How to Write About Japan
1. Get the title right
When you get around to doing your book title, article or blog header, make sure you have a reference to “Rising Sun” “Yen to do blah blah” or “Far Eastern Promise.” Anything less will mark you out as an amateur, or worse, one of those contrarians who thinks the uniqueness of Japan is no more inscrutable than the uniqueness of any other country, such as Afghanistan, Akrotiri, Albania, Algeria, American Samoa, Andorra, Angola, Anguilla, Antarctica, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Aruba, Ashmore and Cartier Islands, Australia, Austria and Azerbaijan, just to take the countries beginning with “A”. There are 25 more letters to go, but perhaps you get the point.
If at all possible, juxtapose two words in your book title. Pretty much any two words will do as long as they have nothing much to do with each other in polite company. In fact, the more estranged, the better. This will raise your metaphorical balls ever higher into the realm of metaphysics. So, for example: Dogs and Cats — The Story of Modern Japan doesn’t quite cut it because dogs are known to frequent cats, on the page at least. Change cats to something completely unrelated beginning with “D” and you’ve got a winner. Consider Dogs and Dermatitis: The Story of Modern Japan, or Dogs and Defeatism: The Shocking True Story of Modern Japan and you can see we are well on the way to a critically acclaimed masterwork, if not a bestseller. You might even consider doing it with a cat. That is, something like The Cat and the Concrete: The Story of Modern Japan would set your book well on the beaten path from kitty litter to literary gold.
2. Get the picture right
Don’t use photos of Japanese people behaving like everyone else on the planet, such as shopping at CostCo, walking around IKEA or eating a hamburger, as this will imply to potential readers that you don’t know the real Japan. In a pinch you could use photos of Japanese doing recognisable things like drinking a can of cola, smoking a cigarette or driving a car, but preferably if they are wearing a kimono, samurai headscarf or Shinto priest’s robes at the time. Think old and new, land of contrasts, The Cat and the Concrete.
This works best in the sub-genre The Meaning Of Japan As Evidenced By Its Vending Machines. Big ones, small ones, new ones, old ones, ones selling drinks with funny names, ones selling beer, machines selling cigarettes, others selling umbrellas, some selling books, and a few selling rice. And the holy grail: the used-panty vending machine. There really is no end to writers’ fascination with vending machines. Throw in a 20-year-old babe in kimono smoking a menthol, supping a can of vending machine coffee and you’ve entered Japan Writer Nirvana.
This is because the enterprising Japan-hand can find a vending machine to prove any old notion they have about the folks who live here. Japanese unable to make social contact? That explains the beer vending machines! Japan’s poor English ability? The vending machines sell Pocari Sweat and Calpis, for chrissakes! Japan as land of perverts? Search for that panty-vending machine on Google!
Though funnily enough, no-one thinks it odd that every pub gents in England has a condom machine. But the 1993 photograph of a used-panty machine in a Tokyo sex shop endlessly reproduced on Japan blogs ever since is taken as evidence of an innate perversion in Japan that is somehow absent from England, the land of mists and mellow fruityness, where every adult male speaker of Queen’s English is intimately familiar with the phrase: “Ribbed for her pleasure.” Don’t let anyone tell you that sometimes a vending machine is just a vending machine.
Anyway, as everyone knows the real Japan is only evident in pictures of geisha, sumo wrestlers and toothless grinning old men, or if 18 and a beddable girl, in cosplay gear, or French maid outfit pouting for the camera, making peace signs with her other nubile friends. Bonus points if they are in high school uniforms.
Other acceptable cover art includes blurry shots of commuters, female fashion victims walking on zebra crossings in the rain, or robots and their surrogate: people in multicoloured motorbike helmets. But on no account use the pics of the geek with his computer-generated/blow-up doll/pillow/karaoke girlfriend machine. That’s for Chapter Two.
