And yet just seventeen months ago, I had a position at a University in Northern England, and I still hold an honorary position there. Seventeen months seems a short time to find oneself a stranger in your ‘home’ country.  And yet I do not feel a sense of loss about experiencing this estrangement. I do not feel that I am missing out on some vital part of experiencing the world, the world could only have been experienced this way by me. At worst it is a surprise that it only took seveteen months to begin to thik this way, but it is a pleasant surprise.  Instead of mourning the loss of my British identity, I hope to able to write about Britain with the objectivity that Richie holds so dear. The same distance from the subject matter that I have as a foreigner in Japan, I now also find is afforded me here in Britain.

By having no allotted space, to be writing from a place of no fixed abode here in Britain, I hope to be able to understand Britain better.

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Review of Kamiya Bar & other stories by Dan Ryan

Whenever I read what I look for most, is that the writer gives me a sense of life of their subject. I became convinced that that is the best way to look at stories ever since reading ‘The Great Gatsby’ and the line ‘it was said that Daisy Buchanan spoke quietly just so people would lean into her’. In that novel, little happens but much is conveyed about the dramatis personae.

Dan Ryan with his first collection of stories ‘Kamiya Bar & Other Stories’ (he is a noted photographer, this is his first mainly literary work) shows himself to be a great storyteller, on par with Scott Fitzgerald. From the outset with  ‘Kamiya Bar’ Ryan sets the tone as a writer who loves characters and their stories. For evidence of this please read ‘Kamiya Bar’ or ‘Henry’s Jug of the Last’.

There is also and other worldly character to Ryan’s stories that reminds one of Philip K Dick or George Orwell, and for evidence of that read the ‘The Pen’, ‘Very, Very Brightly’ or ‘Wyatt Earp in Colma’.

I recommend anyone who loves reading stories to read his book.

Landing Difficulties

When you finally go back to your old hometown, you find it wasn’t the old home you missed but your childhood. – Sam Ewing

My journey from Japan back to Britain for a visit concluded when Emirates flight 17 landed at Manchester International  Airport. From the window of my plane I could see I had arrived on a reassuringly typical day in Britain, it was overcast and drizzly.  Whilst leaving the tin ark that got me safely to the homeland, I survey my fellow travellers. A good many of them were British expats coming back from the Middle East and Australia for a visit, they were all looking forward to that most British of things, a nice cuppa tea.

I have never much cared for tea, something that I have always jokingly considered emblematic of my outsider status here in the Kingdom of Albion. To not care for tea (nor that enthusiastically for football that other great British pastime) is as bizarre as a Japanese person not caring for sushi, it doesn’t just mark you out as eccentric it’s grounds to have your British passport revoked. As I queued to gain permission to enter the country with my fellow Britons, all of them but me bound together by their love of tea and football, I felt a tiny sense of isolation, an isolation lifted only slightly by a conversation with a lady about how unlike their passport photo anyone looks.

My lack of affection for tea and football not being sufficient grounds for being denied entrance to Britain I an waved through and walk towards the exit. The duty free shops with their once familiar brand names heralded the fact that I was now in Britain. The parents were there with smiling faces, glad to see their son after seventeen months.

It is, of course good to be back, nice to visit family, friends and visit old places and haunts. But I cannot say that they are old, familiar places. They would have been familiar before I left for Japan, but now even the route from Manchester Aiport to my brother’s house, a path I know well is experienced with a sense of disconnection, a feeling that one is observing the world, rather than participating in it.  At first, I dismissed the feeling as a product of a jetlagged mind, but a week and half has passed since that day and I still feel the same way. It is also not an unwelcome sense of disconnection, it feels quite natural, like it’s how I should be feeling, which in itself is odd.

Despite the wisdom of writers like Thomas Wolfe, I never truly accepted the idea that you can’t go home again. Rather I choose to believe that whilst your relationship with your hometown will change, a new, possibly more mature relationship can be forged. No longer seeing the place will you grew up as simply that, with its hazy rose-tinted memories of childhood, but as a living, breathing and changing place that has an existence beyond just being the place of your youth. Those blue remembered hills are still structures you can re-climb now as well as recollect with nostalgia.

