Japanland: A Year in Search of Waby Karin Muller
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 aftermore than understanding tea-serving etiquette or the historical importance of
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 aftermore than understanding tea-serving etiquette or the historical importance of the shogunis 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.
“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
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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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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
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.
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.