Wrong About Japan: A Father's Journey with His Son

Wrong About Japan: A Father's Journey with His Son. Alfred A. Knopf, 2005; 158 pages; $17.95.


The recipient of two Booker Prizes, Peter Carey expands his extraordinary achievement with each new novel -- and now gives us something entirely different.

When famously shy Charley becomes obsessed with Japanese manga and anime, Peter is not only delighted for his son but also entranced himself. Thus begins a journey, with a father sharing his 12-year-old's exotic comic books, that ultimately leads them to Tokyo, where a strange Japanese boy will become both their guide and judge. Quickly the visitors plunge deep into the lanes of Shitimachi -- into the "weird stuff" of modern Japan -- meeting manga artists and anime directors; painstaking impersonators called "visualists," who adopt a remarkable variety of personae; and solitary otakus, whose existence is thoroughly computerized. What emerges from these encounters is a far-ranging study of history and of culture both high and low -- from samurai to salaryman, from Kabuki theater to the postwar robot craze. Peter Carey's observations are always provocative, even when his hosts point out, politely, that he is once again wrong about Japan. And his adventures with Charley are at once comic, surprising, and deeply moving, as father and son cope with and learn from each other in a strange place far from home.

This is, in the end, a remarkable portrait of a culture -- whether Japan or adolescence -- that looks eerily familiar but remains tantalizingly closed to outsiders.


The Albany Times-Union: One of the strengths of this short book is that Carey doesn't dwell on the gulf between father and son. He lets their different expectations from Japan and their contrasting reactions to what they find speak for themselves.

At one point, they are amidst transvestites in a section of Tokyo; it takes Carey a few minutes to understand that these powerful-looking women are in fact men, and he wonders how he should explain these people to his son. But Charley is never confused by the encounter, rolling his eyes as his father struggles to enlighten him: "Dad," Charley says with some exasperation, "we live in the West Village, you know?"

The Washington Post: Carey would have been wiser ... to forsake sociology and stick to his travels with Charley, which are aptly drawn and full of pathos.

Time Out: As Carey puts it in his smart, funny new book: "Everybody in Japan reads manga, except those just born or about to die." The more manga and anime Carey consumed, the more surprised he grew that they cross over to Western audiences so readily. For one thing, much of the meaning hinges on culturally specific details.

Publishers Weekly: Novelist Carey's...fiction readers won't be disappointed. This travel diary reads like a scintillating novella, and Carey has, in fact, added his own fictional embellishments to the real-life events he reports. After his shy 12-year-old son, Charley, began reading English translations of Japanese manga, their Saturday mornings at the Manhattan comic book store Forbidden Planet spurred Carey's own interest. As their "cultural investigation" of manga and anime widened, "the kid who would never talk in class was now brimming with new ideas he wasn't shy to discuss." This father-son bond deepened when they flew to Japan to meet manga artists and anime directors, including Yoshiyuki Tomino (Mobile Suit Gundam. At publisher Kodansha, they learned of manga's history, and touring Studio Ghibli, they encountered the "most famous anime director in the world," Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away). Their guide to Tokyo's cartoon culture was Takashi, a teenager the narrative says Charley met online (yet, as Carey revealed in a newspaper interview, he created the imaginary character of Takashi because the narrative needed conflict, and Carey wanted to avoid "conflict with anybody in real life"). Carey's fluid and engaging writing style gets a boost from 25 energetic black-and-white anime/manga illustrations.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Peter Carey is the author of eight novels, including the Booker Prize-winning Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang and, most recently, My Life as a Fake. He lives in New York City.

A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: Peter Carey was born in 1943 in the Australian town of Bacchus Marsh. On the afternoon that we talked Mr. Carey spoke from Seattle, where he was on tour with his new book. I spoke from home in California. I'd spent the previous weekend reading Mr. Carey's clever Wrong About Japan. The book's easy, querying tone made querying Mr. Carey seem easy. I confessed, "I've long wanted to ask you about the name of your hometown -- Bacchus Marsh. In the States we tend not to give towns such fancy names."

"Bacchus Marsh," he said, "sounds weird, but in fact it's rather pedestrian in that the 'Bacchus' doesn't allude to wine, alas, although I would like it to. The town did have seven pubs. But the town's name rather came from Captain Bacchus, who was an English soldier of some sort and presumably reinventing himself. Why I presume that is that he built a manor house. I suspect he probably wasn't very grand at all. But he was reinventing himself in the colonies, and he built this Georgian manor house that's still there and is named after him. I don't think anyone knows much about him. Everyone in town thinks he was very grand. He probably wasn't."

"Is it a little town?"

