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TraveLit--A blog about travel literature. 

     Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.

Book Review

Wrong About Japan: A Father’s Journey With His Son
By Peter Carey. Knopf, 2005, 158 pp.

I turned to Wrong About Japan with great curiosity. Many reader reviews on both Amazon and Goodreads were negative, even hostile, to the book. Yet the ABE included it in its list of “50 Essential Travel Books.” So which was it? “Boring,” “shallow,“nauseating”? Or “essential”?

The book chronicles a short trip to Japan that Carey took with his 12-year-old son, Charley, to explore manga and anime, with which Charley was obsessed. Carey himself, through his son, became interested in these art forms—the extraordinary Japanese comics and animated films—which he briefly defines for the uninitiated reader. Before leaving the States, where the Australian writer now lives, he contacts people he knows in Japan—and, needless to say, the famous author, a two-time Booker Prize recipient, has terrific contacts, who set up interviews with celebrated directors, including the most celebrated of all, Miyazaki.

Short and breezy, the narrative moves speedily along two main themes: Carey’s struggle to understand Japan, and his struggle to understand his son. In regard to the first, he flails and fails: Japan, he feels, remains opaque. At each interview, he presents his interpretation of the work at hand, relating it to samurai or WWII and the bombing of Japan; and each time, he is informed—through an interpreter—that he is wrong. Hence the title of the book.

In relation to Charley, he doesn’t do much better: the literary Carey is still perplexed by his cell phone-thumbing son, who thrives on the video world the father finds so alien. And he’s extremely unkind to his son’s friend, Takashi, a character Charley met on the internet back home who turns up to act as guide.

There are a few good sections in the book. One man’s story of surviving WWII stands out. And I enjoyed some of the humor--the author confronting elaborate Japanese toilets, or being told time and again that he’s wrong.

But there really isn’t much to this book. The treatment of manga and anime is superficial. The interviews are brief and uninformative: famous names do not in themselves provide substance. Neither Carey nor Charley become individuals: they seem generic—we might be reading about any father with any preteen son. Most off-putting was the revelation—which emerged in an interview with the author and is indicated nowhere in the book—that Takashi is not a real person, but an invention. Not only is this deception ethically off-key—we’re supposed to be reading nonfiction, after all—it’s a strange miscalculation: Carey’s unpleasant treatment of the boy turns the reader against Carey himself. What, I wonder, was he thinking?

But that, perhaps, is the problem: too little thought seems to have gone into this book. With all the excellent travel books that have been written, ABE could surely find a title more “essential” than Wrong About Japan.

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