Leesfragment: Lost Japan

22 juli 2020 , door Alex Kerr
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Nu met 20% zomerkorting: de beste non-fictie van Penguin in pocket. Bijvoorbeeld Alex Kerrs Lost Japan: Last Glimpse of Beautiful Japan. Tijd voor een fragment.

An enchanting and fascinating insight into Japanese landscape, culture, history and future.

Originally written in Japanese, this passionate, vividly personal book draws on the author's experiences in Japan over thirty years. Alex Kerr brings to life the ritualized world of Kabuki, retraces his initiation into Tokyo's boardrooms during the heady Bubble Years, and tells the story of the hidden valley that became his home.

But the book is not just a love letter. Haunted throughout by nostalgia for the Japan of old, Kerr's book is part paean to that great country and culture, part epitaph in the face of contemporary Japan's environmental and cultural destruction.

Winner of Japan's Shincho Gakugei Literature Prize, and now with a new preface.


Chapter 1
Uit: Alex Kerr, Lost Japan
Looking for a Castle

The Egg in the Dungeon

When I was six, I wanted to live in a castle. I suppose many children dream of living in a castle, but as they grow older the dream is forgotten. However, in my case this desire lingered on until adulthood. My father was a legal officer with the United States Navy, and we lived for a time in Naples, Italy. There was a castle on an island in the harbor called the Castel dell’Ovo (Castle of the Egg). Legend has it that Virgil had presented an egg to the castle, and had prophesied that if the egg ever broke, the castle would be destroyed. But after hundreds of years the egg was still intact in the dungeon, the Castel dell’Ovo still stood, and I wanted to live there.
Practically every day, when my father returned home from work, I would follow him about, repeating, ‘I want to live in a castle.’ I was extremely persistent, so one day my father grew exasperated and told me, ‘A great landlord called Mr Nussbaum owns all the castles in the world, so when you grow up you can rent one from him.’ From that time on, I waited expectantly for the day when I could meet Mr Nussbaum.
A typical Navy family, we moved constantly. From Naples, my father was transferred to Hawaii, where we lived by the beach on the windward side of Oahu. Sometimes, large green glass balls encrusted with barnacles floated in on the tide. My father told me that the fishermen in Japan used them to keep their nets afloat. Torn from the nets by storms, the balls floated all the way across the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii. This was my first experience of ‘Japan’.
When I was nine, we moved to Washington, DC. I entered a private school there, which taught Latin and Chinese to elementary school students. The school was at once hopelessly behind and ahead of the times. Stern Mrs Wang, our teacher, made sure that we copied our Chinese characters correctly, hundreds to a page. For most of the other students it was drudgery, but I loved the look and feel of the characters. Mrs Wang showed us pictures of Beijing, of temples perched on mountain precipices, and in the process memories of Italy faded and my daydreams began to focus on China.
After three years at the Pentagon, my father was transferred to Japan, and in 1964 we went to live at the US naval base in Yokohama; I was then twelve years old. This was the year Japan hosted the Olympics. In retrospect, 1964 was a great turning point for Japan. The previous twenty years had been spent rebuilding a nation that had been devastated by World War II. The next thirty years were to see an economic boom unprecedented in history, as Japan transformed itself into the richest country in the world.
Although the American Occupation had ended in 1952, signs of the US military presence were everywhere in Yokohama, from the special currency we were issued to foil the black market (printed with the faces of movie stars instead of presidents) to the ubiquitous military police. Outside the military base, the few foreigners living in Yokohama made up a small group of longtime expatriates, many of whom had been living there for decades. The yen was 360 to the US dollar, four times the rate today, and the foreigners lived well. My mother’s childhood friend Linda Beech was living in Tokyo and had gained great notoriety as a teacher of English on TV. She would appear underwater in scuba gear and shout, ‘I’m drowning! That’s d.R.( not L).o.w.n.i.n.g!’ Linda was the first of the ‘TV foreigners’ who now populate Japan’s airwaves in great numbers. Today, foreigners in Tokyo eke out a living in cramped apartments; in contrast, Linda and a group of expat families owned villas at Misaki, on the coast.
I was excited to find that the Chinese characters I had learned in Washington were also used in Japan. Within a few weeks I had taught myself hiragana and katakana (the two Japanese alphabets), and once I could read train and bus signs, I started exploring Yokohama and Tokyo on my own. When the weekend came, Tsuru-san, our maid, packed a boxed lunch for me, and I traveled the train lines south to Odawara Castle, and north to Nikko. People were always friendly to an American boy asking directions in Japanese. Slowly, my interest in China shifted to an interest in Japan.
