Tuesday, February 26, 2008


John Burnham Schwartz and an All Too Common Problem

At the end of his book, “Princess Masako,” Ben Hills ominously declared that there would be no happy ending for Princess Masako, her husband the Crown Prince and their daughter, Princess Aiko. The strangled, cloistered world in which they all lived would never change. In “The Commoner,” John Burnham Schwartz’s fictionalized account of the life of Empress Michiko, the doom and gloom is resolved when one Crown Princess and her Imperial daughter escape via a jet plane to the land where all people are free and happy. That would be New York. There are no Amber Alerts issued and the US government doesn’t vow to help its Japanese counterpart uncover the missing royals. Apparently, none of the thousands of Japanese expats living in America recognize the Princess either. They just fly off like “two cranes.”


I would feel bad about spoiling the ending for you, except that it is honestly so ridiculous, so tacked on and so obviously the kind of plotting intended to appease baby-adopting westerners who fret over the subjugation of women in Asia, that, well, I simply don’t feel bad at all. In this novel, Schwartz just fulfills our fantasies about the exotic and oppressive East. This is to say: we like Asia to be beautiful, and we like to lament how cruel it is to the independent spirit. Beyond that, we don’t care, thank you very much, about who these people are. And if we believed they had any independent spark, which we don’t, we wouldn’t want to read about that anyway, because, well, apprehending that would require effort.

And the novel is beautiful. It’s a wonderful chance to borrow from Japanese aesthetics to make everything beautiful. A burn victim “wore his painful strangeness, like his unseasonable coat and his skin lost to fire, as a flag not of suffering but of distinction.” Get it? He’s deep and he’s beautiful in that wabi sabi way, even though he’s a burn victim. Oh, he becomes a painter too. After a firebombing “the wind continued to blow, scattering perfectly formed corpses of ash, mothers and babies alike, into unrecognizable shapes, and finally into dust.” Be still my impermanent Buddhist heart.

But there must be some kind of plot, right? Beyond all the prettiness? Here, then, is the big question the novel asks. Why does Haruko, the novel’s stand-in for Empress Michiko, marry the Crown Prince of Japan, and how does she survive? What kind of a person can go through this kind of emotional journey?

Schwartz doesn’t know. You can tell. He knows his aesthetics and he bombards us with those, but try reading this novel for a truly three-dimensional understanding of human behavior, a true insight into Japan and you won’t find it. Case in point. At the start of novel, we are told: “On these matters, as on so many others of terrible important, I held no opinion that I can recall, and, of course, no one ever asked me to speak my mind.” Really? Was there no gossip at home? Did her father not express his opinions? How does this person of no opinion square with the girl who decides to keep beating the Crown Prince at tennis, even when she is told not to? It’s an inconsistent portrait.

If you believe the gossips, it is Empress Michiko’s “commoner” and “outsider” status that is seen to have influenced Crown Prince Naruhito in his preference for an independently minded commoner himself. This implies that the real life Empress Michiko didn’t just cave to palace pressures, but managed to instill some of her “spunk” to her children. Only, we don’t see any such spunk in this novel, beyond the tennis matches. We don’t even really see her with her children at all, though there is the scene where she wants to comfort her crying first born, before he is taken away from her and she is reminded that her children are not “really hers” because they belong to the state.

When we read about Japan, we want to feel swaddled in all that lovely hand-embroidered silk, while lamenting the impersonal inner lives of the people who created it. This is severely disappointing to me. As a friend wrote to me in an email of an interview she heard with Schwartz: “He . . . kept on saying how fascinated he was by ‘them’ and how he wanted to write about ‘the repressed Japanese.’ It was extremely frustrating to listen to him talk about the process of writing this novel because it was apparent, from the interview, that he did not take the time to represent his characters as multidimensional.”

People sometimes ask me why I continue to post on Japundit. They point out that I’m the only female contributor and the comments and posts are sometimes, well, off color. I always say the same thing. When JP started this site, he wanted very much for people to understand that Japan is a land beyond tea and temples, and I think he succeeds nearly every day.

It is a pity to me that what is considered “literary” hasn’t managed to move beyond this limited viewpoint—or even recognize that it has failed to do so.

Live over at Japundit. I'm waiting for comments.

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