The “Japan” of Recent American Writers

Dharma Bums, Then and Now (from the Los Angeles Times Book Review)

For a certain class of contemporary literary travelers — Westerners, particularly Americans — Japan some time ago surpassed Europe as the favored destination for the Wanderjahr. Critics have observed that Tokyo and Kyoto seem to have become for young American writers what Paris was for Hemingway’s generation.

The “Japan” of writers is, of course, half-imaginary, and what is interesting is how, since the 1960s, this literary conception of “Japan” has changed — from the locus of enlightenment (for the Beats and other spiritual seekers) to an internationalized zone of decadence and self-destruction (for the Byronic heroes of contemporary novels).

Jack Kerouac’s “The Dharma Bums” (1958) might be viewed as the point of departure and one long bon-voyage party for Japhy Ryder, as Kerouac called Gary Snyder in his book. Coming from the East Coast, Kerouac was smitten by the Beat scene in Berkeley, and his admiration focuses on Snyder, pictured in a cottage with tatami mats on the floor, sitting cross-legged at a low table, translating Han Shan’s “Cold Mountain” poems, sporting wire glasses and a goatee, which made the young man seem like some aged Asian or venerable Buddhist scholar. Snyder was passing the summer in Berkeley before leaving for Japan to study Zen, and “The Dharma Bums” essentially ends on a pier in San Francisco with Kerouac watching the young man depart on a tramp steamer.

Snyder lived in Japan from 1956 to 1968. Glimpses of his life there can be found in his works and in two other books. “The Japan and India Journals, 1960–1964,” by Joanne Kyger (who was married to Snyder during that time), recounts the busy social life of the then small community of Western ex-pats. They were Beats and Buddhists, gardening small plots behind rented Japanese cottages, drinking and talking all night, meditating long hours at Daitoku-ji Temple.

A better glimpse of Snyder, however, and of his real reason for being in Japan, can be found in Janwillem van der Wetering’s “The Empty Mirror.” Van der Wetering and Snyder (called Gerald in the book) studied under the same Zen master, and this book’s account of a year-and-a-half at Daitoku-ji conveys just how physically grueling Zen was for the few Westerners there.

“The Empty Mirror” is a wonderful little book, written in a “silent,” almost pictorial style. Just before Van der Wetering arrives at the temple door as a hungry spiritual seeker, he encounters a noodle vendor and buys a bowlful. One noodle falls to the ground and a ravenous chicken attacks it. Van der Wetering and the vendor share a laugh at that moment.

Literary travelers who headed to Japan in the 1960s were likewise scrabbling for something: “enlightenment,” generally along the lines of Zen Buddhism. At home, armchair seekers were buying volumes by D. T. Suzuki and R. H. Blyth, Eugen Herrigel’s “Zen in the Art of Archery” and Paul Rep’s “Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.” In the 1960s, a generation of Japanophiles was being created. Thomas Merton and Alan Watts paid their respects. Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and other writers would return from Japan and reorient American poetry in poems with Buddhist concerns and hybridized titles (e.g., Snyder’s “Smokey the Bear Sutra”).

In succeeding decades, this interest in Japan as a spiritual destination slowly petered out. While becoming the Economic Miracle of the Pacific, Japan seemed to have lost its spiritual patina. Although former California governor and presidential candidate Jerry Brown (and others) would still travel to Kamakura to study under the late Zen master Kyozo Yamada, by the 1980s the convention of spiritual travel to Japan seemed to have become a minor tradition left to middle-aged seekers in Birkenstocks. In the meantime, however, another conception of “Japan” was thriving elsewhere.

During the 1980s, a new generation of young American writers began publishing their “Japanese novels.” Brad Leithauser’s “Equal Distance” (1984) was the first of these, set in Kyoto, and a first novel that met with considerable praise. Leithauser offered a different Japan: of motorcycle gangs and Zen temples with blaring public-address systems, of vending machines dispensing pornography and condoms, of all-night card games and drinking, of heartbreak and personal tragedy. The hero, Danny Ott, is a Harvard law student who has taken time off for a Japanese Wanderjahr and who falls in with a group of nihilistic American ex-pats. It’s a Year of Living Dangerously.

Jay McInerney’s “Ransom” (1985) also takes place in Kyoto amid another “lost generation” of disillusioned young Americans. The hero, Christopher Ransom, has left behind New York’s cocaine-driven fast life (described in McInerney’s first novel, “Bright Lights, Big City”) and hopes to regain control of life through the rigorous discipline of karate. He is unsuccessful.

“Bicycle Days” (1989), by John Burnham Schwartz, was also a first novel highly praised by reviewers. Its hero Alec is another Ivy League graduate (Yale) who comes to Tokyo to intern at a computer firm and is adopted by the Japanese family he lives with, becomes the confidant of bachelors and falls into a confusing affair with Kiyoko, an older woman and co-worker. Alec has gone to Japan for an orderliness, an antidote to the personal confusion arising from his parents’ divorce and his disintegrating family. Instead, he finds more vertigo.

