Karin Muller - Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa

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Welcome to Japanland: fitting in, dropping out, and being shunted aside

Jan 7, 2006
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Some of the more obscure aspects of Japanese attitude are explained.

Cons:Muller is never once allowed to forget that she is an outsider.

The Bottom Line: One of the best books on Japan that I have ever read. You might not agree with all that you see in here, but it's a remarkable journey.


Karin Muller is at a crisis in her life. She's a well-respected commentator and documentary filmmaker, and has reached the top rungs of her profession; she has a fine home in Washington DC, a casual relationship without any strings, but there is something missing from her life, something that she can not quite put her finger on.

But a chance comment leads her to a host family and further judo study in Japan, and she decides to take along her film equipment and make a movie of her adventure. So begins a bewildering year in a culture that she finds that she is in way over her head. For the reader, along with Muller, it's a bewildering plunge into a land that has collided head on with the Western world, but has managed to hang onto the social codes of the past. At times the story is heartbreaking to read, and other times, very funny.

Along the way we get to see martial arts in the forms of swordmaking, judo, archery on horseback and sumo wrestling. But there are peaceful arts as well, including pottery, rice farming, taiko drumming and as it seems with most books on Japan these days, the geisha. There is also religion in the form of local festivals and Buddhist and Shinto pilgrimages, and most intriguing of all, the very unique concepts of wa, kishi, and on.

How Muller grasps these concepts, can be best summed up in the phrase The nail that sticks up gets hammered down. Here the nails are people, and the hammering is ruthless. Pressure in all forms is applied to everyone to fit in, and if you don't, a form of ostracism is applied. From her foster parents, Genji and Yukiko, Muller recieves both acceptance and some of the most appalling behavior. It's enough to make anyone crazy, and I found Yukiko, with her steely resolve to expose Muller's bad habits and constant, nagging correction to be someone that wouldn't be that pleasant to know.

More than anything this book shows what the world is like for Japanese women. Without public or political power, the Japanese woman has to conform -- or else. Daughters learn to defer to men, to remain childlike and innocent until they are married, and if they don't get married by the time they are thirty, they slide into an invisible status. Sons are still prized far more than girls in society, and are indulged and pampered, that is, unless they can't fit into the salaryman world -- then they too vanish. We see failed corporate drones, the homeless, and surprisingly, those foreigners who have managed to fit in.

Roberto, a Brazilian swordsmith, has adapted completely into Japanese society, marrying into a traditional family that needed a 'son,' and shedding his Western life like a moulting skin, and Adam Cooley, a street performer who has grasped the concept that nearly all Japanese wear invisible masks. But not all foreigners are that lucky -- many of them are English teachers, trying to fit in, and when they discover that they can't, many give up, and leave for friendlier climes. But not all Japanese are like Yukiko either -- some prove to be helpful, and in several amazing encounters, surprise the reader and Muller.

Kishi, the sense of obligation that is the invisible glue that holds Japanese society together, is constant. How to live with those heirarchial and social obligations takes wa, a sense of balance and focus. And then on, the bridge that links these two, the closest that I could grasp at translating it is the English word 'honor', but that doesn't work right either.

Some of what is in this book can be seen a bit in the films Shogun and The Last Samurai, and perhaps in the novel Memoirs of a Geisha, but this is the only one that I've seen that actually tries to move beyond Western misconceptions. The writing is tight, and Muller avoids the trap of putting herself completely into the story -- it might be about her journeys through Japan, but she is also there as an observer, with all of the confusion that can sometimes accompany that role.

This is a book that I recommend for anyone who has been fascinated with Japanese culture and wants to get beyond how that country has been represented in Western film and books. I borrowed this copy from the library, but I intend to get a copy of this for myself as soon as I can, and that's what makes a good book worth keeping for me.

Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa.
Karin Muller
2005; Rodale Inc.
ISBN 1-59486-223-0


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