Old haunts are able to accommodate new ghosts.

A Literary Flight Plan

So, on Sunday 9th of February I shall fly from Kansai International Airport to Manchester, England.  I shall have quite a good lay over in Dubai, and might be able to use my Kindle on the flight.  So I have drawn up a list of necessary Japan reading for a long flight.

To begin with, ‘Kamiya Bar and Other Stories’ by Dan Ryan.  A long time friend of Japan, Dan is well known as a photographer as demonstrated here, but in this book he also demonstrates how good and versatile a storyteller he is, please read.

Secondly, ‘Dancing Over Kyoto’ by Richard Russell.  This author has a way of imbuing a sense of nostalgia, of a life reviewed wiith wonder, regret and amazement in equal measure.  I hope for more stories from Richard. I recommend this book to any Japan resident.

Thirdly, ‘ Loco in Yokohama’ by Baye McNeil.  This is Baye’s second book.  Baye is simply a great writer, his ‘Loco in Yokohama’ gives us a well described glimpse, into the everyday, or not so everyday life of high school English teacher.  It is a constant amazement  to me why Baye does not have his own column in newspaper somewhere.

Fourthly, ‘Japan, Funny Side Up’ by Amy Chavez.  Her book has both a sense of humour and a knowing, both of which I wished I possessed.

See you in Britain, Dear Reader and Japan based literary travelling companions!

From Chu-hi to Yorkshire Tea: Thoughts on Re-Entering Britain

So in almost a week’s time I shall temporarily leave Japan, the land of chu-hi and AKB48, for Britain, the land of Yorkshire Tea and drizzle. I have mentioned my concerns about returning to Britain before here.  I am still apprehensive, but now I am still really looking forward to it.  As I think about returning, if only for a month, I thought I would make some predictions about what I expect to experience on returning to the UK after almost eighteen months of being in Japan.

I must confess that I am still concerned about Britain disappointing me, for want of a better word.  As I detailed here and here, when I left Britain in late August 2012, I felt it had become an unkind place.  My concern is that I am so nervous about it even now (after all I was beaten up in broad daylight after being told I was a ‘f**king srounger’) that I shall be simply unfair on Britain as a country.  Maybe it is not that really that bad, but after being away for so long, I shall look at every small problem, every minor social infringement with undue emphasis.  And yet, at the same time, part of me thinks that even if I am unfair, that I am entitled to do be so, not just in here in Japan, but in every country, people, whether or not they have a disability, should be able to get around without fear of violence.

My other concerns are what you might call ‘re-entry issues’.  Britain is a very different place from Japan; the natives do things differently there. When I first arrive, I expect to be saying ‘sumimasen!’ instead of ‘sorry!’ when I bump into people on the bus or street, or forget that on said bus, one must make one’s way to leave before the bus stops, as buses in Britain never wait for you, unlike in Japan.  Maybe I will bow instead of say thank you if someone helps me in the street with shopping or the like, which did, despite what I said above, happened reasonably often last time I was there.  Maybe I shall also wonder why most convenience stores are open for business for almost twenty-four hours, as opposed to around twelve to fifteen (In Japan, apparently things can be too convenient!), but that no one greets you with ‘irrashaimase!’ or ‘Come on in!’, when you enter that convenience store.

I certainly expect a sense of the uncanny, of the world being strangely familiar as well as familiar but strange, maybe a sense of disconnection, of not being quite there. However, it would be mistake to think that such a feeling would be bad, a negative facet of being back in Britain.  As a disabled person, I have always felt an outsider, even in Britain, but yet I am still bemused that people often view the outsider perspective as not just being a lonely place (a party is far more enjoyable from within after all), but also somehow deficient, as if the view from that lens reveals no good exposure, as after all (and forgive the trumpet blowing), but it produced this.

I shall certainly report on this blog what I actually experience, as in one week’s time, I won’t need to wonder, I shall be in Britain.  And it certainly should fun and interesting.  And Japan, I’ll bring you back some Yorkshire Tea and English Mustard, you keep the chu-hi on ice.