3. Get the premise right
Now, if you’ve done your job correctly with picture and title chosen as above, then you should have no problem proving the premise of your work of painstaking fact-based journalistic narrative that Japan and the Japanese are inscrutably unique, uniquely inscrutable. This must be your premise for any works of fiction too.
And the Japanese do odd things and are uniquely inscrutable, in much more inscrutably unique way than the folks we became nodding acquaintances way back in Rule 1 — you remember, the Afghans, Akrotirians, Albanians, Algerians, American Samoans, Andorrans, Angolans, Anguillarians, Antarcticans, Antigua and Barbudaians, Argentineans, Armenians, Arubans, Ashmore and Cartier Islanders, Australians, Austrians and Azerbaijanis — do.
Until you get to know them at least. And here’s the paradox. If the Japanese are so darned inscrutably different from regular folk, how in the hell can you, whose only expertise is you got through two-thirds of Shogun in college, get at the Real Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun Japan, The Cat and the Concrete Japan?
Just about anyone can learn to read and write passably two of the three alphabets that the Japanese use in a week or two, if there’s nothing good on TV. The third set of symbols, the Chinese character kanji, are a lot more complex and require more effort over a longer time, but you needn’t concern yourself with all that now.
Let me show you how even a very limited knowledge (like mine) can work for you: Demonstrate your suitability as guide to all things Japanese by the liberal use of basic Japanese vocab in italics. Works especially well for English origin words as this pays dividends twice — it gives a Japanese flavour to your writing, and allows English-language readers to laugh their communal asses off over those funny Japanese. So, never write “businessman”, when you could write sarariman; don’t sneer at crap Japanese TV, sneer at crap Japanese terebi. Throw in a few proper Japanese words — genkan (entrance hall) and bento (packed lunch) and you have established yourself as an expert, and Japanese as peculiar folk worthy of scorn or pity, but little else. It’s not racist, it’s called good writing.
Show the readers you really understand the mysterious Japanese in a way that no other foreigner ever has, by mentioning zen a couple of times and then delving deep into your psyche (or dog-eared copy of The Sword and the Chrysanthemum) and repeat “In Japan, they have a saying, the hammer hits the nail that sticks out.” They have lots of sayings in Japan, but this is the only one you need concern yourself with because it tells the reader exactly how the Japanese are inscrutably unique and uniquely inscrutable: because they have to do what the group says. In other countries this is called peer group pressure or me-too-ism, but in Japan it is the only story.
This explains why Japanese go in for mass displays of calisthenics in elementary school sports days and all sing AKB48 songs at karaoke. We in the West would never commit mass displays of absurd allegiance to, say, Liverpool Football Club, or Justin Bieber, so don’t even pretend to understand the Japanese on this point. It’s not humanly possible for the Western brain to imagine. So don’t even try.
It almost goes without saying that the food they eat must be so off the scale of edible that this too cannot be comprehended unless you are an expert and/or have taught English in Japan for a couple of months back in the late ’80s.
In no way are the specialties of fermented soy beans, puffer fish or raw whale’s tongue as revolting as blue cheese, black pudding or fried bull semen. It’s just other worldly, man. Although, if you do manage to eat the stuff and fake a liking for it, that can only add to your qualifications as a Japan Writer with The Knowledge.
4. Find the weird trend
You don’t have to look very hard for this because weird Japan trend stories are manufactured just for you. Here’s one example, picked — not after years of exhaustive social anthropological research scouring the collections of handle-less tea cups for deeper meaning at poorly lit Japanese museums — but because it is in the copy of the Japan Times I’m using as a coaster for my wine glass as I write this.
This trend, in case you can’t make it out beneath the wine rings, is for sorami or “air girls”. You may well be thinking: What are you on about? Or, Hah, those crazy Japanese. Or possibly: You subscribe to a newspaper? Stop thinking, just read.
The sorami, are of course “members of the growing band of female plane spotters,” as the Kyodo news copy helpfully tells us. Never seen one? Well, they are like the tetsuko, female trainspotters of “years ago,” according to the article.
