Japan: Observing rather than judging
Book review by Geraldine Sherman

(The Globe and Mail February 10, 1996)

Tokyo, My Everest: A Canadian Woman in Japan
by Gabrielle Bauer
Hounslow Press, 223 pages $17.99

Gabrielle Bauer's intimate travel book arrives like letters from a friend who is eager to talk about her year in Tokyo. With apparent candour, and grace remarkable in a first book, the Pickering, Ont., writer describes her life in a city she already loved and was determined to conquer. She had made two earlier business trips to Japan and arrived there feeling, inexplicably, that she'd "come home." She joined hordes of other free- spirited gaijin (literally, "outside people") attracted to this highly structured society that looks Western but often behaves as if it had developed on another planet.

In love with Tokyo but not blinded to its faults, Bauer observed rather than judged, an attitude that sets her apart from travel writers who seem bound by a fixed agenda, usually to expose Japanese society, or to take the pulse of a typical Japanese housewife. Bauer had prepared for her journey; she arrived at Narita Airport fairly fluent in Japanese, assured of a job teaching English.

At work she tried, with limited success, to stimulate a class of housewives and office workers who were often too exhausted to participate. Her account of her students' difficulties is sympathetic and informed: "Japanese was a so-called sound-poor language, meaning that the number of different phonemes, or individual sounds, were low - just over one hundred, compared to about three thousand in English and one thousand in Chinese." She blamed herself for not understanding a friend who ordered a McDonald's "hisshu-baghah," or fish-burger. And although she was frustrated by the inevitable questions about her age and social standing, she understood that her pupils needed the information to slot her in their hierarchical language. So she told them that she was 33 and recently divorced, and that she could ingest raw fish. While other foreigners laughed at what appeared to be Japanese condescension or ignorance, Bauer recognized the problem as one of semantics; the "can you" questions also asked "do you like," or "are you accustomed," a different meaning entirely.

Because Bauer had overcome the language barrier, she was a frequent guest in her students' homes, and formed confessional friendships with a cross-section of Japanese women, those who practiced the expected Japanese brand of Stoicism ("It can't be helped"), and others whose lives deviated from type - such as a neighbour who was separated from her husband, avoided her children, and refused to clean her house.

Her account of the inevitable Karaoke visit, where she belted out Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, is both wise and self-deprecating. Why, she pondered, did the Japanese submit to making fools of themselves in public? It was not, she decided, about singing well but about daring to sing badly, being a good sport as part of the collective responsibility for entertaining. After renting an apartment with a TV, she made similar astute observations about indigenous quiz shows where successful contestants weren't rewarded but losers were covered in cream pies or flour - the sharing of group humiliation rather than the promotion of personal success.

Her comments on popular culture resemble the journalism of Donald Richie, who has written about Japan since the Second World War, prying open the Japanese psyche by examining bizarre subjects like misused English on T-shirts and pachinko, a pinball-type game. Like Richie, Bauer exposes her own sex life to reveal the hazards of making love in another culture.

With the opening of Japan to the West in 1868, gaijin men became acquainted with the East by "pillowing" local women. But, as Bauer observes, "Marriages between gaijin men and Japanese women are a dime a dozen, but the reverse is much rarer - ten times as rare." Her women friends warned her that Japanese men were too self-absorbed for Western women, but Bauer was undeterred: "I felt - with inexplicable certainty - that only a Japanese man would give me the key to Japan and uncover my reason for being here." She advertised in the Tokyo Journal personals and selected, from hundreds of respondents, a dentist, an artist, and a law student. All proved hopeless.

Then, after seven months in Tokyo, under the influence of fluttering cherry blossoms, Bauer approached a handsome man reading an English paper. Tetsuya Takeyama was a surgeon who sprinkled his conversation with "Yep" and "Nope," picked up from American Westerns. With him, Bauer experienced the love she had yearned for. She describes, with total erotic recall, the physical joys and emotional traumas of this intense, passionate affair. All too quickly, for reasons that still elude her, she was on a plane for Canada, an emotional refugee escaping her spiritual home. She can't explain what happened to her love; but then, all honest Western books about Japan involve a mystery. Reluctantly, Bauer offers proof that some cultural barriers can't be scaled, even by the most fearless travellers.

Nota Bene From Tokyo, My Everest:

"As the weeks turned into months and the months into seasons, I began to understand why my students were making so little progress. I came to see that they didn't want to learn English as much as bask in its atmosphere. English was not only a language, it was a stepping-stone to a world of vigor, excitement, frankness, a world inhabited by men of action like Indiana Jones and cleaned of all the niceties and duties and restraints that the younger Japanese were starting to resent. In a word, it was freedom. In English, you could . . . tell it like it is, man, instead of all the dodging and evading and blurring that made up the bulk of communication in Japanese."

Copyright Geraldine Sherman, 1996

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