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 one of the world’s most conformist societies. As with many foreigners in Japan, Morley arrived as a student and made ends meet by doing such typically “foreign” jobs as translating technical manuals. His budget was obviously tight, which can be a definite advantage when one is exploring the nether world of Japanese night life—it makes one more adventurous.

Fortunately Morley, or rather his literary alter ego, Boon, never tries to be Japanese in the manner of those harmless foreign eccentrics “seeking the way” in Zen monasteries. Not for him such illusory shortcuts to the “real”Japan. Boon’s approach to things Japanese is more sensible: through language and love, specifically erotic love. To acquire a language, one must acquire, at least superficially, many of the cultural attitudes that go with it. As he puts it, “his capacity to assimilate the new culture would depend on his willingness to sever, or at least temporarily suspend, the attachment to his own in a much deeper sense.” This is a risky business, which few people care to undertake. It is difficult enough being a foreigner in Japan—though, in the Japanese racial hierarchy, whites rank higher than non-Japanese Asians or blacks; it is much harder to be a foreigner who does not behave like one and thus eludes the stereotypical Japanese view of the world.

In the beginning Boon is a novice, scribbling notes and learning how to cope. He makes such beginner’s mistakes as assuming an understanding of irony among his Japanese friends:

“Nice weather,” said Boon facetiously as he shook hands with Sugama. Outside it was pouring with rain.

“Nice weather?” repeated Sugama doubtfully, glancing out of the window. “But it’s raining.”

It was not a good start.

But a novice is forgiven such lapses. Japanese rather appreciate foreigners struggling with their language. It confirms the unique, indeed unlearnable complexity of the Japanese tongue, and by implication of the Japanese people. Language, it is commonly assumed, is the last drawbridge of the Japanese identity which no foreigner can hope to cross. Those rare gaijin (literally, outside people, a term mostly used for Caucasians) who become fluent in Japanese throw this cozy view of Japanese uniqueness out of kilter and are sometimes regarded as a threat, a bit like spies prying into family secrets.


There are several ways of dealing with this threat. One method is simply to refuse to acknowledge that a foreigner is actually speaking Japanese. But this kind of deliberate incomprehension is becoming rarer these days—certainly rarer than when Morley lived in Japan ten years ago. More common is the propensity to treat Japanese-speaking foreigners as highly trained circus monkeys, who can do uncanny imitations of humans. Japanese delight in putting such hapless people—known as hen na gaijin, “funny foreigners”—on display in TV variety shows, where their antics are the source of endless fun.

This attitude is irritating, even offensive, but perhaps not entirely inaccurate. Morley describes how Boon found himself speaking “words which were not his own and whose meaning he sometimes did not even understand, expressions of self-effacement, in particular, caution, superfluous agreement, solicitude and deference which he did not feel and for which his native language did not provide.” For a Frenchman to speak Italian, adopting many of the accompanying cultural attitudes, is one thing; for an Englishman to behave like a Japanese is quite another. To speak a foreign language well one has to be an actor and the more alien the culture one impersonates, the more conscious one becomes of this.

There are many different types of acting, of course. Some choose the “method” of the New York school, desperately trying to internalize ways of thinking that go against all their native impulses. The result can be to find oneself on cultural quicksand, sinking into a rootless limbo. One way of coping with this—a way Morley, to his credit, appears not to have taken—is to treat the Japanese cultural attitudes expressed through language with deliberate irony—the Brechtian method, as it were. It is a form of self-protection guaranteed to make enemies in a country where irony is interpreted at best as a lack of sincerity, at worst as hostile sarcasm.

Boon appears to have dealt with being a linguistic circus monkey quite well. He gets burned, however, in erotic matters. He develops a passion for a girl from the water trade called Mariko, who becomes the main object of Boon’s obsession with Japanese eroticism. This obsession hits many foreigners in Japan, where the promise of sexual fulfillment always seems just around the corner. Japan is a land of ceaseless titillation, where strict social conventions are in constant battle with guiltless hedonism. It leaves some people, including, it seems, Morley, quite breathless.

Perhaps as a result, the portrayal of Mariko is the best part of the book: she is a bit like the beautiful ghost in many No plays, physically real enough, but entirely elusive. Even at the height of sexual passion, “the spirit of the woman [was] always as remote from him as her prickling flesh was close: never able to have her entirely he was driven wild.” Predictably, the relationship comes to grief. He finds out that “she had loved him, she had loved other men, she had deceived him as she had deceived them….” And yet “she had not misled him, for she lacked any direction. She was simply opaque. He had not understood her at all.”

