"A Canadian Journalist in Japan"
by Robert Fulford

(Lecture, The Canada-Japan Society, ANA Hotel, Tokyo, November 28, 1997)

Every foreigner in Japan has a particular role to play, and we Canadians, like other gaijin, must work out the ways we will play it. It is part of the daily spectacle of life in this country. The Japanese and their visitors from abroad are involved in a continuing ritual of interaction, feeding each other's fantasies, stimulating each other's curiosity. We engage in mutual scrutiny, gaze and counter-gaze, like rival teams of anthropologists examining each other. In this process, certain Westerners visiting Japan develop an attitude that's unlike anything I've seen elsewhere in the world: against all reason, against all common sense, foreigners rather resent the presence of other foreigners. To a Westerner walking the streets of Tokyo, other Westerners look like alien intruders--in a dimly understood way, they spoil the picture.

Sarah Sheard, the Canadian who wrote the novel Almost Japanese, noticed this when she was visiting Japan a few years ago. She wrote, "Each time I pass a Westerner, he or she looks uneasy, eyes averted. It seems we don't want to acknowledge one another." She made this point in Descant, a Toronto literary journal that published a special issue on Japan. In that same issue, Peter Oliva, another Canadian writer, noted the same phenomenon. He wrote, "Perhaps this was the strangest lesson I learned about living in Japan....Gaijin desire, above all else, the chance to see and hoard Japan for themselves." He, too, learned to avert his eyes whenever he saw another non-Japanese. He understood that his presence was regarded by the other as an intrusion.

Each foreigner thinks other foreigners get in the way. Deep in their hearts, many foreigners believe they discovered Japan. Lafcadio Hearn saw this country before almost any other Westerner and staked his claim to immortality on his brilliant writing about it. He was the most enviable of writer-travellers, someone who for a long time had a great subject more or less to himself. Ever since, the rest of us, living in his shadow, hoping to see what he saw, have dreamt of somehow being as original as he was.

For a Canadian travelling here, Japan is in at least two ways an adventure in scale. Obviously, Canadians tend to be larger than Japanese and therefore we find certain facilities remarkably small. Recently I visited a Canadian photographer who is about four inches taller than I am. He lives in a Tokyo suburb in a Japanese-style apartment where the main room is nine tatamis. He appears to be larger than the room that contains him, and when he got me into that room as well, it seemed at first as if we were the victims of some outlandish practical joke; after a few minutes, of course, it felt entirely natural.

There's a more important sense in which visiting Japan can disrupt one's sense of scale. This may be overstating it a little, but Japan seems to me a small country full of big things whereas Canada is a big country full of small things. In Japan it appears that almost everything is huge: buildings, railway stations, bridges, factories, ports--and of course cities, including this one, the biggest of all cities anywhere in history. In Canada, on the other hand, most of these public structures are relatively small. The Toronto railroad station, for instance, would look like part of a toy train set if you put it down beside Tokyo Station or Shinjuku. This adds to the feeling some of us have when we come here that we are visiting a different planet--though it's a friendly planet, and a place that in many ways is familiar.

Today my purpose is to offer a few notes on what I've seen. These books I have with me are props--props in two meanings of that word. First, they are props in the sense of stage properties, physical objects to assist me in my presentation. Second, they are props in another meaning, they prop up my understanding of Japan, they support me as I try to approach and think about it, this magnificent subject, this endless source of fascination, this national community that is at once so triumphantly practical and so other-worldly, so close to me yet at the same time so far away.

My wife Geraldine Sherman and I came here for six weeks in 1987, and for another ten days in 1991, and now we are at the end of a two-month visit. I'm grateful for all I've learned in these periods, and especially grateful to the Japan Foundation for making our current visit a reality rather than the dream it had been for so long. Still, a total of under four months has allowed us merely to begin studying the country and its people. I have no hope of "understanding" Japan in a profound sense. Donald Keene, who has been writing about Japan and its culture since the 1950s, said in a recent lecture in Tokyo that we should keep trying to understand Japan but we should not expect to succeed. He said, "Not even the Japanese can understand Japan." I agree. What I've tried to acquire instead is a feeling for it, a sense of its texture, some idea of what its symbols mean. And one more thing---the beginnings of an answer to a question that has been in my mind for ten years: how did Japan develop into the kind of place that it now is, a largely successful modern society.

