Hearing several malicious comments about this book, I was eagerly predisposed toward it. Sub-titled “An Obsessed Man’s Loving Tribute to Japanese Women,” this is not the first politically incorrect work on Japan, but because it is such a recent title it is likely to draw more fire.
In Duff’s view, Kyoto, his adopted home, is an enchanted forest, populous with desirable females hungering for the kind of flattery the author unstintingly provides. Undervalued by Japanese men, these are women who “aren’t accustomed to the effusive accolades that over-enthusiastic, flannel-mouthed men like myself can’t help but utter.”
Infatuation by its very nature (intense, unyielding) is, like most inflammable things, short-lived. Duff at the ripe age of 54, daily consumed by polygamous fantasies, a marriage predictably on the rocks has, on his own admission, sustained his obsession for Japanese women by diversifying the objects of his interest.
“What follows,” Duff writes in an early chapter of “Ero-Samurai,” is a description and tribute to “the physical charms of Japanese women in no particular order, much like my own brain is organized.”
Although some of the writing might seem sloppy to the Western reader, Duff claims to have adopted a well-tested Japanese method of composition called zuihitsu (follow the brush), wherein the writer submits to free association. The approach is sustained until the last chapter, entitled “Final Ravings.”
Stopped in his tracks several times a day by the vision of women on the streets of the old capital, the writer exults in his entrapment.
“My breath rushes out like a high-speed blowout; a tire exploding on the freeway,” he writes. “I have to fight to regain control.” Because the hyperbole throughout is unrelenting, one comes to expect, even look forward to it, to see it less as a shortcoming than a stylistic method, a character trait.
“Ero-Samurai” turns out to be something more than an ogling tribute to female sexuality, acknowledging as it does the intellectual and literary contributions made by Japanese women. Duff’s expressed approval of the feminist movement, though, seems to be based on the primary idea that it is sexually liberating, thereby stocking the pool of available, consenting women. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, it implies a limited, and very male, women-on-demand interpretation of the movement. Duff is right when he quotes poet and feminist literary founder Hiratsuka Raicho’s remark that “in the beginning, woman was the sun. An authentic person.” But the focus here on bald statement over inference seems over-simplified.
If the field work for this book is thorough, the author has also done his reading, supporting his views with quotes from the Japan writings of Sir Edwin Arnold, Ian Buruma, psychologist G.H. Lambert, and the work of feminist author Chiba Atsuko, even finding time to linger over the more sensual poems of the seventh- and eighth-century anthology known as the “Manyoshu.”
Among Duff’s literary heroes are writers who acknowledge the centrality of sex as a theme in human life: poet-priest Ikkyu, novelist Junichiro Tanizaki, erotic female poet Akiko Yosano, and the Edo Period writer Ihara Saikaku, a gifted rake who wrote frankly and unconditionally about the pleasures of the flesh in such books as “Five Women Who Loved Love” and “The Life of an Amorous Man.”
The urge that compels some men toward infidelity, to follow through with their desires, is doubtless shared by a large number of males who, while keeping themselves in check, harbor nonetheless, similar feelings as the author. More men than women could ever imagine, are caught in this Eros trap. Duff’s marriage we learn at the end, has not survived the research for the book. The wonder is that it managed to last so long.
“Have I plunged over that boundary,” the author asks at one point, “dividing enthusiastic affection from sordid obsession?” Whether this unapologetically honest and offensive book, serious but never over-earnest, confessional without degenerating into breast-beating, is insult or homage, may ultimately depend on which side of the gender line you stand. Even if it may not win over all of its readers, this over-saturated, deeply flawed work earns a final, grudging respect.
More self-restraint and Duff would no doubt be a very decent, even erudite writer. But then it wouldn’t be Duff. We leave the author spellbound on a sidewalk (“I could spend a lifetime watching those Kyoto women pedal by”), an incurable philanderer refusing all treatment for an affliction that, to the contrary, he unconditionally recommends to all his readers. At least the male ones.