Mariko’s personality is like the interior of a traditional Japanese house. There are no fixed rooms; there is no core; walls can be shifted at random to make new rooms. In a way mariko symbolizes Japan. One of the most maddening aspects of Japanese culture to many Westerners is the infinite capacity of Japanese to live with contradictions, to be, in sum, without a fixed center. Boon quotes the political philosopher Maruyama Masao, who contrasts the fragmentary nature of Japanese culture with Western societies, which can afford to be pluralist in character by virtue of their common base—Christianity, for example, or democratic traditions guaranteed by respect for an unwritten English constitution. Japan has no such common base, he argues, but works quite well nevertheless.

It is, in fact, only since the late nineteenth century, when Japan came out of its self-imposed isolation and tried to emulate the Western world, that Japanese and foreigners alike attempted to find a common Japanese base. Modern Japanese are as obsessed with Japaneseness as Victorians were with sex. Out of this grew the so-called Nihonjinron (theory of Japaneseness), now a major literary industry providing a living for countless theorists.


Boon joins the crowd and becomes a theorist of Japaneseness, too. This is unfortunate, for these Nihonjinron chapters are, in my view, the least successful parts of the book, not because Boon is wrong, but because he has nothing new to say. He goes over the well-trodden ground of giri-ninjo (duty versus personal inclinations), social shame, the Japanese penchant for shows of emotional dependence, and so forth. Despite the author’s attempt to give Boon a part in voicing these theories by stating that “Boon learned this” or “Boon thought that,” Boon becomes a somewhat forced presence. One wonders, incidentally, why Morley chose to hide behind this fictional character in the first place. Sticking to the more conventional “I” would have made the transitions from personal narrative to theory more plausible.

Still, he comes to some conclusions that are relevant to the rest of the book. Much in Japanese society, he says, comes down to the concept of uchi (literally, my house, but incorporating my family, my workplace, my country, or even myself, depending on the circumstances) and yoso (outside my house, meaning anyone with whom I have no formal relationship based on kinship, membership in the same group, or mutual obligation). Boon rightly concludes that the Christian injunction “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” is alien to Japanese thought. As he puts it,

Relations between insiders were characterised by duty infused with love (empathy), relations to outsiders by acknowledgment of duty alone. What was not clear to Boon, however, was the specific nature of this duty towards outsiders from which fellow-feeling, the feeling based on one’s common humanity, had expressly been excluded.

In another, less personal kind of book, he might have mentioned that this attitude is precisely what causes so many problems in Japan’s foreign relations, from its trade disputes to its reluctance to harbor refugees.

Foreigners, however long they reside in Japan, are very rarely part of any uchi: “When confronted with Boon the uchi which the Japanese represented became their nation….” But if Boon had only been able to report from the outside, this book would not have been any different from the hundreds of others explaining Japan. He was able to penetrate the Japanese uchi in two ways: the uchi of a close friend, and the myriad uchis of the water trade.

The water trade—not only because of its Freudian symbolism—is a maternal world, a world of solicitous “mama-sans” running tiny bars, where men come to unburden themselves. The relationship between the mama-san and her clientele is very similar to that of New York psychiatrists and their patients: adulthood is temporarily suspended, one can—in Japan, quite literally—lay one’s head on mother’s infinitely patient breast. Boon describes a scene in a “cabaret,” a type of Japanese nightclub, where he watches how his friends “sat down with the hostesses they had been assigned and almost at once reached out for their breasts as nonchalantly as they helped themselves to the fruit on the table.” He concludes, rightly I think, that there is nothing lecherous about this, but that they are “the gropings of a spent animal towards a haven of safety.”

Bars and cabarets are very much uchi. It is significant that many such places won’t allow foreigners to come in, for they would spoil the intimate atmosphere. Boon made his home in some of them, however, and established relationships with some of their denizens. Because many of the rules of Japanese life are reversed in the water trade, instant friendships can be declared. The tenuous nature of such good fellowship is demonstrated in one of Boon’s tales. A fellow barfly, quite drunk, tells Boon all his private troubles and insists on taking him home to sleep off the effects of the night’s revelry. However, the next morning “the attitude of his host…had completely changed. Sober now, restored to the real world, he probably felt ashamed. He had been exposed in his intimacy, seduced by one of those heady impulses of friendship which were peculiar to the water trade and which snuffed out as quickly as they caught fire.” A temporary uchi became yoso again.

Morley has given us a unique view of Japan’s uchi, the inside of a nation few outsiders ever get close to. He was able to do this only by pulling back in the end (he now appears to live in Germany, another place that tends to distrust outsiders). He, or Boon at any rate, resisted the temptation to become “tatamisé.” He neither idealizes Japan nor feels the urge to throw water down waiters’ necks, but reaches a sort of understanding that can only come with experience. It is an experience which, like a deep love affair, one can only describe from a distance. That he was able to come so close to such a complex culture was his gain. That he could write so clearly about his experience is ours.

This Issue

July 18, 1985