I recently discovered Alan Booth's two seminal books on Japan (The Roads to Sata and Looking for the Lost) and a friend also recommended his highly subjective guidebook, Japan: Land Of Myths And Legends (1992) which is sadly out of print. Why sadly? This is a general overview of Japan and even though it was written in 1992, it still offers some refreshingly and highly accurate opinions on Japan and Japanese society. It is spiritually akin to Donald Richie's classic To the Inland Sea (which is also a highly subject book with several opinionated views on Japan and its society). Booth's text is accompanied by some stunning photographs by photographer Ken Straiton and selected passages culled from a variety of writers (foreigners and Japanese authors in translation) throughout the book (e.g. Lafcadio Hearne, Pierre Loti, Commodore Perry, Yasunari Kawabata, Murasaki Shibata, Richard Gordon Smith, Katsuzo Osda, Shimazaki Toson, Eugene Herrigel, Kenzaburo Oe, Isabella Bird, John Davide Morely). Furthermore there are special passages explaining different aspects of Japanese culture and customs: Japanese Theater, Religion in Japan, Tohoku's Four Great Summer Festivals, Japanese Music, Lavatories, Baths, and Other Headaches, Arts, Martial and Polite. The book is organized by regions and Booth starts with the most popular Tokyo and the Kanto Region, Nara, Kyoto and the Kinki Region, The Tohoku Region, The Chubu Region, Hiroshima and the Chugoku Region, The Inland Sea and Shikoku, Kyushu and ending with Okinawa and the Southern Islands. In the Tokyo and Kanto region he has divided the section into smaller subsections: Tokyo: History, Size, Crowds, Chaos Character, Historical Tokyo, Institutional Tokyo, Fluid Tokyo, Tokyo's Islands, and The Rest of the Kanto Region. And in Nara, Kyoto and the Kinki Region, the subsection s are: The Ancient Capitals, their History, their Primacy, Nara, In Nara Prefecture, Kyoto, Kyoto: The Skin, Kyoto: The Belly, Kyoto: The Bones, Festive Kyoto, In Kyoto Prefecture, The Rest of the Kinki Region. Some of the other sections also have subsections as well. I have to say that I was impressed that Booth points out that in the Hiroshima section that the atomic bomb memorials are presented entirely out of context with no suggestions that they were engaged in a war of aggression-a person with no knowledge about the war would have thought the bomb was dropped on Japan without provocation. In his book, The Roads To Sata, he writes of being upset by the war museum, so he obviously did some reading and soul searching since then (I believe it was some 15-20 years earlier). He also suggests that visitor do some serious reading about it before making rash judgements about the event-which I feel was a bold move in 1992 (the publication of the book)-the height of the Hiroshima Revisionists movement (critics who suggested that Japan would have surrender soon without the provocation of the bombs).
There are some great observations throughout the book, so I'd like to highlight some of the most interesting ones:
"More thorough nonsense must be spoken and written about Japan than about any comparably developed nation."
Regarding the two main results of sakoku (the Japanese national policy of seclusion from 1634-1854: "The first was an almost mystical attachment to one's 'home country' (furasato)." "The second result was that travel to distant parts of the country obtained an aura of romance which has hardly diminished in modern times."
"An all-year-round phenomena is the supposed difficulty raised by the 'language barrier', though this tends to weigh more heavily on the Japanese consciousness than it does on the average foreign visitor.
"The Nichgeki Music Hall in Yurakucho was not so fortunate and is the most recent of the capital's well-known landmarks to vanish, having been replaced by a vast prison-like building called Yurakucho Mullion, housing newspaper offices, banks, a concert hall, five cinemas and two department stores."
"Many of Hakone's hotels earn most of their income not from couples or families, but from large groups, such as associations of traders, who arrive en masse in hired buses and get as helplessly drunk as they can in the shortest possible time. This is called experiencing nature."
"But nor can there be any doubt in a sane mind that the cities of Nara and Kyoto together cradle, nursery and full-blown flower of Japanese culture. To avoid them or omit them for want of time is an act of stupendous folly."
"Kyoto's beauty is not like Nara's-monumental, expansive,public. Kyoto's beauty is elusive and has to be sought out with patience and forethought."
"Osaka's chief contribution to Japanese life has been the unapologetic, cut-throat mercantile instinct."
"Eventually Japanese bureaucrats will probably draw up a hierarchical list of the 'Three Most Beautiful Suspension Bridges' and their 'Eight Most Scenic Struts.'"
"Japanese people are wont to bemoan Westerner's alleged habit of regarding Mount Fuji and geisha girls as the twin symbols of the nation while willfully ignoring the cultural assets that the Japanese themselves are most proud, such as silicon chips."
"As with certain beautiful women, it is best to maintain as distant a relationship as possible with Mount Fuji. Not to see it is a deprivation, but to see it too close is to court the waning of a dream."
"The Japanese often complain...about their shimaguni konjo (islander's complex), by which they mainly mean their insular cast of thought that comes from being entirely surrounded by the sea. The 'consequences of this complex have been many--notably, the forced closure of the country under the Tokugawas, and at all other periods the impulse to simultaneously distrust, admire, resists, and possess anything and everything that comes from abroad."
"Nor can one be long in the Peace Park (Hiroshima) and its museum without noticing a number of unsettling circumstances, chief of which, perhaps, is the complete absence of any historical context. It is as though the bomb fell on Hiroshima, figuratively as well as literally, out of the blue."
"As Nagasaki's bomb is the forgotten bomb compared with Hiroshima's, so Shikoku, the smallest of Japan's four main islands is, as far as tourism is concerned, the forgotten island."
"Older residents of of Sapporo treasure found memories of an avenue called entertainment quarter, famous throughout the island for its geisha, who found no difficulty in relieving patrons of the contents of their wallets with as much facility as the badger, an animal noted in folklore for its skill in that field."
"The Tokyo bus system is wonderfully arcane, and the newcomer is advised to train himself on the madalas of the Shingon sect before attempting to tackle it."
"A bar in Japan usually denotes a place where your drink will be poured for you by a 'hostess' who will sit beside you, flatter you, accept your offer of drinks in return, and charge you five times more than you ever dreamed of paying. ata cabert, in return for the entire contents of your wallet, you will be permitted to grope the hostess under the table."
So there is a strong sense of Booth and his perspective on Japan in this book that makes it noteworthy. Although some of the information is outdated, it is an enjoyable and informative look at a complicated and fascinating country through the eyes of an irreverent Englishman.