The accomplished journalist and author, who has lived in Japan for more than 30 years, pursues the elusive Japanese character.
With an elegant, understated manner, Iyer (Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells, 2019, etc.) offers poignant reflections on his adopted country and its maddening contradictions and shifting parts. He moves from the public to the private realms, ambling among themes such as travel, dress, animism, language, role-playing, and playing ball. He often inserts a quote that has nothing to do with Japan but that sizes up the place and sense perfectly—e.g., he cites Oscar Wilde, who “saw the folds within emotions and knew that social life was a theater where the emotions are very real.” Iyer’s subtle observations reveal a great deal about what is beyond the surface of how some Westerners view the Japanese—“as robots,” which the author explains to be “less because the Japan are so machinelike and dependable than because inanimate things in Japan possess so much spirit and life.” Iyer marvels at the “culture of shared obedience” and service; at the country’s astonishing number of vending machines and every imaginable kind of convenience store; and at the company called Family Romance, which employs 1,400 actors “to be family members for clients who are going through hard times.” Being in Japan reminded the author of his time visiting West Point Military Academy: “the courtesy, the sense of order—held up by an unbudging sense of hierarchy—the devotion to tradition,” and also how the cadets “were brought together into a unit…that spoke for a commitment to something larger than themselves.” Iyer also sees the troubling flip side to this “streamlined” and cooperative society, such as its exclusivity and insularity, which keep it “out of step with the larger global community,” especially in its treatment of women, outsiders, and minorities.
Marvelously nuanced reflections on a nation “in constant motion.”