By most of the measures we use to judge a society, Japan and the West have reached the end of the 20th century looking quite similar. Of course there are differences. There is more emphasis on originality in western society, and in Japan there is more impressive intellectual discipline, particularly among the young. Perhaps we could say that in agriculture and trade, the consumer is king in the West while the producer is king in Japan. Certainly the role of women is radically different. But in financial structure, transport, industrial development, science, advertising, medicine, and mass media, we seem to be at roughly the same place.

How can that be? In the west we believe we know how our liberal capitalist society developed. We can trace its origins from the Renaissance through the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation and the Enlightenment to the Industrial Revolution. Max Weber and many other thinkers have instructed us that the great spiritual engine of capitalism in northern Europe was Protestantism. After Martin Luther's reforms, the Protestant version of Christianity developed a belief in salvation through work and a view that worldly success and heavenly approval are intimately connected. These ideas became doorways to the future. They enabled us to find the energy and sense of purpose that made capitalist enterprise possible.

That's how we came to be where we are--grossly over-simplified of course.

But having followed that route and arrived at a certain place, we find we are not alone: someone else is here, Japan, and Japan has clearly come from another place entirely, by a route that is at best obscure to us. All those epochal forces I mentioned, whether the Reformation at the end of the Renaissance or the Enlightenment in the 18th century, are not to be found in Japanese history. So how, without them, did Japan accomplish what it has accomplished? The answer, if you were to find it, might be useful to world development in the future.

Certainly Japan's leap from feudalism to modernity was swift and without precedent. There was nothing like it before, and there has been nothing like it since, and for me one of the exciting aspects of visiting Japan is seeing the permanent physical evidence of that astonishing transformation. If you go to Meiji-mura, the architectural park near Nagoya, as I did last week, you can walk for hours through the historical record, magnificently preserved in three dimensions. It is only when you are literally surrounded by these powerful buildings that you can begin to understand what happened to this civilization in the Meiji period. Dallas Finn, the American architectural historian, the author of a book called Meiji Revisited: The Sites of Victorian Japan, says architecture in Japan in the last quarter of the 19th century changed faster than in any other country in history. She calls it "a world record for conversion from one kind of architecture to another." In a few decades, between the Meiji restoration of 1868 and the early years of the new century, hundreds of buildings appeared all across Japan, each one of them sharply different from what Japan had built over the centuries.

Many of those buildings in Tokyo and Yokohoma were destroyed in the earthquake of 1923. Many more, in various cities, were destroyed by the American bombing of 1945. But many others survived, and of these about five dozen have been saved from the wreckers and assembled in a hilly park beside a lake at Meiji-mura. Each of them is a symbol of sudden and successful change--not just in architecture, where western innovations were blended with Japanese sensibility, but in the organization of human life. Those buildings represent institutions previously little known or unknown in Japan. A public school, a hospital, a government building, a post office, a police box--each of them stands for a fundamental change that swept across Japan in those amazing years that followed the Meiji Restoration.

How, without the Protestant ethos, was that managed? Donald Levine of the University of Chicago argued in a recent lecture in Tokyo that the ground work was well laid in the Tokugawa period. During that era, it now seems clear, the work of artisans and farmers and eventually merchants slowly became esteemed for its ethical value. It took on, through various religious movements of that era, a spiritual dimension. Diligent work was honoured. The new religious movements borrowed some of the rhetoric of the samurai ethic and extended it to merchants and artisans, making their work appear noble and valuable. Perhaps the various forms of spiritual life developed in the Tokugawa period made Japan ready for modernity, ready to meet the new human demands of industrialism.

Still, the Meiji period represented an abrupt change in the national way of life. And we know that in other countries, similar large-scale, society-wide changes have proven calamitous. On a huge scale, the changes attempted by the Soviet and Chinese communist empires created widespread suffering, chaos, and eventually economic failure. On a smaller scale, the attempt by Kemal Ataturk to modernize Turkey created a nation that achieved the worst of both worlds, abandoning tradition without grasping modernity.

How did Japan escape the fate of those societies?

In groping for answers to that question and others like it, I need all the help I can get, and these books are essential to me. They aren't the only books I could have chosen today, and they are only a few among the many books I've read on Japan, but I've singled them out because they deliver data about Japan, not just facts but also data of the senses, of the emotions. They help to make certain aspects of Japanese life and culture feel relatively familiar to me and allow me to enjoy at least a few brief, intimate glimpses of Japan. They are connectors and lifelines; as I say, props.

Certain books increase in power and eloquence from the context in which they're read; they seem to draw energy from the world around them and then pass it on to the reader. In making connections with Japanese society and culture, I've profited from The Buddha Tree, a 1960s novel by Fumio Niva, about a Buddhist priest and his community on Ise Bay near Nagoya. At its core The Buddha Tree concerns the moral crisis of a young priest, but it is more valuable to me as a picture of a community as it grapples with the problem of keeping an ancient tradition alive in a life dominated by 20th-century commerce and industry. In the last month I've seldom passed an active Buddhist temple without reflecting on the characters in The Buddha Tree. I especially appreciated Fumio Niva's details of Japanese culture, one of which I want to single out for a peculiar reason. The Buddhist priest at the centre of the story is a handsome fellow, much sought after by the young women in the area. One woman says, "Soshu was the perfect type of a Kabuki actor, not for the part of a swashbuckling villain in a melodrama, but for the lead in a romantic play. He reminded her of the great Ganjiro."

Now, the great Ganjiro shows up again in a much better book, that wonderfully rich family saga, The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki. This story of four women in the 1930s clinging desperately to ancient rituals of courtship and family authority is a work of great imagination, written with delicacy and tact. Most writers would satirize these sisters; after all, history is about to descend upon them with the most terrible force, yet all they think about is the marriages they are arranging and the good name of their proud family. Tanizaki sees their faults, sees the comedy in their attitudes, but he doesn't satirize: he takes them as they are, judges them on their own terms, and watches them live their lives in the best way they can. Last week, visiting Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, and Kanazawa, I had Tanazaki's book in my pocket--it's one of those novels that are so good you don't want it to finish, you drag it out slowly and feel regret as the end inexorably approaches. Incidentally, I'm not the first reader of English to feel that way--I notice that this is the 27th printing of the Tuttle paperback edition. It's one of those books that seem to leak into the life around you, dissolving the line between fiction and fact. Finishing it last week on the train from Kanazawa to Kyoto, and from Kyoto to Tokyo, I kept looking around me, imagining that the people I saw were the children and the grandchildren of the Makioka sisters.

And as I say, Ganjiro comes into this book too. The oldest Makioka sister, a woman of Osaka, becomes unhappy because her husband's bank has transferred him to Tokyo and she doesn't want to move. Tanizaki writes: "She was convinced that no city compared with Osaka. As for the Kabuki, she was quite satisfied with the Osaka actor Ganjiro."

So in two different novels, by different writers dealing with different periods, novels I happened to read within two weeks of each other, the name of the kabuki star Nakamura Ganjiro crops up as a reference point. That caught my attention because at the National Theatre on Culture Day, Nov. 3, I had the pleasure of seeing on the stage, and later briefly meeting, the member of the Nakamura family who currently carries the name, Ganjiro III, one of the actors designated a Living National Treasure. He gave two quite marvellous performances, and it happens that one of them was in Kinkakuji and the Miracles of Princess Yuki. And in a third work of fiction I've been reading I found a coincidental reference to that very play. In 1957 Yukio Mishima wrote a beautiful story, Onnagata, which appears in this new book, an interesting example of Canadian-Japanese co-operation, the Oxford Book of Japanese Stories, edited by Theodore W. Goossen of York University in Toronto, who is currently working in Kyoto.

In this story Mishima's main character falls in love with an onnagata after he goes to work in the kabuki theatre. Mishima makes a point of describing how the onnagata develops "the essence of delicacy...the delicate gestures of the body, the play of the fingers, the arch of the hand" not through watching women but by imagining what women might be like in a kabuki universe--a stylized, grotesquely tragic, luridly coloured atmosphere, a place dominated by searing love and terrifying joy. In this play Princess Yuki, tied to a cherry tree, remembers her grandfather's magic and, with her toes, draws two mice in the cherry petals on the ground. Such is the power of her art that the drawing comes to life and the mice gnaw away the rope, setting her free. This bizarre and wonderful fantasy would have been fascinating in any case; but being able to see it against my fresh memories of Mishima's story about precisely the same drama intensified the experience.

