A View of Japan
Frances Mayes gave us Italy. Peter Mayle gave us France. Jill Ker Conway gave us Australia. And on Thursday, Jan. 11, at 4 p.m. at The Country Bookshop, Cathy N. Davidson will give us Japan.
Library Journal calls her travel memoir, "36 Views of Mt. Fuji: Finding Myself in Japan," "one of the best 'explanations' of Japanese culture, and our problems in understanding it, that has come along in years."
The title of her book comes from the series of woodblock prints by Katsushika Hokusai, the 19th century Japanese artist.
"Hokusai portrays the different, even contradictory, aspects of Japanese life," says Davidson. "He does nothing to reconcile contradictions, but the presence of the mountain suggests that all of the views, taken together, make up Japan.
"My version of '36 Views of Mount Fuji' focuses on individual encounters, intimate moments, and small revelations that helped me make sense of Japan. If a theme underlies the memories in this book, it is what I learned from the rituals, celebrations, customs, and traditions through which the Japanese cope with life -- both its joys and its pains. More than that, my Japanese experiences prompted me to come to terms with painful events in my own life."
Davidson, who was raised in Chicago and received her doctorate in American literature from State University of New York at Binghamton, was a professor of English at Michigan State University from 1976 to 1988, during the collapse of the U.S. auto industry when laid-off workers used sledge hammers to take out their frustrations on Toyotas.
As part of a faculty exchange program, she and her husband, Ted Davidson, went to Japan in 1980, where she taught English for a year to Japanese students at "Kansai Women's University" in Nigawa, an affluent suburb between Kobe and Osaka.
"Japan can seem like a more extreme version of the U.S. -- busier (more people per square yard), more workaholic (one of the longest work weeks in the world)," says Davidson. "But philosophically and socially, it's one of the least 'Americanized' non-Western countries, despite its rampant modernization. The Japanese value system has been little changed by extensive borrowing from the West."
Davidson immediately was confronted with culture shock which she chronicles. For example:
n There are three periods of "freedom" in Japanese life: early childhood; during college; and old age which is envisioned as a second childhood.
n Japan has no real concept of 'learning disability'; all children are told that, with hard work, they can do better.
n Math standards are lower for boys than girls. There are special after-school courses for boys to overcome their math anxiety.
n If a child should fail, it is considered the mother's fault. Newspapers recount incidents of teenage boys beating up mothers who put pressure on them to do well in school.
n After high school or college, women became OLs, Office Lady, a brief period of menial corporate labor typically followed by marriage and childrearing.
n Major Japanese companies hire according to the prestige of the college attended. Anyone who has passed an exam to get into an important university is dedicated enough to do well for the firm. The rest is job training, best taught by the company. College, therefore, becomes a four-year vacation.
n Public drunkenness is a phenomenon not only tolerated but actually encouraged by Japanese companies since it is thought to ease the pressures of daily life. Companies even own the bars where workers go after hours.
n The law courts are starting to hear more and more cases about "karoshi," death from overwork. Widows are suing the companies for death benefits, demanding compensation for the loss of husbands worked into an early grave.
n Japanese do not look at one another in public and do not make eye contact; but "gaijin" foreigners, particularly white Americans, grow used to stares and find even their slightest actions scrutinized.
n No one ever goes to a person's house without an invitation that includes a prearranged time -- and a map. Most streets are unnamed in Japan and houses are typically numbered in the order in which they are built. Privacy is institutionalized by the very anonymity of the streets.
In the winter of 1982, Davidson and her husband returned to Japan for five weeks, and she again in 1987, looking at Japan not as a temporary diversion, but as a possible future.
"We kept noticing things we found difficult or troubling," she says. "Mostly we saw, again and again, just how incompetent we were at things Japanese."
When they decided living permanently in Japan was impossible, they accepted positions at Duke University in 1989, moved to Cedar Grove and built a Japanese house on the lake.
In 1990 they returned again to Japan and stayed in the Practice House, a quasi-Victorian house furnished in Western style, where female college students from Kansai Women's University mastered the basic domestic skills required for a Western homemaker in the event that one day any of the young women might marry a diplomat or an executive stationed abroad with some multinational firm.
It was there, in the Western Practice House in Japan, that Davidson realized she felt homesick for the first time -- for her Japanese house in America.
Davidson has written and edited over a dozen other books, including the award-winning "Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory," a collaboration with photographer Bill Bamberger, about the 1995 closing of the White Furniture Company.
She is the vice provost for Interdisciplinary Studies and Ruth F. Devarney Professor of English at Duke University. She lives in Durham.
For information, call 692-3211.
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