Even after 32 years, Pico Iyer strives to understand Japan

Author Pico Iyer continues to try to understand what lies behind the surface in Japan and in the Japanese.

Pico Iyer has lived in Japan for some 32 years and even though he has lived there that long and has married a Japanese woman and raised two Japanese step-children, he is still trying to figure the place out.

The people remain a riddle and a puzzle wrapped in an enigma and served with suishi. He says, happily, he can’t even predict his own wife all that well.

“I suppose if one’s job as a writer, one’s life is trying to live with things one can’t understand then Japan is the biggest prize.

He has published two books this year about Japan. The first, Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells (Knopf), focuses on his own family and the second focuses more on the country and the culture. This second book is called A Beginner’s Guide to Japan (Knopf).

“I say at the very beginning, that I have lived there 32 years and I know even less that when I began and it wasn’t much then.

Pico Iyer has lived in Japan for 32 years. He is still trying to figure the place out.

“I warn the reader that this is a display of ignorance. However, as a writer, you don’t want to use up a topic. You don’t want to feel you know it all, that there is nothing more to learn. You don’t want to feel you can anticipate what is going to happen when you walk down the street.

“You may want that as a human being but as a writer you want to be stimulated and surprised.”

Iyer is an accomplished essayist, novelist and writer on culture and countries. He’s published 15 books, including Imagining Canada: An Outsider’s Hope for a Global Future and dozens of essays in prestigious titles such as Time magazine, The New York Times, Harper’s and The New York Review of Books.

He was born in England and is the son Indian parents. He has also lived in California, where his 88 year old mother still lives.

Before an Ottawa Writers Festival appearance on Oct. 1, he told ARTSFILE that he loves the fact that in Japan he can never live in what he calls the illusion of knowledge.

“You are talking to me now in my mother’s house in California. I have been officially resident here for a long time and I sometimes feel that in California, it’s somewhat transparent and I know what someone is going to say next. To a small degree I have the measure of the place.

“Japan is so layered and shifting and such a confounding mix of surface and depth that I never feel that certainty. I hope I can keep writing about it forever and never come to any firm conclusions.”

His book, Autumn Light is, he said, is contradicted by his new guide. That, he added, is a reminder to a read not to take his ideas about Japan too seriously.

“Everything I say is wrong and I might say the opposite about Japan two hours later.”

This latter book, along with a wealth of observations about the country, is uniquely structured in the form of a series of short vignettes of what he observes. These are interspersed with longer examinations. To this reader these shorter pieces are almost Twitter posts. The longer pieces offer the relief of exploration from the relentless drive of the shorter portraits.

“One has to think hard and carefully now about how to work with a reader’s diminished attention span which makes so much real writing redundant,” he said.

Autumn Light, he said, was an attempt to stretch a reader’s attention span with long sentences and not much action. He believes — hopes? — “something in us may be craving something deeper and more spacious than we are getting in the Twitterverse.”

The Beginner’s Guide is more of an attempt to get into the rhythm of today and change minds.

“If I could make these tweets rich enough then suddenly the reader will realize she will have to slow down. You actually can’t take these in at a rapid pace. They are in effect anti-Tweets intended to force the reader to pay attention.”

Mount Fuji is the symbol of Japan.

He personally has never seen a Tweet “and I aspire to never see one.”

When asked why write these books now he said “I wrote a book about Japan after my first year there. I thought it would be good to write two books on Japan after my 31 year there.”

He wanted to reflect on how the place looks “when I am getting to 60 and entering my own autumn.

It coincides with the fact that Japan will host the Olympic Games next summer and with thousands of visitors coming there because of that event.

Japan is a country that the historian Paul Kennedy once thought would replace the United States at the top of the global heap, in his book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000. It didn’t happen.

In fact Japan, stuck in a lengthy recession, has fallen to the No. 3 economy and is not at the centre of Great Power politics right now.

Iyer says “Japan occupies a different planet from the rest of the world which is a great benefit culturally and probably a great challenge geopolitically.

