SAKE & SATORI: Asian Journals — Japan, by Joseph Campbell. California: Joseph Campbell Foundation/New World Library, 2002, 350 pp., b/w photographs, $22.95 (cloth).

In 1955, the eminent mythologist Joseph Campbell came to Japan and stayed for five months. Author of “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” he would bring the study of comparative religions to a new level of sophistication and earn even wider fame with the 1988 series of television interviews, “The Power of Myth.”

Fifty years old and, in a way, just beginning his career, he arrived in Tokyo alone and enthusiastic. He had come from India, and Japan always appears more Asian when approached from what the country itself would perhaps call its “back door.” Campbell thus compared Japan’s Asian aspect (much more apparent in 1955) with that of India.

Japan “has understood better than modern India the final import of the Indian doctrine of nonduality. The Indian psyche is locked in duality. . . . The Japanese, on the other hand, understand how to rock with the waves. [sic]. The relative world is relative and the transcendent, transcendent.”

The path to this apercu was typical of Campbell. On his first day he discovered Nichigeki Music Hall, Tokyo Onsen, and a strip club. “In the striptease stunts there is another very amusing sign of the dual world. The Japanese physique is distinguished by relatively short thighs; to match the long-legged ideal of the American striptease, therefore, the girls wear very high heels — and the effect is generally quite definitely OK.”

Finding the Imperial Hotel “very, very touristy,” he moves to something a bit more insular (the Yashima Hotel) and then sets out to find a proper Japanese bath. What he discovers is a proper Japanese soapland avant la lettre.

There he has a long conversation with the girl. She learns about his happy marriage (with Jean Erdman, the choreographer) and he learns about her nondualistic life. It is a chaste and charming scene and, like so many in these journals it combines intellectual perception with (more dualism) disarmingly human details.

He firewalks unscathed on coals prepared by the Yamabushi “magicians,” listens attentively to that hit of the day, “Samisen Boogie-Woogie,” is “impressed” equally by the Tenrikyo religion and the Takarazuka All Girl Opera, and through it all manages to define himself and what he is doing here.

“Resolution: Comparative mythology is indeed my field — and the method is to be first philological (‘The Basic Mythologies of Mankind’) and, secondly, that of Jungian amplification (‘The King and the Corpse’).”

The path to this impressive goal is seemingly prosaic. The tone is chatty, much is deemed “cute,” and the Gion Festival is called “great.” As in the title of this book (this is the second volume: the first, about India, is called “Baksheesh & Brahman”) there is much that is genuinely twee. But then he will turn serious, then arcane (long lists of things) and will suddenly offer a genuine insight.

“And something else occurred to me as we walked through the lively, pretty streets — namely that in Japan, there is a wonderful feeling of the brilliant surface of things: the surface flash; and this, without much thought of what in the West would be an important consideration, namely, the form-world of the sentiments. Snatches of Western tunes are thrown together in their advertising broadcast, television shows, etc., without consideration of what we could regard as their formal relationship. Perhaps one can say that in Japan the . . . world of feelings and sentiments remains unexpressed — a secret as it were.”

It is in ferreting out such secrets and deducing such brilliant dictums that Campbell excels. It is this quality that moved him from college professor to cultural icon. In this amusing, moving, inspiring book one can see the process.

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