Earlier this year there was a bit of social media kerfuffle when, in a piece in The New York Times, the travel writer Pico Iyer was revealed as — despite living in Japan for 25 years — being able to speak only a “smattering” of Japanese. What followed was an considerable amount of indignation that Iyer dared to write about a culture when he couldn’t be bothered to learn the language.

I can’t comment particularly on Iyer — I’ve never read any of his books — but the debate got me thinking as to whether you really need fluency in Japanese to write about Japan in an insightful way. I don’t think you do. In fact, there are entirely sound psychological, artistic and practical reasons why a critic might deliberately choose not to immerse themselves in the language of the culture they write about.

First, a study in contrast. Unlike Iyer, I spent my 20s immersing myself in the Japanese language. At college I shut myself up in my room learning kanji, much to the detriment of my social life, and when I traveled throughout Japan after enrolling as a graduate student in Japanese literature at a university here, I used to comically refuse to speak to any Japanese people in English. Ever.

With this dedicated approach, I passed the highest level of the Japanese proficiency exam, wrote my Ph.D. thesis in Japanese and published a book in Japanese. By my mid-30s I’d read scores of books in Japanese and, I confess, snorted in derision at the observations of foreign residents who couldn’t read everything in sight.

My Ph.D. included an analysis of Natsume Soseki’s 1910 novel, “The Gate.” When The New York Review of Books issued a new translation of the book in 2012, however, did they ask me to write the foreword? No, they asked some guy named “Pico Iyer,” who seemed to know nothing about Japanese literature and now, we learn, didn’t know much Japanese either.

So I understand all the fuss about Iyer not being fluent in Japanese. However, I now feel I was mistaken to think that language proficiency is a prerequisite for cultural insight: It demonstrably is not.

Free the imagination

I’m not disputing the idea that the vast majority of learned enquiry into another culture requires many years of dedicated scholarship and mastery of the language as basic requirements. Of course it does. But the strange thing is, more often than not, the more you immerse yourself in a language, the less vivid, intense and “alive” are your reactions to the culture from which that language sprang. It becomes familiarized, like something you take for granted.

The foreign cultural commentator most prized by the Japanese — whose essays have attained iconic status in Japan — is Lafcadio Hearn, a man who arrived in Japan at age 39 in 1890 speaking not a word of the language, and who — over the 14 years he lived in Japan, without once leaving — never learned more than a “smattering” of Japanese.

It wasn’t that Hearn wasn’t adept at languages — he was fluent in French and highly versed in Latin — so I believe he could have mastered Japanese if he wished, but there were numerous reasons why he did not.

First, if you are going to restrain yourself from cultural commentary until you’ve mastered the language, you are going to be holding your peace for a good five or 10 years, or possibly a lifetime. Hearn wanted — needed — to hit the ground running and start getting down his vivid impressions of Japan right away.

If anything, his wild enthusiasm for Japan was fueled by the fact that he did not speak the language. It made him feel free and unfettered, bursting forth with energetic curiosity. Systematic linguistic scholarship might have slowed him down, turning a thing of delight into something of tedious rote.

In my own experience, as someone who struggled at languages when at school, when I’m away from Japan, my inner schoolboy feels an obligation to keep trying to improve, for example, my French and German whenever I am in a country that speaks one of those tongues. If I’m skiing in the Alps, you’ll always discover a German dictionary and exercise book in my backpack; and I have spent the best part of three decades reading “Bonjour Tristesse,” the shortest, simplest novel in the French language. Should I feel smug at my saintliness in being “respectful” to and “scholarly” in French and German cultures?

I far prefer the devil in me, when let loose in some culture where I don’t know the language and don’t ever want to know the language. I cannot tell you the exhilaration I felt at once spending a month driving around Argentina and not knowing a word of Spanish — freed from the oppression of language, ideas came flooding endlessly into my mind. Everything about Argentina fascinated and beguiled me and I wanted to get it all down on paper.

It was a similar story when I recently visited Russia for the first time, and exulted in being set free in a culture in which I knew not one word and could let my mind run wild.

The Soseki method

When in Rome, do what you please: When Japanese writer Natsume Soseki visited England, he is reported to have kept to himself for the most part despite having a clear grasp of the English language. This is the opposite of writers like Pico Iyer and Lafcadio Hearn who reportedly don't and didn't know the Japanese language but write and wrote about Japan extensively. | VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
When in Rome, do what you please: When Japanese writer Natsume Soseki visited England, he is reported to have kept to himself for the most part despite having a clear grasp of the English language. This is the opposite of writers like Pico Iyer and Lafcadio Hearn who reportedly don’t and didn’t know the Japanese language but write and wrote about Japan extensively. | VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

People from all countries act like this. One Japanese friend of mine cooped herself up in a London apartment, utterly uninterested in British culture, her every thought directed to the book she was writing in Japanese about Japan. She had no British friends and barely spoke a word in English to anyone in Britain, which acted solely as a blank background for her to clear her mind and let her imagination soar. Was she being “disrespectful” of Britain? It’s a free country, you can live as you please.

Or why not take the example of Soseki, one of the greatest intellectuals Japan has ever produced, who lived in Britain between 1900 and 1902. True, Soseki certainly knew English — he was Japan’s leading expert in English language and literature. In many ways, he was the exact opposite of Hearn. He knew the language — he even felt oppressed by the English language — and became furious when his landladies asked him if he understood words like “folk.” Yet the flip side of this oppressive requirement to master English was that he had virtually no interest investigating life in Britain itself — didn’t particularly want to travel anywhere, made no British friends and wrote about no aspect of British cultural life. Everything in Britain was just a vehicle for his own obsession with literature and literary ambitions back in Japan.

The late British critic A.A. Gill had it right when he once observed in connection with his peer, Jonathan Meades, that there are two types of cultural criticism. The first cultural critic comes protected by the full body armor of specialist, narrow learning and foreign language ability. The second type attempts a far riskier endeavour of relying on an innate, intuitive sense of things. The second type is much more likely to make mistakes, but also far more likely to make spectacularly fresh observations.

A bit like Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars” shutting off his instruments and relying only on “the force,” there comes a time as a critic when you realize that you have to start relying on — trusting — your instincts rather than the application of received learning.

Fluency and literary criticism

While fully recognizing that you don’t need to know Japanese to write about Japanese culture, I would like to apply one important caveat. There is one area of Japanese culture, that you clearly do need to have mastered the language to write in an insightful way: I’m referring to Japan’s rich literature. It’s pretty much impossible to comment penetratingly on the quality of a Japanese author if you have no sense of the quality of their writing in the original, on the texture, style, rhythms, density and beauty of the writing in Japanese.

One curious fact that caught my eye during the recent Pico Iyer controversy was that the American critic and Japanologist Donald Richie, while being fluent in the spoken language, had only the poorest Japanese reading ability. Discovering this, a great mystery was finally solved for me. I’d always held Richie in high esteem as a film and cultural critic — his books on Akira Kurosawa and the Inland Sea are classic works — but he always struck me as a curiously leaden literary critic, a man with no feeling for the differing quality of Japanese authors.

His reviews (for years he was a book reviewer for The Japan Times) were startlingly unreliable any time he was offering an assessment of a Japanese author or a translation of a classic work. He sometimes treated quite atrocious translations as if they were fair reflections of the original. It always seemed peculiar to me that such an insightful mind about Japanese culture and film went so badly wrong when he wrote about Japanese books — it never occurred to me that Richie could not actually read in Japanese and therefore had no grasp of what any Japanese author was like in the original.

Hearn was also at his worst when writing about Japan’s literature — all works he could not read — while Soseki, virtually nonexistent as a cultural critic of the British, was at his best when writing about English literature.

There is a very distinguished tradition of critics writing about cultures in which they cannot speak the language and, if they get it wrong, they’ll rightfully be open to criticism over what they didn’t get. What I hope, however, is that budding writers don’t put away their pens thinking they need to meet some sort of criteria before engaging with the country around them.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.