Books

Can you ever really understand Japan? Pico Iyer offers help

by Nicolas Gattig

Contributing Writer

For a foreign-born writer, it isn’t easy to explain Japan. You may rail against its numerous social ills, but outrage alone can turn into shtick. You may delight in what is different from the West — and get pummeled on social media as a dinosaur Orientalist. Many writers then play it safe, writing about all things cute or rattling off facts for Japanophiles — a group prone to claiming ownership, watchful that you get it right.

A Beginner’s Guide to Japan: Observations and Provocations, by Pico Iyer.
224 pages
KNOPF, Nonfiction.

And then there is Pico Iyer, who has made his own genre. Born in England to Indian parents and based in Nara, Japan, for more than three decades, Iyer has published numerous essays and novels, amassing a devoted fan base that, much like his writing, encircles the globe. His new book, a labor of love spanning 16 years and backed up by thousands of pages of notes, is a collection of thoughts titled “A Beginner’s Guide to Japan: Observations and Provocations.”

“Japan beguiles me by being such a mix of the foreign and the familiar,” Iyer explains in a recent interview. “I wanted to be true to both sides, and to the notion that Japan teaches me daily: that every thought and feeling is fleeting. What I think at 10 in the morning is rarely what I think at two in the afternoon. My feelings change like the clouds.”

In this spirit, Iyer’s guide to Japan is insightful and profound without claiming to be authoritative. It offers short musings and facts, epigrams and vignettes — grouped by theme such as social mores, gender relations or Japan’s interaction with the world — most of which gently land without comment. Avoiding the expert trap, Iyer sees them as “opening salvos,” inviting readers to expand or refute them.

“I worked hard to make this new book an invitation to a dialogue, because to me dialogue is much more the Japanese way than monologue,” says Iyer. “I wanted to give a foreign outsider a chance to talk back to Japan, as if she had landed at Kansai Airport the night before.”

Despite his genuine humility, Iyer can nail Japan with lyrical eloquence. Calling the country “the home of collected inwardness” or quipping that “Japan has trained all of us to deal with everything except exceptions,” he sounds equally critical and forgiving.

Always mindful of describing a hall of mirrors, Iyer shifts nimbly between perspectives, embracing inconsistency like a sage. “The only people in the world today who don’t learn from Japan are the Japanese,” he quotes the sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904-88). Lest you think the stasis is a problem, though, he follows up with the artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), who said that “Having to be different is the same trap as having to be the same.”

Watching Iyer command his material, eventually readers may pause. Having lived in Japan for so long and gained a deep insight into the culture, why does he consider himself a Japan beginner? With a country that is so difficult to render fully, is an insider level at all possible?

“I’m not sure expert knowledge is desirable,” says Iyer, admitting that some may be irked by his stance. “It means that the relationship is over, in some senses, as is the conversation. I love Japan precisely because I can never have the illusion of knowing it, as I do, to some extent, with England. I feel that not-knowing ushers us into a much larger and more intimate space.”

But we live in an age of mastering data, where cultural competence is expected and any hint of Japanese “mystique” can push people’s buttons. Perhaps inevitably, earlier this year, Iyer found himself chastised on social media as he promoted his book “Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells.”

The provocation, at least to assimilated expats, was the outsider status that Iyer admits he nurtures. He’s never worked for a Japanese company, speaks Japanese “as a 2-year-old girl might,” and stays in Nara on a tourist visa to remind himself of his own apartness. All of this greatly incensed the Twitterverse, much of which snubbed Iyer’s golden rule when discussing Japan as a foreigner: never take yourself too seriously.

“Instead of trying to ‘understand’ Japan, one might try to learn from the Japanese gift of being unanalytical and less binary, and living calmly with all one cannot understand,” Iyer says without any grudge. “What one loves, for me, is inherently what one can never claim to understand fully, or come to the end of. I feel that about my wife, and my adopted home.”

This of course doesn’t mean that Iyer will ever stop trying. As in the Japanese saying that the reverse also has a reverse, he aims forever to get things just right.

“While I was working on the two new books,” he says, laughing, “I’d sometimes go out to get some yogurt from my local supermarket, and come across 10 new details that either I felt I needed to add, or that contradicted what I had just written. I hope that continues forever.”

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5