September 14th, 2006


The trip inside

I'm iChatting with Hisae. She's in Osaka. "Japan is nice to visit," she says, "but when you're here for a while it can get a bit boring. Food is good, though. And going to the sento." We decide the thing to do is live and work in Germany, but visit Japan each year. For the food. And the bathing.

Here's Richard Lloyd Parry in the LRB, reviewing Donald Richie's Japan Journals: "Greater Tokyo contains thirty million people; it is far and away the largest city that has ever existed. And yet to the Westerner with intellectual aspirations it is a small pond. The Catholic novelist Shusaku Endo compared Japan to a tropical mud swamp: when living flowers are transplanted from elsewhere they grow vigorously for a while, put out lurid blooms, but eventually wither in the strange minerals of the new soil. In 150 years, foreigners in Japan have produced important works of history, political science, anthropology and journalism, but no lasting work of literature."

Here's Roddy Schrock on his blog, talking about the same LRB piece: "Why is this? What are the limitations placed on foreign minds? Why are people living as gaijin not electrified and inspired to write on a daily basis?"

Parry in the LRB: "Japan has never attracted the attention of a Chatwin or a Naipaul, let alone fostered a Kipling, a Somerset Maugham, a Hemingway or a Paul Bowles."

Bowles and Barthes come up in my Metropolis magazine piece about "the pleasures of staying foreign". One of the things I did in my Tokyo apartment was listen to a CD someone had left lying around, a Talking Book of Paul Bowles short stories.

I'm talking to some interviewer about Tokyo. "Of course, the art world there is very small," I say. "There's nowhere like New York's Chelsea or the East End of London for galleries. There are just a few commercial galleries. People in Japan don't really buy art. It's a bit like Berlin in that way." The art world, too, is a small pond.

The Tokyo Chronicles details my first impressions when I went to live in Tokyo in 2001. "Grey, anxious, neat and tidy, hyper-industrialised, Japan has a different atmosphere," I write. I can't quite decide if it's Athens or Mars.

Here's David Bowie, in a radio interview in the late 70s. "I go to Japan a lot, but I'm a bit afraid that if I settle there I'll get very Zen about things and my writing will dry up." The idea is that you need conflict and strife to create, and Japan just doesn't have it.

Here's my Design Zen piece from May 2001. I'm settling into Tokyo, getting comfortable with the alienation. "Tokyo is a city trapped under the iron thumb of 'aesthetic correctness'," I write. "It's the greatest good fortune, and the greatest misfortune. I'm still trying to decide if it's heaven or hell." At the end I quote Cornelius saying that the recession or an earthquake could erase Japan's drama-less-ness at one fell swoop. This lack of tension is itself tense.

I manage to make an album in Japan. It's not literature, but it's literary. Stuff about Scottish vaudeville, Jacques Tati, Modernism, slapstick, Beowulf. Because I feel rather outside things in Tokyo, I retreat in my writing to my core self, my past, my dreams, my language.

Richard Lloyd Parry again: "Densely hierarchical, structured by invisible networks of deference, obligation and taboo, conventional Japanese society offers no formal place to the ‘outside person’. But this alienation is so absolute that it is experienced as something close to liberation, a stimulus to observation and analysis. ‘Japan has afforded him’ – the author – ‘a situation of writing,’ Roland Barthes wrote in Empire of Signs. This situation is ‘one in which a certain disturbance of the person occurs, a subversion of earlier readings, a shock of meaning lacerated, extenuated to the point of its irreplaceable void.’ Japan, to put it in drastically un-French terms, puts you on your mettle."

Donald Richie: "In Japan I interpret, assess an action, infer a meaning. Every day, every hour, every minute. Life here means never taking life for granted, never not noticing. For me alone I wonder? I do not see how a foreigner can live here and construct that shroud of inattention, which in the land from whence he came is his natural right and his natural tomb . . . it is with this live connection that the alert foreigner here lives. The electric current is turned on during all the waking hours: he or she is always occupied in noticing, evaluating, discovering and concluding . . . It is the difference between just going to a movie and living it for a few hours, and going to the same film as a reviewer, taking notes, standing apart, criticising, knowing that I must make an accounting of it. The former is more comfortable; the latter is better... Being at home means taking for granted going blind and deaf, eventually not even thinking. It means only comfort. I would hate to be at home."

Parry: "As he grows older [he's in his 80s] Richie begins to panic about the cost of having no home, not for its human comforts, but its intellectual stimulations. At his most optimistic, he takes pride in his outsideness (‘undisturbed by vagaries, I can regard what I think of as eternal’). But he sees that New York friends ‘live in an element I do not. Theirs is the current of contemporary thought, and they swim – mostly against it – and grow sleek. I have no intellectual climate at all. I have no one with whom to speak of these concerns, no one to learn from, no one to teach. For fifty years I have lived alone in the library of my skull."

The only escape is sex. Parry tells us Richie seeks it in parks, clubs, saunas, with boys who will "stand for Japan". He recorded it all in his diary, but cut it out. It may appear in a separate book, a Vita Sexualis. But it's key. It's why foreigners end up staying in a place with "no intellectual climate at all". It's an escape from alienation that only adds to it. Sex: the punishing reward. Salty water that only makes you thirstier. The outsider's only permitted trip inside.