I was delighted with the engaging, very readable, incisive but affectionate Learning to Bow, a comic but affectionate memoir of a very tall (6’4″) American teacher’s sojourn in rural Japan. Especially hilarious is Bruce Feiler‘s account of the preparations for a junior high school fieldtrip to the Japanese Disneyland that included setting up chairs to simulate bus seating and practicing getting on and off the bus efficiently. (Japanese tour groups seem to me to spend a lot of time hovering around outside their busses and it never occurred to me that they practiced boarding and exiting.)
Assembling for group photos at every stop is another activity I have noticed preoccupying Japanese tour groups in Hawai’i and California.. Japanese ritualism and indirect speech make more sense here than in, say, in James Kirkup’s condscending memoirs. Feiler does not overlook Japanese ethnocentrism (not just we’re best but we are so totally unique from any other people). Cho, a friend, laconically tells Feiler: “Everybody says our students have to learn to live in a world that is larger than Japan. But, first, our teachers have to learn that such a world exists.” While Feiler obviously knows that much, he does not come across free of ethnocentrisms of his own (and verges on outright racism in regard to genital endowments).
The rural Japanese are continually astounded that an alien can speak Japanese, use chopsticks, and in some ways seems more traditionally Japanese than they are — though such statements are probably more formulaic than Feiler notices (I have received similar compliments in Taiwan). Nevertheless, he mostly deserves the tributes he receives for trying to understand and respect Japanese lifeways — and for writing so well about his experiences and feelings there.
(I was surprised that someone who lived and worked in Japan thought Barthes’s Empire of Signs “provides interesting insights into Japanese behavior” (312; along with Varley and Passin, but not Singer or Benedict).
This is my favorite book of Americans recounting extended visits to Japan, edging out Lydia Minatoya’s Talking to High Monks in the Snow (only partly about Japan, and, and no, I didn’t miss any words in her title), and John Treat Whittier’s Great Mirror Shattered (though Mark Salzman’s Iron and Silk about teaching in China just after it opened to some aliens remains my favorite memoir of Americans in the “Far East”). Although often very humorous, Feiler presents his exploration of the serious topic of how Japanese schools build a sense of group solidarity and subordination to the group. He also provides interesting material on learning gender roles.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray