Why I Like Japan: A Travelogue from 1956 by James A. Michener

The hidden secret is known to many travellers who have learnt to feel a deep affection for a strange and charming people

By James A. Michener Updated: Jun 13, 2023 16:38:07 IST
Why I Like Japan: A Travelogue from 1956 by James A. Michener Image by Brigitte Werner from Pixabay

Like many people who have grown to love Japan, I first met the Japanese in war, where in the steaming South Pacific, they were terrible enemies. I next saw the Japanese in their homeland, and they seemed at first aloof and almost morbidly serious. In those cold days of little food, the people of Tokyo hurried along crowded streets with never a smile, their minds apparently obsessed with problems of unbearable gravity. Even today, strangers who pass quickly through Japan rarely attain even a clue as to what the people of Japan are like, for in no other nation of the world does a frigid and formal exterior so completely mask a warm, and even hilarious, interior life.

The Delightful People

Oh, the boisterous fun of knowing a Japanese family well! Take the letter I received last month from a former American soldier. “I flew back from the front in Korea with an introduction from my friend to a family in Kamakura. When I first met them, they stood like statues and I thought, let’s get out of here. Ten days later, at the end of my leave. I wanted to stay with them forever. Looking back, I think it was the constant laughter.”

In recent years, many travellers have discovered this hidden laughter. It dominates one’s most poignant memories of Japan. Let me explain how gently this laughter arises. The Kato family lives on the outskirts of Tokyo, in a small house with practically no furniture. The floors are immaculately clean, and when you arrive some evening with Kato-san he shows you where to kick off your shoes. Then, ceremonially, he seats you beside a brazier, glowing with charcoal, which will warm the tips of your fingers and little more. 

Mrs Kato appears with hot green tea and the four children file in. The talk is extremely stilted, but as the evening wears on and as the food passes round, everyone starts to unbend and you suddenly realize that most of the night has been spent laughing.

What about? Well, the Katos tell ridiculous stories about themselves. They relate amusing incidents involving Westerners. They burlesque the police, the Russians, pompous officials in jeeps. When it is time to leave, you hope you will be invited back to such delightful surroundings, and as you meet the Katos during the ensuing months, you find that you have rarely before laughed so much or enjoyed so deeply the pleasures of simply talking to new friends.

But if the Japanese are so much fun when know them off guard, why are they so rigidly formal the rest of the time? If they laugh so much in a circle of friendship, why do so many lonely Japanese commit suicide each year? If as individuals they are the gentlest and tenderest people I have ever known, why do they, as a nation, present such a formidable appearance?

Four powerful traditions of Japanese life determine behaviour, and to transgress these in public would be unthinkable. First, a Japanese must always exhibit a stoical ability to endure hardship or pain. In English one might say, “He can take it.” In the Japanese Army, which was founded upon this principle, the constant admonition to soldiers who showed signs of cracking up was, “Put strength in your stomach.”

Under pressure from this requirement of stoical fortitude, Japanese can perform extraordinary feats. Men will walk miles in a blazing sun. Women will toil in the fields up to the day their baby is born and resume work soon afterwards. Some often display unbelievable stoicism in sublimating their own desires if their parents object to them.

The second tradition is that one’s duty must be performed with no public display of emotion. I saw a girl of 19 who had hoped to marry a Frenchman say good-bye to him at the airport. Even after the plane had been aloft for 15 minutes her supremely controlled face showed not a quiver of pain, although she was to commit suicide three days later.

The third controlling tradition is loyalty—to Japan, to the Emperor and to one’s immediate superior. The history of Japan is practically the history of this profound tradition, nowhere better illustrated than in the case of the 47 feudal knights who in 1702 revenged an outrage against their master, then committed mass hara-kiri. 

The final characteristic, of course, is politeness. I have often watched two Japanese meet, click their heels, press their hands against their sides and engage in a series of at least six formal bows. (You become adept in detecting which of the men has the more important job, for the other man bows a little lower, stays down a wee bit longer.)

This extreme politeness marks most aspects of Japanese life. In the old days, two professional wrestlers, each weighing some 28 stone, would bow, kneel and pursue an involved ritual for 90 minutes before finally trying to tear each other to bits. Today, because of life’s increased tempo, the bowing is restricted to about eight minutes.

Perplexing Contradictions

One of the things I enjoyed most about Japan was that whenever I thought I understood the country, something would happen to prove that I knew very little. But many of the contradictions make sense. Consider the case of a friend of mine who encountered serious trouble because he fired at a burglar who was robbing his home.

“It was lucky for you,” the police growled, “that you didn’t hit him”

“He was robbing me!” my friend protested.

“But when you fired he was clearly running away from your house.”

