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.
Early on in the book, Morley notes the way the Japanese use the word uchi. This word means ‘house’. But Morley observes how the word is often used as a pronoun in place of ‘I’, whenever a speaker is referring to himself in the context of his household. Indeed, uchi can also be used for ‘we’, ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘they’ whenever the subject is being referred to in relation to the speaker’s household. If two mothers are discussing their children, each will refer to her own children as uchi rather than ‘they’. If they then begin discussing their husbands, each will refer to her husband as uchi rather than ‘he’. Furthermore, Morley notices this word for ‘house’ being used in respect not only of families but of any strongly bonded grouping – colleagues in a firm, for instance, referring to themselves as uchi. The Japanese mind, Morley argues, is dominated by the concept of uchi, giving it an unusual predisposition to see the world in terms of insiders and outsiders. This observation comes to be the cornerstone of Morley’s thinking about the Japanese, and throughout the book he applies his uchi-analysis to various phenomena he wishes to understand better.
At one stage, for instance, Morley embarks on a fascinating discussion of aimai, the well-known – and, to many Westerners, quite baffling – Japanese manner of communicating in an elegantly elliptical, non-committal way. Not only does aimai tend to characterise any conversation between Japanese whatever their relationship, it manifests itself as a central aesthetic principle in much Japanese art and literature. How did aimai come to ingrain itself so? Morley is unimpressed by the theory offered by those Japanese he consults: that centuries under the Tokugawa dictatorships during which free speech was dangerous obliged the Japanese to develop aimai. (His scepticism is no doubt correct. Japan under the Tokugawas never featured the sophisticated control of everyday life witnessed in modern totalitarian states. Directly subversive political talk would certainly have been dangerous, but ordinary people would otherwise have been free to talk much as they wished. It is unconvincing that a few taboo subjects could cause aimai to infect the whole language.) Instead, Morley attempts his own theory: it is the strength of the uchi concept within Japanese minds which underlies aimai. A heightened sense of the world as being comprised of insiders and outsiders acts against plain-speaking on two fronts. First, there is a keen awareness of the potential for conflict with anyone from an uchi other than one’s own: thus, all outsiders must be addressed in an excessively polite, careful way – above all, taking care not to express any opinion unequivocally, so as to leave plenty of room for retreat in case of offence. Second, amongst members of the same uchi, the need would arise to develop cryptic ways of talking precisely in order to be obscure to outsiders. Morley goes on to suggest – rather fancifully – that the acoustics within a Japanese house, with its literally paper-thin walls, would have facilitated this process, the frequent omissions of the subject from a Japanese clause deriving from a constant fear of eavesdroppers. Morley concludes that the uchi mentality has caused the Japanese to develop their language in such a way as to suppress meaning.
A little later, Morley is to be found grappling with the larger and more treacherous topic of Japanese ethics. As usual, he begins with an examination of the language, and having isolated two key terms – giri and ninjo – suggests the Japanese have two separate ethical systems corresponding to these words. Again, it is the uchi mentality which lies behind this duality: there is an ethical principle applicable to those within one’s uchi and another to outsiders. So far, Morley appears to have come a rather tortuous route to saying something unremarkable: presumably any culture tends to encourage one sort of behaviour towards insiders and another towards outsiders. But then he goes on to say something more adventurous: that the Japanese have no clear sense of the appropriate way to behave towards those outside the uchi. Thus they tend to see behaviour towards outsiders in essentially narcissistic terms: one must show one’s uchi in a good light, one must not sully the reputation of one’s uchi by treating the outsider badly. Western Christian societies, Morley claims in a moment of alarming complacency, have been saved from a similar ethical ambivalence by the injunction ‘Love thy neighbour.’
There is no doubt that at times Morley goes too far in applying his uchi-theory, and his insistence on it often prevents him exploring other lines of relevant thought. It seems odd to discuss Japanese ethics without giving space to the influence of Bushido, the samurai ethical code, which arguably has had a greater effect on everyday Japanese behaviour than either of the two main religions, Shintoism and Buddhism. Neither does he ponder the role which the patron-protégé relationship plays at every level of Japanese society, and which has been highlighted by many, including the Japanese anthropologist Chie Nakane, as crucial to the understanding of what is peculiarly Japanese about the Japanese. There is a tendency to assume that anything non-European about Japanese culture must be uniquely Japanese. Behind this seems to lie the sadly familiar presumption that white European (or European-based) cultures comprise world culture. I would be happier with his suggestion that the Japanese are peculiarly obsessed with the idea of uchi if I were satisfied that it was not equally dominant in, say, Arab, African or Indian societies. In fact, it is not impossible that it is Western European culture which is distinct from the rest of the world in having a peculiarly diffused sense of uchi. Then again, the concept, as defined here, standing as it can for one’s family or for the whole of Japan, remains hazy. A view of behaviour which cannot clearly distinguish between the next-door neighbour and a foreigner is in danger of grossly simplifying the Japanese attitude towards different kinds of outsider.
There seems, however, something inappropriate about examining Morley’s reflections in too dry and rigorous a way. For one thing, they are offered more in a tone of enthusiastic speculation than of scientific detachment – a tone which the rough summaries above cannot convey – and even his less convincing theories remain hugely enjoyable, there being a sort of compelling thrill in the detective work which takes Morley from one thought to the next. Pictures from the Water Trade is indeed a highly emotional book. It is the story of a man who – for reasons left unstated in a most Japanese way – feels a powerful need to leave his own culture behind and become accepted by the Japanese. He succeeds so far as to find the inner doors closed to him. It is then quite fitting that he should view Japanese society in terms of uchi and its insider-outsider divides.
It is perhaps helpful to approach Pictures from the Water Trade less as a ‘study’ of Japanese society than as something closer to the ‘I-fiction’ (or ‘essay-fiction’) genre prevalent in modern Japanese writing. Typically, this is a form in which the author and central character are closely identified, there is no plot in the Western sense, and narrative is interspersed with passages of essay-writing, often of a highly subjective nature. Seen in this light, Morley’s use of the Boon character in preference to the first person – which looks oddly gratuitous much of the time, particularly during the pages of social analysis – is probably justified in terms of the book’s need to insist on its own essentially subjective nature. Indeed some parts of the book enter a more or less straightforward fictional mode. Midway through the book, for instance, we are presented with a sustained piece of narrative, the love affair between Boon and a bar-girl living in the provinces, which reads like a short story. The affair is doomed because, finally, the gulf between the Japanese and the outsider is too great: neither the girl nor the society around her will allow a foreigner to gain this degree of intimacy. One appreciates Morley’s strategy here: he wishes to convey in fiction what he cannot in his discursive or descriptive modes – the emotional hurt of suffering ultimate rejection at the hands of a society in which he has invested so much and from which he believed he was winning acceptance. All the more unfortunate, then, that his performance palls when writing ‘straight’ fiction: we are treated to a sort of Mills and Boon version of Kawabata’s Snow Country, and can only be thankful when it comes to a stop and Morley returns to his descriptions and discussions of the Japanese scene.
A pity, too, that the title of the book, like the opening ‘hook’ of the first chapter, implies that the ‘water trade’ – the night-time world of brothels, clubs and cabarets – is somehow a major concern of this book. It is not: in fact, the chapter towards the end describing the Tokyo red-light district is the most banal. Neither does the old Japanese term ‘water trade’, rich as it is in its evocation of the transient, illusory nature of the world of pleasure, serve any useful metaphorical function in respect of Morley’s vision of Japan. It is, rather, the Japanese house, the uchi, which deserves to be the central symbol of this absorbing book about one man’s attempt to penetrate an ultimately closed society.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.