- Pictures from the Water Trade: An Englishman in Japan by John David Morley
Deutsch, 259 pp, £9.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 233 97703 1
The British and the Japanese may not be particularly alike, but the two races are exceedingly comparable. The British must actually believe this, for why else would they be displaying such a curious desperation to deny it? No doubt, they sense that to look at Japanese culture too closely would threaten a long-cherished complacency about their own. Hence the energy expended on sustaining an image of Japan as a place of fanatical businessmen, of hara-kiri and sci-fi gadgetry. Books, articles and television programmes focus on whatever is most extreme and bizarre in Japanese life; the Japanese people may be viewed as amusing or alarming, expert or devious, but they must above all be seen to be non-human. While they remain non-human, their values and ways will remain safely irrelevant. No wonder the British are so fond of the ‘inscrutability’ of Japanese faces.
I fear, then, for this splendid book by John David Morley, based on his three-year stay in Japan during the mid-Seventies, which adopts the approach of assuming the Japanese to be human beings, and rather ordinary ones at that. Pictures from the Water Trade is a mixture of narrative, descriptive writing and analysis. Presumably the book is largely autobiographical, despite being related in the third person through a young man called Boon, who, as did Morley, comes to Tokyo on a government scholarship to further his study of the Japanese language. He avoids contact with expatriates, practises Japanese pronunciation with a talking parrot, blunders into nightclubs so exorbitant that he hasn’t even enough for the cloakroom charge, spends vacations out in the country at the family home of his Tokyo flatmate, and in time is rewarded with a wide circle of Japanese acquaintances. Morley writes well. The people and families he comes to know are portrayed with insight and affection, their humanity never strained in an attempt to turn them into emblems. His descriptive passages, favouring the everyday over the exotic, are all the more evocative for their control and understatement, never more so than during his celebration of Japanese trains, the immaculate white gloves of the railway workers, and the variety of announcements – ‘little masterpieces of cadence and phrasing’ – which come over the intercoms.
But what gives the book its weight are the pages Morley devotes – a good third of the total – to his reflections and theories on what he observes around him. This is courageous, since he appears to have no deep knowledge of Japanese history, nor much in the way of hard sociological data. What he does possess, however, is a familiarity with the language, and moreover, as a non-Japanese, he is sensitive to aspects which set it apart from European tongues. These ‘peculiarities’ provide Morley with clues to Japanese values, and invariably mark the starting-points of his investigations. It is this strategy of examining a culture through a scrutiny of its language which gives his speculations substance and structure, distinguishing him from the bulk of Western commentators on Japan, who tend to resort to making disparate generalisations based on a ragbag of anecdotes.