"Well, it was. It's 33 miles west of Melbourne. Melbourne now has a population of about three million, so it's a sizable city. When I was a kid, that 33 miles was like 200 might be today. We were living in the country, and I got a headache going to the big city. But now, there's still a separation between the city and Bacchus Marsh. It's not all continually suburban, but of course airline pilots and product managers and various people now live there and commute to the city. Bacchus Marsh was 5000 population when I was a kid. I don't know what it is now."

Carey was educated at Australia's Monash University, where he studied science. Meeting writers at university interested him in taking up authorship (Carey's parents, who owned a GM dealership, were not "big readers"). A shy young man, he supported himself by writing advertising copy. Carey's first published novel was Fat Man in History, which came out in the States in 1974. Carey moved from Melbourne to London and then to Sydney before taking up residence in New York in 1986. He teaches creative writing at New York University.

I asked Mr. Carey how he happened to choose New York as his home.

"Well, my soon-to-be-ex-wife really, really didn't like Australia, and she wanted to be in New York and to direct theater. I didn't know that. New York wouldn't have been the place I would have first chosen in life, but that was a possibility, and I went there and there was enough to like. And here I am 14 years later; I've got two American kids, and I have so many friends in New York, and I love the city."

Poor Mr. Carey once found himself in trouble with the Queen -- England's Queen Elizabeth II. In 1998, when Carey's novel Jack Maggs won the 1998 Commonwealth Writers Prize, Carey was expected to meet the Queen as part of his acceptance of the prize. Carey avoided the meeting. Because Mr. Carey is an antimonarchist who favors an Australian Republic, some members of the press believed his refusal to show himself at Buckingham Palace was politically motivated.

I asked, "Did you ever meet her?"

He did, he said, "Twice, actually. She said to me, 'I do believe you had some difficulty getting here.' You forget, in fact, that the Queen, of course, is the head of state and is a conscientious, hardworking head of state. So we had all sorts of interesting conversations. She said things you might not have expected. Perhaps one is not meant to repeat these conversations but, for instance, she said that she thought that the International Monetary Fund was being way too hard on Indonesia."

Mr. Carey explained, "You see, if you win the Commonwealth Prize you get to meet the Queen. Now firstly, if I'm short-listed for a prize, I tend not to think about it because what's the point? The normal thing is you're not going to win, so I put it out of my mind. And I'm writing, and I was invited to 'Come to Jamaica and wait with all the other short-listers.' I said, 'I'm not going to do that; I'm going to work.' Finally the call came and I'd won. I'm in a great panic, and so when I get there, and there's a journalist saying, 'Well, what about the Queen?' And I say, 'What do you mean, what about the Queen?' And then they reminded me of the conditions of the prize, and I said, 'I don't know whether I can do that.' And so it went on and on and on. The British press got a hold of it and said, 'Antipodean snubs his Queen.'

"And then I wrote a letter saying, 'Well, if anybody is oppressing the Australian people, it's the Australian people, and I'm sure Her Majesty won't send a gunboat, and I have no objection to meeting the Queen, but I'm not a monarchist.' Also, we had a date problem; Buckingham Palace changed the date to see me, which was nice of them."

"You must have felt funny walking around the palace."

"I did. It was like science fiction. It wasn't to do with a political feeling -- 'I'm in the enemy state' -- or anything like that. It was more a feeling of 'It's so strange to go through those gates at Buckingham Palace and go into that big, empty military courtyard and to be met with a red carpet and equerries and corgis.' It's just strange."

We turned then to Mr. Carey's new book. I had read that he invented one of the characters -- Takashi -- in the book. Why?

"There are so many different things about it. I mean, it's what I tend to do. I mean, all the things that happen, all the interviews, everything along the way has good journalistic accuracy. But I'm a novelist. And I don't know what good journalists know how to do, which is to use what actually happened and to give it shape.

"I need some conflict. I have neither the desire nor the skills to find a character who can embody things for me. I think that's normal and natural. Only when it was over, when somebody said, 'But you made up this character,' then I felt dreadful. Why? Because I think that there's a contract between readers and writers; I thought, 'I've betrayed that in some way.' Certainly, in Australia, you know, the book said that it was in part fact and in part fiction. In the U.S., the publishers didn't do that. So when anybody shows that in some degree they've given their heart to Takashi, then I feel bad that I made him up. That's why in interviews I have to talk about my inventing this character, because I don't want to trick anybody.

"The weird thing, as far as Charley and I are concerned, is that Charley named him. Of course, it's no accident that he's called Takashi, and the actor who Charley liked so much in the film Kikujiro, at the beginning of the book, has in it an actor named Beat Takeshi. Charley said to me, about Takashi, 'We should have been nicer to him, Dad.' That's the only criticism he had of the book."

