Introduction to Geraldine Sherman's
Japan Diaries: A Travel Memoir

McArthur & Company, 1999

book cover

I can't remember the first time I allowed myself to dream of going to Japan. I do have an early memory from 1955, when I was fourteen. In high-school art class in Chatham, Ontario, we were asked to draw a face. What came to mind was not my face or the face of anyone I'd ever seen, but the face of a Japanese woman. Her hair was in an elaborate bun adorned with lacquer combs, her neck framed by a loose kimono. She was peeking out from behind a red and gold paper fan.

I knew no one who was Japanese. Among my friends, I was considered slightly foreign -- an awkward, overweight kid, one of fifty Jews adrift in a sea of 23,000 Gentiles. But to me, the Japanese were the quintessential "other." Their ancient and complex civilization appeared to have evolved a distinct way of being human. It seemed admirable to me. My youthful judgement no doubt was influenced by Japan's refined aesthetics - manicured gardens, embroidered silk, and delicate manners. Apart from that, I longed to be somewhere else, as far from Chatham as possible.

In Montreal, studying sociology and anthropology at McGill, I was intrigued by the Japanese ability to absorb wave after wave of incoming culture - borrowing, adapting, and reinventing while at the same time remaining unique. From China and Korea they acquired a written script, a legal code, Buddhism, and art forms later described as "typically Japanese." Following the arrival of the first Europeans in 1543, Christianity, Western science and technology threatened to bring irreversible change. After less than sixty years of contact, Japanese authorities recognized the threat and banished most outsiders (gaijin). For the next 250 years, the shoguns ruling Japan preserved their country's splendid isolation that ended forever in 1853 when Commodore Matthew Perry of the US navy piloted his gunboats into Edo Bay. The Americans ushered in the industrial revolution and the speediest social transformation in history.

All of this was background to the controversial classic The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture by Ruth Benedict. In 1944, the US government commissioned Dr. Benedict, a cultural anthropologist, to study the Japanese so that Americans could better understand their puzzling, little-known enemy. She defined the differences between the West and Japan in terms of guilt and shame. She argued that we in the West are guided by strong personal standards and when these are violated by "sinful" behaviour, we feel guilt. In the East, however, the principle concern is maintaining appearances and earning the good opinion of others. If one errs, the culturally appropriate feeling is shame. Individual feelings come after duty to one's family and society.

Although at the time she wrote the book Dr. Benedict had not set foot in Japan - she based her work on interviews with Japanese-Americans - its effect was profound in the United States and elsewhere. It was translated into Japanese in 1949 and became a bestseller. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword appealed to me, and others of my generation, because it questioned blind allegiance to individualism on the one hand and the submission to external authority on the other.

At the McGill Film Society, I fell under the spell of Akira Kurosawa's movies, especially Rashomon, a magical blend of feudal Japanese life and modern Western relativism. The screenplay, adapted from stories by Ryunoske Akutagawa, explores the elusive nature of reality and morals. Four characters give different accounts of the same events - robbery, rape, murder, and abandonment. Kurosawa blended Japanese craft and history with Western literature and cinema, adding Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky, Eisenstein and Ford to his own national pantheon. In the Seven Samurai he transformed six-shooters into swords and sheriffs into samurai, as seven ragged warriors come to the aid of beleaguered villagers and, in the process, save their own humanity.

At the end of the 1960s, when I was a young radio producer getting to know the man I would marry, we worked together on a documentary about suicide. We both agreed that besides being inevitable, death, with luck and determination, could - in fact, should - be controlled. If people in the West were taking charge of their lives, why did they seem content to abandon control of their deaths? The program made the case for dying as a part of life: bring it back into the home, reinstate some of its natural progression, and perhaps adorn it with wit and style comparable to other human milestones. In Japan, both ancient and modern, there seemed a greater awareness of the fleeting nature of life, epitomized by the fragile beauty of cherry blossoms, and of its corollary, death. Suicide offered an honourable escape from a hopeless situation and could be enacted without shame for the deceased or his survivors. I found these attitudes appealing, as did my husband-to-be, Robert Fulford.

In 1969, I planned to make my first trip to Japan for a series of radio documentaries before the Osaka World Fair, but had to cancel due to illness. Twelve years later I returned to the subject as producer of a five-part CBC Ideas series: Canada and Japan: Images and Realities, written and presented by Ken Richard and Ted Goossen, two Toronto professors who are experts on Japan. They understood my passion for a country I'd never seen and encouraged me to go.

The Asia Pacific Foundation was offering grants to journalists to explore an Asian country of their choice. Bob and I applied - he in the print category, me in electronic media. We rehearsed our answers for the inevitable question: "If one of you got the fellowship, would the other go along?" (In other words, two for the price of one.) "Well," eyes lowered, "that's hard to say..." was our prepared reply, designed to leave the strong impression that the answer really was, no. Happily, we were both winners. A return economy ticket and ten thousand dollars for each of us, more than enough for six weeks, even in Japan. When we applied, Bob didn't know that by the time we boarded the plane he would have ended a nineteen-year period as editor of Saturday Night. And I didn't know that soon after our return I would leave the CBC after twenty-two years and become a freelance writer. In many ways the 1987 trip was the beginning of a new chapter in our life together.

Ten years later, the Japan Foundation made it possible for us to return to Tokyo for two months. We were doubly lucky.

I do not speak or read Japanese which is both a hindrance and a blessing. I have learned to use my eyes in ways I might not have done otherwise. I was able to see beauty in neon signs and ignore their shrill messages. I could people-watch with impunity, taking advantage of my outsider status to ignore social prohibitions. And, unlike younger tourists or hordes of language teachers, I had money to do what I wanted.

This book grew from my belief that the unexamined journey is not worth taking. I kept a journal each day on both trips. Taken together, these two Japanese diaries reveal some of the changes the Japanese have experienced in recent times and some of the hurdles they have yet to overcome on their way from isolated island nation to respected world power. The diaries reveal changes in my life as well.

There are those who argue that Japan is like an onion - peel away the layers and there's nothing left. This may be true, but it hardly matters. To anyone who loves to contemplate Japan there's so much to enjoy along the way, so many subtle questions raised, so many answers possible. Could there be a more absorbing activity than watching Japan reveal itself? Not for me. I remain enchanted. I doubt that will ever change.

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Copyright Geraldine Sherman, 1999

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