Cross-cultural connections

A father and his son discover Japan and each other

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Peter Carey's title says it all: "Wrong About Japan." The latest book by the author of "Oscar and Lucinda" and other well-received novels is an adventure in understanding between father and son, as well as between East and West. The Australian novelist, now living in New York, takes his 12-year-old son Charley to Japan when he discovers his son is wild about anime (animated films) and manga (comic books), two Japanese imports gaining exposure in America.

Charley is a shy boy and doesn't seem to have much to talk about with his father, Peter, until the two find a shared passion for anime. The trip to Japan is partly Peter's effort to find a tool for better bonding with his son, but it is also in pursuit of Peter's own interest in Japanese history and culture, as viewed from the unusual perspective of comic books and animated films.

Before the trip begins, Charley extracts a promise from his father that there would be no quest for "the real Japan," no visits to temples and traditional museums. The entire focus of the visit would be to meet the great masters of anime and manga in their native habitat.

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Charley does manfully acquaint himself with sushi and sashimi and doesn't complain when his father selects a tatami- matted inn with uncompromisingly Japanese food for their stay in Tokyo. He is already in contact, through the Internet, with Takashi, a teenager a few years older than he is, whose arrival in the flesh he awaits with keen anticipation and greets with joy.

Takashi's first appearance at the inn shocks the demure staff, since he seems a typical example of the fantastically clad and made-up teenagers that congregate in the Harajuku district of Tokyo - black hair standing up in triangles, high-necked Cambridge blue jacket, jet-black trousers, and knee-high boots.

But Charley is unfazed. Takashi, who wants to practice his English, lends his new friend a mobile phone, the preferred method of communication among Japanese teenagers. Almost immediately, Charley is working his thumbs as dexterously on the phone's cramped keypad as any teenager one sees on Tokyo subways.

As the story unfolds, it seems clear that Charley is quite prepared to accept Takashi and indeed the whole anime culture of Japan on its own terms, while Peter is forever trying to unearth the significance of the manga-anime culture in terms comprehensible to him as a Westerner.

He wants to know where manga-anime fits in the long cultural history of Japan, going all the way back to the samurai period, the craft of the swordmaker, Perry's "black ships" that opened Japan to the world in the mid-19th century, the modernization that followed, the militarization and aggression that led to World War II - to Hiroshima and to defeat - followed by a phoenix-like revival and the mixed-up Japan of today.

The earnestness of his questions, whether to a swordmaker or to a director of animated films, forms a breathless counterpoint to the resolutely matter-of-fact responses of his interviewees. He asks the creator of an anime series called "Mobile Suit Gundam" whether there was a connection between these huge mechanical warriors and the wartime atomic devastation of Hiroshima. In reply, he is told that "Gundam was launched just to sell toy robots, to create a product that people would buy."

As father and son return to New York, they seem to have achieved one of Peter's goals, a better rapport with his son. But 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 is a former Monitor correspondent in Japan.

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