Culture shock

Wrong About Japan

Peter Carey <em>Faber & Faber, 124pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 0571224075

The story of Wrong About Japan begins in New York, where Peter Carey's shy 12-year-old son, Charley, develops an interest in manga and anime, and announces that when he grows up, he's going to live in Tokyo. Carey, fascinated by his son's new passion, quickly muscles in. He watches Grave of the Fireflies and Mobile Suit Gundam and is soon hooked. Father and son decide to visit Tokyo to learn more about anime and to find their own "real Japan". Most important of all is that Charley must get his picture taken with his heroes, the makers of anime.

This slim volume is billed as a travelogue-cum-memoir. At its heart is a gentle but constant struggle between father and son. Charley is resistant to anything that smacks of culture - what he considers "the real Japan" of temples and gardens. His father wants to bathe in wooden tubs, turns his nose up at breakfast in Mister Donut, and has to do some wily bargaining to persuade Charley into a kabuki theatre. These scenes are humorous and touching. Away from New York, Carey notices new things about his son. He is sometimes in awe of this young person who knows so much about Tokyo and who has an instinctive grasp of popular Japanese culture that seems to elude Carey himself.

There is fiction in this book, too. I was suspicious of their teenage friend Takashi who, with his spiky hair and the alien expression in his eyes, seems to have stepped right out of manga. If Charley was so shy, would he really have arranged for a stranger from an internet chatroom to meet them at their hotel? It seems that the author of My Life as a Fake couldn't resist the temptation to give them their very own friend from the land of anime. Takashi is a colourful guide, but he is more than that. He is a source of friction, letting the pair know when they have got something wrong, telling them how they ought to spend their time in Tokyo.

Carey is convinced that a whole culture and history can be found within the frames of anime and sets out, armed with questions, to prove it. Blood: the last vampire, in which a girl uses a special sword to slay aliens, is the inspiration for a trip to a sword-maker. Carey wants to understand the importance of the Japanese sword's "icy beauty" through history and asks Yoshihara, the taciturn craftsman, if it is a "spiritual business". Yoshihara responds: "You've been reading American books?" Carey and son learn many things - and so do we - but don't get to see a sword. It is the same when Carey meets important figures within the anime industry. He arrives bubbling over with theories, only to be thwarted when the conversation starts. The point of the series Mobile Suit Gundam, he learns from its creator, was to launch toy robots. "Wouldn't a Japanese person watching this think of samurai more than once?" the hopeful Carey asks. "No."

They have more luck researching Grave of the Fireflies. The story of the firebombing of Tokyo is told by Mr Yazaki, a survivor, in a graceful and moving chapter. One senses that on meeting Yazaki, Carey stopped asking questions and let his subject speak for himself. If only he had done this more often, he might have had more success.

There is nothing necessarily impenetrable about Japanese culture; it just isn't a culture that is used to - or likes - lots of direct questions.

Western commentary on Japan has always tended to seize on the weird things which demonstrate that, while we may not use the word "inscrutable" any longer, inscrutable is what we mean. How we used to laugh at those strange singing machines with microphones, that weird TV game show where contestants battled in extreme conditions with live insects. Carey is too knowledgeable and respectful to come close to this, but he approaches the nebulous complexities of culture as a series of simple questions that must have answers. Not surprisingly, his hosts resist being pinned down so easily and this keeps him at a distance. If he would just follow Charley's example and just get on with being there - Mister Donut and all - he needn't be so wrong about Japan.

When Carey tries to find a simple English definition of the word otaku, used to describe nerdy anime obsessives, he is frustrated to find that everyone says something slightly different. He opines: "This is an example of how perplexing Japanese culture can be." Why? Every language has cultural expressions that do not translate easily. Later, Carey explains at great length a misunderstanding about the exact arrangements behind his visit to an anime studio. He beats himself up for his "foreigner's misunderstanding", but there is nothing peculiarly "foreign" about it and it seems so unimportant. What we are really interested in here is that he gets to meet Hayao Miyazaki, the director of My Neighbour Totoro and Princess Mononoke (wow!).

Wrong About Japan scratches the surface of Japanese history, anime and manga. Experts may find it lacking. In dismissing comparisons between Miyazaki and Disney, Carey says Miyazaki is a "great, not merely successful, artist". Many would argue that Disney was more than "merely successful", but Carey doesn't set himself up as an expert and his disarming honesty is one of the book's pleasures. The beauty of this writing is in its openness and wit, its variety and sense of adventure. However, for a less earnest but perhaps more intuitive appreciation of Japanese culture, I would like to hear Charley's version.

Susanna Jones's most recent novel is Water Lily (Picador)