My review of the book Wrong About Japan by Peter Carey – please see the end of this post for a full disclaimer.
I realised recently that that last time I left the UK was, I think, late 2019. When I look back at how much I travelled between 2017 and then it seems unimaginable that my passport would have laid in a drawer for all that time. But then again, I suppose none of us expected a global pandemic to change so much. What is clear though is that I have a huge need to dust off said passport and get my little family back out on the road (or rails!) before I go stir crazy. That need has also been influencing where I’ve been looking in bookshops lately.
I’m suddenly finding myself in the travel section and in particular cursing the way that Waterstones seem to have decided to mix together travel guides with travel writing so that if you look for a country (arranged alphabetically rather than by region!) you then find both books about that country and all the regular guide books next to each other. Fine if you are planning a trip somewhere specific, but as frustrating as anything if you just want to be inspired in general. And don’t even get me started about what it means for all those travel writers who write books that cover more than one country. It also stops you from thinking “oh I really liked that writer, I wonder where else they’ve been” unless you have your phone to hand to look them up online instead. Talking to the booksellers in Waterstones it seems I’m not the only one annoyed by this, but sadly nothing seems to have been done to rectify the situation yet.
What this change in Waterstones policy did mean though was that I had to narrow down where I wanted some travel inspiration for. Based on my eldest’s sudden love of Japanese manga and anime (and the fact that I still regret not going 20 years ago when I had the chance) I picked the Japan section and found myself picking up a copy of Peter Carey’s Wrong About Japan.
The blurb on the back cover made this sound the perfect choice. Carey took a trip to Japan with his twelve year old son, but his son insisted that they were only there to look at manga, anime and other “cool stuff”. Exactly the sort of thing that my twelve year old would say right now and I had visions of being able to share the book with her and plan an imaginary trip with all the cool things that she’d like to see out there as a result. Unfortunately that’s not quite how it all turned out.
The bit that wasn’t apparent to me from the blurb on the back of this book is that Peter Carey has been to Japan before. It turns out that he’s reasonably knowledgable about Japanese culture and has a network of contacts across Japan that allowed him to make a series of appointments to meet what I believe are key players in the manga and anime worlds. In contrast I’ve read quite a few books about Japan, but know virtually nothing about manga and anime other than them originating in Japan and being massive there.
Lacking previous knowledge
Wrong About Japan would probably read better if you knew something about anime and manga. If you understood, and appreciated, who it was Peter and his son went to meet. Some of the general points he has to make about what has influenced anime and manga in Japan’s history is useful and interesting, but at points the book really felt like I was just scratching the surface and not understanding what was really going on as I didn’t have enough background knowledge. There were also some strange sections where Carey launched into quoting other books that he’d read about things like the history of Samurai and disappearing down rabbit holes as a result. He’d then say that he needed to move on whilst on a visit as his son was getting bored and I could completely see why!
Travel is enhanced by meeting people
To me one of the most fascinating parts of the book was the boy that his son made friends with over the internet before arriving in Japan (this was set in 2002 so before social media exploded) and what it was like meeting him in person. What an amazing opportunity for his son to see how a boy of a similar age lived in Tokyo and how they consumed manga and anime. Yet it seemed like Carey didn’t want his son to have these opportunities at all. If anything they were downright rude to Takashi and passed up on most of what he wanted to show the boy in Tokyo. It left me feeling sad and frustrated on his behalf. Travel is so enhanced by the people that you meet and interact with and for a twelve year old boy I feel he would have got so much more out of really getting to know Takashi, rather than being bored following his father’s itinerary.
What to read next about Japan?
I’m left feeling frustrated in my efforts to scratch my Japanese travel itch right now. Friends have recommended A Beginners Guide to Japan and Hokkaido Highway Blues and I think these may be a good starting point to dip my toe back into Japan. Years ago I remember enjoying Culture Shock Japan and whilst it was written before the internet changed everything and hence it’s no longer in print, I might see if I can try to find a copy secondhand so I can remember why I first wanted to visit.
In an attempt to find something Japanese related on television to watch with the kids we ended up finding Michael Palin’s visit there in an episode of Full Circle. This then took us to his fascinating Channel 5 two-part programme where he goes to North Korea and I’m now back in a world where I just want to sit and watch back to back travel programmes and book tickets to random places based on what I’ve watched. This week the next series of Race Across the World returns to our screens (after a Covid enforced break) and I am so excited. I’ve written about previous series over on my travel blog and I’m pretty sure I’ll be close to booking tickets to a far flung part of Canada once the series airs!
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