Living Among Incompatibles

Travel Stories: Why Japan has the best mind Pico Iyer has encountered in a lifetime of traveling

07.20.09 | 10:46 AM ET

Torii in JapanPhoto by tiseb via Flickr, (Creative Commons)

I walked into the center of old Kyoto not long ago and found myself in a scene from a Hiroshige painting. Huge floats containing ancestral treasures stood on the narrow lanes at the heart of the ancient capital, while rows of lanterns bobbed above the wooden houses. Old men played piercing melodies on bamboo flutes, and little boys, wearing blue headbands to match their yukata, or cotton kimono, thumped away on drums. Along the Kamo River, which runs through the “Moon Capital” like a lifeline, couples were seated on wooden platforms under the stars, red lanterns (with white plovers on them) lighting up their faces as in a novel by Yasunari Kawabata. Even at the busiest intersections, women in indigo kimono were standing, picture-perfect, under parasols.

Yet when the floats began to move through the busy streets, in the great summer festival of Gion Matsuri, I started to notice other things below the classic surfaces. Many of the men in white-and-blue yukata, chanting a traditional song in unison, had the dragon tattoos of gangsters across their bare chests. Many of the young women running after them were teetering on 8-inch platform heels, their hair bright yellow and their skins artificially tanned in the fashion of the moment. Even some of the tiniest little boys were calling their mothers on tiny cell phones. The ancient rites were observed solemnly, with dignity and elegance; but they were woven into and around and through the most garish of modern Western artifacts. As if (as often happens) a geisha were carrying a boom box into a traditional inn.

When first I came to Japan, more than 20 years ago, these contradictions—and the serenity with which the culture lived among them—startled me every day. If the test of a first-rate mind, as Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, is the ability to hold two opposed ideas at the same time, and still keep going, then Japan, I thought, had the best mind I’d encountered in a lifetime of traveling. And in the years that have followed, the extremes have in some ways intensified, as much of Japan streaks into a mongrel, high-tech, science fictive future, while the rest remains more firmly rooted in the old than any culture that I know, including China’s. There are TVs on the dashboards of taxis in Kyoto, but most Japanese people were slower to get onto the Internet than the people of Cambodia were.

As I’ve stayed longer in Japan, though, living here on and off for almost a decade, I’ve come to think that contradiction is in many ways in the eye of the beholder, and that part of the magic of this place is that it invites, and sometimes forces the foreigner to leave, his assumptions at home. We tend to think that cultures, and people, must be one thing or the other (modern or traditional, themselves or imitations, elegant or crude); the Japanese are happy to see them as both things simultaneously. They adhere, that is, to a belief in both/and more than in either/or. And this allows them to collect an almost indefinite number of selves and surfaces without remaining any less themselves within: at a typical wedding over here, the bride still changes costume three or four times in a day, shifting from classic Shinto maiden to white-dress Eastern Cinderella to typical Japanese young woman (with many traditions alive in her).

This is, of course, a skill prized in all ritualized old societies—it’s little different from the England where I was born—but nowhere is it managed so efficiently as in Japan. In countries like America, for example, the emphasis is on “being yourself”; in Japan, it’s often on the opposite. Being “not yourself,” but just a kind of impersonal actor playing the part the moment requires (to this day my Japanese wife doesn’t know the name of her immediate boss at work, because the boss is always and only known as “Tencho,” or “Department Head”). And this is all made easier, perhaps, by the fact that the Japanese tend, I believe, to think in images rather than in ideas, and where ideas need to be consistent, images can sit side by side, belonging to different worlds, like parallel lines in a haiku. It’s not uncommon, near where I live, to see a Zen abbot stepping out of a late-model Mercedes, on his way to his favorite bar in the red-light district. In Europe, such behavior might be seen as hypocritical; in pragmatic Japan, a Buddhist priest will perform every last rite demanded of him at funerals and ceremonies immaculately—like the Platonic image of a Buddhist priest; but when he is finished, he will go home to his wife and children, and pop open a beer in front of the baseball game on TV. He’s played his role, he’s allowed to slough off his robes.

