View Full Version : Paul Theroux's Tokyo

Sep 7, 2010, 00:37
Reading the absorbing Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (2009) by Paul Theroux (http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0141015721?ie=UTF8&tag=eupedia-21&linkCode=as2&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=0141015721), I wanted to comment on the following passage (p. 393) about Tokyo:

Even long ago, Japan seemed to me the future; it was still so - at least one version, the one which the worst social problems were solved, poverty was low, literacy was high, life expectancy long, ritual courtesies practised with baffling formality, no homelessness and good public transport.
The price to be paid for success in the future was surrendering space and privacy. Japan's solutions were minimalist: good but narrow roads, rooms designed for midgets, packed subways, tiny restaurants, the whole landscape miniaturized and cemented over.

As much as I like and admire Paul Theroux, I have to say that he is seriously mistaken and misinformed in what he writes here about Japan.

It is common misconception to think that Japanese society has become safe and polite because it is rich and developed. I just finished reading Samurai William (http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0340794682?ie=UTF8&tag=eupedia-21&linkCode=as2&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=0340794682), in which English, Dutch and Portuguese merchants or missionaries to Japan 400 years ago all wondered in amazement at how safe Japan was, and how courteous the Japanese were, whatever their social class. This is not the future. Japan has been like this for centuries. Isabella Bird, the famous female Victorian globe trotter who travelled by herself for several months in northern Japan in 1880, admitted that there was probably no safer place on earth than Japan.

As for the high literacy of the Japanese, it was as true in the 18th century as it is today. But to relativize, few Japanese can actually read all the Chinese characters required to understand academic books, or even newspapers. Nowadays, many need their dictionary (or computer) to check how to write fairly common characters.

As for the lack of homelessness, I wonder where Paul Theroux, who usually sees everything, had his eyes when he was in Tokyo, for it is hard to notice the thousands of tramps (in the British sense of the word) in parks or along rivers and canals. He stayed in Ueno and claims to have visited Ueno Park, one of the hotspots for Tokyo's homeless. This is more than a bit baffling after reading about his well-researched listing of establishments relating to the sex industry, such as lingerie bars (which I have never noticed or heard of in my 4 years in Tokyo) or "clubs catering to every fetish"... not to mention his visit to a porn department store and a maid café in Akihabara (other places I have never frequented, although I lived a stone's throw away). To each his own.

I fail to see why Tokyo's restaurants are tiny. There are over 200,000 of them in the Japanese capital and they come in every shape and size. Incidentally, I do not think that places that can sit two hundreds diners are better than those with just five or ten tables.

And what he he describing when he writes about miniaturized landscapes and narrow roads in a city of skyscrapers and avenues with five lanes in each direction ? No European city has the kind of wide thoroughfares and spacious pavements found in Tokyo. Backstreets are indeed narrow, but that's the Japanese system, inherited from centuries of traditional urban planning. They are not designed for traffic, just as access to houses, or quiet and safe passages for pedestrians and bicycles, away from the cars and lorries and the pollution. He is just wrong to think that streets were laid thus due to lack of space. Villages in the remote country follow the same pattern.

Sep 8, 2010, 04:19
Another thing that I can't help but criticising is Paul Theroux' scornful dismissal of manga as a form of degenerate literature and artistic style. Here is how he bashly derides manga on page 415-6 :

Manga and the graphic novel seemed to represent a dumb, defiant anti-intellectualism, though there were plenty of people who argued that they were on a par with ukiyo-e. But however well drawn, modern manga were banal or silly or sheer fantasy, hasty and crude compared with the work of the great printmakers. I found Hokusai's erotic prints much more powerful, indeed sexier, than these ludicrous comics.
Purely pictorial pleasure, undemanding, without an idea or a challenge, yet obviously stimulating, a sugar high like junk food, another softener of the brain; they spell the end of the traditional novel, perhaps the end of writing itself.

This is a perfect example of a guy who rejects something he doesn't know after merely peeking through a few manga books or magazines without actually even read them. The guy who admits he only knows two words of Japanese but find enough pretension to berate a culture-specific art form that comes in every colour and perfume, and is declined in hundreds of genres catering for everybody in society, whatever their age, gender, tastes, hobbies or intellectual level.

If it is true that some manga are purely pictorial pleasure, undemanding, without an idea or a challenge, many others are far deeper, more researched and better written than most of the "traditional writers", Theroux' books included. Although English is a foreign language for me (like Japanese) I have never felt that Theroux's prose was particularly demanding, or his books rich in ideas or intellectually stimulating, besides being well written thanks mostly to a profusion of descriptive vocabulary. It makes it enjoyable to read, but reading Theroux cruelly lacks the depth of emotions found in the majority of mangas (conveying emotions is a Japanese speciality, thanks to the nature of Japanese language itself, and is usually lost in foreign translations), nor addresses the real-life issues found in the more serious Japanese comic strips.

Even anime destined primarily to teenagers, like the now world-famous Naruto, tend to have very well-thought plots, display a near Shakespearean comprehension of human relationships, and are sprinkled with educative or amusing references to traditional Japanese culture that people with little knowledge of Japan, like Mr Theroux, could not appreciate.

What bothers me most about Theroux's attitude is that he is implying that his writing, or traditional literature, is intellectual. Like many literary people he confuses form for substance. It's not because something is well-written that it is rational, factual or worthy of intellectual praise.

If I crave something intellectually stimulating, I read science publications (neurosciences and genetics being my favourites).

If I want to relax after a long day's work, I watch Two and a Half Men on TV or read Paul Theroux - or maybe a manga.