Japan: In the Spirit World

A Zen Romance: One Woman's Adventures in a Monastery

by Deborah Boliver Boehm
Kodansha, 258 pp., $25.00

“Zen Buddhism,” declared Time magazine in 1958, “is growing more chic by the minute.” This was then, of course: the era of Kerouac, Snyder, Watts, and the Dharma Bums. These days most people go to Japan for other reasons: money, fashion, architecture, sex. I’m not sure when the promise of spiritual enlightenment first attracted foreigners to Japan. Long before the Beats in any case. Lafcadio Hearn visited a Buddhist temple in Yokohama in 1890. It was his first day in Japan, and he started off on the wrong foot. He mistook a bowl of water, offered for his refreshment by a hospitable priest, for a begging bowl, and dropped a few coins in it—one of many cross-cultural misunderstandings.

It is easier to pinpoint when Japan acquired its reputation for sexual license. Western travelers were either shocked or delighted by Japanese libertinism. Ian Littlewood, in whose sharp and amusing guide to cultural myths and misunderstandings I found the story of Hearn’s faux pas, mentions several instances of both. A sixteenth-century Florentine traveler named Francesco Carletti was outraged by the readiness of Japanese men to use their sisters and daughters as merchandise. Japan, he wrote, “is more plentifully supplied than any other with these sort of means of gratifying the passion for sexual indulgence, just as it abounds in every other sort of vice, in which it surpasses every other place in the world.”

In 1615, the commander of a British trading fleet sent to Japan for the East India Company brought back (strictly for personal use, one presumes) a stack of pornographic books and paintings. Upon discovery, the collection was publicly burned. Another Englishman, named Richard Cocks, had been left in command of a trading post in Hirado, where he enjoyed the company of a succession of Japanese “wives.” Since he was not sent out there to enjoy himself, let alone with native women, a senior colleague in Batavia complained to the East India Office that Cocks was “miserably given over to voluptuousness.” Cocks was called back to London in 1624 to explain his conduct, but died on the way.

Nothing much had changed when the first Americans, led by Commodore Perry, stepped ashore in 1853. A young officer named John Henry Prebble recorded what they saw: “The inhabitants crowded the hill, and beckoned us on shore, and by the most unmistakable signs invited our intercourse with their women. One female went so far as to raise her drapery and expose her person to us. They are either a very lewd and lascivious people, or have catered before this, to the passions of sailors.”

The open delight taken by Japanese in politically incorrect pornography continues to startle foreign visitors, and the rich variety of nightlife ensures that Japan’s reputation as a sexual playground remains high. No doubt the recent reports of Mitsubishi’s alleged “sex parties” in, of all places, Normal, Illinois, helped to confirm the lewd image as well. But it seems a long way from all this to the…

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