The inscrutable West

Western Writers in Japan
May 14, 1999

It is hard not to think kindly of a book that, on the first page of its introduction, describes how William Empson made an impression on bewildered Japanese students and colleagues "by receiving Y.Nakano (later a professor of English literature at Tokyo University) at his Japanese-style house in that extreme style of dress known to his compatriots as the 'birthday suit'." We have already been introduced, by John Bayley in his kindly foreword, to a poem recording how, in Empson's Japanese English classes, "Out of sight, out of mind" came out as "Invisible, insane" and we will soon meet a Japanese assistant musing on how the antic professor embodied "the English type of ambiguity". Anyone who has any doubts about East and West being separated by a gap large enough for all understanding to fall through will be richly satisfied by Sumie Okada's Western Writers in Japan, which charts - and often enacts - a tangled history of cross-purposes and vexed meanings.

Everything in life, Santayana famously pronounced, is tragic in its fate but comic in its existence (and lyrical in its ideal essence), and much of the pleasure of this book comes in its conversion of a familiar tragedy (from slaughtered Jesuit priests to Madame Butterfly) into often inadvertent comedy. The West has always been as inscrutable to the East as vice versa, and for all the similarities between England and Japan (in monarchy and hierarchy, in inwardness, in climate and green landscape, in the ceremonies of tea and gardens and a coded society - Kazuo Ishiguro is the central exhibit here), the two island nations have generally succeeded in talking past one another, sotto voce . Okada, who teaches English and comparative literature at Immaculate Heart University in Kagoshima, Japan, and who studied at both Oxford (under Bayley) and Cambridge, has compiled an eccentric and rather haphazard survey that hops, bizarrely, from accounts of tea with Iris Murdoch to page-long reproductions of poems about cockroaches, but, en route, throws up any number of priceless and piquant moments.

The book should by rights be called "20th-Century English Male Poets in Japan" - Okada has no interest in the Americans who have, since the war, been the most furious explicators of Japan (and, in the case of American women, the most sensitive and sympathetic), nor in those of anywhere but the England she apparently adores (save for a token reference or two to Roland Barthes, and a drifting conversation with a 90-year-old Laurens Van der Post). Specifically, her concentration is on that line of Englishmen who followed Edmund Blunden (the subject of her previous book, in 1988) to teach in Japan, and tilted against the various forms of alienness and loneliness they encountered there. Faced with a culture that reads from right to left, William Plomer (South African by birth), Peter Quennell and Stephen Spender all delivered themselves of judgements that are treated here as the wisdom of Zen masters.

Much the best thing in the book, in fact, is just the perceptions of the visitors it generously records, for although few of them seem to have penetrated Japan very deeply, nearly all of them brought a quick and vagrant cosmopolitan sharpness to a country that has always been an analyst's dream and nightmare.

The results were often memorable: "A sense of duty is the favourite Japanese virtue; and the fact that an undertaking is painfully difficult gives the task its moral worth," Quennell shrewdly perceived. English architecture rises towards the heavens, G. S. Fraser noted; Japanese - in gardens, say - spreads outwards more than upwards. "What matters is manners rather than morals," D. J. Enright observed, in writing about Genji. "And shame lies less in being naughty than in being so maladroit as to be discovered."

More interesting still, the English writers who visited Japan were, of course, objects as much as subjects, and targets of curiosity for a people who took them to be god-like barbarians. "'Top-notch' and 'top-hole', are they the same?" Quennell was asked, while George Barker claims to have been asked "what flowers does a chestnut tree bear?" Spender, remarking wisely that teachers like Blunden became "a kind of demigod" in Japan, recalls an overzealous Japanese host refusing to leave his side, and at one point blurting out, "I have a cold and two boils as a result of anxiety concerning your coming to Hokkaido". Plomer's long-time Japanese friend Captain Mori wrote - something in the spirit of Okada - "The three years sojourn of you in Japan, I expect, will be remembered by the world for ever as the epoch-marking of the genious."

This plaintive tone of devotion unrequited has its most plangent notes in the responses of Japanese women, who did not quite know what to make of the respect and courtesy they received at the hands of English (and never Japanese) men. "It's unnatural to be always saying 'thank you' and 'I beg your pardon' to a woman," a Madame Minami writes, while staying with Plomer, "but I can't help admitting that I like it."

Okada's interpretations of much of this are peculiar in the extreme, as she bravely wrestles with Empson's gnomic poems, linking "risings" in bed to the Resurrection, and solemnly records the names of the characters in Plomer's novel, Paper Houses - Mr Pin Pon and Baron Monkey-Man (as it is in translation) - before announcing, in the next sentence: "If Plomer had stayed on in Japan, like his narrator Mainchance, he would certainly have been decorated for his services to education." Japan's economic success, she offers, may be in part the result of its "floating mind", and western analytical thought, she suggests, is the cause of class distinctions. But she is lavish in her quotations from the Englishmen, and that makes up for a lot. In her chapter on Anthony Thwaite, for example, she does almost nothing but quote from Thwaite's poems, and that becomes a blessing, because they are so charming and engaging, full of touching depths and playful turns. In one, turning on English words used in Japanese, he writes:

I am on a tsua,
From faraway Yoroppa
Where I wear a toppa
Or oba in the winter
.

