By J.S. Porter
The year was 1972. I was applying for a job in Japan. So was my girlfriend, with the beautiful Welsh name Bronwyn. She got the job, and I didn’t. Maybe the interviewer, like me, preferred the sound of her name to mine. I went to Zambia instead.
While I was in Zambia, my girlfriend kept sending me Japanese novels to read. If I couldn’t go to Japan, she’d mail Japan to me. At first, a shipment of Yukio Mishima arrived. Mishima. The flower who wanted to be steel. The one who committed a ritual suicide (seppuku) after unsuccessfully trying to persuade an army unit to restore a ceremonial and traditional Japan.
Then came parcels of Yasunari Kawabata and Junichiro Tanizaki.
I had started to read a little of Mishima and Kawabata before my girlfriend started to send me their books. I was preparing for Japan, and one way to prepare for a culture you think you’re going to end up in is to read its literature.
Tanizaki was new to me. He was a master of sexual perversion and emotional aberration. He, like Mishima, was a little too kinky at the time. Kawabata, on the other hand, I intimately connected with. He could bring beauty to language in ways I’d never experienced before. He could pull it down from the sky and plant it in a gesture of the hand, a look of the eye, the falling of a leaf, the coming of snow. He wrote about the seasons, the emotions, prostitutes of great sophistication (North Country) and monkishly disciplined artists of board games (The Master of Go) and the dialectic of loss and gain in human life (Beauty and Sadness).
He wrote short novels of great beauty as if feelings could be as variegated as petunias, as delicate as butterfly wings, as easily broken and perishable as the stock of a sunflower in a wind storm. I respected Kawabata’s work so much that I decided that I’d never visit Japan. Geographic Japan could never live up to my mythic Japan and the images of cherry blossom-delicacy I’d formed of it from novels. I’d be afraid of aimlessly searching for the Izu Dancer (the title of a Kawabata story) and, heart-brokenly, never being able to find her.
In one of Bronwyn’s parcels there was also a Japanese novel by Natsume Soseki called Kokoro, the heart of things. This little book got around; it had the power of the strange. I leant it to an Iranian man on contract. Years later it came back to me from somewhere in Britain. All I remember from the novel is a triangle like the French film Jules et Jim, two men and a woman. The older man was a kind of teacher; he passed on his knowledge of life in subtle, unobtrusive ways to a younger man.
The Japanese in Soseki and Kawabata didn’t seem to be people of the aggressive rising sun; they seemed more like quiet people of the moon. They were people of subtle moods and understated tones rather than players in the commercial and technological world. Another writer, Yasushi Inoue, whom I discovered on my own, even called one of his stories The Full Moon as if in recognition that the moonlit night in the Japan of literature at least was more significant than the sun-powered day. His stories The Counterfeiter and Passage to Fudaraku were works of great beauty and subtlety.
While working for CUSO in Zambia teaching technical English at a trades school, I befriended a Japanese electrician Nobuo Maeda. We quickly became Judo and running partners. I rode on the back of his motorcycle while he sang Japanese folk songs and occasionally Ian Tyson’s Four Strong Winds, the only English song he’d learned the words to. I nudged him into forks and potatoes and he pulled me into rice and chop sticks.
The Japanese whom I had read about were now starting to become real flesh-and-blood characters to me as Nobuo exposed me to the Japanese expatriate community in Zambia, including the Japanese ambassador in Lusaka. Nobody drank more than the Japanese (Nobuo didn’t drink at all); nobody gambled harder (Nobuo didn’t gamble at all); nobody talked more boisterously (Nobuo spoke in whispers). The flesh Japanese seemed vastly different from the fictional Japanese. I couldn’t imagine any of them walking out of a Kawabata novel except for Maedasan himself.
When I returned to Canada in the summer of l974, I thought I had done with all things Japanese. My reading took other turns: the Yiddish writer Isaac B Singer, the English art critic John Berger and the American science writer Loren Eisely. Decades went by when I didn’t give Japan a thought. Then in 200l in my literature classes I happened to use a novel, Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami.
The students seemed to like Murakami’s mix of American pop and Japanese soul. They were intrigued by his fictional trademark of the disappearing woman and of his blending of mysticism with documentary realism. I’m happy to say that there is now a small but dedicated underground reading force in Hamilton, consisting of Murakami readers, who welcome his new books the way a bride in a Chagall painting welcomes her groom.
These readers have fallen in love with Japan just as I did when I was their age—except they didn’t have a charming girl with a beautiful Welsh name to beckon them on.
- published in The Hamilton Spectator, Saturday, April 26, 2003