PICTURES FROM THE WATER TRADE: An Englishman in Japan by John David Morley


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And, once again, never the twain shall meet: a vivid, insightful, often affecting account of a three year stay in Japan (1973-6). Morley, a young Oxonian, came to Waseda University in Tokyo well-primed for total scholarly immersion in Japanese culture, instead he fell in with a picaresque character named Ichimonji who introduced him to mizu-shobai, the ""water trade"" or demimonde of bars, cabarets, and other scruffy joints. Calling himself ""Boon,"" Morley deftly describes his adventures on both the near and far side of respectability--pub-crawls, visits to fast-sex emporia, calligraphy studies, love affairs, and the whole spectrum of ordinary life, weddings, funerals, vocation trips, etc. Despite his admiration for (most) things Japanese and his (eventual) fluency in the language, Boon-Morley found himself constantly running up against the omnipresent phenomenon of uchi--an untranslatable word whose meanings include house, home, I, we, one's wife or husband, in short the ""inside"" world where the public, the stranger, and the foreigner are not welcome. Thus a bar patron will impulsively invite Morley to spend the night in his apartment, only to treat him with icy politeness in the morning. Morley has a passionate affair with a woman named Mariko, from Toyama in northern Honshu: he runs into all sorts of complications because of local hostility to an English-Japanese couple; and then Mariko herself turns out to have been concealing a large part of her soul. Ironically it is when Morley has become so acculturated that one day he catches himself bowing to his interlocutor on the telephone that he decides it's time to go home. Morley can tell a story (idyllic alfresco lovemaking interrupted by a furious motorcyclist) and he can make acute observations (reading the onbu--the ubiquitous baby-carrying backpack--as a symbol of ""the self-insufficient Japanese. . . always bearing and always borne by others""). Sensuons, witty, full of curious details and wry shocks of recognition.

Pub Date: May 2nd, 1985
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly--dist. by Little, Brown