In court the officials minced no words. “If you shoot a burglar who seems about to enter your house, you are in serious trouble, because then you must prove that the burglar was going to injure you personally and not your goods. If you fire at him while he is actually in your room it isn’t so bad, because you can argue that you were really afraid he might assault you. But if you fire at a defenceless burglar who is already running away, you are in great trouble, for he has already demonstrated that he had no intention of harming you personally.”

“But what about the stuff he stole?” my friend cried.

“Who would shoot a poor burglar just for a few trinkets?” the court asked.

Later my friend showed me a newspaper cutting and admitted that he hadn’t appreciated how lucky he was that his shot had missed. For a burglar had successfully sued a victim who had left a ladder lying about. The robber had stumbled over it as he was leaving the house and the owner was fined for negligence.

In a similar way, an American woman who allowed her house to burn down complained to the fire brigade that it had been dilatory in providing protection, only to find that the fire chief was having her arrested, on the grounds that anyone who permitted her house to catch fire was obviously a public menace.

I have said that Japan is probably the politest nation on earth, but this does not apply to trains or the underground. I have frequently been about to board a coach when some 150-pound (68 kg) woman with a baby strapped to her back would hit me from the rear, elbow me aside as I cannoned off a door jamb and dive for a seat without ever causing her baby one bad bounce.

And occasionally something happens in Japan that makes you stop and wonder. After the war some Japanese engineers called on the American expert who handed out permits for new buildings. “I can’t give you a permit for such a crazy operation”, the American snorted. “Who ever heard of building the entire basement of a skyscraper on top of the ground?”

Patiently, the Japanese explained a new scheme they had dreamed up. “When the basement is completed, we rock it to and fro until it sinks into the ground level with the pavement. Then we build the skyscraper on top of it.”

“Impossible!” cried the American. “It can’t be done.”

“Esteemed sir,” the Japanese asked quietly, “how do you suppose we built the building you’re sitting in?”

The Secret of Japan

The single fact which best explains Japan is the crowded-ness. Into four islands whose area is little larger than Madhya Pradesh, Japan squeezes nearly 90 million people. And not only are the four islands of Japan quite small; they are mostly mountains where food cannot be grown or villages established. Of the world’s highly populated countries, Japan provides the lowest percentage of arable land. Of every 100 acres, 86 are useless except for timber. All the people have to crowd on to the remaining 14 acres.

I recall long walks through fields where there would not be a single tree, for the land was too precious to waste on trees. I saw farms with no flower garden, temples with no lawn, farms with no edging of wild shrubbery. Once I drove at dusk through miles of Japanese countryside and saw not a single field, for the houses of the farmers clung hungrily to the road. Suddenly I realized with a shock that I had entered a new city. There had been no countryside.

Why does such a country captivate so many Westerners? I think it is because here one sees with absolute clarity the fact that all men live upon the land and what it can produce. Here, wherever you look, you see humble people wrestling with their tiny fragment of soil, and you catch some glimmer of the grandeur of man.

Take the matter of gardens: The average house cannot afford a spacious lawn, so the Japanese gardener has become incredibly expert in transforming tiny bits of land into an illusion of space. Thus in Japan a handsome rock, which might look like a mountain if set down in a tiny garden, fetches a higher price than a tree might in London or Chicago.

The trick of making a little land suggest a huge park becomes almost a game, and the skilled gardener will know where to place a miniature waterfall, how to sling a bridge across a depression, and where to place a stone lantern so that it creates an illusion of space.

When I first saw these tiny gardens I yearned for the open spaces of land-rich Colorado and the big lawns of Pennsylvania, but later I discovered one of the profound truths of Japan: “A minute portion, exquisitely contrived, may yield more of the essence of life than a great mass thrown haphazardly into one’s face.”

If it is the very essence of life you seek, visit Japan. The wine is served piping hot in the tiniest thimble bowls, and I think it is better than gulping glasses of cold Sauterne. Some of the finest Japanese sculptures are no larger than a walnut and can be worn as a tassel to one’s belt. In the Japanese dance, one tightly controlled gesture stands for an entire routine, and in the theatre the merest corner of a handkerchief pressed to the eye symbolizes unbearable grief.

The Beautiful Land

Japan also pleases me mightily because it is so lovely to look at. Its panorama of beauty is so varied, and the movement from one amazing scene to another so quickly taken that my eye is constantly charmed.

Rise early and see the mists of morning tenderly creeping away from the rice fields that stretch out from every sleepy village. Stand on some hillside at midday and see the thousand rural workers fanning out over the fields, toiling endlessly in the shadow of some magnificent mountain. Walk along some curving beach of glistening sand at nightfall and see the moon coming up against pine trees of immemorial age. 

Nowhere is the beauty of the sea so inescapable as here. Sometimes the mountains rush down and plunge their precipices into the pounding surf. Elsewhere the sea creeps silently into some glorious bay fringed by lamp-lit fishing villages. No matter where you travel in Japan, the cold grey sea of winter and the pastel oceans of summer are near at hand.

