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the Complete Review
the complete review - travel


Wrong About Japan

Peter Carey

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Wrong About Japan

Title: Wrong About Japan
Author: Peter Carey
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2004
Length: 158 pages
Availability: Wrong About Japan - US
Wrong About Japan - UK
Wrong About Japan - Canada
Wrong About Japan - India
Au pays des mangas avec mon fils - France
Wrong About Japan - Deutschland
Manga, fast food & samurai - Italia
Equivocado sobre Japón - España
  • A Father's Journey with his Son

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Our Assessment:

B : quirky trifle

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 29/3/2005 Takashi Oka
The Economist . 27/1/2005 .
The Guardian . 22/1/2005 Ian Sansom
The Independent . 17/12/2004 Philip Gwyn Jones
New Statesman . 10/1/2005 Susanna Jones
The NY Times Book Rev. B 30/1/2005 Marcel Theroux
The Observer F 2/1/2005 Peter Conrad
San Francisco Chronicle B+ 13/2/2005 Greg Beato
Sunday Times A 2/1/2005 Anthony Sattin
The Telegraph . 26/12/2004 Anthony Thwaite
The Telegraph . 9/1/2005 David Flusfeder
The Times C- 8/1/2005 Robert Thomson
TLS . 25/2/2005 Murray Sayle
The Washington Post . 6/2/2005 Robert Schroeder

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, most have some reservations

  From the Reviews:
  • "Peter's own conclusion that, for all its modernity, Japan remains inaccessible to outsiders, sounds like a tired cliché. The saving grace of his story is that it is not shared by Charley." - Takashi Oka, Christian Science Monitor

  • "This slim volume, about their adventures, is not the first to punctuate Mr Carey's string of stunning novels, and it is a pleasure to read." - The Economist

  • "Wrong About Japan is therefore, inevitably, not just about the marvels and strangeness of discovering another culture, but also, in the great tradition of travel-writing and Hollywood movies, about the marvels and strangeness of discovering another person; in this case, the father the son, and the son the father. (...) Wrong About Japan does not proceed directly towards its vouchsafed conclusions, but rather wanders slowly towards them in that slightly soft-drug kind of prose that makes Carey's work so enjoyable, so charming and sometimes so infuriating." - Ian Sansom, The Guardian

  • "Carey is honest and humble, endearingly recording his incompetence as a reporter. But his disorientation is reflected in the book's structure: it skitters. It's a slight book, with a soft mist of disappointment drifting across it, yet there is perhaps more to it than meets the eye." - Philip Gwyn Jones, The Independent

  • "Wrong About Japan scratches the surface of Japanese history, anime and manga. Experts may find it lacking. (...) Carey doesn't set himself up as an expert and his disarming honesty is one of the book's pleasures. The beauty of this writing is in its openness and wit, its variety and sense of adventure. However, for a less earnest but perhaps more intuitive appreciation of Japanese culture, I would like to hear Charley's version." - Susanna Jones, New Statesman

  • "By the end of the book, you feel you've witnessed a series of rather moving encounters between the author and one of the more baffling cultures of our time: one that combines technological sophistication and inscrutable inwardness; a culture largely impenetrable to outsiders, yet which remains unignorable -- not least because of its economic power. So much for Peter Carey's engagement with the world of the teenager. What's less clear is what you've learned about Japan. (...) In the end, this book, which is never less than charming, feels slight." - Marcel Theroux, The New York Times Book Review

  • "This is an odd, unnecessary little book -- an unmemorable memento of a brief trip Peter Carey made to Tokyo two years ago with his pubescent son. (...) At a pinch, there's enough material here for a magazine article. (...) I'm not sure that Carey has the right to be critical. The son may have spent the fortnight texting, but the father's book is an equally disengaged feat of thumb-twiddling." - Peter Conrad, The Observer

  • "But for all his emphasis on exegesis and grand unifying themes, Carey has a light touch. He's intellectually curious but not pedantic; he doesn't make too much of his theories and conclusions. At times, though, he can be a little too perfunctory. (...) As a lively introduction to these various facets of Japanese culture, Wrong About Japan is a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, and, like any good tour guide, Carey leaves you wanting more." - Greg Beato, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "The mysteries of Japan and father-son relationships prove to be rich subjects, especially for a writer at the peak of his powers, and they make for an entertaining and uplifting book. Carey has not plotted it as tightly as his novels, but there is still progression (.....) The result is neither memoir nor travel book, but one of those hybrids that can so easily go wrong, but that here goes life-affirmingly right." - Anthony Sattin, Sunday Times

  • "It's an odd little book. Carey writes with a mixture of affection for and superciliousness about Charley, and this also seems to be his attitude to Japan. (...) Those who know Japan are likely to be mildly irritated by Peter Carey. Those who don't know it may be mildly diverted." - Anthony Thwaite, The Telegraph

  • "If too much of Japan, and modernity, is inaccessible to him, the byways of information that Carey can take us down are none the less fascinating. (...) Frustratingly, though, the title of this slim book does give it away. Reading Carey's quietly elegant prose, you wait in vain for some twist on the ignorant-foreigner-in-Japan trope, for Carey to subvert the genre; after all, he is one of the finest novelists working in the English language. Novelistic capacity, however, does not necessarily make for the most acute journalism." - David Flusfeder, The Telegraph

