Peter Carey’s Wrong About Japan: A Father’s Journey With His Son (2005) is a book that some find heartwarming, but that very much irritates others. Forever clutching for the golden mean, I am between the polarized ranks of the detractors and of the admirers.
Although officially listed as being 176 pages, the text of the book does not seem longer than a long New Yorker piece. Skipping the plot summaries of two anime movies (“Blood: The Last Vampire” and the opening of “My Neighbor Totoro”), I read the book in less than an hour. Someone ordering the book from an online vendor might feel cheated, but anyone picking up and glancing at the book in a store can easily see that the book is small, and leafing through it shows that a number of the pages are blank and others have illustrations (only one photograph).
The second major point of the indictments is that the book is a superficial analysis of contemporary Japan. I would think that the title should have provided warning about this. Carey makes no claim to understand Japan, or, for that matter, the manga and animated movies that his twelve-year-old son, Charley loved. Charley frequently reiterates his lack of interest in “the real Japan,” and refuses to go to museums, temples, or anything with any Zen fumes. Dragged very unwillingly to a kabuki performance, Charley says that it was the worst four hours of his life. (What a privileged life he must lead in Manhattan’s West Village!)
Although disclaiming expertise, it does seem to me that Carey is too eager to agree with the Japanese that no one not Japanese can understand them. It seems to me that he could have tried a bit harder before throwing up his hands and bowing before the judgment “You have it all wrong.” He does not do much (any?) follow-up trying to specify what he has gotten wrong (except in some wry juxtaposition of what the master sword-maker was recorded as saying elsewhere). Even what he has wrong is not always clear, or, seemingly, of all that much interest to Carey.
Carey’s status as the author of some award-winning books provides entrée to the creator of the anime series Mobile Suit Gundam, Tomino Yoshiyuki, and to the “most famous anime director in the world,” Hayao Miyazaki. Although Charley is a fan of their work, neither father nor son has prepared to interview these demigods of the anime industry. Though Carey certainly has a novelist’s eye for detail, these interviews are of a depth more akin to features in People than to New Yorker profiles. (And the ones in People would have photos…) Those with deeper interest in anime than Peter Carey’s vicarious one who would love to be able to question Tomino and Hayao have good reason to resent the lack of preparation and resulting lack of information from the encounters of the anime masters with the Careys.
Although I agree that the book is thin and superficial and lacking in authoritativeness about anything, I found it enjoyable in the genre of Ignorant Occidentals Stumbling Through Alien Culture, including the usual amazement at high-tech Japanese toilets. Although Charley seems very, very spoiled, his father’s affectionate wonder at what his anti-literate son knows (mostly learned on the Internet, it seems) is amusing, as is the father’s reaction to the Japanese friend Charley made on-line before going to Japan, Takashi, who looks like he could have stepped out of a manga page.
What makes the book worthwhile even for someone with no interest in anime production is a chapter in which Mr. Takazi, a friend of Nosaka Akiyuki the author of the novella The Grave of the Fireflies (which was made into an anime masterpiece by Isao Takahata in 1988), recalls his own experience of US firebombing of Tokyo and USAF strafing of civilians. Like “The Grave of the Fireflies,” this is very powerful account of experiences of infernos.
Most of the book is more light-hearted about father and son in the confusing and dazzling world of contemporary Tokyo and entertaining for those not expecting a systematic analysis that challenges preconceptions to reveal how Japanese society and culture really operate.
In his bookstore appearance and in at least one print interview, Carey revealed that the most interesting character in the book, Charley’s friend made online, Takashi, the one who has the best line in the book (“You saw pictures of temples? Yes, rocks, gravel, nice Japanese room, so simple. Houses with rough timber? Real Japanese people not like that.”), was an invention. Carey’s rationale for inventing him is very Japanese: not wanting to offend any of the many people who were kind and courteous to the visitors. Carey felt the narrative needed conflict and did what novelists do: created a character to be offended by some of what his guests did. I certainly know that Carey is an accomplished novelist, and a postmodernist one (the author of, among other things, a book with the title My Life as a Fake) who does not believe that truth is obtainable (especially about a very alien culture), and I know all the lines about fiction being truer than factual reportage, and all “representations” being selective, but I am old-fashioned enough to believe that the necessity of selectivity does not justify inventing things in nonfiction. Carey’s 2001 book 30 Days in Sydney had a warning subtitle “A Wildly Distorted Account.” I felt cheated when I learned that Takashi was made up (not even a composite of people the Careys met in Japan). For me, it cast doubt on whether the other very moving part, the conversation with Mr. Takazi occurred, or was spun from The Grave of the Fireflies.
Having learned that Takashi was a fictitious character, I also wondered what happened to the heavy Gundam encyclopedia, which was given to Takashi when the Careys were leaving. Carey told me that he had mailed the book from Japan to his Manhattan address, but that it never arrived. It did, then, stay in Japan, even if not with Takashi.
Also, I learned that Charley was born in New York City in 1990, chose the name “Takashi” for the fictitious character, and vetted the manuscript, complaining only that it was too hard on Takashi.)
A New York Times Book Review paragraph (by Marcel Theroux) that cracked me up: “By the end of the book, you feel you’ve witnessed a series of rather moving encounters between the author and one of the more baffling cultures of our time: one that combines technological sophistication and inscrutable inwardness; a culture largely impenetrable to outsiders, yet which remains unignorable — not least because of its economic power. So much for Peter Carey’s engagement with the world of the teenager. What’s less clear is what you’ve learned about Japan.”
©2016, Stephen O. Murray