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The British perspective on Japan


JAPAN EXPERIENCES — FIFTY YEARS, ONE HUNDRED VIEWS: Post-War Japan Through British Eyes, compiled and edited by Hugh Cortazzi. Japan Library: Richmond, UK, 2001, 633 pp., $65 (cloth)

This doorstopper of a tome is a weighty, often insightful and quirky view of post-World War II Japan through the eyes of a who’s who of British sojourners in these islands. The venerable Hugh Cortazzi, former British ambassador to Japan and frequent contributor to The Japan Times, has assembled a broad sampling of remembrances, impressions and personal anecdotes from more than 100 disparate contributors.

To what purpose? Cortazzi suggests he is helping out future historians, providing a one-stop treasure trove of contemporary source material, but one suspects that he is really engaging in that singularly British penchant (or is it affliction?) for expatriate personal memoirs that appears to be one of the lingering legacies of the colonial era. Reading through these kaleidoscopic accounts of life in Japan, one suspects that an anthropologist could mine this volume as much for the revealing nuggets about overseas British culture, affectations, smugness, humor, teeth gnashing, parochialism, cosmopolitanism and eccentricities as for its perspectives on Japan.

English teachers will enjoy Mike Barrett’s wry observation that, “There is no country in the world where more time, effort and money has been spent on teaching English to so little effect as Japan. A massive industry pumps out courses, publications, media, but somehow . . . it does not produce practical results.” In his work with the British Council Barrett masochistically tried to introduce innovation via NHK, as fusty an institution as one will find in Japan. Predictably, this unlikely channel for improving how English is taught proved unsatisfactory, and 30 years on the need for reform remains as pressing as the resistance steadfast.

Roger Buckley, from International Christian University, hits a nerve in wryly praising his institution for its “. . . seriousness — lots of it. It was evident in the faculty meetings, the divisional meetings, the departmental meetings, the library meetings and the scores of other meetings that clogged up the week. Instead of nasty, brutish and short committees, it was a case of gentle, consensual and interminable ones.” Echoing Barrett and countless others in this collection, Buckley laments that, “Reform or even the politist hint of possible change is taboo.” Not so, however, for the bankers and bean counters in the finance world, who here suggest that not only was reform embraced by their counterparts, but that it also made them more than a few farthings in the process.

In the disappointed-expectations genre, Japan did not make a good first impression on David Hockney, the overly celebrated artist. He expresses a keen disappointment, writing, “I expected it to be much more beautiful than it is. At the time I thought most of it extremely ugly. I had expected factories carefully and precisely placed against mountains or lakes and instead I found that any spare, flat bit of land had the most uninteresting factories.”

Another eminent visitor, Arthur Koestler, suggests that, “Life in Japan may be compared to a scented bath which gives you electric shocks at unexpected moments.” Demonstrating the all-too-familiar tendency of visitors intoning on subjects Japanese beyond their depth, belittling that which is poorly understood, he goes on to explain, “Taken at face value and considered in itself, Zen is at best an existentialist hoax, at worst a web of solemn absurdities. But within the framework of Japanese society, this cult of the absurd, of ritual leg-pulls and nose tweaks, made beautiful sense. It was, and to a limited extent still is, a form of psychotherapy for a self-conscious, shame-ridden society, a technique of undoing the strings which tied it into knots . . .”

Royalty seems to have occupied the thoughts of more than a few contributors. We learn how Queen Elizabeth’s 1975 visit seemed a breakthrough in restoring the warmth in bilateral relations that existed before the outbreak of war. The difficulties in arranging her visit, deciding who to invite, what china to bring and whether or not she should ride in an open limousine (she stood in a Cadillac) are all sketched here. Readers also learn that Japan National Railways did not make the slightest accommodation in their schedule for the queen, her entourage and mounds of luggage, signifying that democracy had taken root.

Various writers evoke the changing scene in Japan over the years, from Kyushu to Kansai and even to the far north. John Boyd, appointed British ambassador in 1992, fondly recalls an inspection tour, writing, “The British Council, there as elsewhere wonderfully imaginative and effective under Mike Barrett, decided to show the flag in Hokkaido. Julia and I met a bevy of distinguished British stallions doing their stuff for the Japanese blood stock, rightly encouraged by keen young British stable hands. Similarly, right around the compass, one met JETs and other English teachers from the UK deeply dug into Japanese society . . .” Certainly an interesting segue, leaving readers to contemplate the similarities.

And who could resist Ian de Stains case of the “missing pineapple” upon arriving at Narita airport: “After what must have been the better part of an hour, I reached the front of the line and eagerly presented my passport to the official behind the high desk. He ignored the passport and looked impatiently at my carry-on luggage. ‘Where,’ he demanded, ‘is your pineapple?’ For a single Monty Pythonesque moment I felt like saying I did not know I needed one, but the helpful JAL ground staff led me away from plant quarantine and toward immigration.”

Perhaps some of the most riveting tales come from the immediate postwar days, when Japan was a battered nation digging out from the rubble and coming to terms with defeat and ignominy. Several essays speak to the poverty and deprivation that marked the country in that era, evoking a Japan that seems so distant from the trading juggernaut it became in the 1980s. From nostalgia for a rapidly disappearing traditional Japan to frustration with an unremorseful former adversary and neomercantilist trading partner, “Japan Experiences” ranges widely and flamboyantly over the landscape of contemporary Japan. It is a pity that there are so few photos and that the brevity of the essays precludes in-depth commentary.