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Posted January 4, 2006
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Ever since the days of Commodore Matthew Perry¿s first visit to Japan in 1853, Americans have been trying to solve the riddle of the Japanese psyche. And of course, many of these observers turned writers tried to pass along their various revelations to the masses, often with varying degrees of success. The best of these accounts include Lafcadio Hearn¿s Glimpses of Japan (1894), Ruth Benedict¿s Chrysanthemum and Sword (1946), Donald Richie¿s The Land and People of Japan (1960), Edwin Reischauer¿s The Japanese (1978), Robert Christopher¿s The Japanese Mind (1984) and again Reischauer in Japan Today: Change and Continuity (2004). All of the aforementioned authors spent numerous years in Japan. Some, like Donald Richie, have lived and written about Japan for over 50 years. And yet travelogue author and documentary filmmaker Karin Muller set out to capture and to detail the essence of one of Japan¿s most fundamental values in only one year of residence¿the venerated value of Wa or harmony in her new book, Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa. Muller is no neophyte when it comes to Asia¿her exhaustive travels through Vietnam led to the financially successful 1998 book, Hitchhiking Vietnam: A Woman's Solo Journey in an Elusive Land as well a video documentary based on her writings. Still, with substandard Japanese tell-all books being a published at an ever increasingly rapid rate over the past 20 years, I was naturally quite skeptical as to whether or not Ms. Muller had even given herself enough time to fully understand what Japanese Wa really is¿let alone reap the benefits of its ways. Ms. Muller¿s impetus for setting off to Japan was directly related to the fact she felt a certain spiritual emptiness in her life. As she put it, she was living in D.C. in a ¿soulless¿ apartment ¿casually dating a divorce lawyer who was casually dating at least two other women.¿ At age 37, she felt it was time to leave the trappings of the corporate environs and hit the road once again. But why Japan? For over eleven years, Ms. Muller had been practicing the Japanese art of Judo¿judo is an offshoot of the more traditional martial art form of jujitsu. She appreciated its discipline, focus, and the inner peace and calm one could experience through the sport. As luck would have it, one of her Judo classmates, was able to provide her with a homestay in Tokyo at the house of a successful Japanese businessman in his late 50¿s who also happened to be a sixth-degree black belt. This man, Genji Tanaka, would become her teacher and introduce her to life in Japan¿all of this rent and hassle free¿at least that is what Karin Muller thought. Not surprisingly, much of the first third of the book deals with Ms. Muller¿s struggles to properly fit in. Mr. Tanaka¿s wife, Yukiko, is a very traditional shufu or Japanese housewife, albeit a rich one. For one supposedly searching to understand the values of harmony, the author is very stubborn and set in her ways. She constantly fights with Yukiko over a whole slew of household dramas like food shopping, laundry, cooking, gardening, etc. At times, Ms. Muller saw the folly of her ways but in the end, one gets the impression she was too ¿Western¿ in her values to truly accept and fit in with Tanaka¿s wife¿Wa was not achieved¿even though Ms. Muller vowed ¿to follow all the rules.¿ The longer Karin Muller spends in Japan the more she feels the need not only to get away from the Tanaka household but also to search out for the vestiges of traditional Japan still present in the modern culture. Although I still find it ironic that she literally must leave her homestay before the year is up due to the constraints she feels while living under the Tanakas (the departure scene in her book is anything but harmonious), the second two-thirds of the book finds her free to explore and yes, to delve deeply into some Japanese time-honored ways of life. Ms. Muller spends most of her time traveling and meeting u
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