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Wrong About Japan
by Peter Carey
Random House Canada
158 pages, $25.00

reviewed by Joe Wiebe
posted March 11, 2005

Looking for a way to connect with his twelve-year-old son, Charley, Australian-born novelist Peter Carey seized on Charley’s discovery of Japanese manga (comic books) and anime (animated films). When Charley casually mentioned, “When I grow up I’m going to live in Tokyo,” Carey hatched a plan to take his son there. The New York City-based author of eight novels (including two Booker Prize winners) had already been to Japan twice on book tours, but still found the culture to be intriguing and mysterious. So, one day, he popped the question to Charley.

“Would you like to go to Japan?” I asked.
“If you like,” he said, so dry I couldn’t believe it.
“I thought you’d be excited.”
His lips flickered and he lowered his eyes. “Not if I have to see the Real Japan.”

Apparently, on one of his earlier trips, Carey had teased a travelling companion for seeking out the Real Japan, that of temples, kabuki, and tea ceremonies. Charley, who often comes across as smarter than his book-smart dad in this book, had not forgotten this anecdote, and turned the tables on his dear old dad.

“No Real Japan,” said Charley. “You’ve got to promise. No temples. No museums.”
“What would we do?”
“We could buy cool manga.”
“There’ll be no English translations.”
“I don’t care. I’d eat raw fish.”
“What else?”
“And slimy things. I’d eat everything.”

This sort of pithy dialogue can be found on nearly any page of this funny and thoughtful book. Though non-fiction, Carey writes this story like a novel, casting himself as the know-it-all Dad who ends up learning a lot from his shy and quiet son. Wrong About Japan is not the sort of book that will change your world view or knock your socks off, but it is an entertaining and interesting read. Carey fans will gobble it up, as will anyone who has discovered Japanese cartooning — at once spellbinding and mystifying to the Western eye.

In spite of Carey’s promise to his son to avoid the “Real Japan,” there is still a constant tension between them while they are in Tokyo. Though Carey had planned their trip in great detail — including interviews with manga writers, anime directors and traditional sword makers — Charley would have preferred to spend all of his time with Takashi, a Tokyo teenager he’d met on the internet, and whom he’d conveniently forgot to mention until their plane landed in Narita.

Takashi, whom a colleague of Carey’s describes as a “visualist,” makes himself up to look like a character from Mobile Suit Gundam, Charley’s favourite anime series. Carey describes Takashi as “the most singular boy. He had black hair that stood up not so much in spikes but in dramatic triangular sections. His eyes were large and round, glistening with an emotion that, while seemingly transparent, was totally alien to me. He wore a high-necked Cambridge blue jacket with what might have once been called a Mao collar, and which glistened with gold buttons. His trousers were jet black, his boots knee high. No one could doubt his pride, or his sense of dignity.”

In their first encounter, Takashi, who speaks perfect English, offers to show them the “real Japan” — note the small ‘r’ Carey uses in comparison with the “Real Japan” he is trying to find. This, ultimately, is the main point of this book, which Carey makes clear in the last scene. After Charley presents a gift to Takashi’s grandmother, the old woman bowed, and to their surprise, kissed him on the cheek.

“I was surprised she kissed you,” I said. “I didn’t think they did that.”
“Must be the Real Japan,” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
“Found it finally,” Charley said. “Let’s get out of here before we learn we’re wrong.”

This witty finish is perfect for the book. Who knows what, if anything, Peter and Charley Carey really discovered in Japan, but the story of their adventure there is certainly worthwhile and entertaining.

Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver writer currently working on his first novel.

Copyright Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.

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