Book Review by Aditi Yadav
Title: Orienting : An Indian in Japan
Author: Pallavi Aiyar
Publisher: Harper Collins
The mention of “Japan” evokes dreamy Instagrammable scenery of Sakura with Fuji-san, serene shrines, grand castles, modern skyscrapers, cute dolls, geishas, bullet trains, cool robots, so on and so forth — a long list of all things ‘kirei’ and ‘kawaii’. Of late, the world has been swept by the tsunami of Japanese life philosophies of Ikigai, Wabi-sabi, Kintsugi, and Zen. To an outsider, the perception of Japan is mostly curated through social media stories, anime, J-pop and J-drama. However, the first-hand experience as a tourist or resident will have a spectrum of shades to offer.
Orienting : An Indian in Japan by Pallavi Aiyar vibrantly captures this spectrum. Aiyar is an award-winning foreign correspondent and author of several books including travel memoirs on China and Indonesia. In “Orienting”, she shares her insights on Japanese society, history and customs against the background of her globe-trotting experiences and Indian heritage. The book originally published in English in 2021 has recently been translated into Japanese, a rare feat for an Indian author.
Historically speaking, the “Oriental” depiction of the East has been a West orchestrated exercise. As a result, the world vision and perception of countries like Japan have been dominantly seen through the lens of Western authors, historians and travelers. Aiyar’s book is a fresh breeze in travel literature — a global Asian writing about another Asian country– especially given the shared culture of Buddhist heritage. From the get-go, the title stands out for its intelligent word play.
The author has a difficult time orienting herself. A country that’s world famous for its punctuality, hits her as “anachronistic” when she discovers how cumbersome it is to buy a mobile connection, open a bank account or use a taxi app. In neighboring China even beggars are open to e-payments while Japan still struggles with credit card usage in stores and restaurants. Yet, to the average Japanese, “Chinese were lacking in good manners”. The book is delightfully sprinkled with cross-cultural comparisons, insights and of course haikus.
It is common to spot young kids traveling on their own to school on buses and subways, as Japanese society watches out for them with solidarity, ensuring their safety. Talking of awe-inspiring features of Japan, the list is long one– literally convenient kobinis, super-smooth public infrastructure, clean public toilets, vending machines, and most strikingly, the land of ‘what is lost-is-always found’. Aiyar narrates how she and her family members lost their iPhones, wallets, laptops, umbrellas, jackets, tiffin boxes and hats during their four-year long stay in Japan. And, every single item was retrieved undamaged. Yet, despite all the community spirit, safety and solidarity, Japan is home to almost one million hikokimoris, people who have withdrawn from society and avoid social interaction. Patriarchy, high rates of suicide, overtime at workplace and death by overwork (karoshi) are hard facts of life in Japan that take some sheen off its ‘first world-ness’. Just like any other place on earth, the bright and dark sides exist together with multiple shades of gray.
The apparently ‘homogeneous’ society has shied away from discussing issues like ‘racism’ or ‘discrimination’. While historically, indigenous race of Ainus, Korean descendant Zainichies and socio-economically backward Burakumin were dealt second grade treatment, in these globalised times, unlike many rich countries, Japan had resisted multiculturism. The ‘gaijin’ syndrome (prejudice against foreigners) conspicuously stands out given that Japanese invented a whole new script ‘katakana’ to address anything ‘non-Japanese’. The kikokushijo, the children who return to school in Japan after being partly educated abroad, face bullying and harassment for their foreign association. The half- Japanese peculiarly termed as ‘hafus’, are also subjected to prejudices of various kinds. However, a mild streak of silver lining is evident in cases of Priyanka Yoshikawa – half-Indian, half-Japanese winner of Miss Japan title in 2016 and Yogendra Puranik, an Indian who won the elections for City Councilor (Edogawa ward) in 2019. Such cases, though few and far between, are indicative of some changes in the Japanese air of insularity. Comparing discrimination in Japan to its Indian counterpart, Aiyar observes that it almost felt churlish to point it out at all. “Indians were the perpetrators of the ugliest kinds racial and religious discrimination”. While Japan’s racism was “more respectable, less violent. It simmered rather than boiled over, and got mixed in with a general shyness and culture of suppression”.
On gastronomic spectrum, India and Japan are almost diagonally opposite. It is relatable how as an Indian, Japanese food strikes the author as “too cold and polite with too many bonito flakes” — too spiceless and raw for Indian tastes. On a trip to Tottori, she discovers how some restaurants even discourage Indian groups because they carry their own pickles and sauces, a habit which offends most Japanese. The land of mouth-watering sushi, sashimi and mochi quite amusingly is also fond of fugu, the puffer fish, which is 1200 times more poisonous than cyanide! Curry is by far the most loved Indian food. But its Japanised version would hit Indian taste buds differently. The author details how Rash Behari Bose, the Indian nationalist settled in Japan and introduced authentic Indian curry in Nakamuraya café in Tokyo.
Historically, Japan and India share the common thread of Buddhism. The oldest documented Indian resident in Japan was Bodhisen, a monk from Madurai, who held a very exalted status as a Buddhist scholar in his days. He arrived in Osaka in AD 736, and moved to Nara. He taught Sanskrit and helped establish the Kegon school of Buddhism. Japanese Buddhist pantheon even absorbed several Hindu gods in its fold. Aiyar gives an interesting account of the shared culture of yore and also “not always salubrious” relationship during the colonial era. The latter period saw Indian luminaries like Subhash Chandra Bose, Vivekananda, P.C Mozzomdar and Rabindranath Tagore visit Japan, which deepened the connections between the two countries. But when it comes to doing business together, the practical jugaad-proud Indians and perfectionist shokunin-spirit driven Japanese find it difficult to cope up with this dichotomy. The book analyses it all with facts and engaging experiences. Anyone who has ever been to Japan will find the book extremely relatable and sincere.
Aiyar writes with enthusiasm of a traveler who has pitched her tent in foreign land to capture the richness of landscape in daily travels, with a keen eye, humour and honest penmanship. The read is indeed a rewarding journey towards “Orienting”!
 Clean, beautiful
Aditi Yadav is a public servant from India. As and when time permits, she dabbles in translation works. She is an alumnus of Yokohama National University, Japan and a devout Japanophile.
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