A mention of this book popped up on Twitter, and I went straight to the Camphor Press website and bought it. I’ve never been to Japan, but two family members have, one for a year, and she’s been trying to get back there ever since. Japanese books are stacked up in her bedroom, not just manga, and she’s been watching anime since she was old enough to turn on the TV to watch the Power Puff Girls. So I was already familiarised and I’m now curious about life outside the shiny big megacities.
Editor John Grant Ross has selected eighteen essays by seventeen writers on what living in rural Japan was like or is like for them. Most of the writers are American, and most of the Americans went to Japan to teach English with the JET program, a year or more of immersion living in a small Japanese town or village, teaching English at the local high school or anywhere else that was considered suitable. So their expectations of Japan are dominant. At least two essays make a point of mentioning the installation of a Western-style toilet in the traditional Japanese family house they have moved to, meaning a sit-upon toilet, the authors not realising that French public toilets a few decades ago (maybe some, obscure examples, still are?) were just like the traditional Japanese squatting toilets. ‘Western’ means ‘civilised’ in this context, which says more about the writers than they think.
The other thing that’s important about the writers is that none are professional. Many are regular bloggers, many have published books on their own subjects or on aspects of their lives in Japan, but none of them make a living from their writing. So the quality of the essays undulates, although there are no vertiginous drops. The opening essay is not one of the strongest ones, unfortunately, but it’s clear why it should open the collection, because it describes living a little way down the coast when the tsunami hit Fukushima in 2010: the event most readers are likely to associate with Japan in recent years. The second essay is, in my opinion, the worst, because it is spectacularly overwritten. Perhaps it’s a spoof, or an attempt to satirise a particular kind of thesaurus-browsing style that’s all about range of vocabulary rather than saying what they mean. Draw breath once you’re past that one, and settle down to enjoy the rest.
Inaka means rural Japan, ‘the sticks’, and these authors lived or still live in small villages or obscure towns. They write about crumbling buildings, lost villages, abandoned shrines and forgotten places. Many of the authors have married into Japanese families, and bring Japanese society to life by writing about how their mothers-in-law or fathers-in-law have coped with a foreigner in the house. Thersa Matsuura, an American wife, was so downtrodden by her overbearing mother-in-law that she submitted to being taken to be exorcised, since the mother-in-law needled her for every failing by insisting that she must be carrying a curse to be such an appalling person. Thersa’s forbearance is breathtaking, and the solution offered by the seer, who quite clearly saw what was going on, is a big relief. On the other hand, Thersa was so fascinated by the belief system that her mother-in-law revealed to her, of unlucky numbers and directions, devil’s gates, amulets and calendars of unauspicious days that she has studied this for thirty years, producing books and a podcast.
Many of the writers speak feelingly of the inability of traditionally-built Japanese houses to cope with the cold, and their own inability to cope with Japanese summer humidity, and they all speak with passion about their favourite kinds of Japanese food. Each essay teaches those of us with no familiarity with Japan something new, and nearly all are highly rereadable. Paul Vickory won my laugh-out-loud prize for his contribution on Japanese town mascots and the joys of having your own kotatsu to prevent freezing in your own home. Brian Burke-Gaffney’s piece on his years of training to be a Zen monk on Shikoku won the endurance prize, trailed pitifully by Paul Barach’s extended whinge about the effort he expended in hiking part – just part! – of a pilgrim route. If he thought his ordeal was funny, it wasn’t: his embarrassing conduct said much more about the tolerance routinely shown by the Japanese to the weird behaviour of gaijin passing through their culture. Sarah Coomber’s retreat to Yamaguchi to recover from an unhappy divorce taught her not just to love playing the koto, but also to take her new musicianship back to Minnesota and teach it to people there. Amy Chavez, Tom Gibb, John Dougill and Rebecca Otowa took a more documentarian approach, recording local community histories and the stories of dying industries and abandoned places with compassion.
Inaka is a thoroughly enjoyable collection, and the theme of rural Japan works perfectly as a unifying motif to keep the different voices in balance, creating a picture much bigger than its separate parts. Its map is essential: keep a bookmark there as you read through the stories. More collections like this will be a great pleasure to read.