Book review: Wrong About Japan

Wrong About JapanWrong About Japan by Peter Carey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am both a fan of Japan and a fan of Peter Carey, so one would think this book a no-brainer for me. I enjoyed it, sure, but I found my enthusiasms for both broader topics were greater than my enthusiasm for this book.

The book details a journey the writer (and his son, Charley) took to Japan. It’s an indulgent parental gesture – Carey’s son is a manga and anime fanatic, and the trip is suggested after the author observes the way his offspring enthusiastically consumes Japanese cultural exports. (School-mandated reading does not have a similar effect on the younger Carey.)

Through his contacts in Japan, where he is published, the elder Carey arranges for the pair to meet with various luminaries of the anime and manga community, including – miraculously, given how slim one’s chances normally are of facilitating an encounter – Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki. The one proviso of this trip is that Charley insists that the trip doesn’t include a lot of ‘real Japan’ – temples, onsen and ryokan-style accommodation.


The idea of cultural difference is examined throughout, and is indicative of the generation gap, too. Over the course of the book, both Careys’ knowledge about anime and manga are detailed; the son’s is of an enthusiast, while the father’s of a parent trying to understand his child’s obsession. The meetings with creators provide the author an opportunity to ask questions about the motivations behind their work – but the concerns addressed are very much rooted in Carey’s generation; he is obsessed, it seems, with how much the experience of World War II influenced them.

What’s intriguing is that while Carey sees the shadow of war and childhood-in-war in the Japanese media he consumes. In the case of Grave of the Fireflies, this is correct – but what’s remarkable is how other creators he comes across deny this role in their work. It highlights how someone like Carey – a generally well-researched author – can be completely at sea in another culture; without the correct background, he makes mistakes in etiquette constantly. (Young Carey’s Tokyo mate is snubbed, unintentionally, and there’s a particularly cringe-inducing chapter where the author discusses identity – appearance is key throughout this work, as it is in Japan at large – with a transexual individual in a remarkably tone-deaf manner.)

This in itself is nothing new: anyone who’s read about or has been to Japan knows that there, outsiders are very much outsiders, and that one can be met warmly and kept uninformed about the transgressions made against social norms because of that otherness. But it has a particular sweetness when expressed by someone who has obviously put so much work into becoming au courant with the culture.

While ostensibly a travelogue, Wrong About Japan is really about the bond between father and son; Carey’s son is 12, almost a teenager, and in the space where he ceases to be something known, predictable to his father, and becomes an individual, a person of mystery. Throughout the book, there’s implied questions about how a parent acts with their child; how can you cross that gulf between old and young? The writing is at its best not when it’s Carey describing what he considers real Japan, but when he’s trying, painfully, to reach his son.

Having read the author’s recounting of a trip back to Sydney in 30 Days In Sydney: A Wildly Distorted Account, I was probably set up for failure. Though this book was published later than the Sydney tome, it seems to be a little more raggedy, a little less practised. It lacks the general polish of the earlier book, and while a degree of this could be put down to the unfamiliarity of the writer with the everyday workings of his destination culture, it is reasonably off-putting. Another reason the book seems less sunny, perhaps, is the familial aspect; it’s hamstrung by the fact that Japan is only a pawn in the attempts Carey makes to be closer to his son.

Peter Carey is one of my favourite authors: I’ve loved his stuff since I first read Oscar And Lucinda as part of my school studies. I’ve read most of the rest of his work – and have reread O&L multiple times over the past 25-odd years – and have found him to have a pretty high hit-rate. Most of his books – fiction or not – grab you, pull you in. This book isn’t one of those. It’s worth reading if you’re interested in Japan, expressed in the author’s anxious-yet-laconic style – but otherwise it’s a trip you can let him take alone.

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