Japan (3) – Legless in Ginza

July 9, 2009

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Robin Gerster, Legless in Ginza: orientating Japan. Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1999.

Chp.1 Into the Inferno (Todai-Tokyo University). Chp.2 Riding Santa’s Surfboard (Australian Studies in Japan). Chp.3. Fault Lines (Australians writing on Japan). Chp.4: The Big Smoke (Edo); Chp.5. Out of Edo I (Hokkaido); Chp.6. Out of Edo II (Unzen, Nikko, Hiroshima, Kyoto); Chp.7 Boomerang Japan.

I dip into this book at regular intervals. Like most books written about Japan (and who can’t not write about Japan and the Japan experience) it reads like a Japanese scroll – you open it up at wherever and read to wherever. I personally find the bouncy tone a little grating here and there. I can see what he’s doing with his teaching colleagues he describes in his Tokyo University post, since the authorial presence peeps through only occasionally. There is something of the retreat from the real world in this common room and its occupants, the dualism that is characteristic also of the film Lost in Translation.

It is ultimately a book of its time, the high times of Tokyo pre-bubble, and to his credit, Gerster is very even-handed, for example in his interest on San’ya in Tokyo, alongside Ginza. Having witnessed first-hand the homelessness in Osaka, I can begin to appreciate what’s he writing about – the contrast of a man sleeping in a large cardboard box amid a forest of skyscrapers.

I found his descriptions of Tokyo extremely interesting, as also his sojourn to Hokkaido for a complete change of scene – a Hokkaido before the onset of Australian skiing entrepreneurs. Having neither been to either, I approach them via Osaka and Kyoto, but get a full flavour-burst of them: a bit like an enthusiastic concert reviewer reviewing a concert you have yet to attend. The struggle between Kyoto and Tokyo in the modern era comes up again and again, here as in Kerr’s Lost Japan. Whether or not prompted by Kerr, I certainly felt it in Kyoto when either observing the heavy-lidded world-weary establishment Kyotoites (with their bowing bordering on being almost a religious experience) and visiting Tokyoites thoroughly exasperated by the veils of indecisiveness of the Kyoto locals. 

I am in total agreement with Gerster about the significance for example of train travel in Japan; in this regard, I am always struck by the poignant use in trains and subway carriages in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away every time I watch it.

He appears to get most personal when discussing Hiroshima, but what I found most illuminating was his quite detailed and thorough examination of Australian writing about Japan from the earliest impressions down to the present. I will certainly keep coming back to this and the issue of perceptions of Japan by Australians and by the Japanese of Australia he discusses. I am certainly motivated to go to the various authors mentioned for more insights.

This book makes a great change from reading some of the much earlier Australian authors on Japan, mainly I guess because the information is more current and meaningful – where the War seems to have less of a long shadow – , though Japan has moved into the very protracted post-1990s era of dourness from my experience. I certainly appreciate the underlay of dry Australian humour throughout. Probably not ideal for an American audience (though he loses no opportunity to bring Americans into the fold), but a thoroughly excellent read for any interested Australian.

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