Wednesday, May 6, 2009

"36 Views of Mount Fuji": Japanese Culture 101

As I blogged earlier, I'm planning a vacation to Japan, and I just finished reading Cathy Davidson's book 36 Views of Mount Fuji: On Finding Myself in Japan in preparation. Davidson is an American university professor who first visited Japan in 1980 as part of a faculty-exchange program. The book is her story of her complex relationship with Japanese culture: she loves and respects and is often awed by it, but also tries to maintain the questioning perspective of an academic--digging below the surface and becoming aware of hidden flaws. (This is the same attitude that I sought to cultivate when I went to France. As I wrote on my application for the study-abroad program: "I realize that my love for France is still somewhat uninformed and shallow—it is an infatuation, I suppose. But I want my love to deepen and mature; that is, I want to be able to understand France’s complications and contradictions, so that I can love it in an informed way too.")

There were several things I liked about this book. First, Davidson was based in the region of southern Japan known as Kansai--centered around the cities of Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe--which is where I will be visiting. Also, the things that intrigue Davidson, when she visits a foreign country, align fairly well with my own concerns. Davidson is curious about women's place in society (she co-edited The Oxford Book of Women's Writing in the United States) and only thinly veils her scorn for the kind of male travel writers who spend several narcissistic pages describing their wild nights in the "Floating World" entertainment districts, but never consider what life is like for the women who work there.

Davidson does get to see some of the Floating World for herself--in a memorable scene, a male Japanese professor takes her to a bar where the revelers drink sake and make bawdy puns. Overall, I most liked the sections of the book where Davidson vividly describes the people she met, the events she participated in, and the conversations she had. This was more interesting to me than the abstract passages where she muses on ideas like "foreignness" or talks about how her experiences in Japan impacted her ability to deal with personal turmoil in her own life. I suppose this is mostly due to my reasons for picking up 36 Views of Mount Fuji in the first place: I read it because I wanted to gain an idea of what I will encounter in Japan--sights to see, cultural tips, information on how the Japanese treat foreigners and what they will expect of me. So the more conventionally memoir-ish parts of the book, the ones that are meant to be personal and emotionally moving, were not really what I was seeking.

36 Views of Mount Fuji made clear to me just how Japan differs from America: it may look like a modern Westernized country, but the attitudes that underpin its society are very different. It raises all sorts of questions in my mind. Like most Americans, I have a pretty individualistic attitude, and I've always had a nonconformist/ contrarian streak in me. So, had I been born Japanese, would I have strained against this culture that values homogeneity and lack of ego? Or would I have accepted it, knowing no other alternative? Nature or nurture, in other words? And, more applicable to my immediate situation--as a foreigner who doesn't speak any Japanese and will be in the country for only 10 days, how likely would I be to notice these fundamental differences between the cultures? I don't know that I would, immediately, because these differences are hidden beneath the surface of Japanese reticence and politesse. But having read Davidson, I'll know what to look out for.

Still, I would not put Davidson into the ranks of the great travel writers--her writing is serviceable, but hardly transcendent. There are a few too many sentences like "I am impressed by the beauty of the art, by the richness and distinctiveness of Okinawan culture"--sentences that sound lofty, but don't actually tell you anything, since similar sentences can be found in just about every travel memoir ever written! And, though Davidson has some funny stories to tell, she lacks the ability to write them up in a way that milks their humor.

I also wonder if the book remains accurate: after all, it was published in 1993, and the longest amount of time that Davidson spent in Japan was in 1980. While she emphasizes that the venerable Japanese culture resists change and seeks stability, I am curious if anything important is different, fifteen or thirty years later. I mean, this book was written before Japan's 1990s recession--before the Internet, for heaven's sake! And it seems to me that nowadays, people perceive Japan as split between two opposing tendencies, let's call them the Cherry Blossom and the Bullet Train. The former is traditional Japanese culture--communal and serene, sturdy but delicate. The latter is everything high-tech and fast-paced and shiny--the Japan of video games and anime. Davidson is naturally drawn to the Cherry Blossom side of Japan, and her mentions of the Bullet Train elements focus mostly on the downsides--the ugly buildings, workaholic culture, pressure to do well in school. But she doesn't give any sense that Japan has a youth culture, or acknowledge that modernization can be dazzling as well as detrimental.

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