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  • Ninay Desai

Orienting - An Indian in Japan by Pallavi Aiyar

Published in 2021, Orienting with its qualifier sub-title An Indian in Japan is a book about just that - an Indian orienting herself to life in Japan. The author, Pallavi Aiyar is a journalist who has reported for The Hindu and Business Standard from China, Indonesia and parts of Europe. Writing books documenting her years in some of these countries is part of her repertoire, with several books to her name.

A copy of Orienting - An Indian in Japan on a silver tray with a cup of tea. Photo by Ninay Desai.

Orienting opens with Aiyar and family touching down in Tokyo in the summer of 2016. Her husband, Julio is a diplomat with the European Union and that entails moving from one country to another every few years.

Orienting is divided into ten chapters, each dealing with an element of the Japanese experience. For an average Nipponophile like myself (my fascination is mostly cultural), anecdotes about lost umbrellas and tiffin-boxes that are almost always located and returned, the intoxicating fervour of the sakura-viewing season and the technological marvel that the Japanese call a toilet fit right into my idea of what Japan, with its sushi-dispensing vending machines and kintsugi philosophy, is all about. And before you roll your eyes at my inordinate praise of Japanese toilets, read this,

“Manufacturer Matsushita’s “smart toilet” took urine and stool analysis, and could check the user’s blood pressure, temperature and blood sugar while at it. One of its models was even equipped with electrodes… yielding a digital measurement of body-fat ratio.”

Now that we’ve established that I don’t use the phrase ‘technological marvel’ loosely, let’s move on. One of my favourite chapters was about the concepts of kintsugi and wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi refers to seeing and accepting the beauty in impermanence and imperfection like loving an old and slightly wonky coffee mug. Kintsugi, I suppose, grows out of wabi-sabi. Literally, ‘kin’ means ‘gold’ while ‘tsugi’ refers to ‘join’. Hence, kintsugi is the art of joining broken things with gold making broken artifacts more precious in the bargain. It’s the kind of minimalist metaphor that makes one fall in love with Japanese thought. And the author is quite effusive in her enthusiasm.

Aiyar doesn’t shy away from highlighting her own failings especially in the area of her long and not-so-successful attempt at learning Japanese. The humour with which she talks about it is disarming and makes her struggle immediately relatable. She writes,

“In Chinese, ‘thanks’ was ‘xie xie’, end of matter. In Japanese, there was ‘arigatou’ – informal, ‘arigatou gosaimasu’ – proper form, ‘domo arigatou gosaimasu’ seriously thankful, and ‘domo sumimasen arigatou gosaimasu’ – weak-in-the-knees-with-gratitude-thankful. Then I came across, ‘yoroshiku onegaishimasu’. ‘What does that mean?’ I asked my teacher. ‘It means, thank you,’ she replied. Basically, it was possible to learn Japanese for a whole month and only end up being able to say thank you.”

Her frustration is relatable, hilarious and practically leaps off the page. I suppose fluency in Japanese requires shokunin (the relentless pursuit of perfection through the honing of a single craft). Reading about the Japanese idea of striving for perfection in Orienting reminded me of something I read in Arsene Wenger’s biography My Life in Red and White. Wenger wrote that in his time managing the Japanese team, Nagoya Grampus, he had to hide the balls to stop the players from practicising too much, so intense was their desire to improve.

I would’ve been charmed by this book just for all the stuff I’ve mentioned but it is made all the more memorable for highlighting the foibles of Japanese culture including their oppressive working hours, political apathy and xenophobia. Whether the xenophobia stems from their reluctance or inability to speak English, their horror at foreigners not following the etiquette required in almost every aspect of life in Japan from separating garbage to eating at a restaurant to warm spring bathing, or just plain old racism is open to interpretation. Orienting also shows us that the fabled Japanese homogeneity is just that – a fable they tell themselves and the whole world. Communities like the Zainichi (of Korean origin) and the Burakumin are proof of that.

Apart from this, Orienting - An Indian in Japan taught me that much of what I admired about Japan was originally Chinese from the practice of Zen to the Japanese writing system, ceramics, paper and literary influences. To their credit, the Japanese have added their own spin to it – either by elevating the rustic as in the case of wabi sabi or polishing it to a level of such sophistication that can exclude those not as well-versed in it. A case in point would be the famed Japanese tea ceremony. It has a whole plethora of rules that may seem incidental to the casual viewer. But here’s a tip. Nothing is incidental in chado – the way of the tea. From the manner of serving the tea, to holding the bowl properly, casual allusions to literary classics and season-appropriate poetry to having enough knowledge of ceramics to be able to comment with authority on the texture and quality of the utensils are all intrinsic to the ceremony. I suppose it goes without saying that it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

However, the great tea masters dismiss the idea that the ceremony is about anything more than drinking tea. Aiyar reflects on this with a quote by French art critic Georges Duthuit’s observation of Zen-inspired painting:

“Draw bamboos for ten years, become a bamboo and then forget all about bamboo when painting.”

In the same way, I’m convinced that talk of tea simply being tea is just talk. But it charmed me, nevertheless.

Aiyar writes with the clarity and specificity of a journalist and the whimsy and humour of a novelist making this part memoir, part travel literature and partly, a collection of essays immensely readable. In my opinion, someone who casts two cats as protagonists, as Aiyar did in her book, Chinese Whiskers: The Adventures of Soyabean and Tofu, is certainly a voice worth listening to.

In conclusion, I would most certainly recommend Orienting: An Indian in Japan to anyone who wants to know more about Japan or simply wants an answer to how Japan is so clean without any trashcans in sight? As for me, I look forward to her book about her time in her husband’s home country, Spain where she and her family moved in mid-2020.

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