Books

'The Unmaking of an American': One thread in a lifetime of cultural exploration

by Damian Flanagan

Contributing Writer

The New Yorker once famously described Clive James as a “brilliant bunch of guys,” a phrase that floats to mind as I sit in the tea room of the V&A museum in London to meet the noted author, playwright, film director and translator Roger Pulvers on a rainy Sunday morning in February.

The Unmaking of an American, by Roger Pulvers.
265 pages
BALESTIER PRESS, Memoir.

Earlier this year, at a ceremony at the Embassy of Japan in London, Pulvers was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun for his contributions to Japanese foreign language education and students’ understanding of science and technology. And a few days after our meeting, I listen to Pulvers speak — without notes for an hour — at the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation, where I mused that if he had not wasted his talents on the production of 50 books, he could have made a first-rate stand-up comedian. Pulvers knows how to deliver New York Yiddish jokes with perfect timing.

We’re here to discuss “The Unmaking of an American,” Pulvers’ latest memoir, which takes us on an extraordinary worldwide odyssey from his family’s origins in the Russian Pale of Settlement to emigration to New York and onward to Los Angeles, before Pulvers moved to Japan in 1967 at the age of 23.

Over the past 50 years, he has befriended Japanese authors such as Hisashi Inoue and film directors like Nagisa Oshima — Pulvers worked as assistant director on “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (1983), filmed in the Cook Islands — and has become a leading authority on classic Japanese poets such as Kenji Miyazawa and Takuboku Ishikawa.

But in Pulvers’ fascinating memoir, we discover his obsession with Japan to be just one thread in a life of constant movement and cultural exploration. As a postgraduate student at Harvard University, Pulvers fell in love with Russian poetry and had been living in Poland and teaching himself Polish when a minor scandal in the 1960s revealed that the CIA had been, unbeknown to him, funding his scholarship program. His route back to Eastern Europe cut off, Pulvers changed direction and leapt into the great unknown of Japan, scoring a teaching position in Russian at Kyoto Sangyo University.

Pulvers initially lived in Kyoto for five years but then took another unexpected turn, moving to Canberra, Australia, in 1972 to teach Japanese, before leaving academia to become a prolific journalist and critic for the Australian press, writing numerous plays and acquiring Australian citizenship in 1976. Japan, though, remained a country to which he repeatedly returned to live, work and lecture. All four of his children, despite not being ethnically Japanese, were raised to speak Japanese.

“People in Japan regularly ask me if I don’t find it confusing being involved in so many different activities,” Pulvers relates between sips of espresso. “I tell them: You might find it confusing, but it makes perfect sense to me.”

It seems apposite that we are meeting in the V&A, that great cabinet of curiosities through which Pulvers guides me around. A theme of Pulvers’ memoir is attempting to open people’s minds to the richness of their own culture — whether attempting to persuade the Japanese of the universally appealing qualities of their art or wondering why Aussies in the 1970s didn’t see they had a native culture to be proud of.

“The Unmaking of an American” takes us on an engaging and occasionally revelatory tour of Japan. Pulvers argues, for example, that the films of Yasujiro Ozu are best viewed not as sombre tragedies, but as deadpan comedies of manners, and provides a withering debunking of the trope of “vanishing Japan.”

The title of the book is archly provocative. Pulvers expresses disillusionment with the national brainwashing of his 1950s youth — when the U.S. was routinely proclaiming itself the greatest nation in the history of the world — and his relationship with his homeland was fatally undermined by American atrocities in Vietnam. In 1975, watching, on TV in Japan, the dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam by the Queen’s governor general made Pulvers feel an immediate kinship with Australia, prompting a change in citizenship.

There is a sense that these are the exteriorized justifications of an inner psychology that always felt somewhat alienated in the U.S. and reacted against the immigrants’ pride in American citizenship felt so keenly by his parents.

I suspect that the particular bond that Pulvers feels with Kenji Miyazawa is because Miyazawa’s Buddhist philosophy of the interconnectedness of all things — stones, trees, animals, humans — has a deep resonance with someone who does not identify exclusively with a single nation.

Ever the outsider, Pulvers feels a keen empathy not with the centers of power, but neglected provincial areas like Miyazawa’s beloved Tohoku, a region ridiculed, ignored and oppressed by Tokyo for decades, and argues that it might better assert itself as a semi-autonomous region.

Following this thread, there are many thoughtful critiques in this book about the ways in which the warnings of the 3/11 disaster in Tohoku were ignored, that Japan has closed its eyes to a rational analysis of the ongoing dangers of nuclear disaster in favor of toadying to an ingrained Tokyo-centric political system.

There is much to admire here in the restless probing of Pulvers’ creative activities and his conquest of multiple languages. Pulvers’ itinerant family background has left him eternally inquisitive; we moved off together in the V&A to explore Raphael’s colossal “Cartoons,” John Constable’s paintings of trees and the micromosaic of Russian Czar Nicholas I — tiny, disparate elements coming together to form a fascinating whole.

Roger Pulvers wrote the Counterpoint column for The Japan Times from 2005 to 2013 and continues to contribute on a freelance basis.