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Japan Reading: Village Japan
  Village Japan
by Malcolm Ritchie
Tuttle Publishing
1999, 239 pages

A middle-aged British fellow with Buddhist tendencies moves to a small village in Japan to live with his Japanese wife, in the midst of aging and fading Japanese agricultural tradition.

He spends a year in a village called Sora, which would seem to be about the equivalent to moving to Nebraska. Except with more ocean traffic and fishing. And more overt pagan traditions.

The town is populated by the elderly, and dotted with shrines. For Ritchie, the town embodies a fading Japan: The mist-enshrouded days of yore, when totems held sway and priests commanded respect.

Ritchie is a twenty year Buddhist. His interests tend towards the religions of the village. As it turns out, this village seems to have some storied past in Buddhism and in Shinto. Perhaps all villages have some old religion claim to fame. Either way, most of this book is filled with Ritchie's transcriptions of interviews with old people, as they recount ancient ways the village has aknowledged the divine.

An economic and social portrait of the village emerges from his writing, but it doesn't have the resounding clap of statistics or anecdotes much beyond the few aged lives he visits. Reading this book doesn't give much of a sense of the modern context for this kind of village; maybe there isn't any. About the only time the modern world encroaches is when TV crews visit to film ancient religious rituals these octegenarians are still enacting. Are there any kids in this village? Once in a while someone under the age of 40 pops up in the story, but we never linger long on such folks.

Still his account is not dry. In particular a neighbor, "Old Man Gonsaku" provides some lively comic relief with his unzipped fly and affable alcoholism. Ritchie finds his own anachronisms to celebrate; relishing some gossip and quirks of his local folks. Ritchie is a good observer, with his instincts to join the natural world and the intimate comings and goings of old folks. Of course there wasn't a lot of other ambient stimulation. But for all his power to observe, he doesn't sport much power to reign in his enthusiasm. The book is a memoir, not a non-fiction. The repeated extolling of traditional Japan begins to wear a tad thin, especially when coupled with serious moaning about the modern world.

For example, Ritchie recounts a story from a friend. Apparently, there is a restaurant in Tokyo where "...the policy of this restaurant is not to give people what they order." Ritchie warms to this motto, indulging a curmudeonly stream of invective:

"This kind of restaurant is precisely what we need, I believe, as the perfect antidote to the hell of multichoice pampering that confuses us in so many areas of consumer life. The idea that we chould have everything we imagine we want rather than what we actually might need confines our lives even more blindly to the dictates of our narrowly conditioned egos, so limiting the possibilities of experiencing something we might be unprepared for or might otherwise wish to avoid - experiences that just might contain germs of new growth and knowledge. The nightmarish extreme scenario in this respect is extended by the future prospect of genetic menus with 'the baby of your choice,' etc - a world designed for those who can only live by the assurance of what is going to happen or of what conditions will be in the next second. A world of insurances and lawsuits against the unexpected, against life itself. In our optimism at finding such an establishment, however, we searched out this restaurant for ourselvfes on a trip to Tokyo, only to find that if it had existed, it had now vanished off the face of Japan." (page 61)

That may well be some subject Ritchie can warm to and feel passionate about, but it's a bit far off topic from village life in contemporary Japan. After a few such rants, the book has a very personal feel. Meet Mister Ritchie: he says "life today ain't what it could be."

Reading Village Japan after Speed Tribes was like a cold plunge after a sauna. Or, in fact, it's like quitting fast drugs cold turkey - Greenfeld's Speed Tribes has tight prose, statistics and accelerated characters, a sort of crisp hyper-reality. But Ritchie dwells on personal reflections, the natural world, and wandering about with old folks. Hanging in the dirty alleys of young Tokyo, and then shifting out to the countryside - the noise and screech of the city threatening to make the old folks seem irrelevant. But it doesn't take too many pages to realize that the young folks and the old folks are about equally as arcane.

It's not hard to work through this book. Besides his moments of rambling there is a admirable curiousity at work here. And, in a fashion, a meandering down the road less travelled. There's very little that is sexy about this book, in a magazine-sex sort of way. But there is old-fashioned family, earthy sex. There's ancient Japanese phallic totems, vulgar old men and dead rats in drainage holes. It's a human tableau, on a more intimate scale. Village Japan provides some welcome humanity after Greenfeld's straightforward, somewhat debasing prose.

Village Japan links November 2001

Picked up at Border's books in Emeryville in the company of Joel and Allan.
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