For a Kinder, Gentler Society
Windows on Japan
A Walk Through Place and Perception
  • Bruce Roscoe
Reviews Table of Contents Introduction «Back
Windows on Japan . A Walk Through Place and Perception
Sound Bite
In Windows on Japan a New Zealander walks across rural Japan and ponders centuries-old perceptions about the country that is still prisoner to an isolationist past. In a deeply insightful commentary, the author surveys cultural, social and political mores, explores the wellspring of racial perception and the problem of the memory of war, and challenges the logic of much Western thought about the country that perplexes as much as it pleases.

About the Author

Bruce Roscoe was educated at the universities of Canterbury (Christchurch, NZ) and Sophia (Tokyo) and holds a bachelor degree in political science and Asian area studies. He lived in Japan for 22 years as student, journalist and corporate researcher. He has written widely on Japanese business, politics, and society for the Far Eastern Economic Review and Chicago Sun-Times, among other newspapers. He divides his time between Auckland and Tokyo.

About the Book
Windows on Japan is a deeply insightful commentary that alternates chapters of physical travel with ‘travel’ through perception about Japan, and challenges the logic of much Western thought about the country that perplexes as much as it...
Windows on Japan is a deeply insightful commentary that alternates chapters of physical travel with ‘travel’ through perception about Japan, and challenges the logic of much Western thought about the country that perplexes as much as it pleases.

The author walked a route that connects the ports of Niigata and Yokohama and from these windows on the world considers perceptions of people and place. He also assesses the effect of Japan on writers from Jonathan Swift to Oscar Wilde, Shirley MacLaine and Paul Theroux with surprising results.

The trading entity that wraps its tentacles around the globe, converses in most languages and understands most customs, is perceptive and urbane and none appears more capable or cosmopolitan. Yet the individuals who inhabit these islands take refuge in their language as a private habitat, resent intrusions, and are captured by a cultural particularism that distances them from others. The author discusses this paradox, as well as environmental and linguistic issues and topics of history and literature. Along the way, he lifts a veil on the life of a snow country geisha, discusses current events with a priest and a reporter, and takes advice on becoming a Japanese. Though he is understood, it is only on return visits to places he has come to love that he wins acceptance.

