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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Review: 36 Views of Mt. Fuji

Someone told me that 36 Views of Mount Fuji inspired her to want to visit Japan. I did tour Hokkaido last year, but that was a short trip, compared to Prof. Davidson's multiple long term visits as a professor of English at Kansai Women's University, amongst other roles.

Davidson's writing is gentle and easy going. It's easy to get swept up in the narrative, and to see Japan from her perspective, which is that of an exotic foreigner swept up in an adventure, albeit one given license through her unique role, gender, and position to explore parts of Japanese society that less foreign counter parts would be unable to see.

Written in 1993, this book was printed before Japan's lost decades, and deals with none of the fallout from that economic calamity. What we see instead mentioned in the book is Japan as an economic powerhouse, and one senses that Davidson's approach to her memoir of her Japanese stays is to actually focus on the humanity (and to some extent, the short falls) of Japan in order to help her readers understand Japan as something other than the juggernaut that could do no wrong. I enjoyed her exposition of Japanese women, for instance. Far from the subservient role in a marriage traditionally assigned to them by Western observers, Davidson sees that it is the Japanese housewives who make all the economic decisions in the family, from buying a house to handing out an allowance to her husband. Articles about the Japanese carry trade today echo Davidson's observations from 17 years before.

Another poignant moment comes from Davidson's description of a tragedy in her family when her in-laws are killed in a car crash. Her description of how their Japanese friends took care of them in their unique fashion is moving. One of the characters says, "...sometimes foreigners don't understand that we have rules for how to break the rules too."

One of the most amusing moments in the book comes when Davidson and her husband visit Paris. Being in a foreign country triggered her "foreign language" reflex, and instead of speaking French, she spoke in Japanese instead. I have first hand experience with this: after touring Hokkaido, I accidentally spoke Japanese my first few days on this year's Tour of the Alps. Most of that is because Japanese is probably my best "foreign language", and so all the other secondary languages I learned tend not to be able to out-compete it when I'm in the situation as a foreigner. Her experience reflects the time she was in, however. Today, I run into Chinese tourists in Europe as often as the Japanese, reflecting the Chinese diaspora's role as the new economic superpower.

One amusing part of the narrative had Davidson referring to her Canadian home of Mountain View. I was just in that Mountain View and it was very pretty. It was interesting to run into the very same tiny town in this book.

Obviously, not all aspects of Japanese society can be covered by one person. For instance, it's unlikely that Davidson could have observed Japanese society's approach to courtship and romance, so one could not find a contrasting view to the recent rise of the so-called herbivore in Japanese society. Certainly, unless you grew up in Asia, it's hard to have an understanding of how pervasive Japanese culture was throughout Asia. For instance, Davidson doesn't mention that the Japanese practice of kinen shashin has spread all over Asia, right down to the "V-for-victory" salute.

Nevertheless, Davidson does an excellent job covering all the parts of Japanese society that she did cover, and her unique experiences were certainly worth reading. Recommended.

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