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Friday, 18 August 2006

David Mitchell looks like the kind of guy who marries Japanese womenDavid Mitchell lived in Japan for eight years and is married to a Japanese woman, Keiko (a common-enough name). As someone who has lived in Japan for nine years and is also married to a Japanese woman (although now separated), I can understand the allure of the place. According to The Guardian’s book page, “next month they move back to Japan”.

The heady narrative trips of the 37-year-old's first three novels owe a debt to the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami (the title of Mitchell's second novel, Number9Dream, is a veiled tribute to Murakami's masterpiece Norwegian Wood, in that both were named after lesser-known Beatles songs).

Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas sold 500,000 copies, so he’s obviously doing quite well on the financial front. After living in Holland, away from his permanent residence in Ireland, Mitchell will soon return to Japan.

In June, Murakami had an interview with Ben Naparstek, a Melbourne reviewer:

“You know the myth of Orpheus,” Murakami says. “He goes to the underworld to look for his deceased wife, but it’s far away and he has to undergo many trials to get there. There’s a big river and a wasteland. My characters go to the other world, the other side. In the Western world, there is a big wall you have to climb up. In this country [Japan], once you want to go there, it’s easy. It’s just beneath your feet.”

The floating world re-emerges as a paradigm of life in the land of the Rising Sun. A. S. Byatt said in The Guardian article:

"He is wise to live in remote places," says Byatt. "He needs time and space to write those long intricate books and I think he has the good sense and the confidence to give them to himself."

I miss many things about Japan. It is true that realities are more fluid than in the West. In Australia there is a solidity about daily life that is gently reassuring. In Japan, you never quite feel as though you know what’s going to happen next. You could see a person dressed in outrageous attire, a man sleeping on a train, a woman patiently putting up with the gropings of a salary man on board a train. And the politeness is astonishing and refreshing. Here we are so informal all the time. It’s first names for everyone. In Tokyo, you greet most people with the honorific ‘-san’ attribution, always mindful that you are living in a city with a population greater than that of all of Australia's towns and cities put together.

In an essay, Mitchell outlines his reasons for preferring life in Japan, from the point of view of his writing:

In Japan, I am, in writer/critic Donald Richie's phrase, an alien amongst natives. The Lonely Planet guide quotes the idea that some countries have a 'mission' attitude towards foreigners, and some have a 'club' attitude. 'Mission' countries define foreignness by behavior -- act like a native, and as far as other natives are concerned, you eventually have as much right to be there as they do. 'Club' countries define foreignness by your lineage or passport -- it will never matter what you do, how well you learn the language, how many soccer teams or famous department stores you buy -- you are foreign and always will be. Japan is a classic club society. Living here, I kiss my sense of social belonging goodbye. When I was a kid, my main talent was sulking -- spectacular, multi-day sulks. I don't think I sulked to manipulate: the point was to isolate myself. I sometimes believe that my real motive behind living abroad is to enjoy the same fruit.

He says he reads Japanese like a ten-year-old (which is better than me) and that he gets lost sometimes in adult discourse. I can understand that. When I lived there I spent a lot of time playing with children. Every weekend I would be with my own kids and they, in turn, would want to play with the kids next door. So I would be out in the car park at the back of the apartment block pushing five-year-olds around on skateboards and kicking a soccer ball with their big brothers and sisters. You learn a lot about a culture from playing with children: the way the games create a society, the way they get upset and run off home, the way they have adventures. And when we went skiing it was me (who couldn’t ski) who was delegated to mind the kids. I didn’t mind. In fact I rather enjoyed it, being a big brother to the rug rats. It all adds up.

In another interview, Mitchell said:

I can argue with my wife in Japanese, but I can’t win the arguments.

Amen to that.

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