The Earthier Side of the Japanese

by Warren Reed, former ASIS agent and celebrated authorPre-order Warren's new spy novel 'An Elephant On Your Nose' here.

Wherever we travel, people in the countryside are generally more direct and down-to-earth than those in big cities. This applies especially to Japan, which is odd in the sense that Japan is comparatively small in geographic terms. As the crow flies, the distance between Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka and any point deep in the Japanese Alps is a mere hop, step and jump compared to Melbourne and Sydney and a point in the outback.

Japan has recently become a favourite of international tourism and with the country's network of high-speed trains more foreigners are venturing off the beaten track than ever before.

Australians, particularly those lucky enough to be posted overseas, are inveterate travellers. Working in the Australian Embassy in Tokyo decades ago, many of us were already visiting out-of-the-way places. We'd heard of a well-known (to the Japanese) Saturday market at a fishing village on the northern tip of the Noto Peninsula, which projects out into the Sea of Japan from the inner-elbow of the main island of Honshu. We arrived just as the market got under way. The fishermen were selling their catch at the quayside, while a dozen or so old Japanese women sat cross-legged on blankets nearby with fruit and vegetables they'd grown themselves for sale. Most were in their mid-eighties and had probably been widowed during WWII. You could feel the bond between them and their impish sense of humour.

One of them heard me speaking Japanese and called out, "Hey, Mr Foreigner! Don't waste your time with those old birds. Come over here and give me a thrill!" I marched over like a soldier and stood in front of her, clicking my heels and saluting.

"Now, let me think," I said, as the other women listened. "What can I tell you?"

"If you're stuck for words," the old lady quipped, "let me tell you something." The others seemed to know it would be saucy.

"If I were seventy years younger," she said, "I'd whip you back to my place up on the hillside there and give you a time you'd never forget!" The other women were in stitches.

"Damn it!" I replied. "I knew I should have come up here long before this."

"Watch out!" one of the other women joked. "She's still up for it."

The old lady let me take her photo so I could do a portrait of her back in the capital. Naturally, a condition was that I send her a photo of it later, which I did. I tried as hard as I could to capture her impish grin.

A similar thing happened on a trip to the renowned pottery of Bizen in western Japan. I was driving my Honda Civic and had three Japanese friends onboard. We came over a saddle in the hills on a narrow, less-travelled road and as I glanced down to the terraced rice-fields below I spotted a farmer cutting the tall weeds that had grown up between the rice paddies. He happened to look up as I spotted him. He was only about 150 metres away. I jammed on the brakes, grabbed my camera and ventured down to where he was standing.

He wasn't unduly surprised and was pleased when I spoke to him in Japanese. "Even from up on the road there," I said, "I could see your wonderful, lived-in face." I explained that I was down from Tokyo and often painted portraits, usually from photographs I had taken.

"OK," he said with a casual air. "How do you want me? My old lady thinks this is my best profile, but the pesky young woman I catch up with in the local town prefers this one. Anyhow, as a man you can just take me full-frontal! How does that sound?"

Now I was in stitches. It was such a natural exchange and typified a side of the Japanese I came to love very much.

I sent him a photograph, too.





Letter from Tokyo - A reflection from Warren Reed

  We’re so excited to have announced pre-orders for author and former ASIS agent Warren Reed’s newest book ‘An Elephant On Your Nose’. Here, Warren writes about some of the background to the book. You can order your copy now by clicking here

COVER FINAL-An ELephant on Your NoseQuite some time back I was a researcher for three years in the Law Faculty of Tokyo University. Everything was in Japanese, so it was quite a challenge at first, but well worth the effort – the sort of effort you can only make in your twenties.

Once a week, a discussion group of Japanese researchers and a handful of foreigners got together to analyse international events. A researcher would be given a topic to work on for weeks ahead and on the designated day would make a presentation for an hour followed by a Q & A session. The meeting was often chaired by the dean (who’s like God in Japan). Thankfully, he was a considerate man who understood the effort we foreigners had to make to perform in this way.