  • "Yet this thin volume is, at 158 pages with a fair few illustrations in between, too long, too laboured and a little too loving. (...) It is a book that second-rate sociologists might characterise as "very Japanese" in that its tatemae (surface) is clearly unrepresentative of the honne, the core truth." - Robert Thomson, The Times

  • "Despite his title, Carey has found a world far more mysterious than any real Japan -- the prepubescent years before sex has reared its baffling head, the magic land we all passed through and can never revisit, except by art. (...) Like his book’s title, Carey’s family portrait of a cool son and his middle-aged dad who never quite gets it is another literary device, and both work. Peter Carey manages to get quite a few things right about Japan, too. Not bad, in a short school holiday." - Murray Sayle, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Bafflement may be a useful conceit in fiction, but in nonfiction, one wants more conclusiveness, instead of lines like "once I was in Japan, I understood that, as a foreigner, I could never know the truth." That's a silly notion, and one, moreover, that would surely delight some Japanese." - Robert Schroeder, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In Wrong About Japan Peter Carey chronicles a brief trip to Japan he took with his manga and anime-obsessed twelve year-old son, Charley. Also intrigued by comic books and animated movies from Japan, Carey thinks maybe they: "might enter the mansion of Japanese culture through its garish, brightly lit back door". With the help of his excellent publishing contacts in Japan, he sets up a trip where they will meet some of those responsible for Charley's favourite comics and films.
       Charley, an uncommunicative adolescent, has little interest in what usually attracts foreign tourists. One of his demands is:

     "No Real Japan," said Charley. "You've got to promise. No temples. No museums."
       For the most part Dad goes along with that idea, but he won't let them avoid the Real Japan entirely, eventually dragging the poor kid to a Kabuki performance.
Charley squirmed and whined. He had no idea what Kabuki was, only that he'd hate it, and it was not only Kabuki that produced this visceral response but the whiff of culture in any form.
       (Enough to make a writer-father really proud .....)
       But it is the animated world, in book and film form, that is the focus, and they do meet some of Charley's idols along the way. In the sense that every meeting reveals the differences between Carey's expectations and Japanese culture, this proves semi-enlightening. Yoshiyuki Tomino, for example, explains how he "tried to remove all cultural elements" from his work, but Carey can't see it, insisting there must be something specifically Japanese to it. ("'Mr. Tomino thinks,' said Paul, 'that there is maybe something in your own character which is interested in national identity.'" the translator suggests. No kidding.)
       The interviews are conducted via translators, with the questions often submitted in writing beforehand, making for an additional disconnect. Carey admits he isn't much of a reporter, and in describing these exchanges -- where he acts also as the conduit for his (supposedly) curious but withdrawn son, who is unwilling to utter more than a few words -- he practically steps back from them, perplexed at his own attempts and role and the inadequacy of trying to gain much understanding in these question-and-answer sessions.
       Despite the behind-the-scenes access, there's not that much insight into manga and anime. A few times Carey does offer a closer look: watching Miyazaki's Totoro, or his observation -- probably rarely considered by most American consumers of anime -- that: "I saw the effects of World War II in almost every anime we watched". He also devotes several pages to a Japanese man's description of his childhood during the war, strongly reinforcing the imagery. But overall, it's little more than a casual observer's peek at this animated world, with Carey's interest as much in the people he meets and specifically the difficulty of communicating cultural concepts, reinforced also by the gaping abyss that separates him from his son.
       Charley also has Japanese friend he made on the Internet, Takashi, a shadow-figure for most of their stay, with Charley clearly torn between the everyday adolescent life Takashi can show him and the great men and women his father can effortlessly gain access to. (As it turns out, Takashi is an invention, a fictional embellishment, Carey apparently realising that by himself his son was simply too boring and uninteresting a figure (at least in this context). Of course, the inclusion of a fictional character in a work such as this calls much into question.)
       The culture gap in Wrong About Japan is echoed in the generation gap throughout: father and son more or less understand each other, but don't really 'get' each other. Charley is barely interested in the obvious sights and only puts up with Japanese food for so long, while Carey thinks he's doing the kid a favour my foisting as much 'experience' as possible on him.
       The fact that Charley is so star-struck, or simply unable to articulate what appeals to him about manga and anime and discuss it with the minds behind it, leaves too much of a burden on Carey himself, who can't help but be overly-analytic. The father-son moments are fine, but when other adults are involved Charley becomes dead weight, which gives an odd feel to the book, since it is his devotion to this art that is supposedly the driving force behind the whole undertaking.
       There are enough interesting scenes and observations, and some amusing exchanges, that Wrong About Japan works fine as the quick read it is. True manga and anime fans will probably howl in frustration that the encounters with the creators of some of the most important work aren't described in much, much more detail, while those with unfamiliar with the subject probably will remain befuddled. But if one accepts it as a small travelogue, and doesn't expect too great insights into the Japanese culture, it's an enjoyable enough little read.

       Note also that the Knopf edition (we haven't seen the British Faber edition) is attractively packaged and designed (by Chip Kidd, of course), which doesn't hurt.

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Wrong About Japan: Reviews: Peter Carey: Other books by Peter Carey under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Travel-related books
  • See Index of Australian literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Australian author Peter Carey was born in 1943. He has won the Booker Prize, the Miles Franklin Award, and the Commonwealth Prize.

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© 2005-2012 the complete review

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