Book review: Japanland: a year in search of Wa by Karin Muller

Karin Muller is like most mid-thirties judo-learning single women out there, except she decides to go to Japan and live with a judo master Genji to learn how to be more Japanese, and be a better judo artist.

That right there earns her my respect, but it’s the delightfully crafted vignettes of Japanese life and values that earn my admiration for her book. Here are some factoids from her book Japanland: a year in search of Wa to drop into conversation at your next cocktail party:

Kashi: a web of obligation that connects every Japanese person to everyone he/she has ever had contact with (e.g., a favour owed in Japan is as tangible as a financial obligation in the West.)

Wa: harmony. Interesting that the very first documented reference to Japan, found in ancient Chinese chronicles, refers to it as the Land of Wa.

I love Karin’s descriptions of regular, daily Japanese life as she travels the country. All the mannerisms that she tries to learn, the rules, the etiquette surrounding nearly every thing she does are fascinating. One of my favourite parts of the book relates to her struggle to win over her host mother, Yukiko, who is incredibly fastidious and strict, and who, despite the odds, tries to teach Karin about Japanese house-keeping. Here is an excerpt from Karin’s perspective on this:

“When I came to Japan I fantasized about training under a master for whom I could perform herculean feats of discipline in order to win his respect and the right to be his student. I always assumed it would be Genji, but it’s not. It’s Yukiko.”

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