‘The Passenger: Japan’ (Review)

Europa Editions are better known for a focus on European rather than Asian literature, but they have begun to dabble in that area, with the worldwide release a while back of Iwaki Kei’s Farewell, My Orange (translated by Meredith McKinney) and last year’s US release of Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs (tr. Sam Bett and David Boyd – see my reviews here and here).  There are also a couple of intriguing books due out in 2021, but today’s choice moves us away from fiction to look at an interesting project the press began last year, one in which they aim to introduce readers to the world, one country at a time.

No prizes for guessing where they started 😉

The Passenger is a quarterly magazine that claims to “collect the best new writing, photography, art and reportage from around the world“, and to date Europa have published or announced six editions, taking curious readers on a vicarious journey to countries including Greece, Turkey and India.  However, it all began last year with The Passenger: Japan (review copy courtesy of the press), close to two-hundred pages of essays and choice morsels examining a country very close to my heart.

Most readers will notice the more familiar names, of course, with several prominent Japanese writers contributing.  There are Hideo Furukawa’s suggestions (translated by Polly Barton) of a favourite Japanese film, book and album, as well as Ryū Murakami’s wry take on what he calls Japanese society’s ‘withering of desire’ (tr. Meredith McKinney), in which he advocates a policy of allowing everyone to live life the way they choose, lest conformity lead to something more sinister:

Japan’s suicide rate per one hundred thousand is the highest in the developed world.  There’s no question that it’s better to buy Louis Vuitton handbags, to have cosmetic surgery, to go to gōkon parties or sell your body if the alternative is depression that leads to suicide.
‘The Withering of Desire’, p.82 (Europa Editions, 2020)

Meanwhile, Banana Yoshimoto’s piece (tr. McKinney) covers similar ground to her novel Moshi Moshi, with a short essay acting as another love letter to her beloved Tokyo suburb of Shimokitazawa – although she’s not quite as keen on the dubious behaviour of the area’s builders and estate agents.

However, these vignettes are more the icing than the cake, as the real content of The Passenger consists of extended essays from a range of contributors.  Amanda Petrusich takes us back to Shimokitazawa in ‘Sweet Bitter Blues’ to explore the Japanese obsession with a very American style of music, while ‘Sea of Crises’ sees Brian Phillips going on a rather different journey, alternating between days at the sumo and a hunt for the man who took Yukio Mishima’s head.  Yes, Mishima again – I just can’t seem to escape him these days…

Some of the most intriguing pieces in The Passenger: Japan take us even deeper into Japanese society.  Léna Mauger’s effort, ‘The Evaporated’ (tr. Tina Kover), has the writer interviewing a number of people who, when faced with insurmountable debts or unavoidable violence, simply vanished, which is apparently a very Japanese approach to moving on with your life.  By contrast, Cesare Alemanni’s ‘Of Bears and Men’ (tr. Katherine Gregor) shows people reclaiming their identities.  Here the focus is on the Ainu people and how they have fought back from centuries of oppression and colonisation, with their culture beginning to thrive once more.

Perhaps my favourite contribution, though, is Richard Lloyd Parry’s ‘Ghosts of the Tsunami’.  Here, the writer visits the area devasted by the earthquake and ensuing tsunami back in 2011, and meets a Zen Buddhist priest who has been busy ever since dealing with the exorcisms of those lost in the tragedy.  It seems suffering doesn’t end with death, and the priest’s role is to help the victims of the tragedy move on:

Thousands of spirits had passed from life to death; countless others were cut loose from their moorings in the afterlife.  How could they all be cared for?  Who was to honour the compact between the living and the dead?  In such circumstances, how could there fail to be a swarm of ghosts?
‘Ghosts of the Tsunami’, p.24

His role isn’t just limited to comforting spirits, though  There’s also a need to help the community to heal, and in addition to the exorcisms, there are discussion sessions where those left behind can let out their pent-up grief.

The Passenger is an excellent idea, and it looks wonderful.  In addition to containing several more pieces I don’t have space to mention here, it’s full of Laura Liverani’s beautiful photos and little infographics providing snapshots of Japanese life.  These look at demographics, habits and other intriguing pieces of information, which many readers will no doubt find fascinating (one example is that while the average age of the Japanese, at forty-six, is the highest in the world, the average age of their houses, at twenty-six, is among the lowest…).

Despite this, I do have a few reservations.  While all of the pieces are interesting, few really stand out, and on finishing the magazine, if that’s what it is, I wasn’t really convinced that it all hangs together that well.  It’s an impossible task, of course, to provide a comprehensive picture of a society in two-hundred glossy pages, yet the selection here seems a little random, more a chance collection of thematically linked essays than a real curated work.  Also, as someone who has lived in Japan, there were a few eye-roll moments.  Certainly, I could have done without two gushing pages on the washlet, a glorified high-tech bidet 😉

Perhaps, that’s my problem with The Passenger: Japan, though.  While my time in Japan is well in the past, I may still be a little too close to appreciate the book fully, and those with less of a connection to the country might enjoy the contributions far more.  It is a nice idea, and I had fun with it, but I suspect I’ll need to take a look at an issue slightly further away from my interests to really get the most out of it.  It’s a good job, then, that there are more to choose from – I wonder where I should go next…

3 thoughts on “‘The Passenger: Japan’ (Review)

  1. Your assumptions about the enjoyment of those who know nothing about Japan are spot on… as you’ll see next week. 😉


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