Mr. Carey garbs Takashi in various costumings that most reminded me of pseudo-military gear worn by the younger Michael Jackson. Takashi seems quite the elegant, extravagant fop. And then, pages into Wrong About Japan, it turns out that Takashi works in a doughnut shop and lives with his grandmother. I asked Mr. Carey about this.

"Ah," he said, "one of the things about those sorts of people, which I know enough about from my research, of course, is that they've got day jobs. Somebody can be an accountant in the day and dressed up like a carpenter at night. Or the kids that are dressed up as Elvises -- well, they've got jobs. There's the imaginary life, and there's the other life."

"It's like being a writer," I said. "A sensible 'day job' part of you takes care of the zany part of you that writes."

"Exactly. That's good. It's very hard the way people read this sort of thing. There's a review that's coming out which has been read to me. I decided I didn't want to read it. But it says, 'Well, yeah, the hero of this is Charley, and his father did boring stuff in Japan and made Charley put up with this boring stuff.' There's a lot of primitive reading going on.

"Because obviously the Charley in the book is not quite the Charley who is my son. There's a real Charley who's made of his idea of himself and everybody else's, and then there's the one on the page, which is a quasifictional Charley. And whatever he suffers, I'm presenting to the reader as something that this 'not quite' Charley is suffering."

"I think it's interesting," I said, "the way reviews more and more often have begun to sermonize and moralize about the tale itself instead of leading discussion of the way the tale is told."

"Maybe I'm wrong about this, because I've lived here for 14 years. I'm still a foreigner. Sometimes I'm looking at you guys -- which includes my children as 'you guys' -- and I think that there's a thing in American culture which is about 'the story.' In the American novel, the flap copy has to tell the story. If you think of Hollywood and the pitching of the story, it's always the story. Reviews tell the story. So there's an investment in story that is foreign to me and forever puzzling. I don't know quite what it means."

"But this view," I argued, "is fairly new in America. Certainly 25 years ago you wouldn't have read as many book reviews that get angry because a character in a novel slaps his wife."

"Primitive. It's not a very sophisticated form of reading, no. And this is to leap sideways a little bit, but it's not unrelated; there's an enormous investment in the idea that this has to be from a true story. You do get from all this that many readers and reviewers suffer from a suspicion of the imagination."

I said that one aspect of Wrong About Japan: A Father's Journey with His Son that I had enjoyed was Mr. Carey's misreadings of the Japanese.

"One doesn't think about these things when one's writing. I've only just begun to talk about the book. But you begin to think -- well, in a way, this level of continual misunderstanding is what I've always written about. I never thought about this before.

"But one character doesn't understand the other character. And what's interesting in life is that, for instance, we have our conversation, and I think I'm saying one thing, and you're thinking I'm saying another. That's how it is.

"And the other thing about Wrong About Japan is that there's another element to it, which is that the Japanese don't like the notion that a foreigner could understand anything about them. And so, even though it's clear that I am often completely wrong and ignorant, why wouldn't I be? I think there are times when maybe there's a little bit of insight there, which just can't be ignored by the Japanese. There's something of that in the conversation with the guy who does the robots, where he's insisting that this robot-making is absolutely not Japanese, and he's therefore presenting something wildly different about whatever it is he thinks he's doing."

"There are also moments in the book," I say, "where people whom you are interviewing simply didn't want to tell you what they think or believe."

"Right. And, of course, no one wants to publish the book in Japan either."

I mentioned a passage on page 128 of Wrong About Japan. This passage seemed to explicate the book. I read from it. "Was there a mystery here? I seriously doubt it. Although this is how it is with traveling -- the simplest things take on an air of great inscrutability and so many questions arise, only to be half born and then lost as they are bumped aside by others. The most mundane events take on the character of deep secrets."

Mr. Carey said that at his Seattle reading that morning, he had read that passage to his audience. About the experience he describes in those sentences, he said, "I don't know whether I'm smart enough to add an awful lot to it. I flutter almost between my having written it and your appreciation of what I said. There are things that I think I mention somewhere else in the book, and it's also the nature of travel for the traveler to give offense -- small offenses and slights -- and to come back with those and to remember those with regret.

"But I think to travel mostly is to misunderstand. When I was very young, in my 20s, I got a job to go up to Thursday Island, which is an island like a little dot on the tip of Australia. I wanted to go. It was exotic and different -- racially, historically, in every way. But I thought, 'I can't go up there and write about this, how can I go up there for a week?' So what I did is I went up there and I collected stories. People's stories. I thought I could do that honestly. And I did it. So I've always had this problem. I know there are people who can go to a place and come back after a relatively short time and be able to tell you something about it. But I've never felt capable of that. I've always had to find strategies that confessed my ignorance or shallowness or lack of understanding."

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