JAPANLAND – A Year in Search of WA by Karin Muller

Karin Muller, the author of the book JAPANLAND  – A Year in Search of WA, is a documentary filmmaker and writer who has travelled the world, but is still, as her brother says, ”looking for the meaning in life.” She studied Judo for years and wondered why she kept it up. Yes it gave her confidence and strength, but she felt she was missing another benefit that she could not quite find. Muller writes, “Most of my instructors were Japanese, and they approached Judo with a sense of utter dedication to perfecting a profoundly difficult art. They said you could never truly master the sport until you understood the philosophy behind it. And for that you have to understand Japan.”

She continues, “The spiritual peace the Japanese seem to find in simple objects and the contemplation of nature; their willingness to sacrifice their own needs to the common good. It was utterly alien to me and I was fascinated. What would induce a monk to stare at a wall for seven hours a day? Or a geisha, to spend a lifetime learning the elegance in a single gesture of serving tea? Focus. Harmony. Wa. I wasn’t even sure what Wa was but I wanted some.”

Japanland is the story of how an American woman spends a year in Japan attempting to learn enough of the life and culture to find Wa. You may be thinking “Oh no, another American woman is off to a foreign land to find herself a la Eat Pray Love.” This memoir is nothing like that self-absorbed quest. Muller’s book is a description of the people, the culture, and the biases of Japan and how she struggles to find her place in the country.

Muller writes, “Making up my mind to go turned out to be the easy part. Although Japan welcomes tourists, it almost never allows them more than a superficial glimpse of its culture and traditions. My plan to bring along a video camera and try to capture what I learned would make things even harder.”  A friend tells her “The only way you will ever become a part of Japanese society is if you were born in a Japanese village to Japanese parents.”

For six months she searches for a way into Japanese society. One day, a fellow Judo student hears her talk about the trip. He sends word to his Judo community in Japan and she gets an offer from Genji Tanaka to become her sensei, her teacher. He also invites her to rent the granny flat in his apartment and to introduce her to life in Japan.

When I read that I wondered how I would feel if my husband offered our guest room to a complete stranger from another country and offered to show her around. I suspect this was done without consulting his wife or daughter. Gender roles are still strong in Japan as Muller learned. She describes the outside of her new home, where it is, what it looks like and ends the paragraph with these words, ”Inside lies the sole domain of my host mother, Yukiko.”  Her host mother does not approve of Muller, who is like a cuckoo in a cardinal’s nest.

The blurb on the back cover describes the book as, “Broad in scope and intimate in relationships, Japanland is a deftly observed, decidedly unromantic and hilarious portrait of the land of Wa.” I would also use the words brave and strong. Muller deals with people who do not necessarily like her, like her host mother. She continues her practice of Judo, which is very hard on her body. She joins a group of Japanese pilgrims on a trek and manages to survive the miles of hiking, the bitter cold and the small rations of food. She is also a brilliant observer and has written a funny rich book about the characters that make up Japan and the character of the nation.

I think Karin Muller succeeds in peeling back the onion that I see as Japan and maybe she did find her own WA. By reading her book and experiencing Japan, we find a small piece of it too.

All of the above citations were taken from Japanland –  A year in search of WA, by Karin Muller (Rodale Press 2006)

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