As for the mountains, they are the dominant beauty of Japan. On them tall pines grow and deer flourish. Down their sides torrential streams plummet bearing silt, and as soon as the merest fragment of land begins to collect along their banks, hundreds of human beings cluster and chop out tiny fields. Here is where the rice paddies begin, and as the mountain bases flatten out into substantial fields, millions of men quickly accumulate, taking strength as it were from the mountains which throw down each year a little soil and much water for the rice.

Of Mount Fuji, the queen of all mountains, little new can be said. Some artists have spent their lives contemplating its serene majesty, but none has completely captured the wonder of this perfect volcano that dominates central Japan. Its gently sloping sides and irregular snowy cap are exactly as they would be if one set out to draw the world’s ideal mountain, and the varied aspects in which Fuji can be seen contribute to this unearthly quality.

Once I saw Fuji when it was truly a heavenly mountain. A winter’s rain had been falling upon dead snow at the base and mists had risen so that the earth around me had been blotted out. I was riding down from a lake and had to hurry before night overtook me on the obscured road; suddenly I looked back over my shoulder and saw an overpowering sight. Directly above the low mists, and suspended free of them, hung mighty Fuji, its lower rocks washed free of snow. Its heavy nightcap of snow rose far into the pale blue sky, and there the majestic volcano hovered, a magnificent cone of brown and white, with a thin wisp of snow blowing free from its summit. 

Then, as I continued my way downward through the mists, I came upon the inevitable little village which in America would house perhaps 60 people. But this was Japan, and there were nearly 6,000. They were the crowded, patient, hard-working children of Fuji, grubbing along the foot of the mountain for a few grains of rice.

The Love of Beauty

I have known many countries with attractive landscapes and people, and if that was all that Japan contained it would still be a lovely land, but it would not be unique. The essential element of the country is its people’s extraordinary love of beauty.

I may be wrong, but I have always felt that the Japanese acquire their exquisite taste during the tedious years they must spend learning to write. Their language is so complicated and the ideographs so complicated that students spend about six years memorizing and drawing characters. In the process, each student becomes a minor artist, for he must draw exquisitely, shade well and place his characters with perfection. 

I think the most perfect expression of this nation-wide art comes in pottery. Consider the Kagogawa family. Their total income is less than Rs 13,000* a year, but I was present one night when Kagogawa-san arrived home with a simple clay bowl which looked to me as if it had been slapped into some country kiln after having been decorated by some amateur with a dripping brush. But the Kagogawa family studied it with rapture while their father said, “I bought it at the exhibition for only Rs 600*.” 

As I tried to discover what was special about the bowl, I reflected that at home I would pay Rs 20* for such a piece. But over the months, as I lived with Kagogawa-san’s bowl and studied it, I had to admit that it had been created by a plate profound artist. The rough exterior and the slapdash design grew constantly more lovely, and I finally agreed that he had bought a bargain.

Here are the simple things I have seen recently in Japan that were so beautiful that they should have been in a museum or an art gallery: a handle to a garden gate, a soup bowl, fabric for a girl’s dress, a doorway into a kitchen, a tobacco pouch and its lock, a pine tree bending over a stone lantern, a sliding door, a charcoal drawing of a horse, and a spray of flowers in a shallow dish. In Japan, art invades all life. 

I must quickly point out, however, that the casual visitor may never see this hoard of beauty, for the average Japanese community is not externally attractive. Small houses of weather-beaten boards line muddy streets, while public areas are apt to be littered because so many people must use them. Many people who visit Japan depart with a sense of keen disappointment. “Where is the beauty you speak about?” they ask. 

It lies within the home, within the heart. Here is a grimy, mud-spattered house that resembles a million others in Japan, but step inside and it becomes a chaste, inspiring temple of beauty. Floors and walls blend together in subtle straw colours. Raw wood, unvarnished and made smooth by years of patient care, gives the room character. When a meal is served in this home, each plate and cup is a work of art, while the food is arranged more carefully than the ordinary Western flower garden.

In such an unpretentious house an elderly woman once served me tea in a fragile brown-and-green-cup with an uneven lip and a splashed design. It was obviously the most precious treasure of the household, and, as custom required, she offered me the cup so that its most handsome aspect should face me. After the ceremony I enquired why this particular cup was so precious. “It is more than a thousand years old,” she said. 

Later, when I found that the cup was historically famous and worth at least Rs 95,000*, I asked why such a valuable object should be used so regularly. Because it was made to drink from,” she explained simply. 

“In the home,” says the Japanese, “is where true beauty lives.” And to the home the heart returns. 

[*All monetary value as per year of publication, i.e, 1956]



About the author: James A. Michener was a Pulitzer-Prize-winning American novelist and short-story writer with around 2,500 known pieces of writing from 1923 to 1995 including magazine articles, forewords, books, and other works.

From the Reader's Digest August 1956 edition


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