The Lady and The Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto
by Pico Iyer
Random House, 338 pages $29
Pico Iyer is a tireless traveller. Born in England to professor parents of East Indian descent, the thirtysomething Iyer studied at Eton, Oxford and Harvard, and now, between assignments for Time magazine, lives in Santa Barbara, California. He's supremely confident, engaging and smart as a whip - a quintessential American.
For his first book, Video Nights In Kathmandu (1988), Iyer made journalistic incursions into ten Asian countries, including Bali, Tibet, Thailand, and Japan, devoting a chapter to each. He found Japan the most alien and complex nation, "the world's most important Significant Other." He ended that collection with a series of questions about Japan which he tries to answer in his new book: "How could a culture promiscuously import everything Western, yet still seem impenetrably Eastern? How did the place remain so devoted to its traditions, even as it was addicted to modernity and change? And how on Earth could a land of ineffable aesthetic refinement, redecorate its home with the forms of cartoon kitties?"
For answers, Iyer learned some Japanese and spent a year in Kyoto - walking the streets, visiting temples, meeting people, taking notes.
In current travel-book style, Iyer writes as much about his personality as about Japan, providing few facts but plenty of first-hand impressions. He begins in the autumn of 1987 and ends a year later, and while the situations he describes are thoroughly modern, the subjects he concentrates on are the same as those found in the earliest writing by outsiders who've studied Japan - religion and romance.
The monk in the title is, in the best Zen tradition, a paradox - an American from San Francisco, a graduate of monastic life and a 15-year disciple of master painters of the Sumi-e school (traditional Oriental brush painting). Americans, we learn, especially those of the ex-hippie variety, are the most diligent Zen followers, along with those Japanese who inherit temples and must learn how to run the family business.
Romance - the lady - provides deeper insights. In her recent book, Japan Through American Eyes, another Californian, Sheila K. Johnson, explains that most American men have come to understand Japan through "pillowing." J. Townsend Harris, the first American envoy to Japan, had a liaison with a celebrated geisha. Lafcadio Hearn's writing on Japan in the early years of this century relied heavily on the knowledge he received through his Japanese wife. In novels, too, the women of Japan have served as mentors and guides, as in James Michener's Sayonara (1955) and James Clavell's Shogun (1975).
It is now Iyer's turn to be shown the lunar landscape of this "alien" culture by the adorable and fascinating Sachiko, a married woman with two young children and an all-but-invisible salaried husband. In her house, Monet prints hang beside pictures of Paddington Bear. She wears mini-skirts or kimonos, as the occasion demands, listens to Sting or Norwegian rock, loves the films of Spielberg and hates those of Kurosawa. In the middle of a Bryan Adams concert, she turns to Iyer and recites a passage from Manyoshu, a collection of 8th-century Japanese lyrics.
For all this, we are told, Sachiko is a true Romantic, raised in a language where the words for "love" and "grief" are homonyms, almost synonyms, where memory or promise are prized more than the thing itself, and longing (even while she and our author share an Earth-moving experience) is better than love.
Sachiko tries to prepare herself, emotionally, for Iyer's departure: "I want build strong heart so when you go, I not so sad."
She leaves her husband and studies to become, with no apparent irony, an international tour guide. She should be a huge success. She has already led Iyer to some remarkable conclusions about female Japan, the reverse side of Japan, Inc. Iyer observes the lives of a wide circle of Sachiko's friends, young matrons who are free during the long hours when their husbands and children are busy elsewhere. They take lessons in everything from flower arranging to accounting, manage the family finances, and fill their apartments with the latest gadgets. What Iyer sees is the equivalent of suburban America in the Eisenhower era. He predicts there will be widespread changes in "the emotional welfare system" which has for so long controlled life in Japan, offering to both its male and female beneficiaries, an existence so convenient that no one has noticed the freedom they've lost. Until now.
As the book ends Sachiko is an outcast from most of her family and many of her contemporaries. Would this be true if Iyer had not come - and gone - from her life? Did their love affair grow spontaneously, the result of fate or karma? Or did the writer manufacture it to fill his book? Is Sachiko a modern version of Madam Butterfly, facing isolation instead of suicide? Or is she part of the vanguard who should thank Iyer for her freedom? It's a puzzle Iyer is unable to solve. Readers who appreciate this glimpse into the private world of domestic Japan may remain uneasy, as I do, about the way the author's knowledge was acquired.