The first thing to remember when coming to Japan, I therefore tell my friends who visit, is that everything is reversed here. The Japanese read their books from right to left and from back to front (as it seems to us), and they take their baths at night, before they go to sleep; even their baggage carousels move in the opposite direction. And so, naturally enough, what is exotic for them, and what is normal, is the opposite of the way it might be for us. Sometimes, here in Nara, where I live, I go out at dusk and walk along the great park that surrounds Todaiji Temple, home to the largest bronze Buddha in the world. As night falls, the only beings visible are deer, grazing under trees or pricking their ears at me, like ghosts come down from the hills. The place is largely deserted because most of the local Japanese are heading in the opposite direction, to the “Dreamland” amusement-park 10 minutes away.

The other thing to recall is that the Japanese keep their different selves perfectly organized (as everything else is here) by drawing strict lines between different worlds. There is one set of rules and expectations for men, another for women (and, indeed, one set for “normal” women, and a very different set for those who belong to the “mizu-shobai,” or water-world of the night district); in the same way, there are firm divisions between the office world and the play world. That is why the same Japanese businessman who is so flawlessly polite to you in a meeting will vomit in the street; and the one who fashions a delicate ikebana flower-arrangement will be incomparably ruthless when it comes to war.

Yet within these strict rules, too, things are very different from in the West. The Japanese woman, for example, still enjoys almost no power in the workplace; yet at home she controls all the household finances and makes most of the big decisions (even the highest-ranking “salaryman” often hands over his entire paycheck to his wife). There are cartoon figures on screens in many public telephones, yet the figures bow when you put down the receiver. Japanese men are encouraged to be as macho and even gruff as possible; yet 40 percent of them, I recently read, pluck their eyebrows.

The thrust of all this, then, is that appearances, of every kind, are even more deceiving in Japan than elsewhere, and the biggest “contradiction” of all is the one that separates surface from depth. If you go into a McDonald’s in Kyoto, and see the kids dressed all in surfer shorts and Chicago Bulls T-shirts, watching a baseball game on TV, you may begin to tell yourself that Japan is “Americanized.” But the baseball players smile when they strike out (as seldom happens in America). The McDonald’s salesgirls offer you Moon-Viewing Burgers and “Corn Potage Soup,” and pear sorbets (and cup your hand when they return your change). And the girls in the Chicago Bulls T-shirts still eat with a delicacy and demureness you’d never find in Chicago.

This is how Japan can take in scores of Mexican restaurants, Iranian immigrants, Indonesian fashions and African rhythms and still remain as Japanese as it’s always been (and farther from the world at large than any culture that I know). It is why many Japanese you meet in the street will be too shy even to answer a question, though nearly all of them have learned English for six years in school (while the villagers of Bali, Nepal and Thailand chatter away in French, Italian, German and English). And it’s why the Japanese in some ways seem to have the best taste in the world (when they’re working in their own distinctive and elegant tradition) and the very worst taste (when they adopt the trappings of the outside world). Japan is the fastest culture in the world to gobble up the latest fashions, and the slowest when it comes to change deep down.

The newcomer arriving in Japan will probably find more that she didn’t expect than in any other country in the world (even as much of the country looks exactly the way it’s supposed to in every photograph). He will find, for example, a quiet people who (maybe for that reason) love nothing more than noise. Not far from one of the 2,000 temples in Kyoto, where you find a stillness and calm unparalleled in the world, are the brightly-lit, clanging arcades of pachinko parlors—the local equivalent of pinball—which could put Las Vegas to shame. The more low-key the ancient spaces are, the more revved-up are such places as Shinjuku in central Tokyo, or Shinsaibashi in Osaka. And though it is rare to see young couples kissing—or even holding hands—here, Japan famously has unabashed swingers’ clubs that would make a Parisian blush.

So, too, the visitor will find people more uniform in their public behavior than anywhere around, and yet more eccentric underneath, and unexpected behind closed doors (a female neighbor of mine here flew all the way across the world to see Jon Bon Jovi’s house, before turning around and flying back, and one Zen priest I know is famous for his collection of videos of every episode of the American cop show CHiPs ever filmed). She wlll see exquisitely dressed young women in the latest from Dior, with Snoopy key-chains around their Gucci bags.