Notes on music delightfully enrich the narrative.
Introduction
I walked across Japan to thread old and new observations into a fabric of understanding of the past and present. Seeking a view of the interior, I chose a route that connects the ports of Niigata and Yokohama on opposite coasts of the main island of Honshū. Ports are windows and from them we can consider our perception of people and place....
I walked across Japan to thread old and new observations into a fabric of understanding of the past and present. Seeking a view of the interior, I chose a route that connects the ports of Niigata and Yokohama on opposite coasts of the main island of Honshū. Ports are windows and from them we can consider our perception of people and place.
This book is intended for intellectually curious travelers and those interested in Japanese culture, environment, history, language, literature, politics, and the problem of racial perception and the memory of war. It doesnÂ’t seek to introduce tourist markers and my walk was not an athletic feat.
Why not take a train or a bus, people asked. Trains reach their destinations too quickly, and the concrete-walled elevated highways used by inter-city buses deprive passengers of informing views, whereas walking allows the panorama to permeate the senses, and concentrates and clarifies thought, thus exercising the mind.
Japan treads uncertainly in the world. More troubling is the course it follows within its borders. Was it true that this once picturesque country had nearly concreted and dammed itself to death? Was it theme-parking itself? At a measured pace, I wanted to see for myself.
But I wasnÂ’t searching for a “real” or “lost” Japan, as in Alan BoothÂ’s Looking for the Lost ― Journeys Through a Vanishing Japan, Alex KerrÂ’s Lost Japan, Lesley DownerÂ’s On the Narrow Road ― Journey into a Lost Japan, or J.D. BrownÂ’s The Sudden Disappearance of Japan.
Some observers decry the Gilbert and Sullivan-era imagery of fans and screens, then record their heartbreak at not finding vestiges of those symbols after conducting the most exhaustive of searches. In some cases, the searches all but consume their lives, but the same time could be spent looking for the last cowboy in Wyoming. We canÂ’t expect to find a past that Japan doesnÂ’t preserve, though it preserves the spirit of being Japanese.
Japan leaves discordant impressions. I trawled the works of writers as different as sushi and soufflĂ© ― from Jonathan Swift to Oscar Wilde, Jack Kerouac, Shirley MacLaine and Paul Theroux ― to try to understand why. Their perceptions teach, stimulate, satisfy, please, and disappoint so much. I discuss their writing in chapters which I alternate with those of my travel, as we journey through perception as well as place.
IÂ’ve added vignettes of recollection and contemplation, and I provide some data not as scholarship but as a springboard for more disciplined inquiry that readers may wish to make. I discuss the influence of Japan in popular song and receive advice on becoming a Japanese. The chapters on language consider how English borrowings from Japanese affect Western thinking and the danger inherent in Japanese saturating their language with English. These chapters, too, I alternate with those of physical travel, as our journey deepens.
In the chapters “The uncountable dead” and “Featherston” this book also explores war-tinged perceptions that shadowed me as I grew up. They are a part of my journey, and I couldn’t rest without writing them.
At first I tried to avoid the subject of the Pacific War, seeing it as a slow-working poison, but the more I read and considered, the more I realized that it can’t be skirted. Though wars define human history, the experience of that particular war still colors and controls relations with Japan. The empire that Japan attempted to create was comparable in area and audacity to that of the Mongols. Some of the killing today would be termed “ethnic cleansing.” The US response of “burning the paper houses” was biblical. People are still coming to terms with this.
I could see in faces the psychological debris of that war as I walked. A war may end on a particular day in history but people who fought or were affected register a personal ending in their own time. For many that time is yet to come.
Visitors to Japan sometimes say that the people are becoming more Westernized. Youth are less tied to tradition, they add. But the opposite is more apparent ― Japanese are proud and possessive of their indigenous identity. They are perhaps becoming more so, as Internet-age togetherness amplifies rather than dissipates differences. They wear tradition as tightly as a wetsuit.
There are two Japans, or three if one views Tokyo as a beginning and an end. The trading entity that reaches the ends of the earth, converses in most languages and understands most customs, and is perceptive and urbane, is one, and none appears more capable or cosmopolitan.
Yet the individuals alone seem weak and insecure. They inhabit the second country through which I walked. They take refuge in their language as a private habitat, resent intrusions, and are captured by a cultural particularism that distances if not separates them from the mores ― some say morality ― of others.
They still suffer ― more than they realize or care to admit ― from the legacy of the Tokugawa shoguns whose isolationist policies created a time warp of two centuries, with calamitous result in the 20th century. They still speak in terms of sekai to Nihon ― “Japan and the world,” as though they are apart from, not a part of, the world.
I propose no “theory of the Japanese” and accept none. The proponents of nihonjin ron appear to share the desk of the early ethnographic skull measurers. Unsettled that little may separate a people from themselves, they do their utmost using their “science” to prove differences that finally a child will see as imagined.
After traveling through a place and talking to a few people, I don’t pretend to understand it, and “understanding” a place isn’t the purpose of visiting it. After the passage of 30 years, I’m only beginning to “understand” my hometown of a few thousand people.
Travel stimulates an awareness of self that makes possible a deeper awareness of others. Seeing ourselves in the mirror others hold to us is the beginning. When they in the exchange see more deeply into their own selves, we widen and enrich our world. ItÂ’s the beginning of the homecoming, because then we can turn back, more certain of who we are.
Walking down the Niigata Plain, across the mountain range that divides Honshū, then through the Kantō Plain to Tokyo and Yokohama took only a few weeks, but my journey had begun years earlier. From language student to journalist and corporate researcher, and father of two whose first language was Japanese, Japan had become the largest part of my life.
Before I set out, no one had made calls on my behalf and I carried no cards of business identification. Paths are cleared and carpeted for visitors who are received by invitation. But I would arrive on doorsteps unannounced. This was a test. Later I returned by bullet train to some of the towns on my route. I wanted to meet some people again. For all the value of first impressions, I sought second and third encounters. I still seek them.
Notes on music ― that life language that requires no simultaneous interpreter, the music that Japan hears, the music thatÂ’s written for meaning, and jazz, that most international of media that includes us in its conversations and which some Japanese embrace ― accompany the narrative.
My fabric of understanding doesnÂ’t stretch to the future. Japan, unchanging though it is, mutates too quickly for that. IÂ’ve noted every road I took so that walkers can take the same route if they wish. Though the route is far from scenic, thereÂ’s much to gain from proceeding slowly. Time isnÂ’t lost but found.
Table of Contents
Preface Chapter 1. A Night in Niigata Chapter 2. Gulliver Understood Chapter 3. Missing Persons Chapter 4. Paul About H
Preface
Chapter 1. A Night in Niigata
Chapter 2. Gulliver Understood
Chapter 3. Missing Persons
Chapter 4. Paul About Himself
Chapter 5. South into Sanjō
Chapter 6. Letters to the Past
Chapter 7. 100 Sacks of Rice
Chapter 8. ShirleyÂ’s Cloak
Chapter 9. Feudal Facsimile
Chapter 10. JackÂ’s Epic
Chapter 11. An Orderly Town
Chapter 12. Golf and Tulips
Chapter 13. The Scene Changes
Chapter 14. Trading Terms
Chapter 15. Amid the Tall Cedars
Chapter 16. Once Were Animals
Chapter 17. MatsueÂ’s Life
Chapter 18. Puppets Feel No Pain
Chapter 19. Travelers Are Strangers
Chapter 20. A Murderous Cult
Chapter 21. Wake-Up Call
Chapter 22. What Oscar Realized
Chapter 23. The Path of Ghosts
Chapter 24. Lyrics and Mirrors
Chapter 25. The Gaze of the Goddess
Chapter 26. Stolen Words
Chapter 27. Sleepless in Saitama
Chapter 28. 74 Minutes
Chapter 29. Kawagoe Comfort
Chapter 30. As We See Them
Chapter 31. The City That Works
Chapter 32. Looking Out to Sea
Chapter 33. He Loved His Wife
Chapter 34. Until the End
Chapter 35. The Uncountable Dead
Chapter 36. War and Music
Chapter 37. Featherston
Chapter 38. The Way Back
Chapter 39. Opera City
Chapter 40. Higher Ground
English Borrowings of Japanese Words
Bibliography
Index
Reviews
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Pages 320
Year: 2007
LC Classification: DS812.R67
Dewey code: 952.04--dc22
BISAC: TRV003050
BISAC: LIT000000
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ISBN: 978-0-87586-491-4
Price: USD 23.95
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