As implied by the subtitle, A Year In Search of Wa, Karin Muller's book shapes up as a sort of contemporary Pilgrim's Progress, in which the writer undertakes a journey she hopes to be of benefit to her soul. For many years, Ms Muller says, she has been on a quest for "the meaning of life," and her focus has at last settled upon the "calm and inner strength" of her Japanese judo instructors in America. However, they have told her that to truly master judo, she needs to understand the philosophy behind it, and so to understand Japan. As she adds herself, this will mean "becoming Japanese." On a first level, then, her book sets out to recount the progress of a self that is thoroughly imbued with Western adventurousness and individualism, as it aspires to acquire the quietude and harmony (wa) that are implicit and omnipresent in traditional Japan. This is a promising subject. The paradox of a self striving to overcome itself guarantees dramatic interest, and insofar as most Westerners picking up this book are likely to be similarly curious about Japan and "wa" and possibly eager to attain some wa themselves, there is a sure complicity of writer and reader. Secondarily, as implied by the main title, Japanland, Muller's book functions as a conventional travelogue, relating impressions and experiences of assorted aspects of Japan in the chatty manner one might adopt in writing to a friend. Here again, the Western reader will generally follow Muller with complicit humor.
Initially, the book seems likely to live up to its potential. Muller gains our respect as she sets out with humble determination to "become Japanese," in particular conforming as well as she can to the customs of her home stay family, the Tanakas. She writes honestly, and is informative and entertaining as she describes her interactions with the family and along the way explains aspects of Japan (sumo, sword-making, the yakuza, Confucianism etc.) incidental to her story. Given all this, it is not hard to understand the positive reviews Japanland has had in America.
However, from the point of view of a reader living in Japan, it is hard not to have reservations. There are, to begin with, troubling errors and inaccuracies. Muller consistently refers to her home-stay town as "Fugisawa" where it is obvious that Fujisawa (in Kanagawa Prefecture) is meant. I cannot work out whether this is an awkward attempt to disguise Fujisawa, or whether it is sloppy editing on her or someone else's part. Certain statements are also erroneous. To say that there is a stigma on women who are not married by 30 may have been true ten years ago but it is wrong today. It is also untrue that one third of Japanese marriages are arranged. The most charitable interpretation here is that the manuscript became outdated while awaiting publication. Elsewhere, kojinshugi (individualism) is represented as kijinshugi. All this from someone who, having spent twelve months in Japan, is now, according to the blurb, an "expert lecturer on Japan for the National Geographic Society."
More seriously, as the story progresses, and particularly as the relationship between Muller and the Tanakas deteriorates, both writer and book become less appealing. We soon realize (and no doubt Muller does too) that our heroine is incapable of the sort of assimilation ("becoming Japanese") she first conjectured in the abstract. That this is so is not in itself a criticism of the author, although it does hamper the fulfillment of her task. However, Muller's avowed preference for "freedom" leads her at times into a do-what-I-want tactlessness. Home-stay mother Yukiko at one point criticizes the author for her lack of manners. Probably very few foreign visitors (and a minority of Japanese) would meet Yukiko's exacting standards, And yet there is some truth in Yukiko's remark. Be it manners or tact, something lacks, and one winces here or cringes there as a result. At the yabusame training ground, she reports taking up a position "a foot below the target, trying to get some footage of the archer shooting directly into the camera lens." At another point, she alienates a guide at the Yamabushi training by implying that she knows better than he does. Consistent with this is the way she treats the Tanakas. When her relationship with them is breaking down, she begins to live entirely independently, but continues to avail herself of their home. At this point, they no longer invite her to talk or eat with them (a sure sign that their hospitality is at an end) and yet instead of taking the hint, she stays on and seems surprised when her much later offer to leave is immediately accepted. Consider especially that home-stay father Genji graciously accepted Muller into his home with a view to her learning more of judo. There is no indication given that the Tanakas accepted to have their home life and dealings with others laid out for the world to read. To publish this book, and profit from it, grossly defies the awareness of on (indebtedness) that Muller professes to have on pp69-75.
Despite all this, in her acknowledgements, she writes that she would like to meet her home-stay family again "and perhaps be friends." Tactful?
And what of the search for wa? In the final pages, the writer takes part in the famous Shikoku pilgrimage. Aesthetically, it is an appropriate ending, the culmination of the quest, but has Muller made any real progress? I suspect not. As fastidious as she makes out Yukiko to be, she herself is ultimately just as fastidious in her obdurate individualism. Despite the genuine aspiration that was her first impetus, in the end Japan appears to have served for her as just another pretext for stimulus, activity, a head-on "tackling" of destiny. One has less an impression of unity and harmony than of restlessness and multiplicity. There is little to be learned here about living in harmony with one's self or others.
As a travelogue, the book has some value, but it is limited. The primary theme being the quest of wa, inevitably there is heavy emphasis on traditional spiritual elements of Japan (judo, sumo, Yabusame, the Yamabushi, taiko drums, kabuki, geisha, the Zentsuji naked festival, the Shikoku pilgrimage). She writes well enough on these matters, but it is hard to maintain this bias toward the traditional without appearing to privilege a "mysterious Japan," as criticized by some reviewers on this site, and indeed by some Japanese of my acquaintance. The unfortunate title does nothing to alter such an impression: Disneyland, Legoland, Japanland. A place away from reality that one comes to for wonder and amusement.
All in all, this is an honest work, generally well written, that will entertain as long as one identifies resolutely with Muller herself, her individualism and her picaresque adventures. Look beyond this, place her in a Japanese perspective, and her ever-bustling, at times gauche, accumulation of experience comes to seem trivial, a little whirlwind in nothing, too breathless to touch the placid wisdom she vowed to seek. In consequence, even if laudable as the faithful record of a personal failure, Japanland comes across as naïve and over-reaching in its project to enlighten. By the final page, we know that Muller was too stubbornly full of self to be up to the task. Given her short acquaintance with the country, her newfound status as a Japan "expert" seems likewise overstated.
Finally, for reasons I stated earlier, as an act, publishing this book would appear to be all the opposite of wa.