I no longer think of any of this as contradiction so much as a special gift for knowing how to honor each self in its own place. In some ways, in fact, this practical gift is what has allowed the Japanese to stay true to their traditions while devouring the new, to remain lovers of beauty while surrounded by some of the ugliest things on earth, and to remain inalienably themselves while importing everything from everywhere. When you walk amidst the festival flutes and lanterns on a Kyoto summer day—even when I walk among them, after all these years—they have the capacity to move and transport you as if nothing had changed since the 9th century (when the Gion Matsuri began). The men around me are using at least three different words for “I,” and the women at their side are using different words—or, as often as not, none at all. It’s all a way of telling us that the self, whether it belongs to Mrs. Suzuku or Japan, is a pliable, fluid, mutable thing in Japan, less like a monument than a river. Try to put a Western frame on it, and everything slips through your hands.

Pico Iyer

Pico Iyer is the author of several books about his travels, including Video Night in Kathmandu, "The Lady and the Monk," "The Global Soul" and "Sun After Dark." His most recent travel book, The Open Road, describes 33 years of talks and adventures with the 14th Dalai Lama.

9 Comments for Living Among Incompatibles

Stephen Houston 07.20.09 | 11:26 AM ET

Excellent read. Thanks Pico.

Jenny 07.20.09 | 3:03 PM ET

What a luscious article. Articulate and full of provocative thoughts for traveling not only to Japan, but anywhere.
Great paragraph:
“If the test of a first-rate mind, as Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, is the ability to hold two opposed ideas at the same time, and still keep going, then Japan, I thought, had the best mind Id encountered in a lifetime of traveling.”
Thank you, Pico Iyer (and F Scott Fitzgerald)

Tim Patterson 07.21.09 | 6:52 PM ET

A lovely article, the writing is lyrical, perceptive and precise.  But I’m surprised that Mr. Iyer’s wife doesn’t know her boss’s given name.  That detail doesn’t ring true to me.

Jamie 07.24.09 | 11:52 AM ET

Geat article. One of the things I loved about living in Japan was the contrast, not just with home but internally. The noodle restaurant in an old wooden building squeezed in between giant concrete office buildings. Wedding parties with a mixture of party frocks and traditional kimono.

To Tim: it wasn’t just that she doesn’t know his given name, she doesn’t know his name at all.

Cate 07.29.09 | 10:37 AM ET

What a well written observation. I agree that Japan is a pile of contradictions to the outsider particulary coming from a western background. I lived in Japan for three years and found each day presented new challenges and stories to talk about. Some of which I have only shared with close friends as they are that bizarre. Formality runs through the veins of Japanese not just in their langauge but also in the addressing of people senior to you. Tim Patterson can’t understand why Mr Iyer’s wife doesn’t know her bosses name, unless you have actually lived within Japanese society, not as a vistor passing through, it is difficult to understand the complexity of politeness and honour that drives their everyday life. Japanese like other Asian cultures use either their surname or a special name out of respect. To call someone senior by their first name is disrespectful. In that notion why would you want to know the person’s name if it’s un-important and impolite. My Japanese friends were the same and also my Chinese and Korean friends.

Cochin Blogger 08.04.09 | 2:03 AM ET

Nice article, but the author’s observations are true of any Asian country. India (Pico’s ancestral home!) too, for example,  is an interesting blend of modernity and tradition. What’s unique about Japan?

Dominic 08.05.09 | 1:32 PM ET

Thoroughly enjoyed piece. Thanks Pico.

I definitely put my Western mind on the Tokyo scene (I had a short layover for a few days) - came up with the Japanese let out hidden desires in extreme ways due to their strict societal laws. But your article gets me thinking again. Now time to go back, but longer next time.


Jerry Jackman 08.10.09 | 11:53 AM ET

I recently read “Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation” which is a stinging indictment of the complex which envelopes Japanese culture. So I was pleasantly, but not persuasively, uplifted by the images of the society which Pico accepts as “magic”. As an admirer of Pico’s writings I invite him to read the book, by Michael Zielenziger, and consider investigating the seclusive phenomenon which is said to be the chosen routine of over a million young Japanese.

chuck 08.10.09 | 9:04 PM ET

Pico I’ve always wanted to visit Japan since I made my purple belt in Shotokan Karate. Anyway I love to explore the Ginza etc. However, I have a lot learned from Japanese horror films too. Which proves that one can still learn more about a culture one wishes to visit.

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