While the vision of Japan was changing in literary circles from “The Jewel of the Lotus” to the Asian “Heart of Darkness,” something similar was happening in nonfiction. Instead of the turn-of-the-century enthusiasm of American travel writer Lafcadio Hearn (who was interested in the most delicate of Japanese folk customs), the ostensible topic of John David Morley’s “Pictures From the Water Trade” (1985) is that world of male entertainment (“the water trade” is Japanese slang) in which bar girls sit in customers’ laps and risque cabaret shows invite audience participation.

But Morley’s book is really more memoir than expose. A British journalist, Morley went to Japan to study, and stayed on. Though he would become fluent in the language, learn Japanese calligraphy and be virtually adopted into a Japanese family, his book recounts his realization of and resignation to the fact that he would always be the alien, a gaijin (literally, “outsider”). Throughout, Morley explains the people and the culture in terms of uchi (the family or clan) from which he is excluded.

Symbolic of this, and at the center of his book, is Morley’s account of his tortured love affair with a woman named Mariko. It is a familiar story: A Japanese woman is attracted to a Westerner; he falls hopelessly in love with her, only to be jilted by her later. This same story appears over and over again in recent American novels and nonfiction — so frequently, in fact, that it becomes difficult not to see in the woman (who first ravishes and then betrays) a vision of Japan itself. Call it Madame Butterfly’s revenge.

Pico Iyer’s ”The Lady and the Monk” (1991) recounts how Iyer fell in love with Sachiko, a married Japanese woman, while spending a year in Kyoto. In the midst of their affair, Sachiko prophetically remembers an old Japanese story: “Ghost visits man many many times, many very happy times together. But man’s friends much worry. His face more weak, more pale. Ghost eating his heart.” By the end of the book, it is the once-timid Sachiko who is interesting, bold and full-bodied. By comparison, at the end, Iyer seems bloodless.

Ravished and then betrayed; this same story is told in Gary Katzenstein’s “Funny Business” (1989). It is an account of the author’s yearlong internship at the Sony Corp. on a Luce Foundation Fellowship, but the book also tells of his disappointing love affair with both Japan and a Japanese woman. Gary-san wants to be accepted, has that American wish to pass as a native, but this is an impossible desire for a 6-foot-1 Caucasian with curly hair.

A more satisfactory account of the attempt to “go native” appears in one of the few books written by women travelers to Japan, Leila Philip’s “The Road Through Miyama” (1989). This blond Princeton undergraduate became an apprentice to master potter Kazu Nagayoshi in the small southern village of Miyama. That gave her an entree, of course, but it was her fluency in Japanese, and the friendships she cultivated with the village grandmothers, that led to her acceptance — so much so that when she returned a year later for a festival, she was greeted like the relative she had seemed to become.

Race, needless to say, is an issue involved in acceptance, and that is why David Mura’s “Turning Japanese” (1991) is so interesting. A sansei whose Japanese grandparents emigrated to the United States, Mura was reared in Minnesota as a “flavorless” American; his middle-class parents wore sports clothes, belonged to a tennis club and insisted that their own experience in the relocation camps during World War II was not that bad. So Mura travels to Japan on a fellowship to find a lost identity. A poignant moment occurs on a street corner in downtown Tokyo when Mura’s wife and a friend, both Caucasians, suddenly jaywalk: “I felt uncomfortable and was embarrassed by Susie and Daniel’s minor breach of law. Somehow I had less gaijin license — the freedom of foreigners in Japan to break the rules. . . . It didn’t matter that I too was a foreigner. I didn’t look like one.”

If there is a theme that links contemporary travel literature concerned with Japan, from the Beats to contemporary novels and nonfiction, it is this search for identity. Unlike other parts of the globe (Peru, say, or New Zealand), this seems the special burden of travel literature concerned with Asia. One need only think of similar works set in other Asian locales: Peter Mathiessen’s “The Snow Leopard” and Thomas Merton’s “The Asian Journals”; Andrew Harvey’s “A Journey to Ladakh” and Brad Newsham’s “All the Right Places”; Howard Coale’s “The Ouroboros” and John Krich’s “Music in Every Room”; Vikram Seth’s “From Heaven’s Lake” and Mark Salzman’s “Iron and Silk.”

The word travel is closely linked to the word travail . In Japan, unlike other areas of Asia, physical suffering is minimal. Instead of bitter cold in the Himalayas, for example, in Japan (as these books make clear), the travail is largely mental — a constant state of alienation and constant reminders of one’s status as the outsider. Still, by means of relentless opposition and rejection, fortunate foreigners, instead of being adopted, discover who they are and (more important) who they aren’t. That is Japan’s significance to American writers.

Originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times Book Review (January 19, 1992). I discuss this subject (including American films) at greater length in an essay “Japan as American Theme Park: Kerouac’s Dharma Bums et seq.” that appears in the book “Seuils et Traverses [Borders and Crossings]: Enjeux de l’écriture du voyage. Actes du Colloque de Brest” (Brest, France: Université de Bretagne, 2002).

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13. March 2016 by
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