By Damian Flanagan
We tend to think that one of the chief reasons for learning a foreign language is to be able to explore a completely different culture from the perspective of the people brought up within it. But an equally precious gift is being able to see your own country through completely fresh eyes -- this can sometimes reveal a mixture of surprising insights and confusion.
One of the books I always encourage Japanese visitors to the U.K. to read is Shiba Ryotaro's "Irish Journey" ("Airurando Kiko") which despite its title spends its first half in England.
Shiba (1923-96) was a wildly popular Japanese author whose long historical sagas such as "Ryoma Sets Out" ("Ryoma ga Yuku") and "Clouds Above the Hill" ("Oka no Ue no Kumo"; co-translated into English by Julie Carpenter and Paul McCarthy) have sold 25 and 18 million copies respectively. I must confess that I have never read either of these best-selling books, but I am attracted to Shiba's voluminous travel writing -- contained in a series called "On the Road" ("Gaido o Yuku") -- which describe both his journeys within Japan and to destinations across the world.
In the two volume "Irish Journey," written in the late 1980s, Shiba mills about London and Liverpool, before finally crossing over to Dublin and heading to Galway in the West of Ireland. What Shiba correctly appreciated was that to understand Irish history, you first have to grasp how it stands in counterpoint to English history. Shiba discusses such things as the historical difference between the clannish nature of Celtic society and the centralised power of the English state, making the Irish susceptible to invasion and subjugation, while still retaining their indomitable, distinctive identity.
One of the great interests of the book is noting the way a Japanese writer observes Britain and Ireland. For example, Shiba picked up on the way that the waiters in London always say "sir" to him, but the waiters in Dublin never do, or that the English are more likely to carry umbrellas.
Many of his observations are so fresh it's sometimes hard to tell whether they are insightful or absurd. In Liverpool, Shiba speculates whether the city, situated at the basin of the river Mersey, derives its name from "River Pool." As the Japanese language has only one sound for both "r" and "l," this blurring is more obvious to a Japanese person, but I must admit it's something that never occurred to me before. (Although an intriguing idea, it seems that the "Liver" in Liverpool does not in fact come from "River" but from the Old English word "lifer," meaning thick or muddy water.)
When Shiba finally got out to the West of Ireland and the Famine Road, he looked down at the sea and pondered why there was such a terrible famine in Ireland in the late 1840s -- with over 1 million deaths -- when there were fish in the sea and such delicious seaweed to eat. Perhaps a fatuous observation, but one that highlights the profoundly different culinary heritages of two island nations like Japan (whose cuisine is based around a profusion of fish) and Ireland (where the potato was king and where fish was always considered a poor substitute for rarely eaten meat). And of course, back in the 1840s the seaweed wrap had yet to be invented...
I was reminded of a Japanese friend I once took to dinner at a Lake District hotel, who ordered for her main course "eel," expecting that, like in Japan, a tasty, melt-in-the-mouth delicacy was about to be presented and was horrified when something that looked like a cross section of a Giant Python snake, complete with spine and vertebrae, was plonked down in front of her. We spent a long time laughing about it afterwards.
Sometimes just reading a Japanese travel guide or having a Japanese person by your side can make you appreciate the utter strangeness of your own land with new vision.
(This is Part 35 of a series)
In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.
Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. He is the author of "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).