Twin tours de force offer insights into Japan not lost in translation


The year 2010 may come to be seen as a landmark in terms of literature written in English that draws on Japan as a setting.

That’s because two books released this year — one non-fiction, the other fiction — are each remarkable in the sense of Japanese reality they conjure.

Until now, popular, non-scholarly books written in English have almost always used Japan as an exotic backdrop for the real-life dramas of Westerners who find themselves caught bewilderingly in front of it.

The stage for the inscrutable and the bizarre was set as early as the late 19th century, when men and women from the West “discovered” a Japan that they could not immediately understand, categorize or articulate. They chose to be charmingly befuddled instead.

Such befuddlement was by no means confined to the English-speaking. French novelist Pierre Loti (1850-1923), author of “Madame Chrysantheme,” is hung up on everything he perceives in Japan as being little, delicate, exotic, curious and comic — which is, actually, everything he seems to see.

That the popular 2003 American film “Lost in Translation” and Australian novelist Peter Carey’s 2005 travelogue “Wrong about Japan” both perpetuate this facile, warped and, in many ways, insidious view of the country goes to show that much popular description of Japan is still bogged down in a mishmash of glaring errors and grotesque cliches.

Of late, however, two new rays of hope have lit up the stage. They are Edmund de Waal’s “The Hare with Amber Eyes” and “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” by David Mitchell. Both are, in their own way, brilliantly written and insightful works that treat Japan in an unsentimental, true-to-life and richly complex manner.

First, the work of non-fiction by British potter Edmund de Waal. The primary inspiration for his own art comes from Japan, where he has studied and worked as a ceramic artist. The “hare” of the title refers to the name of a particular tiny carved netsuke fastener used to secure small carrying cases tied to an obi.

A collection of 264 netsuke in the possession of De Waal’s ancestors becomes the leitmotif of the story of the Ephrussi family over 150 years — a story that takes the reader from Odessa to Vienna and from Paris to Tokyo through pogroms, revolution and war.

The Ephrussis were one of Europe’s richest Jewish families, having made their fortune exporting grain from the breadbasket that was Ukraine. Like many of Europe’s wealthy, the Ephrussis were deeply attracted to the newly opened country of Japan, its art and its customs.

“Japan existed as a sort of parallel country,” writes De Waal, “of licensed gratification, artistic, commercial and sexual.” He goes on to quote Alexandre Dumas from 1887: “Everything is Japanese now.”

The Ephrussis rightly deemed that their fate, and that of their enterprises, would be brighter in Vienna than in Odessa. They relocated to the city that was at the center of empire and where, at the turn of the 20th century, 71 percent of financiers, 65 percent of lawyers, 59 percent of doctors and 50 percent of journalists were, like them, Jewish.

At the time, De Waal’s great-great- grandfather, Ignace, had assets worth the equivalent of $200 million in today’s currency and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Ephrussi family smoothly and successfully assimilated into the Viennese community.

However, the rise of anti-Semitism throughout Europe was to deal the family a tragic blow that led to deportation, death and dispersal. The art collection was confiscated by the Nazis and others. How the 264 netsuke survived World War II, hidden by a kindly Gentile maid in her mattress — and then came into the possession of the author — is the story of this fascinating book.

De Waal has integrated prodigious research into a sensitive and moving personal account — an artist’s account — of family history.

Meanwhile, “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” is set on Dejima, the small island built by the Japanese in Nagasaki Bay and used during most of the Edo Period (1603-1867) as a conduit for Western trade and knowledge.

Set at the very end of the 18th century and in the early years of the 19th, the novel depicts the unconsummated love for a beautiful Japanese midwife felt by a clerk in the Dutch East Indies Company.

Dutch sovereignty was compromised during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century; but even before then, the enclave on Dejima was retaining its political integrity thanks only to the largesse of the local Japanese powers. The novel provides immense detail about the relationships between the Dutch and their protectors, as well as between the various factions of Japanese in and around Nagasaki as they vied for regional influence.

Toward the end of the story, a dying magistrate named Shiroyama says, “The purest believers are the truest monsters.”

This applies not only to the evil Enomoto, who kidnaps Jacob’s secret love, the midwife Orito, but also to the European powers — specifically the Dutch and the British — whose vengeful and ugly nationalism stretches halfway around the world.

The Japanese board game of go may be the primary working metaphor for the plot in this novel, for go is a game of black and white, of advantage that can turn, in an instant, into a trap.

Jacob and Orito seem to be caught in a trap: a world in which they do not belong. Geography, history and a maze of time itself stand between them, though they exist on the eve of an era in which astounding scientific and medical discoveries are about to transform Europe and, eventually, Japan.

It is not knowledge and rationality, though, that motivate the characters of “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.” It is the depraved superstitions of the Japanese and the equally depraved proclivities of the Europeans that propel them forward to their various ends.

David Mitchell is a writer of awesome talent. This is Dickens in the 21st century, a monument to storytelling that embroiders intrigue and suspense into a silk of lyrical prose and exquisite metaphor. Mitchell, who lived eight years in Hiroshima, presents us with a technical tour de force that faithfully recreates the era in all its appearances, sounds, smells and textures.

This is a book that beautifully combines the sensual with the scientific. Its lightness comes from its colorful dialogue and its frequent jaunts into wordplay, as when Orito, in a Freudian slip long before Freud, asks Jacob to help her pick “sprogs” of rosemary.

“The Hare with Amber Eyes” and “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” are two astonishing books that deal with Japan and Japanese themes in straightforward, believable and revealing ways and turn the corner on stories with a Japanese setting.

The Westerners in these accounts are not using Japanese as pawns in a strategy, or as ciphers in a tale calculated to make the drama poignant and realistic only for themselves. Both De Waal and Mitchell know Japan intimately. The Japanese in Mitchell’s book in particular are full-blown co-conspirators in his plots, standing on an equal footing with Europeans and made of the same mettle, flesh and blood.

The year 2010 will go down as a good one for the discovery of Japan as it was — and as it is.