Stop looking at me blankly. See, it can’t be a bogus trend because there was a previous similarly preposterous trend cut and pasted from the Kyodo database “years ago”. Folk who get paid for writing call this “proof”. Granted, I’ve never seen one of the female train or plane spotters in person either, but I’ve only been living in Japan off and on for a decade. A dozen of the ladies were pictured in front of a Japan Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner in the paper, so they must exist.
Japan Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner? Gee, wasn’t that the new plane that started non-stop flights between Tokyo and Boston on April 23, 2012? Funny that the story doesn’t mention that easily Google-able fact. It couldn’t be that sorami is an invented trend to flog JAL tickets, could it? Couldn’t be. It’s a trend because it appeared in the newspaper on June 28, 2012, a full three months after the flights started. The fact that the accompanying photograph was taken in May, according to the paper, should in no way cloud the reader’s judgement that this is a trend and not a late-appearing PR stunt.
Only a twisted conspiracy fruitcake in a tinfoil hat would suggest that “officials of Narita International Airport” or Narita Mayor Kazunari Koizumi, as quoted in the story, could have any interest in promoting the trend for ulterior motives. It’s purely coincidental when trends and commerce collide.
Except when it isn’t.
Consider the Louis Vuitton Myth. This is that “94.3% of all Japanese women in their 20s own a product by Louis Vuitton.” Must be true because the Financial Times quoted this figure in their Business of Luxury Summit Tokyo 2008. Well, except it isn’t.
The figure actually comes from 2003 “research” by a PR firm that also found 109.9% of women in their 40s own Christian Dior. The company is now 112.3% defunct. But the full and entertaining story of how the myth was created has been uncovered and explained by essayist W. David Marx here.
My advice is avoid any facts or figures if at all possible and just interpret trends based on other bloggers’ prejudices, retweets or things you swear you can remember seeing on the zebra crossing from that wild night out you had in Shibuya.
Bonus points if you do stumble upon a trend without a PR company or news release to show you the way.
Who knew that Herbivore Man was invented by a real person? (This person did actually). Step forward freelance writer Maki Fukasawa who used the term on October 13, 2006, for a series of articles for the Nikkei Business Online website to describe a chap who, although heterosexual, is not that fussed about sex, preferring stable relationships over one-night stands.
Hey presto, one snappy observation and a deft turn of phrase later and the trend for wimpy men who have renounced sex in favour of styling mousse is born. Watch spellbound as before your very eyes one slight observation with a modicum of insight becomes a social trend with a life of its own that defines advertising budgets for a generation. If anyone notices the trend is nonsense, they can invent a new trend (The Antimoussers?) to replace the defunct one and we can go through it all over again. Ain’t writin’ fun?
5. Use stock characters
The best way to demonstrate the truth of your unbiased research and original premise is by populating your masterwork The Cat and The Concrete with stock characters. Add to your creation those herbivorous wimpy men dominated by their staid girlfriends; the geek from Chapter Two whose dodecahedron peg won’t fit into the square hole; and don’t forget the nubile girls from the cover who are just crying out for a foreign lover to treat them right.
Remember, the sarariman sacrifices his life for the company because he’s scared of the boss/wife/mother and never ever goes out drinking and having a good time at the soapland sex clubs that refuse entry to foreign writers no matter how much they are gagging for it.
Can’t be racist or simplistic because the Japanese are propagating their own stereotypes. I can’t see any similarities in the samurai who has subjugated his individuality for the good of the group, or the kamikaze who has subjugated his individuality for the good of the group, or the Herbivore Man who has subjugated his individuality for the good of the group hug, because there is none. Stop looking for similarities in original thinking, fellow scribes, because it’s a fruitless search.
6. Avoid taboo subjects
It’s impossible for Japanese to be rude. Sure, folk didn’t sit next to you on the train because you are a honky who smells of cheese, but the Japanese characters in your work of fiction/entirely honest journalistic slice-of-life must be uncommonly kind and heroically take you across Narita Airport arrivals concourse to find you a Daily Mail. On no account are taxi drivers, bus drivers, bosses or koban policemen ever rude.
