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September 5, 2007

Clashing Cultures - A Review of Karin Muller's "Japanland"

Japanland contains the year-long Japan-experiences of Karin Muller, an American writer and documentary filmmaker who before starting on this adventure already had walked the Inca Road and hitchhiked through Vietnam. Thanks to the humor and vivid style, reading Japanland is a breeze - it is a most enjoyable book.

As a travel memoir this is of course non-fiction, but Muller sets up her story with a dramatic premise: from her long Judo practice she knows Japanese values as focus, inner strength and harmony, Wa, and she is especially hungry for that last quality as her own life (she tells) is sorely lacking in it. Although she realizes you can't just crack open Japan like a fortune coockie, she decides to give it a try - at the same time planning to perfect her Judo in its land of origin. Besides that, although it is not stressed, it is clear she is also going to take her camera along and make a long documentary film about Japan - it was shown after her stay as a four-hour public television series. Fortunately, via her Judo contacts she is introduced to sixth degree black belt Genji Tanaka, who offers her a room in his house in Fujisawa (near Tokyo).

Her host family consists not only of the genial Mr Tanaka, who in daily life is a corporate director, but also the impeccably proper Mrs. Tanaka (called Yukiko by Muller, although it is strange to call Japanese, especially those higher in status, by their first name), as well as unmarried daughter Junko who works in Tokyo and only comes home to sleep.

That this independent and adventurous woman is the last person to fit into a traditional Japanese household, becomes clear in the first part of the book, where we read about Muller's intercultural tribulations as she tries to adept to life with her Japanese host-family.

Living with a family is different from being a casual tourist, it really puts you with your nose on the values and unspoken assumptions that reign in other cultures. It is, in fact, the best way to really get to know a foreign culture. Muller struggles with the intricacies of Japanese etiquette, and with a liberal dose of wit and self-depreciation relates her triumphs and setbacks - more of the last, because her relation with Mrs Tanaka is inexorably on a downward slope. Indeed, no two people could be farther apart than the tomboyish and somewhat messy Muller, who is used to be very independent, and the rather exacting and conservative Mrs Tanaka. Unfortunately, in the end they fail to meet each other halfway on the cultural bridge.

To succesfully adopt to life in another culture, you do not need to become the other, but you need sensitivity, flexibility and understanding - and the ability not to offend.

The second half of the book consists of a whirlwind of anecdotes gathered during Muller's filmmaking. She now is living in a shared apartment in Osaka, but with another foreigner, not among Japanese anymore. Although she paints a colorful picture of Osaka's gaijin community, she is one step further removed from the 'real' Japan. Her filmmaking, too, is of the touristic, exotic sort: nothing but festivals, geisha and pilgrimages.

Released from the confines of her host family, she does tourist Japan with a vengeance. In the few months she still has, she not only manages to run the whole course of the Shikoku pilgrimage of 1400 kilmetres and 88 temples, but also joins the mountain monks for a ten day festival in the northern Dewa mountains, goes crab fishing, travels to a small northern town to see farmers play winter Kabuki, films the Gion and Jidai matsuri's in Kyoto, etc etc. Other people write whole books about the Shikoku pilgrimage alone - Muller is, one feels, too busy filming and traveling to find any spiritual relief on this important temple tour.

And the Japan she goes after when making her film is not the true Japan of today. It is, indeed, as the title of the book (ironically, but inadvertedly so) says, "Japanland," merely a Japanese Disneyworld for tourists. The real Japan is not a country of mountain monks or wild festivals, just as Spain is not a country of flamenco dances and bullfights. The real Japan is the country of the Tanakas, living in a suburban home near Tokyo, encapsulated in their network of human relations.

What about Wa, does Muller find it? At the end of the book she seems to suggest so, but it does not convince. Wa is not a private feeling in Japan (elsewhere in the book Muller demonstrates that she perfectly well knows this), Wa is the ability to be part of a group, to live harmoniously with others, and that is exactly where she failes. True Wa would have been living in harmony with the Tanakas...