Is Japan even a real country? Oscar Wilde did not seem to think so. In his dialogue-essay The Decay of Lying, Cyril uses the example of Japan to demonstrate to Vivian that our perceptions of things are entirely the creation of individual artists (a wonderfully romantic notion). ‘I know that you are fond of Japanese things,’ says Cyril. ‘Now, do you really imagine that the Japanese people, as they are presented to us in art, have any existence?’
The Japanese people, Cyril maintains, are extremely commonplace and ordinary, with nothing curious about them: ‘In fact the whole of Japan is pure invention.’ Rather than going all the way to Tokyo, you are better off staying at home to absorb the spirit and style of Japanese artists; you will then see more of Japan in a London park, or in Piccadilly. But to visit Japan? To meet the Japanese people? ‘There is no such country, there are no such people’.
In the summer I visited Japan and discovered that there is such a country, and there aresuch people. I have pictures to prove it.
However, as I run my finger over the map for new countries to visit, I am haunted by the idea that I am not really seeing anything beyond what I expected to see; that everything I saw in, say, Japan was the creation of my own idea of Japan. The same goes for Moscow, Athens, Rome, and Venice too. Japan is only the most salient of these because it is apparently so alien English ways that the level of self-deception must be especially great. Making a similar point decades earlier – and a century after Wilde –Roland Barthes wrote in his own book on Japan that the country he is describing is ‘a fictive nation’. It is purely his own invention. Barthes was, in fact, being careful not to make any claims that he was seeing, as the cliché might now go, the ‘real Japan’.
We are in the age of Google, when entire cities can be viewed from a phone or computer screen, and when tourists have, in effect, already seen everything. The Eiffel Tower will presumably be even more disappointing with each generation. What the traveller can only hope to see is the unexpected and, as often as she can, the entirely boring and quotidian, and even ugly, that nobody else cares about. Everything else she has already seen…
In Kyoto, where the jungle-humid air kept my friends and me gushing with perspiration as we walked through Gion (a popular ward for shopping and dining), a Japanese friend asked us what we found most surprising about Japan.
Not long before, our group had passed a rare geisha hurrying along, with her head down, to her next appointment. Kyoto is an older city than the capital, untouched by Allied bombing. Ancient temples, towering mausoleums, crooked lanes, unswept alleyways, dark wooden houses with slanted roofs, insomniac high streets (such as Gion), with over-running tram-wires and cables, and trees, everywhere, host to thousands of hissing cicadas – here was Japan’s former capital, with its own proud culture, with its traditions stretching back to the Heian period, a time which celebrated art and truth and beauty, loathed later by the nationalists, and where a woman invented the novel (the men, you see, were busy writing in Mandarin).
With all of this in mind, I answered my friend’s question. I now regard my answer as ironic. I said that what most surprised me about Japan was that everything was as I expected: the people were polite, the streets were clean, the temples and shrines utterly different to our churches, the entertainment bizarre and amusing, and the baffling taste for cartoon creatures in advertisements and video-games were as I had imagined.
My answer is ironic because it was intended as a compliment – ‘everything here is just as wonderful as I had hoped’ – but is in fact a big joke at my expense. For what was the purpose of coming here, only to confirm something others back home already knew about Japan?
Tourists at best are easily deceived; at worst, wilfully ignorant. I’ll example you. Over in Tokyo, we went to see the famous Robot Restaurant in the Shinjuku ward. It is the kind of ward, in Tokyo, in which you arrive at a vast crossing, at the foot of gigantic plasma screens aloft the city’s great skyscrapers, and witness the modern world. From such a crossing we turned down smaller streets where bars and restaurants and arcades are noisy, packed in tight, and garishly decorated. In the Robot Restaurant we were seated in a rectangular stadium, with the audiences on either side, and in the middle of the arena performers staged mock-battles between man and machine (with Man ably represented by scantily-clad women, dinosaurs and fire-breathing dragons).
There were drums, glow-sticks, strobing lights – ‘very Japanese,’ as people back home remarked when I described it to them. Indeed, the warm-up presenter proclaimed as much, in a tone which suggested ‘Are you not entertained?’ to a crowd of gleeful westerners drinking beer and eating chips. They even played for us the famous Oriental riff. The ‘real’ Japan…
True, not all forms of entertainment were aimed at me, but then I didn’t think to pay for those. In front of me here, in London, I have a crumpled leaflet given to me by a young girl dressed in an absurdly frilly maid’s outfit. Maidreamin is the name of this maid cafe, at which you are served by women in such costumes as to titillate the salaryman while he is pampered and praised him for tips. The maids bring him the dishes presumably advertised here: burgers cut and decorated to look like teddy-bears, and with a side of sweetcorn.
I am the same age as the men at whom this leaflet is aimed, and the appeal, I must say, is shut to me.
What about the people? On the first day of our arrival in Tokyo, my friends and I sat in the dingy bar area of our hostel’s lounge and listened to a young Japanese comedian performing his routine in English. He had given up the life of the ‘salaryman’ for this gig – a courageous decision, for his huddled audience was small, and the laughs were reluctant, even sympathetic. Nonetheless, he made an interesting observation that I tried to keep in mind ever since. He said that the Japanese, although polite, although welcoming, accommodating – ‘I hope you enjoy your stay in my country’ – are privately hoping that you do not overstay your welcome. Nay, they hope that you will not choose to live here; that you will eventually leave.
I cannot entirely accept this. I only ever experienced kindness and generosity among the Japanese I met (one in particular was genuinely and touchingly sad as the boat left Nagoya for the airport). No, instead I am occasionally troubled by something Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote:
Travelling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.
Yes, I am troubled by it, but in the end I disregard it. Although I may travel so that I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness – and fail to do either – and although I may never truly understand my neighbours in the East, or in the West, I will never cease to be curious about them, nor will I be dissuaded by the Wildes and Emersons, because I want to dispel my own illusions and discover my own ignorance. I finally came to know Emerson’s melancholy when, in Sanjusangendo, I stood in front of the Senju-Kannon; an eleven-foot-tall statue of the goddess of Mercy, which was frozen in meditation and brooked no comprehension of mine.