Viewing Japan from only one angle is not merely fruitless, it’s impossible. Just walking down the street in Tokyo is a kaleidoscopic experience, as old and new, ugly and beautiful, crass and sublime compete for attention. One approximation of that experience would be reading in tandem two recent books: Karl Taro Greenfield’s Speed Tribes: Days and Nights With Japan’s Next Generation and Alan Booth’s Looking for the Lost: Journeys Through a Vanishing Japan. Inevitably, neither is definitive, but either provides more of a sense of the country than the latest proclamations of the business writers who five years ago were forecasting that Japan would buy up the entire world and are now predicting the imminent demise of its financial apparatus.
The American-raised son of a Japanese mother and an American father, Greenfield admits that when he first arrived in Tokyo in the late ’80s he wrote the standard stuff about the lifestyles and business practices of the suddenly superrich urban Japanese. Then, while fighting with his girlfriend in one of Tokyo’s leading nightclub districts, he had an epiphany: “I had overlooked the gritty, sexy, real Japan.”
“Speed tribe” is the literal translation of bosozuku, the Japanese term for motorcycle gang, and speed is also one of the favorite illegal drugs of young Japan. The people Greenfield actually describes, however, are those on the fast track to nowhere: drug dealers, bar hoppers, motorcycle thieves, bookies, porn stars, neofascists, hard rockers, computer hackers, and—perhaps most hopeless of all—student radicals. Under the rules of Japanese society, these young nonconformists are budgeted only a few years for their rebellion. By their late 20s, they must be salarymen, housewives, or—for the hardcore malcontents—members of yakuza crime families every bit as regimented and hierarchal as Sony or Mitsubishi.
In documenting the freewheeling youth of a newly affluent society, Greenfield follows the cues of Tom Wolfe, who invented this form some 30 years ago in themagazine pieces later collected in such books as The Pumphouse Gang. But Greenfield doesn’t achieve either the credible personae or the breathless flow of Wolfe’s best work, probably because he’s translating the vernacular into English and is slowed by his frequent (and sometimes unnecessary) parenthetical explanations of Japanese phrases and fashions. Even when Greenfield writes an entire chapter in the voice of an individual subject, his prose fails to conjure a distinctive character.
These pieces were originally written for American and British magazines and newspapers, and haven’t been cleaned up much for hardcover publication. Greenfield identifies right-winger Ryoichi Sasakawa, friend to both the yakuza and the Rev. Moon, as “the world’s richest fascist” in two separate chapters, and employs suchtautologies as “ancient history, something that had happened in the distant past.”
These portraits also, of course, do not begin to capture Japan’s “next generation.” All of them are set in the Tokyo metropolitan area, and nearly all of them feature young men. There are few women in speaking roles, and many of those are highly paid bar “hostesses” from Western Europe, Australia, and the U.S. The plight of less prestigious hostesses from places like the Philippines is unexplored, and the role of the country’s new immigrants is relegated to two mentions of the Iranians who sell drugs at Ueno Park on Tokyo’s less fashionable east side.
If Tribes is a very limited book, though, perhaps that’s for the best. These candid snapshots provide a genuine view, albeit circumscribed, of recent Tokyo. That’s more truth than is contained in a lot of a grandiose analyses of contemporary Japan, which glibly explain away conundrums that can’t be explained. There are but a handful of Japan’s voices in Tribes, but their particular stories ring true.
Only one voice is heard in Looking for the Lost: Journeys Through a Vanishing Japan, that of Alan Booth, an Englishman who spent about half his short life in Japan. (He died at 46 in 1993.) It’s a rich, multifaceted voice, however, the one that made Booth’s 1985 book, The Roads to Sata, perhaps the most satisfying recent entry in that burgeoning genre, the Westerner-in-Japan memoir.
For Sata, Booth walked from the northernmost to the southernmost points of Japan’s four main islands. Lost‘s itinerary is less methodical, but its scheme is similar: The author walked from one little town to the next, stayed in small Japanese inns, ate the local food, and drank lots of beer and a bit of sake. (Dehydration, Booth notes, “is a danger that I have never flinched from confronting.”) He also struck up conversations with anyone not dumbfounded by the prospect of a gaijin (literally “foreigner,” but with a strong connotation of “barbarian”) speaking fluent Japanese.
The book is divided into three sections, each chronicling a separate expedition. In the first, Booth roughly follows the route that narcissistic, suicidal novelist Dazai Osamu took in 1944 for Return to Tsugaru, his account of a trip to the area of northern Honshu where he was born and raised. The second attempts to trace the path—now largely overgrown—of Saigo Takamori, the Kyushu samurai who in 1873 led the last Japanese rebellion against Tokyo’s authority. The third tracks the probably apocryphal route of Kyoto’s Heike Clan, whose 1185 defeat led to the rise of Tokyo and almost seven centuries of military rule by the shoguns.
Retracing someone else’s journey has become a common strategy of travel literature, one that allows the interweaving of historical reflection with personal observation, tales of nation-making events with gripes about wet clothes and blistered feet. When not recounting what he ate and drank—such delicacies as pheasant stew, pickled octopus intestines, and live whitebait in egg yolk, all washed down, of course, with beer—Booth digresses on Japan’s tradition of infanticide, offers matter-of-fact accounts of fantastical Japanese lore, and explains the rise (and subsequent crash) of the postwar vogue for northern Japanese folk music.
Booth arrived in a Japan as a Birmingham University theater student convinced that the Noh drama was still vital in Japan. He soon decided it was in fact “pickled,” and spent another 20 years looking for traditional art forms that have not become part of “Japan’s signposted fossil culture.” This interest puts him at odds with mainstream Japan, where replicas are often preferred to originals and construction companies are among the most potent political forces. “Modern Nagoya is a city that would hugely appeal to Margaret Thatcher,” he decides, while “when you view Kyoto from any point of vantage, such as the elevated platform where the bullet train deposits you, its ugliness can make you weep.”
“I greatly prefer slow ruination to the sudden kind contrived by local authorities,” Booth notes, and even in the areas of rapidly depopulating rural Japan he traversed for Lost, the latter is more common.
Booth didn’t just appreciate the old, however. He also had a taste for the odd, which is on riotous display even in Japan’s tiniest villages. He finds a little store where a vending machine sells “shocking pictures,” a small-town karaoke bar outfitted with pretty young Filipina hostesses, and a TV commercial, not shown on big-city stations, in which a “mechanical rice planter is the center of a tableau vivant involving three excited young ladies in latex body stockings who turn their backs to us and bend over towards the machinery so that the camera can close in on their tight shiny bottoms.”
Though hardly above noting (and even enjoying) such modern silliness, Booth shows a kinship for another, more dignified Japan. He commends the residents of Tsugaru for “an uncompromising, no-nonsense attitude to the business of getting on with their often rotten lives,” and is clearly inspired by Japan’s tradition of fatalism. Only on Lost‘s final page does he mention the cancer that would soon kill him.
The book spends only one chapter in a major city, and it’s graceless Nagoya, the city only a Thatcher could love. Still, Booth’s understanding of modern Japan seems both deeper and broader than Greenfield’s; Lost has the fully developed taste for the paradoxical that’s essential to the Japanophile. After remarking on the city’s ugliness, Booth adds that “Kyoto is “beautiful’ because within it there are beautiful things; subtle, sometimes tiny details that resist the cacophony around them and may require a lifetime to unearth.” Booth wasn’t given a full lifetime, but he unearthed a wealth of such details in what time he had.