October 30, 2022
By Jonathan Clements.
“Riding on public transportation in Japan makes you feel a part of the general population,” writes Steve Alpert in Kyoto Stories. “One of the people. Part of the normal tapestry of regular life in your city. Riding in a private car lets you feel that there’s an entire other world out there. A world that’s not open to just anyone. You feel just a little bit like Alice on her way down the rabbit hole. Unexpected things can happen.”
It’s true, you know. His comment encapsulates the huge disjunction between someone’s life as a visitor or tourist, and as a tried-and-tested resident. Alpert’s incisive eye, something already apparent in his memoirs of his later life at Studio Ghibli, never fails to pick up the sort of detail that eludes the less focussed observer, including experiences that almost every old Japan-hand surely shares. Take Japanese language class, for example, where Alpert observes the side-effects of constant, halting revelations.
“You usually knew everything there was to know about your classmates. In Japanese-conversation class, what was there really to talk about for hours at a time except ourselves? We always tried to find out as much as we could about the teachers, but they were better than the students at keeping their personal lives to themselves.”
It made me think of an incident in my own life, many years ago, when the girl sitting across from me in one class took four years to reveal that she also happened to speak fluent Malay. After all the dialogues we had shared, about where that pen was, and how to get to the hospital, and what our hobbies were, I felt betrayed.
I lived in Kyoto as a student, myself. It was a wonderful time in my life, with long walks to sites of huge historical weight; boxes and boxes of books and whatnot shipped home to form the underpinnings of my future career; an inadvisable dalliance with a charming American; and various misadventures as a teacher, selling the only thing I really had at the time – the languages I spoke.
I definitely missed out. Unlike the protagonist of Kyoto Stories, I was never invited as a bonus extra to a wife swappers’ party. Nobody quizzed me about the size of my genitals. I was never offered a bit-part in a B-movie where I had to dress up as a brothel-creeping American GI. At no point, in my teaching career, was I ushered into a room with two gangsters, and ordered to take them from zero to fluency in two months, or else.
In the tense, circular negotiations, as he desperately tries to point out to them that they don’t even know the alphabet, and that even if they work hard it is going to take them a year, I see the glimmers of many future frustrations with Japanese clients. His yakuza pupils, however, also turn out to be handy at cutting through the intractability of other Japanese, as he discovers when someone tries to scam him on the cost of a second-hand fridge.
For anyone who has, or is about to, or even is right now in the throes of living in Japan, Alpert’s book has much insight and information. In simple, broad strokes, he paints a picture of Wendy, the cockroach-hating student who is paralysed with fear when a naked old lady starts washing her back at the local public baths, and who exchanges epistolary cassette tapes with her friends back home. In a moment of timeless agony, she snaps when she is pressed to “speak like a woman,” in a country where that really counts for something and alters the very grammar in play. There is an indulgent portrait of Kyle, the exchange student who knows more about Japanese history than the local tour guides, and who rails against the dumbing-down of local culture. And there is Oharu, the classy geisha who regards even dreamy, fantastic Kyoto as little more than a theme park for ignorant tourists.
But he also has priceless snippets of information, such as the classmate who has come to live in Kyoto because he was a student of Donald Keene, and Keene had told him that he had to live in Kyoto before he could ever be a translator.
At least, that’s what Alpert says happened. The book’s liminal position between fact and fiction makes me wonder if I can really trust that claim after all. I had hoped it would be a non-fiction or semi-fictionalised account about the formative years of the person who would go on to “share a house with the never-ending man.” I was ready for some gentle tales of Kyoto life, but the teleological focus was always going to be that of the person this young Steve Alpert would become, much as Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife is interesting because of what happens to its lead character after the book is over.
Nor is this some reviewer’s misguided expectation – the blurb on Alpert’s book promises “stories based on the author’s own experiences living in Kyoto as a student,” although Alpert himself, on the final page, pointedly thanks one Don Ascher for letting him retell his tribulations. I’m left none the wiser – is Don Ascher a convenient fiction, some deniable Tyler Durden behind whom Alpert hides his own misadventures? Or is he a real person, whose life Alpert has decided to chronicle on the grounds it was more interesting than his own? You have to do some pretty elaborate linguistic gymnastics to get that “the author’s own experiences” amount to “things the author was told by his weird mate.”
Steve Alpert is the most interesting thing about Steve Alpert. If Kyoto Stories had been published on its own merits, then presumably it would have been duking it out in the sales lists in the 1980s with John David Morley’s thematically similar Pictures from the Water Trade. Its value to posterity, in fact, is as a counterpoint to Morley’s work, for some future literary critic to examine the points of shared or unshared contact between these two works about white men enthusing about 1970s Japan, perhaps with some further comparison with Ian Buruma’s A Tokyo Romance and Jay McInerney’s Ransom. Most notably for me, Morley’s original first-person draft was changed, at the instigation of his editor, Diana Athill, to be a third-person narrative, all the better to tell its story without the author getting in the way.
The final page of his book is a bait-and-switch, for me at least, telling me that I have not been reading about Steve Alpert at all. Or have I…?
Jonathan Clements is the author of A Short History of Tokyo. Nobody in Kyoto ever offered him any kind of sex, ever. Kyoto Stories is published by Stone Bridge Press.