And that linked kabuki and its traditions to Mishima, one of the compelling personalities of modern times. Mishima's story about the onnagata expressed a mournful regret for the dying or the degradation of tradition; that of course was one of the themes of Mishima's life, and of his death. Edward Seidensticker, who as it happens translated The Makioka Sisters into English, deals with Mishima in his rich, wonderfully informative book, Tokyo Rising: The City Since the Great Earthquake. I take Seidensticker to be an American liberal, and of course Mishima was a Japanese militarist conservative. Yet when Seidensticker comes to Mishima's death in 1970--which he rightly treats as an event in Tokyo history--we find him strangely sympathetic. Seidensticker says, "His death speaks of the times in a very negative fashion. He did not like the emerging consensus and conformity....He did not have much to say about democracy in the lands of its origins, but he thought that in Japan it was a sham and pretense. He had hoped [for] ... something more honest..."

What brings these four books together, and helps instruct me in Japanese society, is the reverence for tradition and the absolute insistence that tradition matters even in the midst of the most radical change. Early in the Meiji period a delegation of leading Japanese politicians went on a tour of the United States and Europe, in an attempt to find out how Japan could become a modern society. Among many other things, they recommended that Japan develop a system of museums by which its past could be known forever by the citizens. So even at the beginning of the modernization period, that was a concern. Since then Japan has continued to respect its own traditions, whether in design or in manners or in flower arranging; moreover, in fields ranging from cuisine to literature, it has shown an amazing ability to invent traditions, or adapt traditions, that link the present world with the past. Perhaps it is this refusal to abandon its own past that has saved Japan from the most debilitating effects of modernity. After the First World War the Turkish government ordered the people to wear western clothes and--more important--use the Roman instead of the Arabic alphabet. In Japan there were proposals for simplifying or modernizing the written language, but wisely these came to nothing. The Japanese understood what the Turkish government did not: that some large part of the soul of a people is to be found within its language.

As I've suggested, three visits to Japan have made me an amateur student of Japanese life. Last summer in Toronto a writer I know asked me why I wanted to spend time in Tokyo. The idea seemed outlandish to him. Well, I said, it's more exciting than New York, it's more chic than Paris, and it's safer than a small town in Ontario. But that doesn't even begin to explain the attraction of Tokyo. Perhaps it would help to say that Tokyo is not a city but rather a multitude of cities. For instance, Asakusa and Shibuya, two of my favourite places, appear to be the products of entirely different societies, each of them surprising in its own way. Or consider Shinjuku, the largest railroad station in the world, where I was surprised, some weeks ago, to find scores of people living in old shipping crates in a public space around the West Exit. I suggested in my column in The Globe and Mail that those squatters demonstrate that Japan can show unexpected diversity and tolerance. I also noted the ingenuity of the homeless. They're squatting on some of the most expensive real estate in the world, and they try strenuously to live up to it. Many have decorated their boxes with wildly surrealistic murals. Several have brought in furniture, one squatter uses a nearly intact stuffed-leather armchair and a floor-standing metal ashtray, someone else has put up a pink plastic clothesline, and one man sleeps under a handsome quilt. In my column I argued that in Shinjuku these people are now considered just part of the scene, but I've since discovered that in 1994 the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the Shinjuku Ward office together tried to remove this cardboard village. They carted away the possessions of the squatters, put up a row of plants on one part of the territory they had filled, and a fence on another. But that resulted in a resistance movement which has so far led to a court judgement that favoured the squatters; so after three years they are still in residence. All this is told in an oral history published in Japanese under the title, Shinjuku's Cardboard Village: Record of a Struggle.

Whatever the official opposition, whatever the controversy, the squatters seem to demonstrate a zone of tolerance and flexibility that many people find surprising. An element of spontaneity has always been part of Tokyo's secret, though. Tokyo, amazingly efficient and astonishingly flamboyant, is almost the only city in the modern world that has grown safer and more prosperous while growing bigger. A major reason seems to be freedom from government control. Because there is no municipal zoning in Tokyo as we know it in the west, there are really no slums of the traditional western kind, and no exclusively rich districts.

All that has surprised me--and surprises people in Canada to whom I relate it. But something else surprises me much more, and that is the internationalism of Japan. In certain ways Japan is highly nationalist and exclusionist--certainly no one would call it "multicultural." Unlike Canada and the United States, it does not enthusiastically welcome new citizens. On the other hand, Japan goes farther out of its way than any other country I know to make foreigners like me comfortable. On our first day in Japan in 1987 my wife and I were astonished to discover that even someone who doesn't know a single kanji can use the subway with the greatest of ease and the JR with only a little more difficulty. As for the shinkansen, their mixture of announcements and moving letters on a screen at the front of the car provides more information to English-speaking visitors than trains do in England or Canada.