Never present Japan as largely similar to most other countries. Never portray Japanese as motivated by largely the same desires as everyone else in the world. Never take the piss out of Japanese robots if you want to be taken seriously. In fact, invest them with more personalty than the Japanese people (shouldn’t be hard if you’ve been doing your job well of filling your piece with cardboard cutouts). The fact that the Land of Robots spectacularly failed to produce a single one that could go in to the Fukushima plant and press the “off” button, does take the sheen off your Blade Runner induced vision of Japan. No matter, just keep looking for more robots, and I’ll have thought of a way to handle the earthquake by the next point.
In no sense are the robot dogs, automated vacuum cleaners and old-folks lifting machines just examples of yet another consumer society with nothing meaningful left to spend its disposable income on. No, robots are the future. They have been for generations.
7. Re-use stock characters
But what about the earthquake? This is a tricky one. The earthquake of March 11th, 2011, led to a tsunami that killed 20,000 people, displaced hundreds of thousands, not to mention causing a nuclear meltdown or two. How can you make the disaster fit your prevailing narrative?
First, you need to put Herbivore Man out to pasture. He’s not sympathetic or plucky enough to fit with the reaffirmed theme of sympathetic, plucky Japanese stoically subjugating their individuality for the benefit of the group. But the other cardboard cutouts won’t stand up to the new demands of 3/11. Where can we find the cardboard that will?
To answer that, we must know what characters we need to fit into the disaster narrative. Off the top of my head, I would suggest: innocent victims, bungling government officials, outlaw corporate types, heroic troops serving the greater good. And a stoical hero who can fight for the little guy, with nothing in it for himself except honour.
It’s a Western, of course. Only… Eastern. All you have to do is find suitable replacement characters for your Eastern based on the Western. You follow? The Japanese victims are the Western’s townsfolk, generally innocent. They would never loot, might lose hope, but would never rape or pillage. Some lilly-livered foreigners (the “flyjin”) and rich townsfolk (the politician’s wives and mistresses) might flee from the savages, er, threat of radiation, but the truly bad guys of the piece, the corrupt railroad owners, er, the nuclear plant operators, are running roughshod over the townsfolk. Who will stand up to these usurpers? Who will be the Gary Cooper lone marshal to face off against the Miller gang?
Take your pick. But whisper this: it could be The Crusading Writer whose truth will set the town free. Yes, it could be you, dear reader-writer, so get sharpening your pencil and stretching those metaphors in preparation. If you really can’t find a hero in the piece, the American Forces of Occupation can be drafted in as the cavalry if you find your narrative threads are fraying at the seams.
8. And keep repeating
Once you’ve found your story, don’t waste it, recycle it. Endlessly. I’m not just talking about those stop-motion vids of cherry blossoms falling, trains running and lights coming on and off in high-rises that come out on clockwork a month after the arrival of the latest batch of English Assistant Language Teachers. No, we want to know about traditional bath houses learning to cope in the modern world to avoid the (strangely) never falling axe hanging over their head. We want to hear about the Japan that has more dogs and cats (21 million) than kids (11 million) from the BBC like this one, remarkably similar to this one from 10 years earlier: Ah. Japanese not having sex, just staying at home and feeding the robot dog Luis Vuitton scraps. Sounds almost like this decade-old story in the Washington Post. Psst! Don’t, whatever you do, mention that there are more cats and dogs than kids in England too, because that kind of context would just kill your story stone dead, faster than an arrow to King Harold’s eye.
