Japan Speaks to America

A Foreword by Noel Busch

FOR Westerners in general, and for Americans in particular, learning about Japan presents certain special problems. For this, at least three reasons come readily to mind.

The best way to learn about a country is, of course, to go there. However, when an American travels in Europe, he is, in a sense, not only exploring but also going home. England, France, Germany and Italy offer the excitement of recognition as well as that of discovery, the pleasure of looking through a window combined with the fascination of looking into a mirror. Japan provides no such parental or narcissistic inducements. Samuel Johnson never strolled along the Ginza; and Hiroshige’s prints of the palanquin stations between Tokyo and Kyoto awaken no vicarious memories of coaching days with Mr, Pickwick.

A second reason why the West still knows so little of Japan is, of course, the formidable language barrier. Literary Japanese is so difficult to translate that only one of its great classics, The Tale of Genji, is even fairly well-known among American readers.

The third and most important reason of all may be that the Japanese, perhaps precisely because they are such diligent students, have always been reluctant, from an excess of scholarly modesty, to assume the opposite, and to them greatly exalted, role of teacher. Rather than teach the West, indeed, the Japanese are even prepared to accept from it standards which are often inferior to their own. Thus, in a nation where many schoolboys acquire a degree of dexterity with the brush rarely matched by adult European professionals, many contemporary artists have, by copying Western styles, compounded a banality which they might better have corrected.

That the difficulties which confront Westerners in learning about Japan are readily apparent should not suggest that they are insurmountable. On the contrary, the reasons, rooted in history and geography, why Westerners may wish to make a try are compelling and the moment is propitious.

Like the British Isles, those of Japan form a commodious catchall off a busy continent. Like Britain, too, Japan absorbed successive population waves of continental immigrants who, having been spry enough to get there, were barred by the seas from going any further and so obliged to merge their talents and accomplishments. Where the Japanese differed most from their Occidental counterparts was that, instead of scattering their accumulation of qualities around the world, they did precisely the reverse, nourishing their insularity during the two centuries in which the British built their empire, by intense and conscious introversion.

Explosive Japanese expansionism in the twentieth century — of which the cause perhaps lay in the long period of intense compression that preceded it — effectively defeated its own purpose, if that was to stimulate Western assimilation of Japanese ideas. By the same token, however, the Allied Occupation in which the expansionism finally resulted, took the form of an intensified cram course given to the Japanese by their conquerors. While this charmed and astonished the eager students, it was not designed effectively to ventilate ihe ignorance on some subjects of their tutors. It is only now, in short, that a real response on the part of the ultimate projection of Western civilization to the ultimate projection of the Orient, has become possible. It is also one of the few heartening coincidences of current history that the opportunity meets with the need.

It is a truism that, when Perry finally got there, Japan was a locked chest of intellectual and aesthetic treasures. What may be less generally realized is that, by the time of the Perry Centennial, which was celebrated last year, the value of the treasure, far from diminishing, had greatly increased. Buddhism, Confucianism, all the richest stores of Asian art and thought have been preserved in Japan through the decades of modernization just as carefully as they had been nurtured through the centuries of isolation. They survive there still, sometimes in a purer form than they ever attained in their lands of origin (such as China and India), where now they are often decadent or despised. Some knowledge of Japan is thus precious now not only for itself but also because it gives us what we so sorely need — a means of understanding all of Asia, of which Japan is, in a way, the essence.

It would, of course, be presumptuous to suggest that the “perspective” in the following pages amounts to more than a keyhole vista of the writing, still to be viewed by the West, in a nation where everyone reads and where ten thousand books are published every year; let alone that it will enable the reader to “know” Japan. To know Japan — with its narrow village streets bright in the evening after rain, its tiny, steep, green mountains wrapped in their sudden mists, and its charming, tireless, brilliant and erratic people — it is necessary to go there. However, the prose pieces and poems that follow are representative of modern Japanese writing. It is fair to hope that some of the grace and sparkle of Japan may be found reflected in them, just as the glitter of Tokyo fireworks shines up from the Sumida River into the midsummer night.