Japan’s prime minister had then recently been on a visit to Asian capitals and violent anti-Japanese riots had taken place in each city. Demonstrators didn’t just carry placards in the street; they were pushing huge neon signs advertising Japanese products off the tops of buildings and burning Japanese-made cars. I’d seen it on TV in Tokyo and was amazed at the virulence displayed. The dean allocated the topic to me for a month or so ahead. The question I had to address was, “What are we Japanese doing wrong?” I was told I could be brutally frank; they wanted the raw truth, as seen through the eyes of an Australian. I set about this task with gusto. I already had friends in the Asian student community in Tokyo and they helped get me in to interview ambassadors and a wide range of Asian business people living there. They were all quite candid and some extraordinary stories emerged about Japanese habits overseas. There was little that was downright bad. Rather, there was a cultural insensitivity towards the local staff in a variety of contexts. In say, a Japanese-run manufacturing plant in Indonesia or the Philippines, Japanese managers would take lunch together in their own canteen, quite separate from the locals, some of whom were highly qualified engineers. No locals were ever invited to play golf with their Japanese managers, or go drinking after work.

All of this went into my presentation, which was not to be a written speech read aloud. One was expected to speak from bullet points but nothing more. I used a polite form of the Japanese language to relate what I’d learnt. Everybody listened quietly, with erudite nods here and there. When I finished, the dean asked for questions. Hardly anyone said anything and a drawn out silence followed that was agonising. I was trying to work out what I might have unwittingly said that had mortified everyone. The dean, by the grace of God, eventually changed the subject and we moved on to discuss something else. At the end of the meeting, the dean invited me to drop by his study for a chat, which suggested I’d put the wrong inflexion on a word I’d over-used and which had a horrific meaning to the Japanese. I was about to find out.

The dean welcomed me and asked me to relax. He congratulated me on my presentation and the effort I’d put into preparing it, adding that he would have hated having to do the same in English.

“Where you went wrong,” he said, “is that you attached yourself inextricably to each and every insight and opinion you conveyed. We Japanese tend not to ask questions in such circumstance, because we don’t want to challenge you directly and cause you to lose face. What you should have done is what we do: the stronger the view the more you distance yourself from it. You can always say that, “On the bus this morning two people behind me were dreadfully outspoken on such-and-such an issue. I was quite taken aback, though naturally I didn’t show it. I suppose there might be food for thought in some of the points they were making.”

“So,” the dean said. “That’s all you need to know. You may well wish to adopt our Japanese approach. It keeps one out of a lot of trouble, I can assure you.”

“Next week,” he added, “I’ll raise the issue myself and mention that we’ve had a chat. So prepare yourself for a heady session, one that we’ll all enjoy. None of us could have elicited the views you did from all the people you interviewed. Never!”

I took the dean’s words to heart and they’ve served me well ever since. At the time, I put all of this in a letter to my parents back home. My father sent photocopies to everyone else in the family.

(Warren Reed was an Australia-Japan Business Cooperation Committee scholar at Tokyo University at a time when Japan’s economy was starting to boom).

Writing 'An Elephant On Your Nose' by Warren Reed

We're so excited to have announced pre-orders for author and former ASIS agent Warren Reed's newest book 'An Elephant On Your Nose'. Here, Warren writes about how we came to the book. You can order your copy now by clicking here COVER FINAL-An ELephant on Your NoseHalf a century ago, the Japanese economy took off and drew Australia into Asia’s orbit like never before. Japan was followed by the rest of the “Asian tigers” and then China dwarfed all of that put together. Through all of this, significant numbers of Australians ventured into the Asian world to study, to live, to work and to establish long-lasting personal and professional relationships. In this process, these Australians have been able to observe up close the ways in which the peoples of Asia themselves relate to each other. The mechanics of all this can be complex, not just to understand but also to convey to fellow Australians. There aren’t many books around that do that.

Clearly, anyone who writes novels typically draws heavily on their own life experience and that’s what I’ve attempted to do with An Elephant on Your Nose. I’ve always wanted to create a story that shows how the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans, for example, rub up against each other. What do the differences in culture mean in their inter-relationships? How do the legacies of history hover in the background? How are the hierarchies of Northeast Asia’s institutions structured and how do they differ from our own? I hope that this book illustrates some of that, and additionally what happens when a foreigner is thrown into the mix. Language proficiency isn’t the be all and end all of a foreigner’s experience in Asia, but it certainly helps. Above all else, it displays respect for a society and culture vastly different to our own. To be fluent enough to understand how humour and innuendo differ in various Asian countries provides wonderful opportunities for exchange. One of the world’s most commonly shared languages is that of laughter. It not only facilitates mutual understanding but also throws up a wealth of unintended mistakes that help different peoples to laugh with each other rather that at each other. There are other languages too, like that of silence, which in Northeast Asia can be wielded with the dexterity of a surgeon’s scalpel.

These are the sorts of things that have helped define the story and the characters in An Elephant on Your Nose. I hope you enjoy it.

Pre-order your copy now.