Jane Austen in Japan

“Men are so cruel,” said Fumie. We were sitting in a Kyoto restaurant, a Japanese academic couple, an American academic couple, all of us old enough to be grand-parents. Gray, bespectacled, and sedentary, I did not feel very sadistic; no more, I suspect, did Masao.

The restaurant specialized in lobster; among the first courses, the one that stirred Fumie’s indignation was a chance to eat a living lobster. We were incredulous. Not living! Newly cooked, surely; fresh from the window tank. No, said Masao, this would be a living, moving lobster; and while the rest of us meekly took something else, he ordered the house specialty. It came. The carapace covering the tail section had been removed and the flesh cut up. The lobster was not only alive, but appeared to be in mortal agony; it reared its forward end and reached out with its spiny legs. (Pacific lobsters do not have the giant pincers of Atlantic lobsters.) Masao dug with his chopsticks into the gray, quivering matter that now constituted the lobster’s back and tail. Avoiding the waving legs, I took a bit and ate it. To my palate, it had no particular taste or texture; but perhaps that was just because I am fond of lobster prepared the conventional way. But there’s no denying it, the writhing and gesticulating of the agonized animal was very off-putting. Masao ate his living lobster with gusto and pronounced it excellent; the rest of us ate pieces of prepared, and properly passive, lobster—not without uneasy glances at the miserable victim. It’s fair to say he dominated the dinner table.

I was in Kyoto to teach two English novels in a women’s college; my class of twenty-five students, selected for their previous knowledge of English, met twice a week. (At a generous estimate, I speak no Japanese whatever.) We were to read Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights—a pair of nineteenth-century novels written by women and largely about women. The choice was not altogether mine; these novels formed part of a much longer list that I had submitted. But I thought it best that the final choice be made by someone who knew better than I the level of student preparation and the pressure of other courses on student time. Fumie and Masao, friends from a previous visit to Japan, had been most helpful in arranging my appointment; our visit to the lobster restaurant was a gesture of gratitude.

Both novels deal, as it happens, with the rude and forbidding qualities of men; but there was a presence in the classroom more formidable to my students than either Darcy or Heathcliff—and that was myself. Nowhere else have I been a particularly intimidating figure for my students, and nothing could have been farther from my intent. Knowing something of Japanese college students, I did not expect them to be voluble or belligerent. But neither did I expect them to be as shy and unspeaking as my young ladies proved to be. They were…

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