Pictures from the Water Trade: Adventures of a Westerner in Japan
by John David Morley
Atlantic Monthly Press, 259 pp., $16.95
Japan often has a curious effect on foreigners. It is said that Arthur Koestler would get so annoyed with obsequious waiters that he would pour a glass of water down their necks. George Bernard Shaw absolutely refused to take his shoes off when entering Japanese houses. Others, usually of a more romantic disposition, become what the French call “tatamisé,” donning kimonos and even Japanizing their names: Lafcadio Hearn, a Greek-American writer best known for his Japanese ghost tales, was the most famous example of this type—his Japanese name was Koizumi Yakumo.
The violent love-hate reaction to Japan, which can alternate within the same person—not to mention country—with alarming speed, is caused partly by the fact that nothing in Japan is quite what it seems. In public most Japanese prefer to present things as they ideally should be, while knowing full well that such is not the way they are. Two Japanese can easily have a conversation in which both parties say the opposite of what they mean, each completely aware that the other is doing so as well. This has earned them a reputation of duplicity; but to Japanese it is a matter of politesse, of respecting each other’s feelings. Truth is something relative, and subordinate to the demands of human relations.
Many Westerners find this hard to take, for it challenges one of the most sacred Western ideals: namely, that truth and other such moral absolutes should transcend mere social convenience (the frontal assault of Japan on many cherished Western ideals is of course as delightful to some as it is reprehensible to others). Americans, especially, lay great store by being frank. But frankness, more often than not, makes Japanese wince, and it confirms their prejudices about the insensitivity of foreigners. However,in Japan there is a time and place for everything, even frankness. Men can be frank when they are drunk. Alcohol, an absolute necessity in Japan, momentarily releases the strain of holding up the elaborate facade which constitutes daily Japanese life. And alcohol is the stuff of what Japanese call the water trade—the business of bars, cabarets, theaters, and brothels, where the rules of daily life are turned upside down. It is the trade, many would argue, that keeps Japanese men sane (women are, on the whole, to be found at the other side of the counter). It is certainly the business where much truth about Japanese life is to be found. John David Morley is thus absolutely right to begin his account of what it is like to live with Japanese—not the same as living in Japan—with some remarkably ribald pictures from the water trade.
But Pictures from the Water Trade is more than a collection of bar stories. It is also more than just another book about Japan. Morley describes what it feels like for a foreigner, in his case an Englishman, to live like a Japanese; or, in other words, how an individualist learns to adapt to …