Although the country was poised on the verge of a huge economic boom, the old Japan was still visible. All around Yokohama, even in the heart of the city, there were green hills, and many traditional old neighborhood streets remained. I was particularly captivated by the sea of tiled roofs. On the streetcars, most women over forty wore kimono in fall and winter. Western-style shoes were still something of an innovation, and I used to enjoy studying the footwear of streetcar passengers, which consisted of a mixture of sandals, geta (wooden clogs) and some truly amazing purple plastic slippers. After dusk fell, you could often hear the clopping sound of geta echoing through the streets.
My favorite things were the Japanese houses. At that time there were still many magnificent old Japanese houses in Yokohama and Tokyo. Linda Beech had introduced my mother to a women’s group called the Nadeshiko-Kai (Society of Pinks), so-named because Japanese women are supposed to be as lovely as nadeshiko flowers (pinks). In those days consorting with foreigners was still something special, and the Nadeshiko-Kai drew its Japanese membership from the elite. Once a month, the ladies would visit each other’s homes, so there were many opportunities for me to view great houses, as I was able to go along as well.
Among the houses I visited was a large estate at Hayama, a resort town near Misaki, about an hour south of Yokohama. I recall being told that the house belonged to the Imperial Family, but it seems inconceivable today that the Imperial villa would have been made available to US military personnel, even in those twilight post-Occupation years. The estate must have been merely in the neighborhood of the Imperial villa. At the Hayama villa, I saw neat tatami mats for the first time. From the sunny rooms on the second floor, Mt Fuji could be seen floating in the distance.
Another great house was the mansion of former prime minister Shigeru Yoshida in Tokyo, featuring an enormous living room with dozens of tatami mats under a huge coffered ceiling. My favorite place was the little complex of Japanese-style country houses belonging to Linda Beech and her friends on the Misaki coast. I can still vividly recall the rows of pine trees atop the cliffs at Misaki, blowing in the ocean breeze.
The grand old Japanese houses were not just houses. Each house was a ‘program’ — designed to unfold and reveal itself in stages, like unrolling a handscroll. I remember my first visit to the house of one of the ladies of the Nadeshiko-Kai. Outside, high walls gave no indication of the interior. We entered through a gate, passed through a garden, and continuing on, met another gate, another garden, and only then the genkan, or entranceway (literally, ‘hidden barrier’).
On arriving at the genkan, we were surprised to find that the lady of the house got down on her knees to greet us, her head touching the tatami. It was the sort of greeting royalty might receive; it made me feel that entering this house was a great occasion. Once inside, we passed along a hallway; this was followed by a small room and another hallway. Finally, we reached a spacious living room, absolutely empty except for some flowers in the tokonoma (alcove). It was summer, the doors to the hallways and living rooms had been removed, and a breeze from the garden swept through the whole house from one end to the other. However, only the surrounding passageways received light from the garden, so it was dark inside the large tatami room. A secret space removed from the outside world, it conjured up the feeling that I had been transported back to an ancient time, long before I was born. To me, that house had become my ‘castle’: I knew that Japan was where I wanted to live my life.
In 1966 we moved back to Washington, DC. After graduating from high school in 1969, I entered the Japanese Studies program at Yale University. However, the course was not what I expected. Japanese Studies at the time revolved almost wholly around economic development, post-Meiji government, ‘theories of Japaneseness’ (known as Nihonjinron), and so on, and deep inside I began to wonder if Japan really was the country I wanted to live in. In order to put my doubts to rest, during the summer of 1971 I hitchhiked all around Japan, from the northern island of Hokkaido to the southern tip of Kyushu.
This trip took two months, and during that time I was treated extraordinarily well. It was an easy time for foreigners. The Japanese have always tended to treat foreigners like creatures from another universe. As Japan has become more internationalized, the attitude towards foreigners has grown more, rather than less, complicated. But in those days, outside the big cities, there was only tremendous curiosity: I would be deluged with questions about the American school system, about my parents, my family, my clothing, everything. Old ladies would pinch the hair on my arms to see if it was real; the men of the families I met couldn’t wait to get me into a public bath to see if what they had heard about foreigners was true. In two months I only spent three nights in a hotel – the rest of the time, people I met on the road would invite me to stay in their homes.
While I was deeply impressed by the kindness of the Japanese, I reaped another benefit from the trip as well. This was my discovery of Japan’s natural environment.



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