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Why Pico Iyer’s latest book on Japan should be taken with a pinch of salt

‘A Beginner’s Guide to Japan’ is not a travelogue in the classic sense, but a satisfying read of a country so many will visit in the lead-up to the 2020 Olympics.

Why Pico Iyer’s latest book on Japan should be taken with a pinch of salt

The Shibuya scramble crossing in Tokyo. (Photo: Unsplash/Jezael Melgoza)

One of the many pleasures to be had from Pico Iyer’s new book on Japan is to picture, at various points, the irritation of the type of readers it will irritate. Rarely in any writing on Japan is provocation so elegantly and surgically performed.

The timing of its appearance plays a big part in that. A Beginner’s Guide to Japan is in the vanguard of an impending slew of books scheduled to publish as the country bids for the world’s attention – first with the Rugby World Cup and then with the Tokyo Olympics next summer.

(Photo: Bloomsbury)

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Because of that, and because of the underlying surge in foreign tourists over the past six years, there is a naturally rising interest in Japan and a window for Japan hands – old and new – to expound on how everything in this strange, vibrant land fits together. To bind anecdote and statistics with a single thread. To grapple with old paradoxes. To X-ray and diagnose a place where, as Iyer suddenly and not necessarily accurately asserts, “girls are trained to put the right earring on with the left hand, because it looks more attractive”.

Iyer’s book, the chapters of which dart manically from baseball and family life to gardens and the seating patterns of dating couples, not only arrives ahead of the coming publishing wave, but impishly threatens those who plan to dissect Japan with a heavier touch.

The two most essential pages are the ones where Iyer admits that this is not a guide in the classic sense and that it should be taken with several grains of salt. The beginner of the title, he adds, is not only the reader but the author. Despite living in Japan for more than three decades, he says, he has never studied or worked here. In preparation for mischief, he warns that much of the book will infuriate anyone who knows Japan and that assertions made in one place will contradict those in another.

Pico Iyer would rather read a book than check his Twitter account. (Photo: Raffles Hotel)

In a seasoned effort to pre-empt the whataboutism often thrown at the sort of sweeping assertions he comes up with, Iyer acknowledges that “a lot” of what he ascribes to Japan also applies to much of east Asia: “No matter. These are simply provocations, opening lines designed to quicken you to better comebacks of your own.”

The obvious question is whether such caveats exculpate Iyer if some of his observations overgeneralise or could, if taken at face value, mislead a reader. Purists and curmudgeons may decide they do not. To others, though, they will provide the reader, from anywhere on the spectrum of Japan experience, with licence to simply enjoy or enjoy disagreeing with what follows: A decorous rush of thoughts, observations, unsupported statements, factoids and recollections that ultimately form a shape like paint splashed on the Invisible Man.

Many of these gobbets are only a few sentences long, many come with only a word or two of gloss and many – “people down the road from me pray to trees” or “speech is dangerous in Japan, precisely because so many unspoken rules hover around it” – come at the reader like children dashing into traffic.

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Some observations seem surprisingly naive for someone with such a long association with Japan, while others pick up a long-established truism of the country and blow it apart. Many seem calculated to lodge in the memory as quotable general knowledge. More people, Iyer notes, live within 30 or so miles (48km) of Tokyo than on the entire continent of Australia. But the point of the observation lies a few staccato paragraphs later when he states: “In Japan, a crowd is less a threat to public order than a reaffirmation of it.”

The big ambush of Iyer’s vade mecum is that for all its assertiveness, it leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions. And while this fragmented barrage does not in the least resemble a guide, its combined effect is a satisfying acquaintance with a country so many will be about to visit.

Perhaps its greater trick, though, is one of deconstruction. Japan and the Japanese have long seemed to lend themselves addictively to interpretation by outsiders. By inviting all types of readers to see the flaws in that tendency from the outset, Iyer neatly sheds the burden of being right about everything while crafting a framework within which to enjoy the place.

A Beginner’s Guide to Japan: Observations and Provocations, by Pico Iyer, available at Kinokuniya

By Leo Lewis © 2019 The Financial Times

Leo Lewis is the FT’s Tokyo correspondent

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