A Beginner’s Guide to Japan by Pico Iyer

3.5 out of 5 stars

The Japanese have a unique culture that is unlike almost any other on this planet. It has been influencing the world since the end of the Second world war too, partly through the high quality and reliable cars and electronic products that they make and that have become household names, but also things like anime, Hello Kitty, the cherry blossom and their distinctive gardens to name but a few. Their tiny archipelago of islands is home to 120 million people. I have never yet been fortunate to visit, one day perhaps.

One man who has lived there for over 30 years is Pico Iyer. He is married to a Japanese lady who has taught him Japanese, even though he still considers himself a beginner when speaking. But that length of time that he has spent immersed in the culture means that he has a rich seam of information to draw on for this book.

‘Emotions’ writes the Zen philosopher, D. T. Suzuki, ‘are just the play of light and shadow on the sea’

Written in a series of small observations and vignettes, Iyer explores what makes the Japanese and their culture so very different from all that he has grown up with and experienced in the UK and America. In each of these sentences or paragraphs are nuggets of information or insight into the country he has chosen to make his home. There is no middle ground, he can either be or not be Japanese.

They are a people constrained by tradition, a people who prefer to be a player rather than be seen to be a leader. It is as he describes it, a land of hesitation. Even though tradition is important, they are constantly reinventing themselves. Partly because this is a land of earthquakes and things are never permanent, there is a shrine at Ise that is rebuilt around every 20 years. The trees used are 300 – 500 years old, so it is simultaneously new and ancient at the same time.

‘The contradictions that the mind comes up against,’ writes Simone Weil, ‘these are the only realities.’

This is not a travel book in the conventional sense. These shards of his observations of the country are bought together in the style of kintsugi, the technique that the Japanese repair broken ceramic with gold and resin to often make a more beautiful object. It might not be for everyone, but I have found that reading four books on one country from very different perspectives has given me a range of insights and perspectives on the place and I would love to visit it one day.

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  1. Liz Dexter

    Our honeymoon choice was between Japan and Iceland (we went North) and we were planning to go to the Tokyo Olympics, but thankfully only vaguely! Maybe one day we’ll get there, too!

    • Paul

      I have been to China a few time on business and that is strange enough. I have worked with a couple of Japanese companies and they are lovely people

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