FOLLOWING THE BRUSH: An American Encounter with Classical Japanese Culture by John Elder

FOLLOWING THE BRUSH: An American Encounter with Classical Japanese Culture

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Appreciative essays on Japanese aesthetics and mores, delivered with sum-like grace and delicacy. Elder (English/Middlebury; co-ed., The Norton Book of Nature Writing--not reviewed) makes good use of his sabbatical in Japan: He and his family settle into a traditional Kyoto neighborhood; he takes shodo (calligraphy) and Go lessons; his children attend a Japanese elementary school and learn kendo (swordsmanship) and nanga (watercoloring) after-hours. This blanket immersion in the culture affords Elder a ""richly marginal year"" in which he tastes Japanese life in a way closed to most visitors. For him, traditional Japan is a set of practices ""centered on doing and looking"": His painting teacher proceeds by example, without explanations; education is an unusual brew of rote memory and freedom to experiment, with children breaking into small groups at will to try out ideas planted by the teacher. Go class and contacts with Nob theater reveal to the author Japan's highly articulated gender roles, in which men speak in gruff monosyllables and women chirp and smile. This extreme cultivation marks Japan's approach to nature (""enfolding nature within history and culture""), which Elder explores through discussions of the Japanese spring, wilderness, and whale-hunting. His attempts to analyze Japanese psychology seem right on target, as in his observation that ""eating whales may actually typify the pleasure of rendering the vast and fearsome small,"" or that the ugliness of modern Japanese architecture stems from the nation's emphasis on interiority. Comparisons to America come frequently, without the believe-it-or-not tone of Edwin Reingold's Chrysanthemums and Thorns (p. 1241); instead, Elder substitutes a quiet admiration, and a hope that the American ideal of untamed wilderness and the Japanese ideal of humanized nature may somehow merge to the benefit of both. Balanced, gentle, meditative: an unusual find in today's books on Japan.

Pub Date: Jan. 4th, 1993
Page count: 172pp
Publisher: "Beacon--dist. by Farrar, Straus & Giroux"