9. Japan is a crime-free wonderland
Remember, Japan is the crime-free-est country on earth. There is no crime to speak of (well, apart from the yakuza gangsters who at various times run the real estate, political parties, stock market, and entertainment industries). Japan is full of honest, hardworking folk who would never dream of, say, blowing all their money on pachinko and gut-rotting chu-hai from the convenience store. On no account would anyone consider not reporting their gran’s death for a dozen years so they could pocket the pension. Or impersonate a grandson to clean out an elderly person’s life savings. Or traffic in sex slaves. Or frequent brothels. Or break in to folks’ homes. Or steal cars. If they ever did, they must be Chinese. Or Iranians. Or Koreans.
But how can you explain the bullying in schools, the stabbings, the 30,000 suicides a year? You could apply the nail-that-sticks-out truism. This might not do the trick though. Couldn’t be that Japanese are just as messed up as the rest of the world. Must be another reason. Think harder. Maybe you could finagle a free trip to Kyoto? You know, for research? In fact, the cracks in your narrative could play into your hands, because…
10. Times are a changing
The Japan you have painstakingly constructed is in danger of disappearing, unless you get a research grant/advance/freebie trip to that Kyoto writers’ conference that will make those couple of sleepless nights at the Akasaka Prince Hotel fingering your iPad all worthwhile.
So, write it right and the sequel’s as good as sold.
I shouldn’t have written this essay. It may well clock in at just over 4,000 words, including the bits that nobody reads like acknowledgments, plugs for my newsletter and this apology, but it was little more than a glorified list of 10 rules on writing about Japan. And as a rule, I don’t agree with lists of rules. Not when it comes to writing, and certainly not when it comes to writing about Japan, a subject I am woefully unqualified to pontificate about. On the plus side, I’ve been living in Japan for the better part of a decade, I’m writing a second novel set here, and thanks to blogging, I’ve finally got into the habit of writing in first person after 13 years of writing with no personality for newspapers.
The minus side of the ledger is far more extensive: I’m not Japanese, I’m British. I didn’t study Japan in college, and haven’t progressed in the language much beyond a few barroom phrases and the ability to read the sign for the gents. I try to avoid lectures on what the country should or shouldn’t do about nuclear power, whaling, the role of women, its declining birthrate, the imminent demise of Japan Inc. and so on, figuring there are plenty of folk ahead of me who have all the answers.
Still, prop up the bar long enough and you’ll have real trouble keeping everything in focus.
Charlie Chaplin said: “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” I say: Charlie’s got it the wrong way round with Japan. In close-up, the country is a comical jumble of geeks in love with their cats, electronic gadgets or inflatable anime pillow girlfriends. But in long-shot, the place is doomed to extinction. I read recently that by the year 3000, there will be only 18 Japanese people left. Barely enough to form a J-pop girl band. Such a statistical projection is of course silly to make, since it’s unprovable, entirely meaningless (what chance would 11th Century Domesday Book statisticians have of successfully predicting the market share of Louis Vuitton handbags in 21st Century Tokyo? Actually, they’d have as good a chance as the market brand pros, as I discovered), and so typical of much of what gets passed off as good writing about Japan.
So, this essay had a modest aim: to close one eye and fix Japan in a reasonable line of sight, for my benefit, if for no-one else’s. A far more astute writer, Haruki Murakami, once noted it’s hard to know what to think about a subject until you’ve written it down (usually about 500 pages in to one of Mr Murakami’s books, ahem).
Some acknowledgments. This essay began life in 2010 as a post on Our Man in Abiko’s blog inspired by a Granta article How to Write about Africa. Our Man’s post still gets more hits than most anything else on his blog, but it was in need of updating and expanding to take into account the many good points from commenters, not to mention the small matter of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in 2011 that was supposed to have changed everything. The updated essay came out as an ebook in 2012. I sketched the illustrations this week exclusively for this October 2015 Medium essay.
I’m indebted to Brett Bull of Tokyo Reporter infamy for his observation that the recurrence of stories of impeding doom of Japan every decade or so suggests that our understanding of the prevailing Japan narrative chain is missing a link or two. I would also like to thank Tokyo journalist Richard Smart and Neojaponisme’s W. David Marx for explaining the dynamics of the Japan trend story to me. And thank you for reading.
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