Wrong About Japan: A Father’s Journey With His Son
Blame it on Charley. Author Peter Carey’s 12-year-old son recently discovered Japanese comics, prompting Dad to monitor the content of the not-entirely-appropriate-for-children genre. Impressed with the artistry of manga (and its sister discipline anime), he concocts the expense-account justification of writing a book about Japan in order to take a father-son adventure. Thus begins Wrong About Japan, a glib and frustratingly lightweight travel diary that’s slim on discovery and salted with redundant observations about Japanese culture’s impermeability, especially to non-Japanese speakers seeking free vacations.
Carey blunders through one cultural opportunity after another, sharing his vapid thoughts on art he doesn’t comprehend, interviewing subjects who smile wanly and demur, and fumbling everyday interactions with everyone else. He comes across not as an innocent abroad but a klutz, as tunnel-visioned as an otaku (an anime fanatic/geek/
recluse). Truly, his insensitivity is startling. After a new acquaintance generously shares harrowing tales of the terror and deprivation he experienced as a child in wartime Japan, Carey callously recalls that as a kid in Australia he used to play with Japanese army occupation money. After promising his son “No Real Japan” (i.e., no museums, no tea ceremonies, just anime), he tricks him into attending a four-hour kabuki performance. He even turns down an invitation to a home-cooked dinner from his son’s new Japanese friend in favor of an all-night, scene-by-scene dissection of a Japanese movie on video—this, after dragging his son out of Sega World because “we didn’t come all this way to play video games.” It’s not surprising, given his exasperating lack of empathy, that he and his son reach no new understandings of their relationship over the course of their travels. In fact, it’s the shy Charley who emerges the more gracious man, shifting from a truculent, semi-otaku preteen to a sensitive young adult while Dad is left to his ruminations.
Carey’s trip is not without its revelations, although they’re stingily dispensed. And the book itself is handsomely tricked out with flashy splash panels of Astro Boy and samurai disembowelment diagrams. It’s a shame the writing inside isn’t as seductive. While its digestible size might make a nice tidbit for the idle curious, stateside Japanophiles will quickly assume the rolled-eyes expression of an exasperated teenager listening to some fogey wax poetic about last week’s news. Zen philosophy says it’s the void in the middle of the vase that makes it valuable. But there’s no Zen justification for the empty space inside all this writing where a book should be.