Lost in Translation: Japan Society's Peter Grilli on Americans in Japan

Lost in Translation: Peter Grilli on Americans in Japan

Posted Mar 09, 2010

Peter Grilli is the President of the Japan Society of Boston. For more information on his next tour of Kyoto in the Spring, check out www.us-japan.org/boston/

1. What were your thoughts on Sophia Coppola's film Lost in Translation?

I liked Lost in Translation a lot, but many Japan specialists did not. They were looking for the wrong things in the film, and if it did not measure up to their expectations that is their own fault - not Sofia Coppola's. I agree with them that it did not "capture" the deepest truths about Japan nor did it "reveal" any secrets of the Japanese soul. But, it was not meant to be about Japan. Instead, it is about a couple of Americans, who happened to be in Japan as they wrestled with their own inner conflicts. To me, it captured beautifully the glitz, the excitement and superficial glamour of contemporary urban life - and the loneliness and alienation that often lie beneath. In many ways, Tokyo is an incredibly "modern" city - visually thrilling, pulsing with life, full of sound and light and movement and color. Sofia Coppola captured all of that brilliantly. She also captured the profound loneliness of an outsider seeking to participate in the whirl of modern urban excitement but is locked out by barriers of language, culture, and his own anomie and isolation.

2. How do you recommend Americans prepare for travel in Japan? What books, films best situate them upon arrival?

Of the many good books about Japan, anything by Donald Richie (writer, film-historian and 60-year resident of Tokyo) is worth reading. Two of his finest books are: The Inland Sea (Stone Bridge Press) and Japanese Portraits: Pictures of Different People (Tuttle Publishing). Among contemporary Japanese films, look for movies directed by Juzo Itami (The Funeral, Tampopo and A Taxing Woman are three masterpieces). Basically, however, first-time visitors to Japan should try to go with an open mind, unburdened with preconceptions. The more receptive one is on arrival, the more enjoyable the Japan-experience will be.

3. Which aspects of culture revered by the Japanese are most difficult to absorb for Americans?

Surface appearances and deep, fundamental values in Japan often seem curiously out of synch. Much about Japan seems recognizable and completely familiar to any Western traveler: urban life, Western clothes and food, modern technology, familiar forms of popular entertainment or business practice. But probing beneath the surface, things are very different. (For example, Japanese spaghetti may look the same as Italian or American spaghetti, until one discovers the fish-roe in the sauce or the garnish of seaweed-flakes.) The Japanese people have lived together on the Japanese islands as a tightly integrated, rather insular society for thousands of years. As a result, many social dynamics and cultural assumptions have become inbred and Japanese people are no longer conscious of them. To foreign visitors, Japanese society may seem like one tight family that is difficult for outsiders to penetrate. And it is. And yet, Japanese hospitality is warm, welcoming, and unfailingly gracious.


4. What baffles the Japanese hosts you've worked with the most about American visitors?

The predictable things - like forgetting to take off shoes when entering a Japanese house - no longer baffle Japanese hosts. They expect foreign visitors NOT to understand Japanese customs, and they're often surprised by visitors who DO know the niceties or who ARE sensitive to Japanese social behavior. What they often find difficult to comprehend is our demand for clear, straightforward, black-and-white answers to our questions. Japanese are more sensitive than we are to the many shades of gray that separate black from white. They don't understand why we become irritated with answers that seem vague and indirect. Even when a foreigner's request is clearly impossible to accommodate, a Japanese host may say "Ahh..well... it may be difficult" rather than reply with a direct "No!" To the Japanese host, a blunt refusal would be insulting or unkind to his guest. To the questioner, however, "... may be difficult.." sounds like "may be possible" when actually it is intended to mean: "No, out of the question, utterly impossible."


5. Why do you think some American travelers become intoxicated by the foreign-ness of Japan, and some become irritated and uncomfortable? Are there generalities you have noticed?

Some short-term American visitors who come seeking spiritual or romantic experiences will be delighted by aspects of traditional Japan: the beautiful gardens of Kyoto (which seem imbued with spiritual and environmental truths), the friendly, hospitable, accommodating Japanese people, the architecture and aesthetics of classical culture which seem to provide useful responses to our own questions about "modernism," and the like. If they're looking for the beauties of "old Japan," they may be dismayed by what they encounter in "new Japan." Also, visitors coming for quick-and-easy business deals or clear, direct responses to questions of international policy or practice often become irritated by Japanese indirectness or insistence on doing things "the Japanese way." People who come expecting Japanese to be "just like us" are very uncomfortable when they discover that they have their own values and traditions and are not necessarily "just like us."

6. You're about to embark on a Cherry Blossom tour. They are undoubtedly beautiful trees---but how do account for the profound level of attention they garner in Japan? Is there any equivalent in American culture?

I often compare Japanese fascination with sakura or cherry blossoms with the special pleasure that Americans take in fall foliage (especially in New England). The cherry blossoms seem to unlock a deep poetic space in the Japanese soul, much as the changing colors of trees in autumn does for us. The thrilling blossoming of the cherries is more than simply a sudden release from the doldrums of winter. To the Japanese, their clear, brilliant innocence is as hypnotic as youth - and yet they disappear and die as quickly as they blossom. They are a metaphor for the fragility and evanescence of life itself. Like the spirit of ancient samurai, they live gloriously in the moment, and vanish while still young and beautiful.





About the Author

Lizzie Simon is the author of of a memoir (Detour, Atria Books) and a frequent guest lecturer at universities and conferences.

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