The Passenger: Japan

Reviewed by Terence Jagger

Early last year, Europa launched a new imprint “for explorers of the world”: The Passenger.  Now, the list includes Berlin, India, Turkey, Brazil and Greece.  But one of the first ones published was The Passenger: Japan.  The appearance is slightly retro, a paperback with a stiff textured cover and rather dull matt photographs, but the idea and the contents are both excellent.

These are not guidebooks, they contain no information on where to stay or what to see, and nor are they travelogues. Rather, they are background reading to give you a flavour and an understanding, not of course comprehensive but very deep in places, and wonderfully broad in others. You do not need to carry this book when you are sightseeing, but you might well want to read it before you go, and to dip into it again over dinner or in bed during your visit. Or you might not be visiting at all, but just want an eclectic miscellany of images, ideas, and insights about another country.

I know Japan reasonably well – I have never lived there, but have visited for work or pleasure at least a dozen times, but I found much to interest and intrigue in the 11 extended pieces of writing – and then, for dessert, there are several very short pieces to pique your curiosity and take you further. There’s a lot of different nourishment in this volume!

Inside the front cover, you learn some basic facts, including that Japan has 5,800 islands (of which 430 are uninhabited), 56,000 convenience stores, uses 24 billion sets of chopsticks a year, and has to put up with an average delay on Shinkansen trains of 24 seconds (including natural disasters!). Armed with these and more relevant facts, you enter the meat of the book. There are essays or book extracts on the recent tsunami, women’s place in society, Shinto, the lack of Japanese populism (really?  This takes a bit of believing, I’m afraid), a much-loved Tokyo suburb, depression, the Ainu people of the north, sumo, blues music, the family in cinema and the homeless (the “evaporated”).  Its a heady mix, largely written by non-Japanese writers, although they are all extremely well placed to offer views.

The very first item is an extract from Ghosts of the Tsunami, a brilliant book by Richard Lloyd Parry, which I reviewed for Shiny New Books here. The extract explores the profound spiritual response, which was somewhat in contrast to the Japanese view of themselves as extremely secular.  The Reverend Kaneda is one of many priests – Buddhist, Shinto, Christian – who finds himself treating the victims of ghosts, of possessive spirits, taking hold of the living and making their lives depressed and meaningless.  You may not believe in the spirits, but you cannot disbelieve the symptoms, the therapy or the cure.

There is a lovely essay by Yoshimoto Banana on the area of Tokyo where she has spent much of her life, Shimokitazawa, which touches on the value of local friends and helpers, and rails against the way the real estate industry, from contractors through to estate agents, is a rip-off of the individual buyer or tenant.  And there is a moving piece by Murakami Ryu on The Withering of Desire, an examination of the increase in depression in Japan, the sense of hopelessness and lack of ambition, and the lack of sex amongst large numbers of the population – 35% of men in their 30s have allegedly never had a girlfriend, and over 40% of unmarried adults aged 18-35 have never had sex.  It is hard to avoid a prurient smile, but these are serious issues – in spite of its success, Japan is in parts a very unhappy society, with many lonely people and a declining population – It’s not desire they give off, it’s resignation.

Cesare Alemanni writes about the Ainu, in Of Bears and Men.  The Ainu are the ancient people of Hokkaido, and have been repressed and vilified in Japan – indeed, Hokkaido is a relatively recent addition to the very idea of Japan.  The Ainu are a hunting and fishing people with a rich culture and history, but their heritage and identity has been largely lost.  They have much in common with other northern peoples in what is now northern China, Alaska and Siberia, especially Sakhalin – and you can visit intriguing Museums of the Northern Peoples in Hakodate and Abashiri in Hokkaido, as the rediscovery and re-evaluation gathers pace. The bear is hugely important to the Ainu, as part of the spirit world, a rival for salmon, and a real threat – and the centre of various rituals, including villages bringing up a bear cub for later sacrifice when it becomes adult.  This is an utterly different world to the rest of Japan:

…the history of Ainu culture and its relationship with the establishment – which went from isolation to racism to today’s extreme protection – is an eloquent example of how, under the cover of apparent harmony, Japan still has internal differences.  Even the Japanese have trouble detecting these from a distance or if they only spend time in cities.  They are differences that the Japanese have for some time tried to erase.

And at the end, the pink pages (really, on pink paper, like a recycled FT) you will find very short pieces – a page or two only – on an album to listen to, a film to watch, and a book to read (respectively Universal Invader by Newest Model, Typhoon Club, and A Thousand Years of Pleasure by Nakagami Kenji) – and pieces on national obsessions and iconic items – the Japanese toilet, blood groups, and J-pop!  The book helpfully finishes with a reading list and a Spotify playlist (open.spotify.com/user/iperborea). 

This is a wonderful preparation for the serious Japanese traveller – if you haven’t been before, you will learn masses that isn’t in the guide books, but if you visit all the time, or even live in Japan, you will still learn and enjoy something.

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Essays by various authors, The Passenger: Japan  (Europa Editions, 2020). 9781787702196, 188pp, paperback.

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