I have briefly mentioned about Alan Booth in the previous entry, a friend of my seminar professor, who trampled a whole 2000 mile by foot, from the northern tip of Japan (Cape Soya in Hokkaido) all the way to the southern tip (Sata in Kagoshima). And he wrote this book, describing his adventures in this tumultuous 4-month trip in 1977, named The Roads to Sata. My professor lent me this book last week and I have been engrossed in it every other moment of my free time. I have only covered slightly more than half of the book so far, but it has undoubtedly been one of the most entertainingly sarcastic books about Japan I have ever read (not that I have read much, though).
Alan Booth had lived in Japan for seven years before embarking on this crazy walking adventure, but that being in 1977, when Japan’s doors to foreigners were still padded with giant steel locks, and the only full sentences Japanese could recite off their minds were “My name is…” and “This is a pen”. (Sarcasm heavily influenced by Alan Booth) Every time I read this book in public, I have to take note to cover my face with the book as I laugh and spit saliva into it, and restrain myself from bursting into fits.
As you read on, I would advise you to constantly remind yourself that this took place in 1977, more than 30 years ago, so that you might be able to appreciate and understand better in context.
The book starts off with a blatant bashing of the geographical knowledge outside Japan of Japanese back then, or the lack thereof. In this scene, he meets a teacher and a group of elementary schools.
Their teacher introduced them to the Thing from Outer Space.
“Now, children, here’s an Englishman who comes from England. Do you know where England is, Kazuko-chan?”
“Zutto mukou (far away)”
“And do you think you can find it on our map?”
A battered metal globe had been dragged out to the front of the class and the four children clustered round it, wriggling.
“No, Kazuko-chan, that’s Saudi Arabia. This is England,” said Mr. Obata, tapping Iceland.
There is also sarcasm in the “mechanical politeness” many Japanese possess, of which some people defend it to be “professionalism”. This scene took place at Sapporo tower when Alan Booth took the elevator up.
The young women who operate the lifts at Sapporo Tower are well trained. As soon as the lifts are full they turn their backs on the passengers and politely address the instrument panels.
“Many thanks for……(long speech omitted)”
The lift floats to a halt, the doors swish open, the instrument panel is thanked for its patronage, and the passengers drift across to the plate-glass windows and grin down at the city spread below them.
And another scene where Alan Booth was riding a boat, surrounded by “beautiful” mountains, as the boat operator/ guide introduced the mountains to them.
“If you will kindly turn and look to your left, you will see Mount Yotei.”
We turned to our left. The mist was so thick that we couldn’t even see the shore.
“What a beautiful mountain- the Mount Fuji of Ezo! And to the right you can see Mount Usu and the new mountains called Meiji Shinzan and Showa Shinzan.”
We turned to the right and stared at a gray wall. No mountains, no buildings, no land of any kind.
The thing that Alan Booth criticized the most was how Japanese, from small kids to old grandfathers and grandmothers, often ostracize or make fun of him because of his gaijin (foreigner) appearance, despite having lived in Japan for seven years, having a Japanese wife, and being able to speak fluent Japanese (apparently).
My eleventh day opened on a cloudy sky and four more little boys who pursued me on bicycles, screaming “Gaijin! Gaijin!” When they had overtaken me, they blocked my path with their bicycles and stood scowling up at my open-mouthed. “Ufu! Mite! Eigo no hito da! (Look, it’s an English-speaking man!)” I suggested to them in Japanese that they might like to move their bicycles. They turned away, crestfallen: “Ara! Eigo ja nakatta! (Oh no, it wasn’t English after all!)”
There were constant (perhaps too many) instances where people came up to him and called him a “gaijin” or laughed at him doing Japanese things which gaijins are not expected to be able to do. He critically drew out many examples of how parents tell their children “Look, that’s a gaijin!” or “Apologize to the gaijin!”. I guess one main theme of this book is about ryokans (Japanese styled inns), where he devoted a huge portion of the book to his experiences finding ryokans and the difficulties in doing so because many ryokans simply do not accept foreigners. The most humorous and thought-provoking encounter is the following, which probably sums up all the other experiences he had had.
Dusk came on fast and at half past six it was night. In the village of Atsumi the woman at the ryokan door stood twisting her apron about in her fists.
“Are there any rooms free?” I asked with an encouraging smile.
“Well, yes, there are, but we haven’t got any beds. We sleep on mattresses on the floor.”
“Yes, I know,” I said. “I’ve lived in Japan for seven years.”
“And you won’t be able to eat the food.”
“Why, what’s the matter with it?”
“I like fish.”
“But it’s raw fish.”
“Look, I’ve lived in Japan for seven years. My wife’s Japanese. I like raw fish.”
“But I don’t think we’ve got any knives and forks.”
“And you can’t use chopsticks.”
“Of course I can. I’ve lived in Japan for…”
“But it’s a tatami-mat room and there aren’t any armchairs.”
“And there’s no shower in the bathroom. It’s an o-furo.”
“I use chopsticks at home. I sit on tatami. I eat raw fish. I use an o-furo. I’ve lived in Japan for seven years. That’s nearly a quarter of my life. My wife…”
“Yes,” moaned the woman, “but we can’t speak English.”
“I don’t suppose that will bother us,” I sighed. “We’ve been speaking Japanese for the last five minutes.”
I must agree that this could be the stereotypical image of foreigners Japanese had had, though I must also qualify that this phenomenon gradually declining nowadays, and Japanese are slowly starting to accept the existence, or rather the co-existence, of foreigners in this country. I am looking forward to finish reading the second half of the book, and perhaps I could learn some tricks from Alan Booth on how to write interesting stories like this, though I doubt I will be imitating his style, for the book I am writing is going to be in Japanese, for Japanese readers, and such blatant mockery and sarcasm will probably not be very much welcomed.