A Reflection on “36 Views of Mount Fuji”

My copy of 36 Views of Mount Fuji

I just finished reading Cathy Davidson’s 1993 book, 36 Views of Mount Fuji and its been swirling around in my head ever since. Many of us know Cathy Davidson from her excellent work at Duke University, her thoughtful blog, her recently released book Now You See It, as well as her work cofounding the group HASTAC (“haystack”), a network of learners dedicated to new forms of learning for the digital age. What you may not know is that, long before all of that, Dr. Davidson wrote this incredible book, a reflection on her time in Japan. She’s made a number of trips to Japan over the years, first as an English teacher at Kansai Women’s University (KWU), and then later as a speaker, visitor, and friend.  Through it all she’s developed a deep and abiding affection for the Japanese people and their culture. The book is a memoir, but it’s so much more. The roots of her current work, the pathways of her agile mind, her ability to ferret out subtle truths of human nature, her reflections on learning — these can all be found in the  pages of this book.

I loved the book and found myself going back over key passages, mining them for insights that are as fresh today as they were when she penned them nearly 20 years ago. Take, for example, this excerpt, reflecting back on a whimsical pantomime exchange she had with a Japanese friend who could not understand her broken Japanese.

“For reasons I don’t fully understand, I like wordless communication.  I love the feeling that comes when there is understanding – and even appreciation – without history, story.  There’s both anonymity and revelation, the opposite of what, in psychobabble is known as self-disclosure. The Japanese have a term for this kind of language”  ishin denshin (wordless, heart -to-heart communication).  It’s considered a profound kind of communication.”

The book is full of insights like that.  Bore holes into human nature, careful examinations of Japanese culture, insights into a way of life that fascinated and frustrated her.  And with each page you could just feel her learning, taking full advantage of each new situation to grow and extend her understanding of the human mind and its infinite complexities.

I was particularly fond of the way Cathy describes her ongoing grapple with the Japanese language.  She unflinchingly tells the learner’s tale and does not side-step her struggles. And of course it is language that holds the key to cultural insight.  Subtle shades of meaning, emphasis, formality vs. informality – so many secrets locked into thousands of years of tradition.  What is said and what is not said.  And so she perseveres, against all odds, determined to gain fluency. She learns to write kanji, she practices, she enrolls in an intensive language course at Duke, taught by a much younger, junior faculty member, and fails miserably.  In the ongoing struggle, I couldn’t help but glimpse the masonry behind Cathy’s bold 2003 strategy, as Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies, to give all incoming Duke students a free iPod, sparking equal storms of creativity and criticism.

I found her frank revelations about how hard it is to fit in, particularly poignant. “Like most foreigners, I’m pretty good at adapting to a new situation (or I wouldn’t enjoy traveling in the first place) but I’m also a bit of a misfit (or I would never have wanted to leave home).”  She observes that, because she is an obvious foreigner there (a gaijin), she attracted people who like to negotiate cultural differences, who are interested in figuring out and crossing those chasms.  And yet, as Cathy puts it, “every friendship I make in Japan is grounded in the unalterable recognition that, however often I may return to Japan, I will always be going home.”

Though the east and west coasts of the United States hardly present the culture gap that Cathy experienced in Japan, I often have found myself thinking very much like her with regard to my love of both the San Francisco Bay Area and Boston….

“I like both places but I also find myself profoundly critical of aspects of both countries; which ever one I’m in, the other one runs like a counter argument in my head, in a way that always makes me, somehow, fidgety.  That’s the word.  My connection with Japan makes me always anxious for the place I’m not.”

Toward the end of the book, Cathy describes her stay at The Practice House, during a fourth trip to Japan.  The Practice House is a quasi-Victorian KWU residence, furnished in Western style.  The idea was that students could live in the Practice House for a few weeks to master the basic domestic skills and routines of a typical Western homemaker.  Cathy finds it a cheerless and disturbing place – not only the oddity of viewing our Western nature through a Japanese lens but the decor and furnishing of the house had halted somewhere in the mid-1960’s. The magazines, the books, the decor – all trapped in a pre-1970’s time warp.  What an odd thing that must have been – spelunking down into a recreated model of your culture’s recent past.  But in her own unique way, Cathy manages to spin the tale of her time in the Practice House and fill it with interesting observations, helping us – as her readers – to see right along with her.  I loved the notion of the Practice House and could almost paint a picture of it in my mind, right down to the yellowed index card, pinned on the wall next to the telephone that read, “Hello, this is the Practice House.  ______here.  Who would you like to speak to?”

The book’s title is a reference to a series of block prints by the artist Katsushika Hokusai’s, known as Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (1826-33).

Mount Fuji Seen Below a Wave at Kanagawa

The Hokusai prints inspired other writers as well.  The American writer, Roger Zelazny, wrote 24 views of Mount Fuji, by Hokusai in 1985, a novella divided into 24 chapters, each one named after one of the prints, and each the setting for the chapter’s events as the protagonist tours the area surrounding Mt. Fuji.

Red Fuji

Cathy incorporates the prints into her book, with a small image opener on each of her book’s 16 chapters.  She uses the images as a metaphor for how difficult it was to convey a holistic picture of Japan with her book. The best she could do, she explains, was to give her perspective on Japan and Japanese culture, to record an account of her insights and experiences.  She could relate stories of personal encounters, describe scenery, capture exchanges but no matter how intimate and particular these stories were, none of them could ever presume to capture the whole.  So often, when we Americans travel, we’re encouraged upon our return to sum it up, provide a poignant image that tells the tale of our trip  or our favorite moment but, as Cathy says, it’s impossible to do.  “For me, ” says Cathy,”Hokusai’s way is more accurate.”




Filed under Learning

3 responses to “A Reflection on “36 Views of Mount Fuji”

  1. lizdorland

    Isn’t it great? And what a wonderful review of it you wrote.

    I can’t remember how I found the book since it was nearly 20 years ago that I first read it. Perhaps it was the title. We discovered those Hokusai woodblock prints in Kyoto during a week-long tour from Tokyo to Kyoto and Nara to Fukuoka on our way to Beirut in 1975.

    I had traveled a lot in the years before I read Cathy’s book, but the longest we had lived anywhere overseas was in Beirut and Greece for those 3-4 months in the fall of 1975. But because of the war we didn’t have much time to make connections, and we ended up returning to the USA at the end of December. I had/have always been fascinated with how other cultures view the world, but Cathy’s writing gave me more insights than anything I read before or since.

    I often talk about the deep impression 36 Views left on me, and I have recommended the book many times over the years to friends with an interest in inter-cultural communication. I believe I told you about my sudden realization back in 2007 that the “Cathy Davidson” who founded HASTAC was the same person who wrote the book. She had just commented very kindly on a HASTAC blog post I wrote, and I was blown away. In a good way. What a great writer and thinker!

    • rheyden

      Thanks so much, Liz. Glad you liked my “review”. I would love to see the Hokusai prints and how wonderful that you saw them in Japan. The book has definitely left a deep impression on me as well. As you say, such a thoughtful writer and thinker.

  2. nheyden

    A whole different kind of book report. Got a good sense of not only the construction of this very different kind of memoir and its insights, but also where it took you.

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