Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa

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Looking to gain a competitive edge in her judo practice and maybe a fresh perspective on "meaning" in her own life, documentary filmmaker Karin Muller commits to living in Japan for a year to deepen her appreciation for such Eastern ideals as ritual and tradition. What she's after-more than understanding tea-serving etiquette or the historical importance of the shogun-is wa: a transcendent state of harmony, of flow, of being in the zone. With only her Western perspective to guide her, though, she discovers in ...
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Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa

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Looking to gain a competitive edge in her judo practice and maybe a fresh perspective on "meaning" in her own life, documentary filmmaker Karin Muller commits to living in Japan for a year to deepen her appreciation for such Eastern ideals as ritual and tradition. What she's after-more than understanding tea-serving etiquette or the historical importance of the shogun-is wa: a transcendent state of harmony, of flow, of being in the zone. With only her Western perspective to guide her, though, she discovers in sometimes awkward, sometimes awesomely funny interactions just how maddeningly complicated it is being Japanese.

Beginning with a strict code of conduct enforced by her impeccably proper host mother, Muller is initiated in the centuries-old customs that direct everyday interactions and underlie the principles of the sumo, the geisha, Buddhist monks, and now, in the 21st century, the workaholic, career-track salaryman. At the same time, she observes the relatively decadent behavior of the fast-living youth generation, the so-called New Human Beings, who threaten to ignore the old ways altogether.

Broad in scope, intimate in relationships, and deftly observed by an author with a rich visual sense of people and place, Japanland is as beguiling as this colorful country of contradictions.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Armed with a Nikon F100, a backpack, and a bilingual dictionary, documentary filmmaker Karin Muller spent an eventful year trekking through Japan. Except for six months' training with a Japanese judo instructor, she had scant direct experience with Eastern culture; but her improvised trip served as a crash course in traditional Japanese customs. While making her film, Muller also encountered the so-called New Human Beings: young, fast-living Japanese who ignore or defy the old ways completely. Japanland is the absorbing story of a journey that turned into a pilgrimage.
From the Publisher
"Karin Muller achieves a kind of harmonic 'wa' in this year in Japan by following that most intense journey, that of the self, in extremity. Whether challenged by the rigors of living in the hermetic world of a Japanese family, or flung about with an island cult, she maintains her composure and delight, and so do we."—Jacki Lyden, NPR senior correspondent and author of Daughter of the Queen of Sheba

"Muller is brash, intrepid . . . She's determined not only to track down what remains of traditional Japan but also to experience it herself—perhaps not the best way to find harmony, but certainly a better route to an entertaining book." —The New York Times Book Review

Leslie Downer
Muller's strength is her fresh eye. She watches as crowds in Osaka "waterfall" down the station steps; when her hostess is annoyed, "Yukiko shoots me a look that would drop a cockroach in its tracks"; and when Muller is thrown in a judo match, her "body hits the ground with a sound like a wet frog thrown against a piece of tile." It isn't at all clear that Muller actually does find wa, or that she was even looking for it in the first place. She does, however, succeed in completing her documentary.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Having previously traversed the Ho Chi Minh trail and the Inca path, Muller retains an engaging freshness as she goes about "prying open the doors to traditional Japan." She observes some well-known traditional communities (geishas, samurai), some less familiar (taiko drummers, pachinko parlors) and some more recent (the criminal yakuza, the gay community). A keen listener, Muller lets an ensemble of voices speak, among them a swordmaker and a crab fisherman. She's also a participatory learner, taking on tasks like harvesting rice. The diverse activities and excursions to far-flung places make this a fine travel memoir, but it's the backbone of Muller's voyage that gives her book resonance and richness. The deterioration of her relationship with her host family is a looming presence; even as it collapses, Muller acquires an intimate sense of customary values from the urbane Genji Tanaka and his conservative wife, Yukiko. Muller's search for the traditional, culminating in her participation in a 900-mile trek to 88 sacred Buddhist temples, also shapes the narrative. Muller went to Japan to find wa: a quality of dedication, inner strength and spiritual peace. Her memoir isn't an account of achieving those goals, but it is an engrossing, rewarding record of her travel toward them. Agent, Jodie Rhodes. (Sept.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Wa, roughly translated as "harmony," is a Japanese term that many foreigners try to come to terms with while attempting to understand and "explain" the Japanese. Muller, an American documentary filmmaker with a specific interest in judo, spent a year in Japan exploring various aspects of Japanese culture, including the more archaic ones like sword-making, fire-walking, sumo, and taiko; she even undertakes what turns out to be a disastrous pilgrimage to the 88 sacred places of the Shikoku Pilgrimage (on Japan's Shikoku island). While she provides sometimes provocative and entertaining vignettes of contemporary society on such topics as the homeless, the expats who have washed ashore in Japan for various reasons, and her attempts to "lose" an unwanted umbrella, she is prone to generalizations ("Japan is a shame culture, and I am ashamed of who I am") and complains too much about her problems with her host family and other self-imposed discomforts. The book release will be tied into a fall PBS companion documentary. Of the many books of this type, this is a mid-range choice for larger public libraries.-Harold M. Otness, formerly with Southern Oregon Univ. Lib., Ashland. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594865237
  • Publisher: Rodale Press, Inc.
  • Publication date: 10/31/2006
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 1,449,217
  • Product dimensions: 5.51 (w) x 8.52 (h) x 0.81 (d)

Meet the Author

KARIN MULLER's four-hour documentary series on Japan will air on public television in fall 2005. Her previous documentaries, Hitchhiking Vietnam and Along the Inca Road, premiered in 1998 (on PBS) and 2000 (on the National Geographic Channel and MSNBC), respectively. Muller is an expert lecturer on Japan for the National Geographic Society, and her writing appears in National Geographic and Traveler magazines. She appears on Marketplace and other National Public Radio broadcasts. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 3 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 4, 2006

    Close but still searching...

    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

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 9, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    One of my favorites :)

    Japanland is a fascinating look into the real Japan. Something about Mueller's desperation and struggles to fit into such a complicated society is upsetting and exasperating, while being endearing and peaceful. Mueller wrestles with finding her place in the Japanese community while keeping her quirky personality and searching for harmony. A gorgeous, amazing, pivotal, sometimes tiring and original read, and I highly recommend it to anyone who loves Japanese culture.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 27, 2006

    A reader's opinion

    Pick up Japanland, peruse a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter: sit next to an impeccably suited homeless salaryman, experience the Naked Festival, appreciate the generosity of strangers...read stories of blistered feet, a four pound umbrella, commuter crushes and bullet trains, geishas, pilgrimages, fermented soybeans, sake, honorific pronouns, gaijins, ninety year-old judo masters, sumo wrestlers, what taxis have to do with train schedules, midnight hunts for the noodle man, Japanese conformists and rebels, how to properly accept business cards, pachinko, ubiquitous vending machines, and a monk¿s answer to what is the meaning of life ^_^. Japanland is filled with interesting characters simply and honestly portrayed. With humor and humility Karin passionately searches for Wa, a year notwithstanding. Japanland is not so much fitting in, as much as it is finding and accepting who you are and those around you, realizing the very universal and human context involved in living within a culture we're born into. Sit awhile, Japanland is a literary conversation worth having.

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