The Daily Yomiuri on November 12 described a panel discussion in which several university students discussed their problems in Japan, such as discrimination from landlords. They seemed to say that internationalization in Japan is a failure. I don't want to belittle those problems, but there are ways that Japan is exceptionally accessible to foreigners. For instance, the fact that the city has four English-language daily newspapers seems to me a small miracle; there's nothing like them elsewhere in the world.

Or consider the bookstores of Japan. As a writer and in a sense a professional reader, I'm probably more than normally sensitive to bookstores as an indicator of culture. Even so, I think everyone would agree that they say something about the society that produces and supports them. Now, Japan has by far the most international bookstores in the world. In some countries you find a few stores here and there that could be called international, but in Japan there are many of them; and they aren't small, eccentric companies, they're often part of huge chains.

For instance, the book megastore that Kinokuniya Books maintains in Shinjuku has a foreign-language section that offers thousands of English-language books, from Shakespeare to Robert Ludlum and from sociology to computer science, plus hundreds in German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Latin and classical Greek. I've found a similar variety in several other places in Tokyo. Even in the small city of Okayama, at the bookstore in the basement of the Okayama Symphony Hall, I discovered many titles in English and other languages. In all of Canada there is no bookstore that is so international. It's hard even to imagine such a thing, but if Chapters bookstore on Bloor Street in Toronto were to be equally international, if would have to stock thousands of Chinese books and many titles in Japanese, Hindi, Malay, and three or four other equally exotic languages. No one in Canada has even thought of doing such a thing.

In Japan these things are taken for granted, but they are worth pointing out when the subject of internationalization is raised.

Well, let me note in conclusion that visitors to Japan often say that just about everything they encounter here is a surprise. I'm one of those visitors. It seems incredible to me now, but I was afraid that much of late 20th-century Japan would bore me. Ten years ago my wife was more interested in Japan than I was, and she urged me on when we were first talking about coming here.

I had admired and loved many aspects of Japanese culture for decades--the drawings of Hokusai and the prints of the entire ukiyo-e movement; the design of the great temples and the simple teahouses, as analyzed and illustrated in hundreds of architecture books and magazines; and the films of Kurosawa and perhaps five or six other film directors. All these things, and more, were important to me. But modern, organized, hierarchical, purposeful, industrial Japan? I thought (I don't know why) that it would be grey and unimaginative, producing grey, rather deadly cities. Furthermore, I guessed that those cities would be inaccessible to me, and I imagined myself in the hands of tour guides and taxi drivers. As I say, that turned out not to be the case.

And to my delight I have found the people to be more welcoming than their equivalents in any other city I know. A couple of weeks ago we went to see the Fugayama Edo Museum, which contains a row of houses beautifully reproduced in the style of the city as it existed before the coming of modernity. We had been told that the Basho museum was nearby, and we had a map, so we set out for it. After 15 or 20 minutes we knew we were close to it, but still some blocks away. Our map had ceased to be of use, since it showed the Basho museum on the river but it was impossible to walk alongside the river. A boatman, when he understood what we wanted, gave us hand signs directing us to go right, then left, then right, then right again, then left.... We set off again, and again we foundered. There was no one on the street. Finally a young man came out of a house and I asked him. He started explaining in Japanese how to get there but soon realized that was a hopeless cause. So he simply smiled, turned, and led us to our destination, which turned out to be four good-sized blocks away. That sort of generosity makes me both grateful and a little ashamed of the less enthusiastic welcome we in Canada sometimes give to visitors. I tried to remember how long it had been since I had gone four blocks out of my way to help a stranger in Toronto.

Of course we visitors occasionally get lost, and you can sometimes see us on the street corners, looking sort of dazed, turning our map upside down, trying to get it to make sense. But then, getting lost in Tokyo is different from getting lost anywhere else. For one thing, it's safe--at least, I've never felt unsafe for even a minute. For another thing, Tokyo is so interesting that sometimes when you get lost the place you stumble upon is more interesting than the place you intended to go. Of course we find ourselves sometimes going down blind alleys of frustration; occasionally we will follow promising paths of meaning that dwindle into irrelevance. But these disappointments are normal parts of any curious visitor's experience. And journalists, no less than scientists, learn as much from their mistakes as from their successes. One way or another, by design and by accident, I've experienced a great deal in Japan, a great deal that I can take home to Canada with me.

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