cover image A Beginner’s Guide to Japan: Observations and Provocations

A Beginner’s Guide to Japan: Observations and Provocations

Pico Iyer. Knopf, $24.95 (240p) ISBN 978-0-451-49395-8

Having lived in Japan for decades, the widely traveled and erudite, Oxford-born Iyer (The Art of Stillness) presents this lovely pocket compendium of oddities and insights of Japanese life. Save for a few short essays, the book is comprised of standalone, paragraph-long entries grouped into loose thematic chapters, such as “On the Streets,” “At the Counter,” and “Behind Closed Doors.” Iyer’s range is broad as he discusses the signage upon disembarking Kyoto station (“There are eleven arrows on the sign above you... they point left, right, straight ahead and backwards. In the middle is a question mark”) as well as Japanese passion for baseball, in which there is a surprising amount of violence directed at baseball umpires (an American umpire had to be carried off after being hit “by a bicycle flung from a fan”). He also engages in deeper ruminations such as the role anime plays in Japanese life (“anime is the natural expression of an animist world”), the appreciation for the beauty of silence (“Zen is what remains when words and ideas run out”), and how the Japanese pursuit of perfection can make it “wonderfully welcoming” to outsiders but also “unyieldingly inhospitable, deep down.” Provocative and elegant, Iyer’s guide succeeds precisely because it doesn’t attempt to be authoritative. (Sept.)