The Samurai, the science teacher and the monster typhoon

Small bars among Japan’s skyscrapers

Stuart Campbell’s recent trip to Japan wouldn’t have been the same without a rambunctious Japanese science teacher, a swashbuckling English sailor, and an American historian shocked by a monster typhoon.

I visited Japan briefly last year for the first time, and I was smitten – despite the North Korean missile that shot past the day before I arrived. This year, I had a more relaxed trip – a week in Tokyo and Kyoto, followed by a cruise from Yokohama down to Kobe and Kagoshima, with a dogleg to Okinawa via Shanghai.

At the last minute, I loaded my Kindle with Brett L. Walker’s A Concise History of Japan  (2015), and two novels: Natsume Soseki’s Botchan  (1906) and, in glaring contrast, James Clavell’s Shogun  (1975). My plan on this trip was to use my reading to make better sense of what I saw (besides being curious about James Clavell, who I’d never got around to reading).

I’ve given up trying to characterise my fascination with Japan, other than offering a handful of impressions: The fastidious manners and self-control of a people packed into a tiny country; the overengineered ugliness of the technology, whether it be an ATM where you snatch the banknotes from the clicking guts of the machine, bathtub taps like the bumper of a 1960’s Cadillac, or drab industrialised coastlines. And by contrast, food so delicately served that you hesitate to disturb it; picnickers in a Kyoto park dressed out of a Jane Austen novel; an entire street life of miniature bars with names like ‘Old Pal’ in the lanes behind the skyscrapers.

So to the books: What intrigued me about Walker’s History was his rewriting in 2013 of the last chapter after observing Super Typhoon Haiyan smashing the Philippines. The book concludes with ‘a departure from the conventional manner of telling Japanese history – that is it required fully embracing the idea that the physical islands called ‘Japan’ are geologically and historically unstable’. He goes on to say, ‘this book is what I imagine a history should look like in the twenty-first century, as ice sheets and glaciers melt and sea levels and storm intensities rise’. As I sailed south, it was easy to understand the seriousness of Japan’s watery fate: The world’s third largest economy bolted onto a strip of engineered coastline just meters above an inexorably rising ocean.

James Clavell’s Shogun is set in 1600, but its events lay down the foundations of Japan’s contact with the West and its eventual economic dominance of the outside world. It’s easy to categorise Shogun as a ripping yarn – the swashbuckling English pilot roaming the southern seas on a mission to thwart the Portuguese; his imprisonment in Japan and elevation to the rank of samurai; his delicate and passionate lover of high rank. It’s a Western fantasy of Japaneseness of course with its (probably) thousands of seppuku suicides, men and women bound by impossibly stringent codes of honour, lovers with pillow skills of improbable ingenuity. But Shogun is also an extraordinary feat of detailed plotting and character development that stands the test of time.

I found the author’s treatment of foreign languages most charming and  compelling. Like many a seadog of his time, the lead character John Blackthorne is multilingual. Our man is fluent in Dutch, Portuguese and Latin (as well as English), and is determined to master Japanese. Clavell deftly shows Blackthorne’s slow progress and frustration by back-translating his halting Japanese into English, and through the use of his multilingual lover Mariko as an interpreter to fill in the gaps when  Japanese fails him. And what about these two lovely linguistic tricks? All the Japanese dialogue is peppered with ‘so sorry’ to remind us of the politeness of Japanese speech; and Blackthorne speaks sweet Latin in secret with his lover (we know because they ‘thou’ one another).

Remember that Clavell learned about Japan the hard way as a prisoner of war; surely Blackthorne’s struggle to learn Japanese must reflect the author’s grim experience?

Natsume’s Botchan was the last on my list. This popular 1906 novel (Wikipedia says most Japanese children read it at school) follows the adventures of an awkward and superior-minded young science graduate from Tokyo who takes off to the provinces to be a school teacher. Our hero’s city attitudes brought alive Walker’s account of the adoption of Western culture in the Meiji period, when the cream of Tokyo paraded in European fashion and listened to jazz. In fact, the cream of Tokyo to this day parades in a version of European fashion that is distinctive in textile and cut, and it’s easy to see how the West is co-opted rather than copied. A word on the translation of Botchan: It’s hilariously archaic with girlfriends referred to as ‘tootsywootsies’. ‘Ha, good for you, Gov’nur’ says our man when his friend’s fishing line comes up minus the bait.

To end, a plug for the camera function on the Google Translate app. My travelling companion twisted her knee and was confined to a wheelchair on the cruise ship for a couple of days. In need of art materials to fill her time, she sent me off at Kobe with a shopping list. Mission was accomplished in no time with me pointing the camera at the labels and the translation popping up instantaneously (well, in the instant it takes to send the live image around the world to a server where it is compared to thousands of stored bits of translated text and the best match sent back around the world to the mobile phone of the hapless foreigner in the art shop).

While you’re here, why not have a look at my latest novel Cairo Mon Amour?

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