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In my readings of books about Japan in the ’80s and ’90s, it seemed that publishers assumed that if you didn’t have an enigma, you didn’t have a book.

In John David Morley’s “Pictures from the Water Trade,” it is the writer’s use of an alter ego to cleverly disguise his autobiography as a work of imagination that provides the element of mystery.

Pictures from the Water Trade, by John David Morley.
272 pages
HARPERCOLLINS PUBLISHERS

Morley was an English writer who was born in Singapore in 1948, once worked in Mexico as a tutor to the children of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and for much of his later life made Munich his home. He also spent three years studying and working in Japan. During his travels, he was no innocent abroad, a role that is often assumed by novelists and writers of travel literature.

In this fictionalized memoir, a young man named Boon, who serves as Morley’s other self, sets himself the daunting task of mastering Japanese in the shortest time possible by avoiding all contact with speakers of his own language. It is a decision that, at least initially, isolates him from one world before gaining access to the other. “His first glimpse of a vast city,” Morley writes of Tokyo and Boon’s limbo, “sprawling outwards without any sense of plan or apparent end, like a scattered pack of cards, struck him ominously as being a measure of the task he had vaguely undertaken, because it was just as unplanned and limitless.”

The “water trade,” or mizu shobai, of the title, refers to Japan’s nocturnal world of hostess bars, risque cabarets and brothels into which Boon is drawn. As he applies himself to a rigorous study of calligraphy, the book turns into a pleasing blend of art, aesthetics and the erotic.

There is a restive quality to Morley’s writing and the propulsive, unsettled energy of his characters. “When I sit down and get seriously into a book,” he once told The Guardian, “my pulse rate rises considerably.” Published in 1985, “Pictures from the Water Trade” foreshadowed many contemporary methods and approaches to travel writing about Japan with its merging of predetermined narrative and serendipity.

Garett Wilson’s “Lost in Tokyo: A Year of Sex, Sushi, and Suicide in the Real Japan” (2018), for instance, is a likeable example of a narrator similarly cast as a clueless foreigner in Japan, but the more common tendency among current writers is to explore the country through the medium of the specific. Ian Buruma’s “A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir” (2018) reconstructs the author’s time as a film student during the city’s avant-garde heyday in the 1970s. Here the unencumbered outsider must reassess his position as he acquires layers of attachment gained through knowledge, new friends and intimate relationships. In “The Bells of Old Tokyo: Travels in Japanese Time” (2019), Anna Sherman explores history, memory and identity in the world’s most provisional city by visualizing the capital as an organic timepiece.

If we have made any progress in demystifying Japan in the time since Morley’s work, it is in the realization that the veil behind which the country is hidden consists largely of comforting and collusive Western platitudes.

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