Thursday, December 23, 2010
(Just a reminder - take the listener survey! Or I will be forced to do the honorable thing and disembowel myself to rid my family of the shame....)
Dave Barry Does Japan by Dave Barry
In September of 2008, I went to Hiroshima with The Boyfriend. I knew it would be a more serious place to visit than a lot of the other places I've been to in Japan, for obvious reasons, and as I thought about it, I remembered this book. You see, while Dave Barry is enormously funny, and I always have a hard time holding in my laughter when he writes, he also knows exactly when to turn off the funny and talk seriously about a topic. Such was the case with this book, and the chapter on visiting Hiroshima.
But I'll get to that later. Let me start by saying that yes, this is a very funny book, as so many of his books are. I can only imagine, though, how funny it is to someone who's never been to Japan, much less lived there. I'll bet that, while reading some of the more ridiculous examples of how different Japan is from the US, a lot of readers were thinking, "No, it can't be that weird. He must be exaggerating for comic effect."
No, no he's not. Not in the least. Well, some, yes, because that's his job, but all of the things that he points out as being "strange" about Japan - the ubiquitous vending machines, rockabillies dancing very seriously in a circle, kids practicing their English with strangers, plastic food shops, all of it is absolutely true. He is not, in fact, making this up.
He says at the beginning of the book, "So this book is not authoritative. If you want authoritative, go buy a real book." At no point does he claim to be an expert on Japan, or that spending three weeks here would make him one. In fact, the main aspect he plays on is his eternal cluelessness. As he points out, Japan is like one big, very exclusive club into which you must be born if you want to become a member. There are rules that no outsider can ever really learn, much less on a three week whirlwind tour. There are people who try - there are a lot of foreign-born residents in this country who do their best to live according to the rules, but no matter how hard we try, we'll never really become members of Club Japan. So, Barry just decides to do his best and try not to make himself look completely stupid.
He marginally succeeds, which is good - otherwise there would be no book.
With his family, Barry goes from Tokyo to Kyoto to Kyushu and back again, stopping to see temples and shrines, sumo, ceremonies, kabuki, rakugo and car factories, among other things. Through it all, they do their best to adapt to the strangeness of Japanese life and Japanese food, and he comes out with some wonderful stories that had me cackling on the bus ride down to Hiroshima.
Which I believe I mentioned before.
It's an interesting chapter in the book. The chapter itself is flanked by two grey pages - a signal to the reader that this is a no-funny zone. There will be no jokes between these pages, and rightfully so. Barry and his family went there on the anniversary of the bombing, August 6th, and observed the Peace Ceremony. They looked at the statues and the monuments and the dome, and went to the museum, and came out with an enormous sense of... conflict.
There is no question in anyone's mind that what happened in Hiroshima - and Nagasaki - was horrific. All you have to do is read the testimonials, look at the photos and the drawings in the museum, look at the charred and burned school uniforms, pieces of flesh on display, dioramas of the flattened city and you know that the nuclear bomb is nothing that you can really joke about. Hundreds of thousands of people died because of those bombs, and not all of them died right away. Soldiers, yes -Hiroshima has a history as a military city - but babies, students, innocent men and women also perished in fire, blast, trauma and, of course, the long, lingering death of radiation sickness.
No city deserves that. Ever.
At the same time, Barry feels that the bombing is presented without context, and he's not the only one to think so. From what he could see, it looks like America just decided to do this horrible thing, and there's not sufficient explanation to visitors as to why this was done. What would make a supposedly civilized nation do such a patently evil thing to so many people?
It's very hard to justify what was done. I know the arguments - that Japan was training civilians to defend the home islands to the death, that millions more might have died in a long, drawn-out battle, that the Soviets were ready to swoop in and take over - but all those justifications kind of sound hollow when you see the photographs of people with fifth-degree burns, and read about the thousands of children who were orphaned in a fraction of a second. To those leaders, however, at that time, the dropping of those bombs was a necessary option, and I don't think even they knew how bad the effects would be.
Regardless, the bombs were not dropped capriciously. They were dropped following a long chain of events, decisions and ambitions that reached back decades. And I think I agree with Barry that more attention should be paid not only to the aftermath of the bombing, but also to what led up to it. Maybe just because I don't want my country to look like a monster.
Anyway, the Hiroshima chapter aside, it really is a very funny book. Even funnier if you've ever been to or lived in Japan. It's not the kind of book you buy if you're actually interested in learning about Japan, but if you want some good laughs, go for it.
"Compared with the Japanese, the average American displays in communication all the subtlety of Harpo hitting Zeppo with a dead chicken."
-Dave Barry, Dave Barry Does Japan
Dave Barry on Wikipedia
The Dave Barry Website
Dave Barry Does Japan on Amazon.com