“Japan is on a different wavelength from everyone else. It doesn’t speak the language of the global order literally and metaphorically. China and South Korea can participate in the global economy much better than Japan and that’s a big problem.

“It seemed about to take over the world when I arrived in late 1980s. I don’t think Japanese are happy about being an afterthought but they haven’t done a good job of correcting it.”

For example, he pointed to the level of English proficiency. Japan is 29th out of 30 countries in Asia even lower than North Korea or poor nations such as Tajikistan.

Culturally, Iyer finds Japan so fascinating “because it is so much the other. When I go to China and South Korea, I feel I can communicate with the people in some ways.

“A financier told me he believed the only thing Japan had going for it economically now is its difference, its otherness and that’s what it is marketing.”

While other industries struggle, Japan’s the tourist industry is flourishing. Lots of people are drawn to it, he said “because it is so fascinating. They are drawn to visit but not to do business.”

Internally issues such as the treatment of women, the treatment of foreigners, the LGBTQ community, in fact, everyone who isn’t the norm, as Japan sees it, puts the country really behind the world.

“Japan probably needs to address that. But most Japanese think ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’.”

They are actually doing pretty darn well. The third largest economy in the world is nothing to sneeze at and they did engineer a masterful turnaround after the Second World War, he said.

But, “they have been very slow about changing. At some point they will have to.

“Japan appears so western on the surface but it’s anti-western deep down. It’s like an old man in a Planet Hollywood T-shirt who is up to the moment in terms of global fashion. He is cool, he’s hip but he is still old and still Japanese.

Two centuries ago, Japan was the kind of hermit kingdom that North Korea is today, Iyer said, noting that “when I go to North Korea, things I see there remind me of Japan today.”

he finds Japanese literature and film being created today “really strange. I don’t like them and makes me think twice about his neighbours. They are so kind and gracious to me but there’s probably something going on inside that I don’t know about. It’s coming out in their art.”

The Japanese even have invented their own version of baseball that would be more or less unrecognizable to North Americans.

He cited the instance of one American managing in Japan who was fired because of his emphasis on winning.

Japan is known as a pretty homogenous society. It is still that way, he said. One thing has emerged. The nation is celebrating mixed race athletes and performers, known as Hafus, people such as the Haitian Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaki, who has been ranked No. 1 in the world and has won a U.S. and Australian Open.

Iyer said Japanese customs officials used to strip search him when I came back into the country in the 1990s because he is of Indian descent.

“As soon as they saw someone with an Indian face I was Saddam Hussein’s nephew or I was from Iran trying to immigrate. They had a lot of that in 1990s.

“Or they thought ‘Here’s a guy who looks Indian and is carrying British or American passport. He must be a criminal. I was on the receiving end of that.”

That happens less frequently now, in part, because seeks out a customs lane manned by a woman.

“Japanese women much more eager to make contact with the rest of the world than Japanese men. They are marginalized and are second class citizens in japan. Japanese men tend to be more on the defensive when they meet foreigners.

“I don’t complain about that because, as I say in the book, Japan functions like a symphony orchestra. Each person plays his part and each person is working from the same score. They know how to make this beautiful harmony. But if a foreigner wh0 looks different arrives they figure this guy can’t read a word of our music and he is going to disrupt this beautiful harmony that we have worked for 1,400 years to create. Maybe it’s easier for everyone if we kick him out.

“As the rest of the world gets more and more global and Japan falls behind at some point they are going to have to change ways.”

Even so, he said he was missing Japan while he was visiting his mother.

“I would never want to be Japanese, but, if my life would allow me to I would spend every hour of every day there.”

One has to ask why?

“Japan is the kindest, most selfless place I have visited. It’s the most gracious place. It’s the most interesting.

“Part of me feels at home there in a way that I have never felt at home in other places to which I belong India, England and California.”

In town: Pico Iyer, author of A Beginner’s Guide to Japan (Knopf Canada) is at Southminster United Church, 15 Aylmer Ave on Oct. 1 at 7 p.m. Tickets and information: writersfestival.org

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.