The hero of the book, in this context, is clearly Empson, whose serving of tea in the garden to Mr Nakano, while in his birthday suit, is fully replayed again, 40 pages after the introduction, in a chapter entitled, "William Empson: unresolved conflicts?" Arriving in Japan with nothing but a lemon and a pair of shoes, the eccentric Englishman at one point clambered through a window of Tokyo Station at night (mistaking it for his hotel next door), and, apprehended in mid-passage by two guards, got pulled down into a bucket of water. It is perhaps no surprise that he wrote the bulk of his Structure of Complex Words ("incoherent and impressionistic," says Okada; "one of his most important pieces of theoretical criticism", avers Bayley) while teaching in Japan.

What makes all of this relevant is that Empson's distance from the orthodox probably helped him come to his sudden, unexpected readings of Japan. Unlike Christ, he wrote, Bodhisattvas "sacrificed their deaths for the sake of man, not their lives"; and rhythms faster than a heartbeat, as in western music, suggest an "individual speaking up", he claimed, while those slower than a heartbeat, as in Japan, bespeak a metre closer to that of the impersonal, or Nature or God. Western art comes out of something striving, impatient, restless, Fraser similarly noted; Japanese, classically, comes out of repose.

Okada's treatment of all this is most interesting, for a western reader, when she sticks to Japan, noting that the word for "settling down" in Japanese means, literally, "getting glued", or that the possessive cannot be attached to "time" in Japanese - you cannot take your own sweet time - because time, perhaps, belongs to the realm of the gods (or the collective). The Japanese, she nicely suggests, are not "faceless", but "effaced".

When it comes to the Englishmen in question, her approach is much more wide-eyed, more earnest - more Japanese, in short - than that of such westerners as Ian Littlewood, who wrote a book on similar themes called The Idea of Japan (in 1996). Indeed, she seems to bear out the old saw that the Japanese are more anecdotal than analytical - think in terms of images more than ideas, that is - and at times we draw perilously close to the Japanese translator in David Lodge's Small World , trying to plumb English ironies from the far side of the globe. Most bizarrely of all, she tracks down homosexual currents everywhere she looks (homosexuality seeming as exotic a distant planet to her as Oxbridge). There is a fascinating book to be written about why so many of the great explicators of Japan in the West have been homosexual - in part, perhaps, because the culture seems better suited to Virginia Woolf than to G. B. Shaw, and proceeds through delicacy, aesthetic suggestion and privacy - but this is not it.

Still, Okada is hardly the first scholar to tumble down the treacherous abyss that separates Japan from the West (Bayley, for example, in his introduction, notes that Ian Fleming's evocation of Japan in You Only Live Twice may have been better than most and wonders whether this is because "Bond's fatalism, and his dedication to the job in hand" put him on the same wave-length as the Japanese!). The more serious drawback here is that the narrowness of Okada's focus excludes most of the really interesting analysts of Japan, and even if her interests eliminate such non-English writers as Donald Richie, who has lived in Tokyo for half a century, commenting on the culture with a composure and understanding that most foreigners envy, it is a shame that she has no time for Angela Carter's dream-tapestries of modern Tokyo, or Jan Morris's definitive evocation of Kyoto (or even Peregrine Hodson's 1992 novel A Circle Round the Sun , which at least fits her theme of English paranoia). I hungered for at least a mention of Gary Snyder and Peter Matthiessen and Kenneth Rexroth, who absorbed a Buddhism in Japan so fully that they reinvigorated western letters, and whose influence is perhaps the greatest among the tens of thousands of English teachers who still haunt the coffee-shops of Kyoto and Nagoya, wondering why Japan doesn't feel like home. When Okada compares seven translations of Basho's famous haiku about a frog jumping into a pond into English, in the context of Fraser, it is hard to believe that she omits the one of Allen Ginsberg, who caught the splash of immediacy with the intuitiveness of a serious student of Zen.

The reason many Japanese are attracted to England, after all (as she suggests) is not so much that it is England often, as that it is not Japan, and if many Englishmen have followed Blunden to the Orient it is often not because of the mysterious East but in spite of it. Lafcadio Hearn, she might have noted in her brief chapter on him, on his first day in Japan, having failed and failed to see a single Buddha, finally approached an altar in a shrine to see what mysterious godhead lurked within. When he peered in to look more closely, what he found was a mirror.

Pico Iyer is a writer based in Japan whose books include The Lady and the Monk .

Western Writers in Japan

Author - Sumie Okada
ISBN - 0 333 72174 8
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £42.50
Pages - 185

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