Books: The Japan Lights
November 16, 2023 · 1 comment
By Jonathan Clements.
Scottish-born Iain Maloney writes of the way that he always needs a body of water somewhere nearby to feel grounded, to know which way is up. Living and working in Japan’s landlocked Gifu prefecture, he becomes aware that many of Japan’s early modern coastal defences, including a ring of vital lighthouses, were built between 1868 and 1876 by Richard Henry Brunton, a Scottish engineer whose waspish account of his battles with bureaucracy and the fading samurai authorities sat unpublished for over a century.
The Japan Lights: On the Trail of the Scot Who Illuminated Japan’s Coast chronicles Maloney’s scheme to visit every one of Brunton’s surviving lighthouses, pushing him into encounters with Japan’s furthest and rockiest reaches – cliffs and shoals that were once deadly hazards to passing shipping, interwoven with the story of Japan’s sudden, scrappy scramble into modernity.
The relative lack of information specifically on Brunton forces Maloney to lean much more heavily into his own travel experiences to pad out his book. Sometimes this can be illuminating, particularly in his perspective as a Scot in Japan, much as Brunton had been, and his wide-eyed assurance, impossible to argue with, that this stern, irascible Victorian engineer, despite all his faults, had probably saved hundreds of lives.
“Tourism in Japan,” writes Maloney, “doesn’t know when to stop.” His comment captures modern Japan with haiku-like elegance, but he has an eye for the sort of elements that a casual visitor might overlook. His account of the establishment of expat Yokohama is firmly rooted in the technology and norms of the day. As an avowed Tokyophobe, I used to stay in Yokohama as a matter of principle, and wrung extra value from my JR travel card by getting the bullet train into the city for free – a journey that took a mere 15 minutes. But historical Yokohama is a boondock harbour deliberately at arm’s length from Tokyo, a day’s march across swamps and forests. Maloney notes that there is little evidence of the treaty port in the modern city, unless one looks at the very roads themselves, significantly broader in the old gaijin ghetto than the cramped alleyways of so many other Japanese cities.
Maloney teaches creative writing at a Japanese university, which makes me wonder how he would react if his eager young students were to submit essays that repeatedly refer to Wikipedia, fail to redact unimportant travel companions, or prattle constantly about inconsequentialities. I don’t much care if his wife likes rock-climbing, or the name of the book he was reading on the train, and such unfiltered asides only serve to distract from his tale. Maloney has limited material to work with historically, and is hence forced to make his journey part of the narrative – except his journey is bitty and haphazard, counter-productively naturalistic in its dead-ends and disappointments. It might have benefited him to have stolen an approach from Anna Sherman’s Bells of Old Tokyo, a shuffled chronology which cuts away all the author’s own fat and gristle, to leave only the lean meat of subjects directly relevant, and the anecdotes of the encounters worth remembering. Many authors travel with plus-ones on their research trips, but such hangers-on are often best conflated or removed, unless there is something really noteworthy about them.
Even so, Maloney has valuable insights to make, including one that has been staring me in the face for thirty years – the fact that the eponymous Kirin on the logo of Kirin Beer has a moustache in honour of the company founder Thomas Glover. Maloney has sat with authorial patience on a harrowing image that he saw in 2011 on Japanese television, finally using it when he tells the tale of an old couple fleeing the oncoming tsunami, and their heart-rending final moments, as the husband finally gave up trying to save his wife, only for them both to be overwhelmed by the flood.
The late Alan Booth, walking the length of Japan in The Roads to Sata (1985), had multiple encounters with ghastly bigots, thugs and drunks, but left them to hang themselves with their own rope. Maloney struggles to deal with the discovery that Brunton was a cantankerous, gruff imperialist who managed to annoy the Japanese and the foreigners he encountered. Conversely, he is often indulgent of the casual racism of some of the Japanese he runs into, defending an old lady’s antipathy for black people as being a case of knowing no better. He seems to be feeling his way unaided through issues that are commonplace in history and biography, and in doing so hits upon another delightful analogy for what he is forced to do. He likens his writing on Brunton to kintsugi – that Japanese art of taking broken pottery and repairing it with flashes of alluring gold.
Jonathan Clements is the author of Christ’s Samurai: The True Story of the Shimabara Rebellion. The Japan Lights by Iain Maloney is published by Tippermuir Books.