Friday, 1 October 2010

How to write about Japan



1. In your book, magazine title or blog header, make sure you have a reference to "Rising Sun" "Yen to do blah blah" or "Far Eastern Promise." Anything else will mark you out as an amateur, or worse, one of those contrarians who thinks the uniqueness of Japan is no more unique than any other unique country, such as the United States, Britain, France, Italy, China, India etc.
2. Do not use pictures of Japanese people behaving normally, such as shopping at CostCo, walking around IKEA or eating a hamburger, as this will imply to potential readers that you don't know the real Japan. As everyone knows, the real Japan is only evident in pictures of geisha, sumo wrestlers and toothless grinning old men, or if 19 and a beddable girl, in cosplay gear, or French maid outfit pouting for the camera making peace signs with her other nubile friends. Bonus points if they are in high school uniforms. Other acceptable cover art include blurry shots of commuters, female fashion victims walking on zebra crossings in the rain, or robots/people in multicoloured motorbike helmets. BUT ON NO ACCOUNT use the pics of the geek with his computer-generated/blow-up doll/pillow/karaoke girlfriend machine. That's for Chapter Two.
3. If you've done your job correctly with picture and title chosen as above, then you should have no problem proving the premise of your work of painstaking fact-based journalistic narrative that Japan and the Japanese are inscrutably inscrutable, uniquely unique. This must be your premise for any works of fiction too. Of course, there's a paradox here. If the Japanese are so darned inscrutably different from regular folk, how in the hell can you, whose only expertise is you got through two-thirds of Shogun in college, get at the Real Japan, the Raw Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun?
4. Demonstrate your suitability as guide to all things Japanese by the liberal use of basic Japanese vocab in italics. Works especially well for English origin words as this works on two levels - it gives a Japanese flavour to your writing, and allows the English-language reader to laugh their ass off over those funny Japanese. So, never write "commuter", when you could write sarariman; you don't sneer at crap Japanese TV, sneer at crap Japanese terebi. Throw in a few proper Japanese words genkan (entrance hall) and bento (packed lunch) and you have established yourself as an expert, and Japanese as odd folk worthy of scorn or pity, but little else. It's not racist, it's called good writin'
5. Show the readers you really understand the mysterious Japanese in a way that no other foreigner ever has, by mentioning zen a couple of times and then delving deep into your psyche (or tourist information leaflet, whichever is closer to hand) and repeat "In Japan, they have a saying, the hammer hits the nail that sticks out." They have lots of sayings in Japan, but this is the only one you need to know because it tells the reader exactly how the Japanese are inscrutably inscrutable, because they have to do what the group says. In other countries this is called peer group pressure, but in Japan it is THE ONLY STORY.
6. The best way to demonstrate this is by populating your story with stock characters: wimpy men dominated by their wives; the geek from chapter 2 whose dodecahedron peg won't fit into the square hole; and don't forget the nubile girls from the cover who are just crying out for a foreign lover who will treat them right. Remember, all sararimen sacrifice their lives for the company because they are scared of the boss/wife/mother and never ever go out drinking and having a good time at the soapland sex clubs that refuse entry to foreign writers no matter how much they are gagging for it.
7. It is impossible for Japanese to be rude. Sure, folk didn't sit next to you on the train because you are a honkey who smells of cheese, but the Japanese characters in your work of fiction/entirely honest journalistic slice-of-life must be uncommonly kind and heroically take you across Narita Airport arrivals concourse to find you a Daily Mail. On no account are taxi drivers, bus drivers, bosses or koban policemen ever rude.
8. Taboo subjects. Never present Japan as largely similar to most other countries. Never portray Japanese as motivated by largely the same desires as everyone else in the world. Never take the piss out of Japanese robots. In fact, invest them with more personalty than the Japanese people (shouldn't be hard if you've been doing your job well of filling your piece with one-dimensional characters).
9. Oh, and remember, Japan is the crime-free-est country on earth (well, apart from the gangsters, sorry, yakuza, who run the real estate, political parties, stock market, and entertainment industries). Japan is full of honest, hardworking folk who would never dream of, say, not reporting their gran's death for a dozen years so they could pocket the pension.
10. But remember, times are a changing. The Japan you have painstakingly constructed is in danger of disappearing, unless you get that research grant/advance/freebie trip to that Kyoto writers' conference that will make those couple of sleepless nights at the Akasaka Prince Hotel fingering your iPad all worthwhile. Write it right and the sequel's as good as sold.


Pic lifted from here.

(This post has formed the basis of a re-arranged, radically rewritten and much expanded ebook essay to take into account the many comments this post has garnered and to bring the Japan Narrative up to date since the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown. It's on sale for 99 cents from Amazon right HERE.)

26 comments:

Rev.Paperboy said...

Brilliant! An exhaustive and thorough list with only two omissions I can see: Food (its all either sushi or disgusting weird shit like bees in the rice, never just a sandwich or salad) and YOU MUST rave about the public transport, under no circumstances does anyone in a major city in japan ever drive their own car, ever.

D said...

Perfect. This should actually be encoded into publishing law for anything Japan-related---although most follow voluntarily.

The Zen point is especially valuable as it allows one to explain away anything he/she cannot understand while seeming to have a special inside knowledge of this inscrutable land.

