Monday, December 1, 2008

Robert Twigger’s Angry White Pyjamas: A Western Look at Japan and its Martial Arts

As we expand the focus of our blog to our personal explorations of Japanese culture, we have brought in a collection of other sources to help put things in context. Huruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood has added to our debate in several places, and in this post we give background on another useful text we have studied in our class. We will follow author Robert Twigger as he engages Japan as an outsider and explores the inner workings of the world of Japanese martial arts in Angry White Pyjamas: A Scrawny Oxford Poet Takes Lessons from the Tokyo Riot Police. The text will be valuable as we consider our experiences with martial arts in Canada, and will also help us to make the leap from evaluating the academic side of the civilization exclusivity question, to evaluating its part in the material world. As a class, our experience of this concept was enhanced by having the opportunity to meet one of the book’s characters, Robert Mustard, in person. I will provide a short summary of the book, and then provide an examination of how it connects to the concepts and ideas we have explored throughout the blog and in The Remains of the Day.

An Oxford graduate and winner of the esteemed Newdigate Poetry Prize, Robert Twigger writes about his experience as a Westerner immersing himself in a traditional and ancient form of martial arts during the incredibly difficult, year-long course required of the Tokyo Riot Police. The book functions as a humorous autobiography and also an excellent piece of literature which explores the issues surrounding masculinity in the modern world and modern Japan. As well, there is a high level of artistry to be found throughout Twigger’s journey to understand his grandfather’s experiences in a Japanese prison camp, how it relates to the Japan he knows, and how his grandfather’s physical and mental strength reflect on his own status as a ‘scrawny oxford poet’.

The book starts with Twigger living a sedentary life as an on-and-off English teacher and translator in Tokyo. In an effort to combat their awareness of ‘going nowhere’, and with Twigger’s mind on his grandfather’s exploits in the east, he and his roommates decide to take up aikido, a form of martial arts founded by ultranationalists and steeped in tradition. After some training, Twigger finds a role model in another Westerner, aikido teacher Robert Mustard, and takes his advice to join the Riot Police Course. The rest of the novel follows Twigger’s struggle through the “brutally demanding” course as he grows physically and mentally. It looks at the relationships he develops with the other foreigners and their experiences of Japan through its nightclubs, funerals, workplaces and food. Through Twigger’s Japanese coworkers, his girlfriend and his acquaintances at the dojo, it explores the way the Japanese view foreigners, and the similarities and differences between Western and Japanese behaviour and norms.

While The Remains of the Day has Japanese concepts woven into its structure and wording, Angry White Pyjamas illustrates these same concepts as they play out in Japanese culture and society, through the eyes of a foreigner who doesn’t necessarily recognize them for what they are. It offers us a chance to stretch our comprehension of these concepts as we consider the variety of ways they are realized in the material world. In terms of civilization exclusivity this text is invaluable. Twigger takes every opportunity to evaluate the differences people’s backgrounds make in the way they view the world. It will be helpful to compare our view of Japan and its cultural components with that of author Robert Twigger, as another representative of the Western worldview.



skram said...

Thanks Krista. I agree that this text is invaluable to our approach to thee civilization exclusivity topic. Twigger (the character) is indeed very quick to place Japanese culture into a Western context that is often fraught with misrepresentation and lack of understanding. He may be a good model of how one could approach a foreign culture without awareness of the issue we are grappling with here.


skram said...

I agree with Angela... especially since Dr. Ogden made it a point in class to show how Twigger (the character) views Japanese people and culture. Twigger himself also discusses where he came from as well as his family background so that we understand his motivations for going to Japan.

Without going into any detail that may offend some people, Twigger makes some racist comments at times about Japanese culture (he even goes so far as to insult their love of rice). When I was reading the book, I didn't perceive his comments as racist; however, when Dr. Ogden pointed to several passages throughout the text, it became clear to me. I don't know if I just didn't pick up on it, or if Twigger (the author) intended his comments to be more subtle... almost as if he was venting frustration. Nevertheless, this point doesn't change the fact (at least, not in my eyes) that Twigger (both author and character) is engaging with a foreign culture and trying to understand their motivations and cultural consciousness. As with many if not all of our class texts, we can find evidence both for and against civilisation exclusivity here: for, because Twigger is living in Japan, speaks some Japanese, and is trying to understand their martial arts as a way to connect with their tradition; and against, in that he struggles to do these things all the way, feels the need to escape Tokyo and return to someplace "Western," and gripes about the Japanese in a very judgmental if not racist manner.


skram said...

I think it is interesting that experiencing a culture first-hand doesn't necessarily give you a better understanding of it. There were a few instances in the book where a bit of background or historical knowledge made events easier to understand for us as a class then for the character Twigger, even though most of us have never been to Japan. Of course we can't assume that Twigger the author shares the ignorance of Twigger the character. Actually experiencing culture-shock first hand must also complicate matters!