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Book review: A Beginner`s Guide to Japan by Pico Iyer

Pico Iyer, that consummate Japanophile, is back to doing what seems to be a labour of love: parsing his adopted land, the Land of the Rising Sun.
But don`t be fooled. A BEGINNER`S GUIDE TO JAPAN is no breezy read. You will pore over each line, trying to decipher the unwritten meaning as much as the written one. Then you will keep the book somewhere close at hand, because you know that it will offer up fresh insights on a second, then third read.
Iyer`s observations run a wide gamut, from fashion (less about standing out than fitting in within your micro-group) makeup (making yourself up, in a deeper way, is a mark of courtesy); worldview (my friends in Japan are less inclined to try remaking the world than simply to redecorate its corners); more worldview (take care of things, as the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki said, and things will take care of you); still more worldview (Japanese indifference to the Mystery of the Universe is that which enables them to give more time and spend more energy on the solution of the problems nearer at hand); gardens (departing a Japanese garden, you hope to carry some of its pruned stillness out into the streets; the only thing you need leave behind is yourself; one great precept (what you have is all you need); its intransigence regarding asylum-seekers (in 2017, 20 people were accepted from almost 20,000 applicants), and much more besides.
In the end, Japan is still obscured by clouds, still fascinating in its uniqueness, its difference, to the reader. To the writer, it remains a rich, dense, grave riddle, one that keeps him on his toes.
All said and done, the book is yet another thought-provoking read from Pico Iyer. Right at the end of the book, a Japanese friend ends his letter to Iyer with the line: Thank you so much for your existence. He could well be talking for all admirers of Iyer`s writing.
Related Links:
A Beginner`s Guide to JapanJapanPico Iyer

Sheila Kumar • September 8, 2021


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