Chris (i-cjw.com) said...

I can't believe you missed out that quintessential staple of every self-respecting Japan blog - the vending machine. Big ones, small ones, ones that vend bottles of wine and batteries, doleful photos of lone vending machines on a stormy night, shots of a girl in kimono getting a Diet Coke from one (that's a good one - it's like Japan is a total "Land of Contrasts" - not like the grey uniformity of the rest of the planet. Man, if she was using her cellphone at the same time, that would just be mind-blowing!)

Bonus points if you claim that, ZOMG, they really do have ones that dispense schoolgirl panties - or "so I have heard". Heh, see what I did there?

Jonas said...

This was gold!
Considerably longer than your average post - must be something you've been longing to get out...

Mke said...

Oh dear oh dear. Mr Abiko, you missed the all-important post on how to learn Japanese!

No self-respecting Japan expert would be seen dead without a blog post breaking down of every single hiragana character and then complementary posts for katakana. If they are really top of their class, they will be sure to throw in how to say one's name in Japanese too.

With that in mind, here's some Japanese grape-picking to bring you back to reality. Man, it's just weird! We totally don't pick grapes like this in the U.K.

http://gakuranman.com/grape-picking-on-a-hot-summers-day/

Durf said...

Now that's just silly. There are no grapes in the UK, a country that has barely started importing the sunlight needed for photosynthesis and grapes and stuff.

Nice rundown, Ourmani. Some fun overlap between your dicta and the points covered in this post. As always bloggers and journos can learn from each other in this matter.

Loco said...

Beyond brilliant! You sure are an expert on writing on Japan...this is perfect, and though I'm guilty of being a Japan writer sometime, I really avoid when I actually think before I write, and not 1000 words later Lol
OMIA rules!

Softbank Sucks said...

Love the post. Personally, I prefer inscrutably unique and uniquely inscrutable.

Roberto said...

Super.

And you're nuts if you don't submit to Granta, perhaps in amended form incorporating some of the good suggestions above.

Well fucking done.

camtosh said...

Definitely nailed it. Now forget all the angst and get back to your novel. It's going to be an "original" Ourmani.

Grant said...

I just came for the picture of cute Japanese chicks.

Our Man in Abiko said...

All, Ourmani is overwhelmed, overawed and overdone. Grant's got the right idea, but Our Man may humour Robertodevido and polish this semi decent turd and see what the Granta folk think. Either that or pay attention during Our Littlest One's all-day undokai sports fest tomorrow. Nahhhh...

The Envoy said...

Two thumbs up.

William George said...

Good post, and painfully true for those of us living here who want to write about it, but don't want to be like that.

David said...

The only thing missing is mention of the story foreign journalists in Japan are required to write every two years, like clockwork, about how sento are dying, but some sento are doing imaginative things to stave of their inevitable demise.

ThePenguin said...

@Chris: Good point about the vending machines, cough cough.

Ourmani, and everyone else it seems: Clearly you have missed the point that no self-respecting Japan blog would ever go without the obligatory posts detailing amusing examples of Engrish (cough, cough) and the current uniquely Japanese Kit Kat / Pepsi flavour of the season.

Jeffrey said...

I've been traveling to or living in Japan off an on for over 30 years. Like good humor, every stereotype or cliche is based on at least a germ of truth. For people of a certain age and background, Tokyo is, was a wonderful adult Disneyland (though less so now with so many ex-pats).

If you seek out and write only about the "weird and wonderful" in Japan (your list is fairly exhaustive), then you are prat. However, if you refrain all together to write about how Japan is different from the West (or vice versa) then you might as well be writing a text book.

ThePenguin said...

Yes, certainly too many ex-pats in Tokyo now. GET OUT OF MY JAPAN AND STOP DESTROYING MY ILLUSION OF SELF AS EXOTIC OTHER.

Ourmani: in case you didn't know, f*ckedgaijin.com has a list of articles pre-written to your guidelines.

Jamaipanese said...

I should print this and study it o.O

Armchair Asia said...

Charisma Man,

Er, how long are you planning to keep up that pic of the hot Japanese chicks of your dreams?

A Western Woman

Our Man in Abiko said...

Awww, can't Our Man keep 'em for a while longer, so right-on chaps can pop over here to "ironically" lust after them?

You should know, Western Woman, Our Man only lusts after one lady of more substance. Our Woman.

To paraphrase Paul Newman-san, why pop out for ramen, when you can have sashimi at home?

Mikael said...

Kyoto?! Well, that's barely acceptable. Basically research should be limited to Tokyo, or even better Shibuya/Harajuku/Akihabara. All the needed ingredients for a comprehensive look at the Japanese society can be found there, right.

David said...

And, to no one's surprise, here it is: the regularly recycled account of how sentos, dying, are trying to revive themselves with snazzy innovations: http://www.asahi.com/english/TKY201010120127.html.

Did I call it or did I call it?

Anonymous said...

Most of the people who commented here are doing exactly what you're saying. How tragic.

Our Man in Abiko said...

Anon, so it goes, so it goes.

The power of the Japan myth is indeed strong. Though, must admit there is a little truth to the stereotypes, and Japan does odd in a very Japanese way, so it's understandable, ahh spose.

Jaime said...

A Tokyo stop motion, surely!