Finding myself wide awake at 4:30 a.m., I took a photograph of the view out my window. Orange street lights, a deserted car park. A handy visual prompt, I told myself, if I ever needed reminding of what desolation feels like. I was alone in a drab hotel room in a city the color of smudged charcoal — a city I had not even heard of the previous week: Fukuoka.
Outside was dark and overcast, the kind of overcast you know will be around for days. It was, I couldn’t help thinking, all very “Lost in Translation” — except that one thing was missing: Scarlett Johansson.
Six days later, I was back home with my family in Boston, pulling perfectly wrapped presents out of my bag, blurting out descriptions of all I had seen, and holding forth on the subject of all things Japanese. I was on a high. What had happened? Something that happens, it turns out, with dismaying regularity to first-time visitors to Japan.
They go there, however briefly, and fall heavily for it: the exquisiteness of the Japanese aesthetic, the food, the obsession with beautiful wrapping, the apparent formality (the incessant bowing and all that ceremonial swapping of business cards), the kinky fashion, everything at once familiar and rarefied, ordered, humble, in harmony, and properly scaled to human vicissitudes.
They come back, rave about it, and long for their own lives to take on some of these qualities. They buy kimonos and fans; they divide their rooms with screens; they take up bonsai-growing; they prepare sushi in their own kitchens.
It’s all an enormous cliché. And I fell for it, or most of it. The only consoling thing? It’s happened before.
Edward Morse, the shell collector who was more responsible than anyone else for setting off a Japan craze among Boston’s elite in the late 19th century, noted the phenomenon in an introduction to a book he wrote on Japanese homes.
A typical Western account of Japan, he wrote, is “the record of an itinerary of a brief sojourn in the country, where, to illustrate the bravery of the author, imaginary dangers were conjured up.” There followed “wild” guesses about ethnicity and “erroneous conceptions of Japanese character and customs.” The entire record was usually “derived from previous works on the same subject, or from Japanese sources, all without due credit being given.”
(The quote, speaking of due credit, comes from Christopher Benfey’s seminal 2003 book, “The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Japan.”)
Peter Grilli, the outgoing president of the venerable Japan Society of Boston (the oldest of 45 Japan-America societies in the country), says he has been intrigued for years by people’s first impressions of Japan.
“Very occasionally,” Grilli says, “those first reports are full of insight and meaning. But more often it’s the other way around.”
Grilli grew up in Japan. He moved there in 1947 as a child of 5, two years after his father went to Japan as a civilian administrator with the US occupying forces. When the occupation ended in 1952, his father stayed on, working for Japan’s national broadcasting organization and writing about music (“his true passion,” says his son). Grilli’s mother worked as an art critic for the Japan Times for 17 years.
“First impressions are significant,” says Grilli, “first of all because they are first and they come tumbling in on the tabula rasa of inexperience, but also because they are so strong and tend to be so indelible. One never forgets one’s first glimpse of Mount Fuji — and the second view is never quite as delicious.”
Grilli has intense memories of his first impressions as a 5-year-old: His first plunge into a hot spring in Unzen in 1947 triggered a book, 45 years later, about the culture of bathing in Japan. He remembers too, “my first view of Fuji. The smell of burnt-out Tokyo. My first encounter with hungry beggars on the Ginza and meeting Japanese orphans no older than myself.
“All those experiences happened on my very first day or two in Japan. I treasure them and hope I will never forget them.”
But Grilli is also wary of first impressions. “People seem either to instantly fall in love or to hate everything they find [in Japan]. The reactions tend to be extreme, and therefore rather untrustworthy.”
In the early ’70s, he worked as an editor at Weatherhill publishing company in Tokyo and New York, where he specialized in books about Japan and Asia.
“I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I turned down from people who had responded so passionately to their first week or two in Japan (often their only week or two in Japan) that they felt compelled to write it all down and send it off to be published.”
He has discussed the phenomenon with longtime friends and specialists in Japanese culture such as Donald Keene, Edward Seidensticker, and Donald Richie. They all agree, he says, that “it’s exciting and fun to write about Japan after a week or two, but that afterward, with every passing day, it seems to grow more fiendishly difficult. I’m not quite (but almost) ready to admit that the more one knows about Japan the less one understands.”
The sentiment is echoed by a friend of mine, Ed Wright, an author and columnist based in Sydney, who taught English at Tottori University in western Honshu for three years. When I asked him about Japan’s seduction of first-time visitors, Wright talked about the country’s “fascinating” and “alien” features.
You initially have a sense, he said, that these features, “whether tastes, mountains, plates, or the way women flirt, seem inextricably interlinked, and you hunger to know the thing that links them. As you struggle to live there, you think you begin to understand the Japanese way of doing something — and to some extent you do.
“But so often, just as you think you understand something, the understanding slips away.”
After talking with these people who know much more about Japan, I began to wonder: Is Japan’s seduction of Western travelers always bound to end in disappointment?
“The Japanese,” says Wright, “have a phrase, ‘henna gaijin.’ It means ‘strange foreigner.’ Not the kind of loud and clumsy Westerner — that’s what they expect — but the one who tries to live like a Japanese.
“But it’s hard to be Japanese. The culture’s textures are strong partly because they are so powerfully inculcated. It’s not something you can just take up later in life.
“But you can try. And the more you try, the more you find yourself getting blindsided by the formlessness which exists in tandem with all the culture’s beautiful material emanations.
“The more you try, the more you fail, but that failure can easily be one of the highlights of your life.”
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.